12 minute read
Richard Corliss

IN 1989 GEORGE HARRISON WAS ASKED That Question for the thousandth time. There would be no Beatles reunion, the quiet one said, “as long as John Lennon remains dead.” Yet here they were, George and Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, in the Abbey Road studios, putting aside rancors that had festered for decades and making music. “Working together, they’ve found themselves again,” says the Beatles’ longtime record producer George Martin of the sessions last winter. “There was a great spirit of camaraderie. It’s almost as though John was with them too.” And he was. Lennon’s audible ghost sings lead on Free as a Bird, the–never thought we’d get to say this–new Beatles single.

Shortly before his death in 1980, Lennon recorded the unfinished tune–a slight hymn to deliverance, with the structure of his 1964 This Boy and the feel of his 1970 post-Beatles Love–on a low-fi home cassette, which Yoko Ono Lennon turned over to her husband’s old chums. “It had hums, hisses and clicks that had to be removed,” says pop maestro Jeff Lynne, formerly of Electric Light Orchestra, who produced this year’s eerie session. “But that was the easy part. The hard part was getting the Beatles to play together along with him.” Once they did, though, Beatle magic allegedly ensued. Says Martin: “Paul wrote more lyrics and added a bit more music with George. Ringo plays lovely drum; Paul does bass; George does a blinding guitar solo. And voices from Paul and George are complimenting John’s beautifully.”

For now, no outsiders may hear the song, and armed guards are protecting the E.M.I. pressing plant in Jacksonville, Florida. But on Nov. 21, Free as a Bird will be issued as part of The Beatles Anthology Volume 1, a double album that Martin assembled from early (1958-64) outtakes–including unreleased songs, variations of familiar ones and banter from studio sessions. Free as a Bird and another collaborative effort, Real Love, will be heard on a three-night, six-hour TV show, also called The Beatles Anthology, that abc will air starting this Sunday. After all these years, and despite all their fears, the No. 1 group in recording history is making a comeback.

The TV documentary (another version, 10 hours long, will appear on video in 1996) is a jolly, narratorless, comprehensive ramble that captures the thrill of the glory years, as reconstructed with rarely seen footage and recollected by the very Fab Four–John from old snippets, of course, the others in recent interviews, individually and together. The CD package, the first of three, promises choice nuggets as well. “It won’t be, as some feared, just a ragbag of rejects,” says Ian MacDonald, author of Revolution in the Head, a close study of the group’s music. “It’ll be the vital concluding installment of the Beatles’ story in sound. It’ll sell squillions.”

Last year’s thin but charming excavation, the two-CD Live at the BBC, sold 8 million copies worldwide, so there may yet be fresh gold in the Beatles. abc thinks so; it paid $20 million for the documentary. E.M.I. paid several millions more for the three “new” double albums, and last week Sony paid $95 million to Michael Jackson to share in his ownership of part of the Beatles song catalog.

Still, a quarter-century is a millennium in pop music. When Lennon was killed, a teenager sadly remarked, “This is the death of a generation–my parents’.” Beatlemania II might amount to little more than a geriatric palpitation for a Boomer Brigade that has no Lawrence Welk to usher them into their twilight years. What are the Beatles to the kids of the mid-’90s? Last month Anthology video director Bob Smeaton had Ringo on the editing screen as a 19-year-old watched. “I said to him, ‘Who’s that?'” Smeaton recalls, “and he says, ‘Ah, that’s Paul, isn’t it?'”

Such a remark had to give McCartney the cringies. He composed the group’s top-selling single (Hey Jude), its most widely covered song (Yesterday) and much of its most enduring music. He was the Beatles’ most versatile singer, and not just as a balladeer; his scorched-throat rendition of the raver I’m Down is a highlight of the Anthology show. Yet Paul always shivered in John’s shadow. Partly it was his looks. He was cute, coquettish–almost the girl of the group–so how could he be smart? He was the favorite of the girls whose screams dominated the early Beatles concerts, but he was not a guy’s guy. No way could he satisfy the emerging establishment of rock critics, a male coterie. He just tried too hard. Paul wanted to be loved, and that is the essence of the pop star. John didn’t care; that is the essence of the rock star.

From the start John had a spooky, modernist poise. His taut mouth, his appraising eyes made him the group’s soul and wit as surely as McCartney became its prime musical mover. Cynical, cool, Lennon was the eye of sanity in the Beatlemania hurricane. Asked, during the first U.S. tour, when the Beatles found time to rehearse their songs, he replied, “We wrote ’em; we recorded ’em; we play ’em every day. What do you rehearse? Smilin’–that’s all we rehearse.” His edginess suggested a roiling interior life; you could write a novel about what you imagined to be inside John Lennon. And then he had the rock star’s karma to die violently. Now he’s in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist, and McCartney isn’t. “Since John’s death,” says Smeaton, “Paul has faded into the background. It has become very much ‘John Lennon and the Beatles.’ And I think Paul wanted to put his side of the story across.”

So, after much coaxing by cronies and business associates, the survivors agreed to play a little new music and reminisce for the camera–a decision that could be as much a career move (there have been reports that Starr and Harrison could actually use the money) as it is a clearing of emotional sinuses. Doing the interviews, says Smeaton, “we felt we were scratching at wounds that had almost healed. But this is an exorcising. You carry this stuff for so many years, and then you think, ‘Sod it, let’s tell it how it is.'”

This Anthology is an authorized bio-pic–the official history. If Paul, George and Ringo have stepped back into the Beatle spotlight, they have done so on tiptoe. The lads freely discuss their drug use–what Paul calls the “herbal-jazz cigarettes,” which garnered arrests for several of the Beatles, and the experiments with lsd. When they were told that acid could alter their minds, McCartney recalls, “John was rather excited by that prospect, and I was rather frightened.” McCartney also talks about the strippers they dated in the Hamburg bars. But all are mum on sexual escapades after those early years. If any groupie got to stay overnight during one of the tours, her secret is safe with the remaining Beatles.

