In their heyday, the Beatles would routinely release two or three albums a year, making today’s alterna-rockers seem even more like slackers. Some things never change: A mere four months after Anthology 1, Paul, George, Ringo, and Yoko’s late husband are back with Anthology 2 (Capitol), another compendium of previously unreleased studio outtakes and live performances. But should these scraps of genius and semi-genius be preserved forever on CD, or are they merely a resourceful way of keeping Ringo off the air in those embarrassing Pizza Hut ads? It’s easy to be of two minds on the matter — extremely easy, in fact.
David Browne #1: What is this we’re listening to? It sounds like Julian Lennon backed by the Traveling Wilburys.
David Browne #2: It’s ”Real Love,” the first song on Anthology 2 and another tape-enhanced reunion of the Threetles with their late partner. ”Julian Lennon” — listen to you. Such disrespect for one of the greatest bands in the annals of rock.
DB1: I know who they are — I saw the TV miniseries. But jeez, another batch of discarded versions of songs we mostly know by heart — 45 of them in all? With all those disruptive interview segments and the archival tapes of John and Paul as teenager skiffle punks, Anthology 1 felt like a college textbook: Listening to it was more dutiful than fun.
DB2: Don’t be so prosaic. Anthology 2 dates from 1965 to 1968, which were momentous years for the band, for rock, and for pop culture. The Beatles stopped performing live, concentrated on the recording studio, and in doing so rewrote the rules of pop music. Any collection that documents those years is bound to be fascinating, right?
DB1: (Yawning) Yes, I know — Sgt. Pepper and other carved-in-Rolling Stone truths. Okay, let’s immerse ourselves in the revolution. Let’s see — the harmonies on this early take of ”Yes It Is” are so quaint they sound like a barbershop quartet. As for the never-released studio patter — we’ve waited 30 years to hear Paul say that ”Your Mother Should Know” should ”fade out at the end”? Stop the presses.
DB2: Be quiet! If Smashing Pumpkins can release an album of trippy leftovers, surely the Beatles can. Listen to ”If You’ve Got Trouble,” a beat-happy, bash-and-pop number they never released. Or ”Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” with a different sitar part. Or Paul barking like a dog during an early take of ”I’m Down,” and then, after it’s over, mumbling ”plastic soul, man, plastic soul” — the origins of the title of their next album! This is history!
DB1: So were those documentaries on the end of World War II, and I didn’t watch them either. Look — I’ll admit that ”I’m Only Sleeping” and ”I’m Looking Through You” are two of my favorites, and it’s nice to hear these unplugged run-throughs. But if I want to experience these songs again, I’ll return to the original albums, thanks.
DB2: You’re impossibly stubborn. Let’s move on to the second disc. At this point, early 1967, the band had given up touring, and Anthology 2 subtly suggests why. The audience screamfest that accompanies a concert version of ”She’s a Woman” segues into John’s quiet, voice-and-guitar demo of ”Strawberry Fields Forever.” Free from the demands of Beatlemania, they truly flourished.
DB1: Screaming young girls can make you flourish too. Heh-heh.
DB2: Shut up — you sound like Humbert Humbert. Of the two semi-complete versions of ”Fool on the Hill” here, one of them features just Paul and the piano, and it’s startling how less cloying, and more poignant, it is than the master recording. And check out the early versions of ”Penny Lane,” ”Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” and ”I Am the Walrus.” Even without the orchestrations and sound effects that were added later, you can hear the Beatles going where no rock band had gone before. You have to admit that, at the very least, Anthology 2 is a much more engrossing listening experience than Anthology 1.
DB1: Thank God for small favors. (Pause) Whoa! Check out this version of ”Good Morning, Good Morning.” No special effects, no annoying, echoey title refrain — just the raw song, with John digging in his heels. Not only is this exciting, it could have easily been included on one of his early solo albums, like Plastic Ono Band.
DB2: Now you’re getting into the spirit.
DB1: Well, okay, I admit that the second half of Anthology 2 made me hear some of these songs with fresh ears. And I’ll concede that I’d rather listen to that than some monotonous grunge rehash or one of the Hootie clones. But.
DB2: Here we go…
DB1:…how often will I play this? I don’t need an almost duplicate version of ”Taxman” with minor lyric changes, or ”Your Mother Should Know” with a military drumbeat. The live tracks tell me that the Beatles could kick up some dust on stage, but I already learned that from Live at the BBC.
DB2: Once again, you’re missing the big picture. If the Beatles hadn’t started experimenting with tape loops and effects, you wouldn’t be doing what you’re doing — studying rock in an academic way.
DB1: Personally, I’m awaiting Anthology 3, due later this year. Like the TV series, the albums grow more interesting with each installment. Anthology 2 ends with an alternate take of John’s Zen ballad ”Across the Universe”; without the overdubbed strings and choir of the version we’re all familiar with, it’s quite lovely. In fact, ”The Long and Winding Road” from the TV special, the one without the strings and choir, made me a little misty-eyed. Hey, with all of this talk of a new British Invasion, complete with Oasis comparing themselves with the Beatles, maybe Capitol could goose sales by putting a sticker on the cover: ”Bigger Than Jesus…Jones!”
DB2: Cute. Okay, let’s give it a B.