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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Beatles: Anthology 1


THE BEATLES: ANTHOLOGY 1 (1962-1965; 1994)

CD I: 1) Free As A Bird; 2) Speech by John Lennon; 3) That'll Be The Day; 4) In Spite Of All The Danger; 5) Speech by Paul McCartney; 6) Hallelujah I Love Her So; 7) You'll Be Mine; 8) Cayenne; 9) Speech by Paul Mc­Cartney; 10) My Bonnie; 11) Ain't She Sweet; 12) Cry For A Shadow; 13) Speech by John Lennon; 14) Speech by Brian Epstein; 15) Searchin'; 16) Three Cool Cats; 17) The Sheik Of Araby; 18) Like Dreamers Do; 19) Hello Little Girl; 20) Speech by Brian Epstein; 21) Besame Mucho; 22) Love Me Do; 23) How Do You Do It; 24) Please Please Me; 25) One After 909 (Sequence); 26) One After 909; 27) Lend Me Your Comb; 28) I'll Get You; 29) Speech by John Lennon; 30) I Saw Her Standing There; 31) From Me To You; 32) Money (That's What I Want); 33) You Really Got A Hold On Me; 34) Roll Over Beethoven.
CD II: 1) She Loves You; 2) Till There Was You; 3) Twist And Shout; 4) This Boy; 5) I Want To Hold Your Hand; 6) Speech by Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise; 7) Moonlight Bay; 8) Can't Buy Me Love; 9) All My Loving; 10) You Can't Do That; 11) And I Love Her; 12) A Hard Day's Night; 13) I Wanna Be Your Man; 14) Long Tall Sally; 15) Boys; 16) Shout; 17) I'll Be Back (Take 2); 18) I'll Be Back (Take 3); 19) You Know What To Do; 20) No Reply (Demo); 21) Mr Moonlight; 22) Leave My Kitten Alone; 23) No Reply; 24) Eight Days A Week (Sequence); 25) Eight Days A Week; 26) Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey.

There is no better way to understand the real meaning of «quality control» than to give a good lis­ten to any of the three Anthology volumes. When the Beatles saw the light, and knew that it was good, they let it out. When they were not sure, they left it in the can. It is really as simple as that. Despite the sometimes inadequately warm reception that the Anthologies got upon release — for the most part, from Beatle-hungry fans with an anti-bootleg disposition — I insist that there is not even a single track on any of these six CDs that would in any way be «better» than its original counterpart. The demos are demos, the work-in-progress mixes are in progress, the abandoned arrangements were abandoned for a good reason, and the outtakes remained outtakes for an even better one. Take together even the most polished of these versions, and they will still suck next to what we have always known.

On the other hand, the sheer historical value of the Anthologies is certainly priceless — with one important drawback: as a «history package», this set is drastically incomplete, and will never tru­ly satisfy the dedicated Beatles scholar. Clearly, the Beatles scholar will want to hear all of the preserved takes, so as to assess each song over the natural course of its development; and the Bea­tles scholar might, in fact, be offended at the idea of creating new tracks by splicing together parts of different takes — this is like tampering with history, man. It's one thing when you are making your original ʽStrawberry Fields Foreverʼ out of two entirely different visions for the song; it's quite another thing when somebody is twiddling and reshuffling your stuff thirty years after the fact — be it even under your own supervision.

Still, we have to admit that «history lite» is a necessity as well; the difference between Antholo­gies and a complete package of everything that remained on the cutting floor is like the difference between a school textbook of history and a multi-volume edition for high-level scholars, each of which has its audience. And from that point of view, the amount, selection, and sequencing of the material processed for the collection seem to be just about right. We get to see the Beatles as ini­tially lousy students of American rock'n'roll, as constantly improving energetic live performers, as generators of all sorts of musical ideas, good and bad, as perfectionists and innovators, and, above all, as human beings made of flesh, blood, testosterone, good humor, and bile — a fact that is occasionally forgotten behind the immaculate appearance of their official recordings.

