Saturday, May 19, 2012

Album series: The Beatles Anthology

Sometimes I really enjoy retrospective packages. Listening to original albums is certainly enjoyable, worthwhile and (in some circles) the preferred way to go. And many compilations, especially "greatest hits" and "best of" collections, really tend to leave out the best tracks from an oeuvre.

But some retrospective packages are able to avoid those situations by mining previously unreleased materials. And that's where "The Beatles Anthology" project really shined.

When the Anthology project was first announced, I was HEAVILY into The Beatles. No other group mattered. I was reading everything about The Beatles, listening to everything I could find, buying anything that I could afford. They were my first huge musical passion, and it is fair to say I was obsessed with them. (I still am ... but now I handle it in slightly more civilized fashion.) And when I heard the Anthology project was going to mean new music, and previously unreleased music, in addition to videos and a book? Whew. Man. TOTAL frenzy. This was the first new Beatles music in my lifetime! Being born in 1980, I'd missed out on the glory years.

I used to spend hours listening to my dad's vinyl.

I had his old earmuff headphones on, the volume cranked and would lie on my bed and just imagine what it had to have been like in the studio when this stuff was going on.

I imagined "Abbey Road" to be on a dimly lit stage, with a few bright spots at corners to add ambience and mood. Well, yeah, I was wrong there. The EMI studios sure aren't as romantic, but that's life. The music still had that intriguing and beguiling quality.

With "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," I imagined a carnival-like atmosphere with cotton candy and torches and peanuts and all of that (and not just for "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite," either). Obviously, that wasn't the case. But the music was so great for the imagination and so liberating ...

But I wanted more. Imagination is amazing, and hearing the finished products STILL thrill me. But then, as now, I liked getting the nuts and bolts. With the CD releases that accompanied the Anthology project, I was so excited to hear the bits and pieces behind the perfection of the music. I wanted to hear works in progress. Alternate takes. Live performances. Anything and everything. Bring it on!

And the discs didn't disappoint. Sure, some of the stuff (well, most of it) was edited. Some was remixed. But that didn't detract then (and doesn't detract now) from the enjoyment I got from hearing all these tracks.

Since my original purchases (well, honestly, my folks bought me the first and third sets and my brother bought the second set ... my family is good to me!), I've since managed to get all three volumes on vinyl! (My wife got me those ... see what I mean about my family being good to me?). Let me tell you, having that album art at full album size is pretty dang amazing.

I thought it'd be worthwhile to dust off some essays I wrote about the Anthology releases a number of years ago and combine them into one blog post. I might do an edit or two here and there, but for the most part this is stuff I wrote maybe a decade ago. My style hasn't changed much. If I were to write these reviews today, I'd probably go lengthier (heh) and discuss more of the tracks. But I think these reviews still hold up well, and they still reflect my views pretty nicely.

Shall we soldier on? Yes!

*** Original essays begin ***

The first of three archival releases, and featuring the first new Beatles group song since 1970, "The Beatles Anthology 1" is a mixed bag. It has enough curious and rarities to make it interesting, but the dialogue tracks (while engaging) get in the way of the music. In fact, it seems the compilers learned from this collection. The next two Anthology releases featured no dialogue tracks and focused on the music.

"The Beatles Anthology 1" has its moments, not the least of which is "Free as a Bird." Hearing Lennon's voice backed by McCartney and Harrison's harmonies is very moving, and the instrumental backing is top notch. For many, "Free as a Bird" was the hook in buying the album. Thusly, it is featured as the first track of the collection.

It's also cool to hear the development of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison. The genesis is represented with "That'll Be the Day" (a cover of the Buddy Holly classic) and an original McCartney-Harrison song called "In Spite of All the Danger."

My favorite tracks, in addition to those already listed, are a complete "One After 909" (recorded early in 1963, but unreleased in studio form ... the Beatles would give it a live airing during the "Get Back" sessions, which culminated in release on "Let It Be"), the Morecambe and Wise tracks (the sketch, along with "This Boy" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand") and George Harrison's demo recording for an unreleased song called "You Know What to Do."

Also topping the list are "Leave My Kitten Alone" (one of the best unreleased tracks from this era, a song recorded in 1964 that would have injected some energy into the "Beatles for Sale" album), and "Eight Days a Week" featuring a vocal intro "oooooh" harmony that I find quite enjoyable.

I spent many hours over many months listening to this collection, and I have a soft spot for it. But you really need to be a fan of the group to grant repeat listenings to the collection. The interview segments are tedious after one or two listens, and some of the oddball early recordings (while charming) don't have much to them. All in all, I find "The Beatles Anthology 1" to be worthy ... but the weakest of the three volumes.

The best was yet to come!

