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No fun?

The Beatles Anthology hides a great undiscovered live EP

by Brett Milano

[image] You'd think it would be impossible to stage a Beatles revival that's no fun at all, but damned if the powers behind The Beatles Anthology don't seem to be trying. Before the TV specials began or the CD package was released, fans already had to look past a shameless amount of hype, mostly keyed to the dubious hook of two "new" Beatles songs. Reviving a great band is one thing; cynically suggesting that the '60s can be relived is another. One would think that the Woodstock '94 fiasco cured us of that, once and for all.

Having watched most of the televised Anthology and enjoyed chunks of it, I had some difficulty figuring out why the show didn't capture the Beatles as I'd come to know them. Then it hit me: there are practically no jokes in it. Too much of the program overlooks the basic giddiness of the Beatles experience. The joyless tone of the recent interviews (is George Harrison bitter or what?), the shortchanging of performance clips (too few complete songs), the academic, ". . . and then they wrote" presentation style. Previous documentaries, notably The Compleat Beatles, got closer with less material to work with; even the Eric Idle/Neil Innes parody The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash captured the Beatles' essence more lovingly and accurately.

To a lesser extent, the companion Beatles Anthology CD (the first of three two-disc sets planned by Capitol) suffers from the same problem. Not that the material isn't there. Every fan knows that a few albums' worth of releasable Beatles outtakes -- alternate versions, unreleased songs, live recordings -- have been in the vaults all along. And most fans with access to bootlegs have secured some of that stash (the best source is the Backtrack series, easily found in at least one Boston-area store).

The good news is that the best of those outtakes are on Anthology, including famous ones like a terrific cover of Little Willie John's "Leave My Kitten Alone" (whose arrangement was lifted by Elvis Costello on Kojak Variety) and a faster "Can't Buy Me Love" that's better than the official version save for a lyric flub by Paul. There are also a few choice items that have eluded the bootleggers -- notably an electric power-ballad version of "And I Love Her" (where Paul blows the words again). Unfortunately, producers George Martin and Mark Lewisohn didn't leave well enough alone, structuring the first disc like a radio documentary with soundbites (by the Beatles and their late manager John Lennon left behind, is the truly depressing part of this whole affair. "Real Love," which debuted on the second TV special and will be released early next year, is the better of the two songs, if only because it tries less desperately to sound like a real Beatles track.

[image] The current "Free As a Bird" would likely have been a good song had Lennon finished it -- the swoops of melody are there, and its mood of optimism cut with resignation is a rich one. The living Beatles' overdubs amount to a roll call of sonic trademarks. There's George's slide guitar, there's Paul's harmonies and Hofner bass, there's snatches of "Strawberry Fields" mellotron and backwards-tape effects, there's the friendly plod of Ringo's drums (unless you believe the rumors that it's really Jim Keltner). But it's creepy to hear a disembodied Lennon's voice poking through this elaborate production. It sounds like something cloned from dead tissue, a Beatles recording whose heart doesn't beat. It's icky; get it away.

This song also segues abruptly into the rest of the first disc, which covers the pre-Capitol period -- when the Beatles were often lousy, but charmingly lousy. That's certainly the word for the Tin Pan Alley-flavored demos that got the group rejected (understandably) by Decca, and for the Buddy Holly imitation, "In Spite of All the Danger," recorded by the pre-Beatles Quarrymen in 1958 (just unearthed for this set, it's McCartney's first recorded song). Original drummer Pete Best is heard on a newly minted "Love Me Do"; its presence here will likely set Best up financially but ruin his reputation for good. This is some of the most clueless rock drumming ever heard on record, notably during an instrumental bridge that verges on free-form jazz.

And then it happens. The real treasure of Anthology, a five-song concert tape (from Stockholm, October 1963) that's so vibrant, so soulful (check the harmonies on Smokey Robinson's "You Really Got a Hold on Me," always one of their best covers), and so downright magical, it proves once again that whatever made the Beatles great can't be fully explained in terms of history, cultural setting, or influences. It's like a love affair, really. You've got no idea why or how it happens, it just does. Despite its many flaws, The Beatles Anthology manages to rekindle some of that love.


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