Anthology 1 is often called the weakest of the three volumes, for an objective and easy-to-under­stand reason: it covers their early «formative» years, halting right at the end of 1964, and a large chunk dates back to the pre-Please Please Me era, where the tracks frequently involve horren­dous sound quality and, sometimes, a shot of embarrassment. To me, however, it has always been and still remains the most interesting and intriguing of the three sets — not only does it feature the largest amount of songs (most of them non-originals, but still...) not featured on regular Beat­les albums, but it is here that we actually witness the biggest transformation of all: the amazing maturation of a sincere, vivacious, but still somewhat clueless and clumsy pop-rock band, into the greatest pop outfit of its generation.

It is not even entirely clear how far do we have to extend that «maturation period». All of the pre-1962 era material is either grossly amateurish (early Quarrymen records) or atrocious (the 1960 recordings at Paul's house in Liverpool; even when the sound quality is relatively acceptable, as on the instrumental Shadows knock-off ʽCayenneʼ, there is nothing here to suggest that these guys would go on to something bigger than art school, or working in a local garage). The Ham­burg recordings from 1961 are already a major step forward: while backing Tony Sheridan, «The Silver Beetles» finally became professionals, and John and George's ʽCry For A Shadowʼ is a fine, driving, catchy instrumental that is every bit as good as the Shadows' best hits, and maybe even better — because the entire band is getting into it with less restraint and a more «primal» attitude than Hank Marvin ever allowed his boys.

Then there are selections from the January 1962 Decca tapes — all covers, with the exception of two early Lennon/McCartney originals (ʽHello Little Girlʼ, later turned into a minor hit by The Fourmost, and ʽLike Dreamers Doʼ, later covered by The Applejacks). If you need my opinion, I might have turned these guys down, too, based on this stuff, were I a Decca decision taker back in 1962. The covers almost slavishly follow the originals — and the Beatles, even at their best, would never out-humor such masters of the «fun rock» genre as the Coasters; let alone the fact that handing the lead vocal part on a Coasters cover (ʽThree Cool Catsʼ) to George Harrison, at that time the «clumsiest» singer of them all, could never be a good idea. And that early Len­non / McCartney stuff... don't get me started. Saccharine teen-pop, imitating radio fluff of the day — next to ʽHello Little Girlʼ, even ʽP.S. I Love Youʼ sounds like Brahms.

Basically, the wonder of it all is that the Beatles only turned into professional, original song­writers upon signing the EMI contract — which brings George Martin into the picture, and soli­difies his «fifth Beatle» status to a previously unsuspected degree. As ʽPlease Please Meʼ and even the early incarnation of ʽOne After 909ʼ emerge from the sad shadows of ʽHello Little Girlʼ, we get an altogether unexpected leap in quality, and then — there is no turning back.

Yet there are fascinating and intriguing slips and trial-and-error bits all over the place. On the se­cond disc, for instance, there is a barely listenable take on ʽAnd I Love Herʼ with Paul «bleating» over the top of his range and the main guitar hook of the song still nowhere in sight; an early de­mo for ʽI'll Be Backʼ as a slow waltz, crumbling to pieces by the time the band gets to the bridge; a thoroughly lame early Harrison composition (ʽYou Know What To Doʼ) that was originally intended to be the 14th track on A Hard Day's Night, but was allegedly — and jus­t­ly — ri­di­cu­led by the rest of the band and turned George off songwriting for almost a year; and an early take on ʽEight Days A Weekʼ that starts off as a Beach Boys vocal harmony tribute — a rather inse­cure and out-of-place "oooooooohhh..." that works far less effectively than the eventual fade-in of the guitar melody upon which they would settle later.

In the end, the only studio material that could probably make it onto «real» (non-historical) an­thologies, is a finished 1963 take on ʽOne After 909ʼ — the original also sounds like another tri­bute to the Shadows, but I have always loved its detached, cool, ironic hide better than the more bluntly aggressive rooftop delivery from 1969 — and ʽLeave My Kitten Aloneʼ, a rather vicious Lennon-dominated cover tune that probably should have made it onto Beatles For Sale instead of ʽMr. Moonlightʼ. But maybe they thought it sounded too hateful or something (John would later summon much the same mood for ʽRun For Your Lifeʼ).