"The Beatles Anthology 2" picks up where its predecessor left off ... and makes some improvements along the way.

"Anthology 2" focuses on the music, providing alternate takes, live performances and unreleased music. It also features another "new" Beatles song with "Real Love."

While I don't find "Real Love" to be as moving or fulfilling as "Free As a Bird," it's still an enjoyable song that features some layered Lennon/McCartney/Harrison vocals and intricate instrumental backing (and I really enjoy Harrison's guitar solo work).

The period covered by this collection really encapsulated the growth and artistry of the Beatles, so I was waiting for this release with the greatest anticipation in 1996. And it was worth it!

I've always been a sucker for the version of "Yes It Is" that is provided here. An edit of takes 2 and 14, it showcases Lennon's voice and his sense of humor with the pretty song.

Then there's take 1 of "Yesterday," the most covered song in popular music history. And then another special take 1 ... "Tomorrow Never Knows," one of the great tracks on the Beatles' masterpiece, "Revolver." In fact, this version of "Tomorrow Never Knows" may even rival the album release for the instrumental backing and the vocal phasing.

If those aren't enough for you, how about three versions of "Strawberry Fields Forever," ALL of which are different tempos and styles and demonstrate the versatility of the group AND highlight how different interpretations can really bring the song to life. (CHRIS NOTE: I wrote about "Strawberry Fields Forever" and did some notes on different versions on an earlier post. You can find it HERE (click these words).)

Still not enough? How about a raw "A Day in the Life?" Or a more basic track of "I Am the Walrus?" If those aren't enough, take 2 of "Across the Universe" is sure to charm you ... as its an arrangement of the song that is very different from the "Let It Be" version AND the "wildlife" version.

"The Beatles Anthology 2" offers so much to interest the listeners. I do wish there'd been some other selections added, even if it meant losing a couple of the included tracks. I would have enjoyed an earlier version of "All You Need is Love" and would have traded one of the two versions of "Fool on the Hill" for it. And I would have enjoyed more material from "Rubber Soul" (it is only represented by take 1 of "Norwegian Wood" and take 1 of "I'm Looking Through You"). How about something from the "In My Life" sessions? I'd have traded the live version of "She's a Woman" for that. And I'd have traded the live version of "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby" for a live version of "Baby's In Black."

But these are minor nitpicks on what is a very enjoyable and very interesting look into the development of some of the true jewels of 1960s music (not to mention modern music, in general). It hits a lot of the spots that fans were interested in, even if it is a bit patchy in others. Overall, quite good.

It came to my surprise that the next release would be even better ...

"The Beatles Anthology 3" completes the trilogy of archival releases in superior fashion.

If "Beatles Anthology 1" whets the appetite and "Anthology 2" fulfills expectations, "Anthology 3" rewards the fans by spotlighting the era when the group was coming apart and reveals how their artistry and talent and individuality still created some of the best music of the modern age.

Lacking a new song (a la "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love," though the group was supposed to record either "Now and Then" or "Grow Old With Me," depending on the sources you read), this collection begins with a tune fittingly titled "A Beginning." It's an instrumental snippet that many Beatles fanatics might recognize from the "Yellow Submarine" animated film.

From there, the listener immediately plunges into sessions that led to "The Beatles" (better known as "The White Album").

In fact, the first Beatles song on the album is one of the most creative and unusual songs the Beatles pieced together: "Happiness is a Warm Gun." The progressions provided here are the "I Need a Fix" and "Mother Superior" fragments of that song, and they're really pared down and powerful (hinting at what would come with "Plastic Ono Band"). There could be no better introduction to an album highlighting the final years of the Beatles (though the official White Album sessions kicked off with the recording of "Revolution," which would have been a very welcome addition to "Anthology 3").

More highlights include:

An edited version of take 2 of "Helter Skelter" which demonstates the band in a really jamming groove. It's not the coveted 27-minute version, or the full 12-minute version of take 2 ... but it definitely provides another perspective on this White Album rocker.

George Harrison's demo for "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," which is achingly beautiful and features a verse not included on the released version. Harrison is the only Beatle featured here, and his plaintive vocals and intimate guitar work make this recording JUST as remarkable as the full-band, Eric Clapton-featured version. The two versions could be featured side-by-side, and it would be hard to choose just which version is superior.

Paul McCartney's classic "Hey Jude" is represented here with take 2, which presents the song largely completed (though lacking some of the instrumental finesse, vocal tuning and the extended "nah nah nah" outro). It's quite interesting to hear this version, which is enjoyable but somehow not as magical as the released version. Proof that the Beatles indeed knew when to keep fiddling with a song to get it just right.

