In the 26 years since the Fab Four finally called it quits, we've been deluged by books and movies, TV specials and tell-alls designed to illuminate the Beatles experience. We've learned whom they loved, what they listened to, when they got into drugs, where they lived and why they went their separate ways. It would not be exaggerating to say that virtually every minute of the band's existence has been documented in some way, shape or form.
Yet for all that, we know precious little about how their music came to sound the way it does. Sure, some pieces have come to light, particularly the studio logs compiled in Mark Lewisohn's book "The Beatles Recording Sessions," but reading about how the horn parts were overdubbed onto "Penny Lane" is no substitute for actually hearing the track as a work-in-progress.
Now we can. With the release of the Beatles' "Anthology 2" (Apple/Capitol 34448, two CDs, arriving in stores today), the second of three rare track and outtake collections scheduled for release this year, the creative process that gave us "Rubber Soul," "Revolver" and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" is made audible for the first time.
And what a revelation it is.
Although the double-disc collection is being heralded by yet another "new" Beatles song, "Real Love," that new track is actually the least compelling reason to pick up the album. Not that it's a bad single; in fact, it's much more enjoyable than "Free As a Bird" was, thanks to its strong melody, lean arrangement and a less-tinkered-with lead vocal by the late John Lennon. But the best thing about this album isn't the way it reinvigorates the Beatles, but how it sheds light on the band's inner workings.
Listening to "Anthology 2" is a bit like thumbing through rough drafts in a famous writer's notebooks. Most of the familiar stuff is there, but often in rough shape or alongside ideas that didn't make the cut. So when we get to the alternate take of "Yesterday" included on Disc 1, the differences amount to more than just a slightly tentative vocal from Paul McCartney; the song itself is changed, with the line about "there's a shadow hanging over me" coming before "I'm not half the man I used to be." Suddenly, it's not quite the way it used to be, and that makes it easier to appreciate the polish of the more familiar version.
Why is this such a departure from what turned up on the first "Anthology"? Because when the Beatles started making records, they used the studio pretty much the same way everybody else did in the early '60s as a means to capture a performance on tape. As a result, "Anthology 1" offers limited insight into how the band recorded, beyond the fact that the lads like to joke around and didn't always get things right on the first take.
But "Anthology 2" provides plenty of illumination. By 1966, the band had begun to view the recording studio as an instrument in its own right, and was more than happy to use overdubs, tape manipulation and electronic effects to generate sounds that couldn't possibly be duplicated live.
The earliest and most striking example of this side of the Beatles' sound comes with "Tomorrow Never Knows." We're all familiar with the famously hallucinatory version that closes "Revolver," with its swirling sitars and bursts of high-speed tape chatter, but that's nothing like the "Mark 1, Take 1" version on "Anthology 2."
This embryonic imagining of the song finds Lennon's voice lost in a sea of droning guitar and reverb-laden noise. It conveys the same basic idea as the recording Beatle fans know so well, but only in the roughest terms; every element, from the vocal to the drumming to the sound effects, is far enough off to make it obvious just how much work went into the soundscapes the band created.
Some songs are presented in multiple versions, so we can hear just how they made the journey from rough melody to finished arrangement. So the "Strawberry Fields Forever" we hear first is the demo John Lennon recorded in his music room at his Weybridge, England, home. That's followed by the first studio attempt at the tune, which boasts of familiar touches, but conveys a completely different mood than the single. Finally, we hear a later take that's much closer to the finished version, but with more prominent rhythm guitar and an extended "wild drum bTC track" at the conclusion.
That will probably be old news to hardcore Beatlemaniacs, who no doubt picked up at least some of those versions on bootleg years ago. What sets "Anthology 2" apart from those unauthorized releases is that producer George Martin and remix engineer Geoff Emerick have in some cases combined several alternate takes into a single track, so we can get a sense of what went into these songs without having to wade through dozens of repetitions.
"Penny Lane," for instance, turns up in a "composite mix" that uses both early takes and the final 24-track recording to open the song up like the aural equivalent of a cutaway diagram. What gets revealed are some of the odder sounds in the arrangement the treated piano, flutes and sound effects on the verse, electronic effects and organ pedal tones on the chorus and an eventually omitted comic sequence at the end.
But the most striking difference is what isn't there the flutteringly baroque piccolo trumpet solo that turned up midway through the finished single. What we get instead is the trumpet's accompaniment, an artfully arranged bouquet of cor anglais (a lower-pitched cousin of the oboe) and brass that's utterly obscured in the final mix.
As Lewisohn reported, "Penny Lane" was put together over the course of several recording sessions, with various layers added as the project progressed. Yet as much as his dutifully researched text tells us about who did what and when, reading that "track four featured various indescribable sound effects with heaps of tape echo" is nowhere near as instructive as having those sound effects highlighted on your home stereo. It would be hard to imagine a better way of understanding what went into these recordings, short of having an actual Beatle come and explain it all.
Could you imagine a better reason to buy a copy?
Pub Date: 3/19/96