But there is also some prime-time live stuff here: carefully selected performances from mid-size venues, mostly, where the Beatles could still hear themselves above all the din and, most impor­tantly, were dedicated to giving the fans all they had to give. The crown jewel consists of five tracks from a Sweden performance on October 24, 1963: here you will find the tightest, most fo­cused and compact ʽI Saw Her Standing Thereʼ that you are ever going to find, a ʽRoll Over Beet­hovenʼ on which George manages not to mess up any of the trademark Berry-licks, and a ʽYou Really Got A Hold On Meʼ on which John, as was usual for him, mixes up the lyrics and still gets away with it — showing all of us how little the words really mean on all these tunes.

Of all the three volumes, Anthology 1 is the one that is most fully equipped with monologuish bits from the accompanying movie (all of them on Disc 1, for some reason), but this is not a big bother since all the bits are very short; and Disc 2 also captures the full version of a brief comedy sketch with Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, culminating in a joke performance of ʽMoonlight Bayʼ — the jokes are mostly awful, and the performance is below-the-belt clownish, but the Beatles really did a lot of that on TV in the early days, and, once again, we do need to be re­minded from time to time that these guys were only human.

Of that, Antho­logy 1 keeps reminding us every step of the way indeed. But can that be a cause for unhappiness? Not if you get over 20-30 minutes of excellent live performing, over 20-30 mi­nutes of previously unknown / unexperienced cover tunes and Lennon / McCartney / Harrison originals, not if you really want to know how, sometimes, a fabulous melody does not arrive to the songwriter right on the spot, but is steadily built up along the way, sometimes, with great hardship and toil — you try and deduce for yourself the ratio of inspiration to perspiration. And here is one final hint for you: the difference between the common songwriter and the really great one is that common songwriters — and approximately ninety-five percent of the world's song­writers are «common», I'd say — never succeed in rising above the level of Anthology 1. The truly great songwriter, however, will at least try to make it over to Please Please Me.

PS. No review of Anthology 1 can, of course, get along without a mention of ʽFree As A Birdʼ — the first «new» Beatles song in twenty-five years, consisting of a Lennon piano demo, a Mc­Cartney bridge section, a Harrison guitar solo, and a Jeff Lynne production. (Ringo is in there somewhere, too, but the drum sound is 100% Lynne anyway). Who knows, maybe the Beatles would end up sounding like that in 1995, had things turned out differently, although something tells me John probably wouldn't be too happy of Lynne imposing his sonic attitude on the band (somehow, George, who had already fallen under the Lynne charm during the recording of Cloud 9 in 1987, ended up convincing Paul that this was the right thing to do). In any case, it's a good song that still carries a bit of John's spirit from the late 1970s — and the video row that accom­panied it in the movie was fairly epic as well.

Check "Anthology 1" (CD) on Amazon

2 comments:

  1. I feel that there is ONE exception to the rule of none of these being better than the final versions. I really dig the Anthology 2 version of "You Know My Name." Some things, like the early recordings, and drastically different versions of "Strawberry Fields Forever" are really neat to have, but the anthology could've easily been a 3 CD set. There are way too many demos on these that sound exactly the same as the finished takes, only... not as good.

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  2. I think the biggest mistake in the entire Anthology CD project was in trying to present these as an alternate "greatest hits." Outtakes and demos shouldn't ever be expected to be better than the final released versions. But with these three volumes, Apple really missed the point by trying to put the proverbial silk hat on a pig.

    The filler - really kept to a minimum on Vol 1 - becomes unacceptable on Vol 2. The strings-only versions of "Within You Without You" and "Eleanor Rigby" are only the most obvious examples. The remixed versions - outfakes, as they're known in the bootleg world - of songs like "Penny Lane" are actually hardly worth listening to.

    Instead of this kind of filler, they ignored some pretty interesting material. There is a whole sequence of the band trying different approaches to "That Means a Lot" that provides a tremendous window to their creative process. There's vastly different of "What You're Doing" that would've been a good choice for Vol. 1. Even if the playing is not brilliant (it's not), it is interesting to hear how different it is from the album version.

    Even a no-brainer like "Strawberry Fields" was botched. We get a demo, take 1, and long version of the non-strings/horns version - BUT they left off a full version of that strings/horns remake that would've really completed the sequence that led to the final edited release version.

    Much has been made about the absence of 'Carnival of Light' - but even if it is truly as unlistenable as legend holds, it would STILL be more interesting at the very least than those string only tracks of "Within You" and "Eleanor" or the outfakes.

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