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Before They Were Fab (1958-64)
on 23 July 2013
I admit that I'm neither a Beatles completist nor expert - but I do have a natural interest in any sort of archive release by many a rock band and very recently I decided to finally complete my collection of "The Beatles Anthology" releases by buying a copy of this double CD - the earliest volume of the trilogy and the one that covers, for me at least, their least important era.
Most of the content of Anthology 1 is aimed at die-hard collectors - those who will have much of this material (and more) on bootlegs - but I guess the world that waited 25 years for any new Beatle product could be forgiven for rushing out and buying these archive releases, eager to know what the fuss may be about. It goes without saying that anything associated with The Beatles and Apple requires a long and winding road to be travelled down before gaining an official release and at least it's fair to report that the compilers haven't left many stones unturned in their pursuit of an evenly balanced and interesting collection.
There's no denying the historical significance of much of this material - after all this is The Beatles - and everything they did, if not truly sensational, eventually draws the listener in, like some doomed sailor pursuing a siren perched on some carefully hidden rocks.
Aside from `Free As A Bird' (a 1977 John Lennon demo that the surviving Beatles worked on to produce their first new song since 1969) that was issued as a single and launched the Anthology Project back in 1995 (a 6 part TV series, 10 DVD box set and 3 double CDs), Anthology 1 comprises a cluster of mostly unreleased material recorded between the summer of 1958 (as The Quarry Men) and October 1964 (the end of the year that "Beatlemania" took over the USA. These six years saw the band go from being hapless Buddy Holly impersonators to the single most important pop group this planet has ever produced, a position they are never likely to surrender; The Beatles and second fiddle and not terms one would put together too often.
The content of Anthology 1 is admittedly uneven. The first twenty tracks predate their EMI contract and comprise the famous 2 songs from The Quarry Men's 1958 acetate, three tracks recorded at Paul McCartney's house in 1960, 3 of the better tracks from their 1961 Hamburg sessions, 5 tracks from the Decca audition recorded on New Years Day 1962 plus a small number of spoken tracks as Lennon, McCartney and Epstein provide useful contextual commentary covering these very early years. There's very little among these tracks that provides any great insight as to what lay ahead and it's a testament to the vision of Epstein and EMI (in particular producer George Martin) that they knew instinctively just what The Beatles had and where they could go.
From hereon then, The Beatles career was like no other before it. The debut recording session for EMI (June 1962) produced an early version of their debut hit `Love Me Do', their second session produced their first No. 1 (in some charts), `Please, Please Me'. Their rise to the top of British pop music took less than 12 months from that apparently inauspicious session and the world of music was never quite the same again.
The remainder of Anthology 1 is culled from a number of radio and TV appearances as well as a few outtakes recorded mostly at Abbey Road, the most startling of which is `One After 909' from 1963 and should have been issued at the time. There are elements of humour thrown in for a sense of fun it was being a Beatle at this early stage of their career (The Morecambe and Wise Show and The Royal Command Performance being the most well known) and there are a few too many examples of songs breaking down mid way through or spoilt by fumbled words or laughter - personally I don't need to hear this sort of material to realise that The Beatles were not perfect and I would have preferred to hear more songs delivered flawlessly, although some listeners will no doubt welcome the warts and all approach.
So Anthology 1 gets 3 stars, more for its historical significance than for the killer performances, but as I paid only ten quid for the privilege of hearing this material, I'm not complaining. But they did much better work just around the corner.