"What's the New Mary Jane" was one of the known-but-widely-unheard studio tracks that never saw the light of day at the time of its recording, so it was definitely interesting to hear the track. That being said, and all credit to Lennon's word play, the song doesn't require too many repeat listenings. Especially after the inclusion of "Revolution 9" on the White Album, there was really no need to include "Mary Jane" for variety.

Getting Lennon's "Julia" is another fascinating addition. Lennon's voice is only present briefly, and then the listener is treated to his exquisite finger picking on an acoustic guitar. The song is nearly in complete form, and John sounds in good humor at the end of the song. Fantastic.

The second disc picks up with the "Get Back"/"Let It Be" sessions, and nearly every song included is a highlight.

Of special note are "Teddy Boy" (featuring Lennon's square dancing calls) and "The Long and Winding Road" (without Phil Spector's lush orchestrations, exposing a beautiful and genuine song of longing without the sugar).

The jaw-dropping highlight from these sessions belongs to Harrison, in the form of the demo for "All Things Must Pass." Harrison and his guitar weave a haunting and beautiful song that sums up the situation of the Beatles (and seems to address the fading optimism of the 1960s).

It's one of Harrison's finest compositions, and one can only wonder why the Beatles never took it up to finish it. (It became the title song of Harrison's first proper solo album.)

Harrison comes through YET AGAIN with the demo for "Something," his most beautiful and covered song. His voice sounds more urgent than the finished hit single version, and his guitar work is more pronounced ... but the great song shines through. Clearly, Harrison hit his stride in 1968/1969/1970.

The other Beatles weren't slacking, however.

Lennon's "Come Together" is presented here with take 1. It isn't as smokey or funky as the single version, and it doesn't have the vocal processing yet ... but it's still a heck of a song, and it already has all the makings of a great tune.

Then there's McCartney's demo of "Come and Get It" the hit song he gave to Apple Records proteges Badfinger. It's a catchy song, and is all the more impressive when taken into account that McCartney is playing all the instruments on the track.

Lennon, McCartney and Harrison's vocals get the spotlight next in a vocals-only version of the Abbey Road song "Because." Their harmonies are complicated and excellent, rivalling the Beach Boys for sheer vocal perfection.

A final highlight is a remix of the Abbey Road climax "The End." You get some guitar riffing, some great drumming, the perfect "love you take/love you make" lyric ... and then a crashing piano chord a la "A Day in the Life" to bring an end to "Anthology 3" and the "Beatles Anthology" music collection.

Perhaps because so much anticipation built for "Anthology 1" and so much attention was paid to "Anthology 2," many expected less from "Anthology 3." After all, it wasn't anything from "Sgt. Pepper," and it didn't have any "new" Beatles recordings.

But that lack of expectation may have helped "Anthology 3" become exactly what the fans hoped from the "Anthology" project: Fascinating alternate takes, snippets of unfinished tunes that would be developed later, the raw live work and the diversity and talent that the individual Beatles contributed that combined into making them the most potent musical group in modern history.

Granted, I'd have liked to get a couple more goodies included. An early version of "Dear Prudence" is on the bootleg circuit, and the David Frost version of "Revolution" would have been a treat for the fans. It's just another statement to the creativity and productivity of the Beatles that they STILL have unreleased treasures in the vaults, despite the project.

"Anthology 3" has so many highlights and addresses the fascinating final years of the Beatles' output and delivers the perfect balance of alternate takes and unreleased treats. It's the best of the "Anthology" sets, and brings a beautiful conclusion to the project.

*** End of original essays ***

The Anthology project continues to provide hours of enjoyment. Sometimes I'll find myself reaching for the collections to remember the rush I felt as a teenager when this stuff was getting released. Sometimes I'll reach for a particular volume to relish the differences between the released product and the alternate takes.

These collections are treasures, with varying quality and importance ... but all feature some of the most incredible music done by some of the most important musicians of the last sixty years. What a pleasure it is to sit back and be a fly on the wall, listening to the evolution of such fantastic songs. I'm glad the younger me enjoyed them so much, and that the older me still gets that rush and enjoyment with them!

With the remaster series that The Beatles put out in 2009, I was blown away anew by what all was now so pristinely on display. The drumming. The guitar clarity. The singing. The harmonies. All of that had been there before, but poor mastering/mixing had buried a lot of it on those first CDs.

When it was announced that the Anthology was getting remastered (and only released digitally), I didn't really see the point. I mean, some of this stuff was never finished and isn't necessarily important to hear in any cleaned up fashion. But I did buy the "Anthology Highlights" package on iTunes. That's been a fun, and relatively inexpensive, addition.

There's nothing new on the iTunes remaster release, nothing to rival the original release of the Anthology project ... but it keeps the original enthusiasm burning brightly. I guess that's all that really matters, in the end. I'll take it.

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