In the new interviews, George talks as if he’s Old Gramps in the garden on a fine Sunday afternoon. Every remembered epiphany evokes a dry giggle, except when he’s waxing wrothful on Beatlemania (“They used us as an excuse to go mad, the world did, and then they blamed it on us”). Paul sounds earnest and superficial, like a Tory spokesman, and Ringo is still the ideal, unflappable pub mate. Even the grating last years, when Paul would rag George about his guitar playing, or sneak in to redub Ringo’s drum parts, are events to look back on in sorrow, not anger. From the grave, Lennon has to give perspective to the breakup: “It was a slow death.”

Yeah, sure–but wasn’t it a wonderful life? It sure looks swell on TV. You’ll see the infant Beatles in matching leather outfits (Lennon: “We looked like four Gene Vincents, or tried to”). Lennon talks of his love for Elvis–“a guy with long, greasy hair wigglin’ his ass and singin’ Hound Dog.” Their long slog to the top (John and Paul met on July 6, 1957, so that by the time the Beatles hit the U.S. in 1964, their career together was already half over) gets a brisk treatment, lighting for but a moment on the specters of Stu Sutcliffe and Pete Best, band members who fell by the wayside before the big time. The group defined its early cheekiness at the 1963 Royal Command Performance before the Queen, where John famously said, “Would the people in the cheap seats clap your hands, and the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry.” But America was the promised land, and the Anthology’s first evening climaxes with their conquest of the colonies.

I Want to Hold Your Hand, the first Beatles single to get much airplay in the U.S., premiered on Nov. 26, 1963, the day after John Kennedy’s funeral; the song’s chipper vitality offered instant reprieve from the tragedy. The Beatles’ last album to be issued, Let It Be, came out the month of the Kent State killings. The group’s music was the soundtrack of the ’60s, and the Anthology footage makes for a compelling, long-form music video, a reminder of what the fuss was all about.

Whereas Elvis (who sent the boys a warm telegram for their performance on The Ed Sullivan Show) was sensual and spastic, the Beatles looked like kids having a good time. There was no erotic threat in their mod uniforms and bowl-cut hairdos, the deep bows in unison, their common sensible take on success. Their lyrics offered comradely advice (She Loves You) and the gentlest propositions (I Want to Hold Your Hand). That’s why Sullivan, the dour Chief Justice of American showbiz, could attest that they were “four of the finest youngsters we’ve ever had on our stage.” But it wasn’t that simple, ever. The guitars set a pounding tempo for any backseat bravo; the vocals (the falsetto wooos and I can’t hide) have an orgasmic cheerfulness.

They were cheeky but well behaved; they put up with a lot. When their manager, Brian Epstein, told them that German radio stations didn’t like to play songs in English, they rerecorded two of their hits in German (Sie Liebt Dich and Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand). These orders, and this imposed order, gave them a format they somehow thrived in. They produced popular art on demand. Richard Lester, director of A Hard Day’s Night, announced that the next film would be called Help!, so somebody better write a song quickly. John did it that night, in part to keep Paul from winning the implied competition. In the broad democracy of Top 40 radio of the day, the Beatles rubbed sounds with Martha and the Vandellas, Steve and Eydie. They’d borrow, then improve; scavenging gave way to alchemy. It was always a fight to be the best. “We’d try to beat what we were doing,” Paul says.

The Beatles beat everybody–which is why, when the mania has faded and the little scandals raise a yawn, the music lives. Believers in the sanctity of the single, the Beatles made classics in miniature. A melody simple enough to leech onto the brain and fresh enough to bear repeated airplay. The bending of a cliche, musical or verbal. High harmonies so close that John, Paul and George could be Siamese triplets. In and out in no time. Two minutes, two and a half tops–leave ’em wanting to hear it again. And to hear others just as good. That’s how the Beatles created the pop album. Before them, an album was a couple of hits and 10 cuts of filler. With the Beatles, every album was an event.

The Beatles were studio artists. In the TV Anthology, George tells how bored they became with concerts; sometimes they’d run through their 30-minute set in 25, by playing every song faster. For the audience, the concert experience was wholly votive–unintelligible and incandescent, like Mass in Latin. But the band no longer wanted to do it on the road. So they moved into the studio and created chamber music. For the mature Beatles, the Abbey Road studio was their concert stage. They became monks to their music. And for most of this time, their friendship withstood the barrage of fame. “We were tight,” Harrison notes in the documentary. “That was one thing to be said about us.”

Then they fell bitterly to pieces. Throughout the ’70s the lapsed Beatles enjoyed solo success–from 1973 to 1974 each of the four had at least one No. 1 record–and Harrison flowered musically. But for John and Paul, some of the magic had dried up. McCartney’s silly love songs might have been composed for a cocktail lounge or a kid’s birthday party. Much of Lennon’s late work is agonized but sentimental–primal kitsch. The two needed each other, as editors and competitors. On their own they were too easily pleased. Working as a team they could take a half-song and make it better.

A song like Free as a Bird. For the first time in more than a quarter-century, McCartney is fixing a hole in a Lennon song. Jeff Lynne got a kick–and who wouldn’t?–as he watched Paul and George write missing words to the song. Then Lynne heard them try out some harmonies in the studio kitchen. “I thought, ‘God, it sounds like the Beatles in there.’ And of course it is.”

O.K., guys, now just once more? And this time, please, in German.

–Reported by Michael Brunton/London and David E. Thigpen/New York

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