21st Century Beatles

1996 was the year in which Capitol records brought The Beatles back to the commercial fore with the release of their three volume Anthology series. The sets are a trove of unreleased rehearsals, demos, alternate takes and live renditions. (Many of these recordings, it must be noted, had made their way onto the bootleg market over the past decade.) Beatle fans can, and no doubt have, had endless roundtable debates regarding their conflicting lists detailing High Crimes of Omission. That can go on until there’s only one person left at the table, but still nobody wins; what you have here, spread over six discs is the party line on what’s suitable for release. It represents consensus among current gatekeepers Paul, George, Ringo and Yoko after decades of fractious communications.

“Real Love” and “Free as a Bird” attracted attention beyond their simple sonic properties. This was because the three surviving Beatles added their parts to a cassette demo of two of John’s songs. This of course spurred some debate, but I have no problem with it. They were up front about what they were doing and you can take it or leave it. What I’m more troubled by is the version of “Good Night” offered on volume three. On this rehearsal take we hear Ringo offering a touchingly sincere vocal over a solitary piano. Unfortunately, a decision was made to stitch onto the take a fully orchestral ending, so that we now have neither a simple run-through or a finished piece. We have the equivalent of a high-tech slide show. We’re not really allowed to be in the studio for this private rendition, rather we’re given a guided tour with the surplus of information only serving to drown out a fragile moment caught on tape. This isn’t the only place in the series where a level of studio shenanigans were applied to render the appearance of a continuous performance out of separate pieces, but it’s the most jarring. These anthologies are meant to be a peek behind the curtain (albeit peeking into carefully arranged room), not the construction of a new curtain.

For whatever faults it may have, it must be noted that the Anthology series is currently the most featured title in The Beatles’ catalog. This means that it is introducing a whole new generation to The Beatles. Their legacy has become a treasured heirloom in the culture that’s currently being steered by the baby-boomers. Passing this ÷ work on to another generation brings up issues worth noticing. In fact, these Anthologies will be the way newcomers may well meet The Beatles.

My appreciation of the Beatles goes hand-in-hand with the order in which I first heard their albums and singles. I am grounded in the chronology. I’ve attached my own circumstances to this music. I received Meet The Beatles as a gift in 1964. I subsequently passed through the next half-dozen years buying each new Beatles al bum upon its release, as my earnings changed from paper route money to ice cream scooping money. And finally to the meager cash generated from playing at school dances in a succession of eager little rock-and-roll bands, inspired by those very same albums. For six years I anticipated a new song or album, followed the satisfaction of that desire. Each new record brought surprises and pleasures. My portrait of The Beatles was repainted when each new collection hit the stores. It’s logical that Rubber Soul followed Help. Switching them around would be as impossible as switching around days of the week. (Of course, let’s not forget that, though Let It Be followed Abbey Road, it was actually recorded before it. My mind worked out a set of footnotes and equations to keep that in perspective.)

Now my nine-year old daughter has taken an interest in the Sergeant Pepper album. She is attaching her own circumstances to those songs. The songs sound the same to her as they do to me, but they’re filtered through our different vantage points and different sets of experience. Witnessing someone else find their way through this music without that chronology can be strangely disorienting, but it’s the necessary way of the world. Time passes, and one vantage point becomes as valid as another.

The day will come when no one who bought Meet The Beatles upon its initial release will still be alive. The books will always be there to tell the interested listener the true historical order of events, but it’s never quite as powerful as the sequence of personal experience. In the future, as is true now, anyone approaching The Beatles’ work will construct an internal logic based on their own order of discovery.

– David Greenberger

(aired on NPR’s All Things Considered, 1 January 1997)