Back when they were Fab, Beatles albums were always about the singles. So in a way, it's entirely appropriate that the biggest part of the buzz surrounding the release of "The Beatles Anthology 1" (Capitol 34445, two CDs, arriving in stores today) is a single.
It's not just any single, though. "Free as a Bird" was originally recorded as a demo by John Lennon in 1977, although what he put on tape was not a finished song, but a rough sketch.
Earlier this year, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr came together and finished it, added vocals and instrumental arrangement and a couple of verses. The result is now being hawked as a new recording by the Beatles.
Is it, though?
Well, if having John, Paul, George and Ringo together in the studio at the same time is what it takes to make a "real" Beatles single, then I'm afraid you'll have to disqualify much of "The Beatles" (a k a "The White Album") along with "Free as a Bird." Nor is there anything especially untoward about McCartney completing one of Lennon's song fragments; as numerous post-break-up interviews attest, that was the duo's most common form of collaboration.
The music is another issue altogether. There's no denying that "Free as a Bird" is wondrously Beatlesque, from the dream blur of piano, bass and drums beneath the chorus to the eerie, Harrisonian slide guitar solo. Add in the classic close harmony work fleshing out the vocal and Ringo's as-always understated pulse, and all the familiar elements are clearly in place.
But should "Beatlesque" even count when talking about actual Beatles? Of course not, and only those who truly need to believe in a reunion will take this as being anything more than Paul, George and Ringo playing over an old John Lennon tape. Were truth-in-advertising laws more scrupulously enforced, the credits on "Free as a Bird" would read "By the Artists Formerly Known as the Beatles." Catchy and clever, but hardly a classic.
That said, it must be admitted that "Free as a Bird," trifling though it may be, is an ingenious bit of writing. At root, it's built around the classic four-chord loop (I, VI, IV, V) that was the foundation for dozens of doowop tunes, but Lennon cleverly twists the changes until the sound is familiar without seeming cliched.
It's the teasing familiarity of that harmonic cycle that gives the chorus its dreamy charm, and the peculiar processing added to Lennon's voice only enhances the effect. Unfortunately, there bTC isn't much else to the song; the "Whatever happened to " verse does a nice job of building enough harmonic tension to leave us grateful for the return of the chorus, and the solo is nicely diverting, but "Free as a Bird" is essentially a one-lick song.
Then again, "The Beatles Anthology" is pretty much a one-trick collection. After "Free as a Bird," the balance of its 60 tracks are given over to demos, live recordings, studio outtakes and other ephemera, all of it previously unreleased, none of it especially exciting. It is instructive, though. From "That'll Be the Day" and "In Spite of All the Danger," 1958 recordings by John, Paul and George's pre-Beatles band, the Quarrymen, to multiple, often hysterically misguided attempts at finding the right feel for "No Reply" or "Eight Days a Week," "The Beatles Anthology 1" offers numerous opportunities to hear how these four became the Beatles.
"That'll Be the Day," for instance, shows that their vocal acumen was in place from the first. Where many fledgling musicians sound awkward trying to imitate their idols, the young John Lennon had Buddy Holly's hiccups and drawl down cold; even better, Paul's harmony vocals are impressively smooth and assured. In spite of the group's instrumental inadequacies, it's easy to hear potential in these performances.
The Beatles' Decca demos, on the other hand, are rather less than the lost gems some fans might have imagined. On the one hand, the Beatles are polished professionals by this point and have most of the characteristics we associate with the Beatles today; on the other, their taste in material and jokey delivery suggest not England's New Sensation but merely an unusually talented novelty act.
One thing those recordings do explain, though, is why Pete Best got the boot. Frankly, he was a mediocre drummer, lacking Ringo's flair for elegant fills and often unable even to keep steady time. Compare the witless clip-clop pulse he provides "Love Me Do" to Ringo's playing on "With the Beatles," and you'll never pity Best again.
Beyond that, the set is filled out with live recordings and studio outtakes. Among the former are such gems as "All My Loving" from their first "Ed Sullivan Show" appearance, "She Loves You," "Till There Was You" and "Twist and Shout" from the 1963 Royal Command Performance (it's really funny to hear them played off, theater-style, with a big-band version of "Twist and Shout"), and a stunning five-song set recorded for Swedish radio that includes a killer rendition of "Money."
Frankly, though, the outtakes make better history than they do casual listening. As much as might be learned by hearing the band stumble through an early attempt at "A Hard Day's Night," odds are that few fans will want to make regular listening of it.
This wasn't intended as a Beatles album in the usual sense. This isn't another "Abbey Road" or even "Let It Be"; it's a document of the past, a trip through the vaults, a useful accessory for anyone who has spent time with Mark Lewisohn's book, "The Beatles Recording Sessions."
Study it, and learn. Just don't expect to end up screaming "John! Paul! George! Ringo!"
'Beatles are back
hear "Free as a Bird" and other excerpts from the Beatles' new release, "The Beatles Anthology," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6101. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.