The first salvo in the campaign, the single "Free as a Bird", is disappointingly low-key, to put it mildly. A slight song taken at sluggish pace, it sounds like what it is: Jeff Lynne's graduation exercise from the School of Beatlism. As a producer, the ex-ELO leader (and George's fellow Traveling Wilbury) has built a substantial career out of a few elements of the late-Beatles sound - certain harmonic intervals, certain "Walrus" strings, certain drum sounds and special effects - and here he applies them assiduously, drenching the song in such dense, ghostly reverb that John seems to be slurring from beyond the grave. If it sounds like a weak facsimile of the Beatles, that's because it is: having only John's lead vocal to play with means that for much of the song, the harmonies are short of one of their most important parts, and no amount of phasing and amusing false endings can disguise the fact. George's guitar weeps gently enough when required, but the overall effect is of a dirge. John would probably have hated it.
As the opening track on the first of the three projected volumes of the Anthology, "Free as a Bird" is completely out of place, a sop to commercial expediency. Logically, it should be right at the end of the final instalment, due out sometime next year - but by then EMI's marketing department would have even less to play with than they do here. The point of the Anthology series is to compile such unreleased fragments of Beatles heritage as are left in the vaults, and opening with this over-produced anachronism places too great a strain on the rough stuff that follows, particularly the couple of Quarry Men sides which should, by rights, begin the story. Recorded at a private, vanity-recording studio in much the same way as Presley's debut waxing for his mother, "That'll Be the Day" and "In Spite of All the Danger" - the latter that rarity, a McCartney/Harrison composition - are raw slices of skiffle and doo-wop from 1958, heard through a denser curtain of hiss and grind than usual even on old blues recordings from the Twenties. Since the magic of digital filtering has rendered those same old blues recordings as clean as the proverbial whistle, one has to wonder why these equally precious bits of Beatle pre-history haven't been treated likewise. Perhaps the compilers looked upon the noise as something akin to sepia-tinting, framing the song in its historical context. It doesn't help.
The first disc continues in rather dutiful manner through early rehearsal tapes, the brash but brittle Hamburg-era recordings with Tony Sheridan, and the Decca demos, which at least enable the rest of us to put our hands up and admit that, like the legendary Decca A&R man, we too would probably have rejected the band on the strength of these innocuous examples of routine Tin Pan Alley pop.
George Martin, who gave them a second chance at EMI, was luckier than the hapless man from Decca. The songs the Beatles tried out for him included "Love Me Do", which still sounds extraordinary even in rough form and despite the obvious shortcomings of Pete Best's drumming: the harmonies are slotting together nicely, while the harmonica adds another mood entirely beyond what the band had previously presented. Subsequent sessions brought versions of "How Do You Do It", which Martin wanted as the A-side of their first single, and "Please Please Me", which, lacking the harmonica, sounds half-dressed. Early takes of "One After 909" - which only made it on to record right at the conclusion of their career - offer brief glimpses of band banter when Paul, missing his plectrum, blows his bass-line. The disc closes with five songs recorded live for Swedish radio, capturing the band in the first giddy flush of success, particularly on a charging version of "Money".
One disc in, and already obvious questions arise about the Anthology. Such as why, if it's intended as definitive, are only five of the 15 Decca demos included? It's the first of many occasions when the project's intentions seem confused, caught between the two stools of wanting to be as exhaustive as scholarly exercises like the Bear Family label's Jerry Lee Lewis box-set (which includes all the between-takes studio chat), yet needing to be entertaining and saleable beyond the rarefied level of the fanatic collector.
The first disc may be historically interesting, but it won't be played much. As entertainment, the album really only gets going halfway through the second disc. The various Palladium, Morecambe & Wise and jewellery- rattling Royal Variety Show excerpts are nostalgically appealing, but the real business of such a monumental career retrospective - to illuminate the astonishing creative progression of this most gifted of groups - only gets into gear as the band dive into the flurry of activity surrounding A Hard Day's Night. Here, under intense pressure to finish the songs before filming started in March 1964, they blossomed, dashing into studios between engagements in Paris, New York and London, cranking out a string of classics.
The Ed Sullivan Show version of "All My Loving" gives some indication both of the pressure and of their response: bulging with barely restrained testosterone, taking it fast, they push the song's envelope with an off- beat that's virtually in ska-time, and a guitar break apparently plucked from country-music. Beyond all the hype and the screaming, there really was something brilliant going on here. The underrated "You Can't Do That", which follows, offers further evidence of an attention to timbre and texture already well outpacing their peers, and the two successive takes of "I'll Be Back" illustrate their technical facility in switching from waltz-time to straight 4/4 and thereby revolutionising the song.
This, hopefully, will be the path pursued in the two subsequent volumes of the Anthology, which anyway cover more fertile ground. Hidebound by its historical imperative, this first volume tends to linger too long and too lovingly over inconsequential cover versions and rehearsals which offer little hint at what set the Beatles apart from their peers. Through their iconoclastic charm, their creative genius and their determination to record their own material, they overthrew the Tin Pan Alley ancien regime virtually overnight, though there's hardly anything on the first disc to suggest they might suddenly transcend the Cliff Richards and Tommy Steeles that had been posited as Britain's cuddly showbiz answer to authentic American rock 'n' roll.
What does come across, especially on the second CD, is the sheer work- rate expected of pop musicians in the Sixties. Like their American rival Brian Wilson, they worked to a quite unbelievable schedule, eking out a feverish succession of great original songs with old rockers and R&B numbers from their Hamburg days. The big difference was that even at their lowest ebb, the Beatles were musically always the most Musketeer-like of bands, a mutually supportive unit, while the Beach Boys were only ever a vehicle for one man's genius. A small difference, perhaps, but all the difference in the world.
THE BEATLES Anthology 1
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