on 26 July 2013
Picking up where Anthology 1 left off, the second volume of previously unreleased Beatles recordings relies less on `historical significance' displayed on the first volume and more on the wealth of alternate versions of well known material from the phenomenally successful series of albums and singles recorded between 1965 and 1967, their most consistent 3 years when their creativity and commercial impact were both peaking. These were also the years in which The Beatles turned from being a band that toured, into a band that didn't. For me these are The Beatles' halcyon days - roughly 1000 of them - when they stood head and shoulders above anyone that dared to consider pop music as a career.
With just three unreleased songs within its track listing (one of which is a forgettable blues influenced instrumental), the vast majority of Anthology 2 comprises alternate versions of landmark recordings such as `Yesterday', `Help!', `Norwegian Wood', `Tomorrow Never Knows', `Strawberry Fields Forever', `A Day in the Life', `Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds', `I Am the Walrus', and a host of others.
The lack of unreleased songs suggests that The Beatles didn't write many songs they didn't find a use for, and although there are exceptions, most of the material written in the period 1965-67 ended up on the album or single under current consideration rather than being shelved for a future project. The exceptions tend to be lesser songs, suggesting the band were good judges of what to pass on, albeit ultimately using these lesser tracks as circumstances required (a film soundtrack, a b-side and a benefit compilation album).
From the touring days (Disc 1) the live recordings on Anthology 2 include 4 tracks from Blackpool (August 1965), 1 track from Shea Stadium (also August 1965) and 2 tracks from Tokyo (June 1966) recorded just two months before they made their final planned concert in San Francisco, which is sadly not represented on the album. Live, The Beatles had devolved into something of a train wreck due to the hysterical audiences they played to back then. But the Shea Stadium recording above all else demonstrates the task that lay before them and they sound burned out (this was the opening night of the tour remember) and lacklustre. The Tokyo tracks are, if anything, worse still. Perhaps that justifies the lack of live recordings contained in their back catalogue but I would have been happier with a wider representation of them as a live band.
The studio material on offer, while at times fascinating (Lennon's demo of `Strawberry Fields Forever' is the stand out from a historical perspective), often sounds like filler material to my ears and I'd far sooner play the last half of the red album and the first half of the blue album if I wanted an overview of their work from this highly charged period. But the Anthology project was conceived as a peek behind the curtains - an alternative view of their recording career - in which fans could finally acquire some of the lost treasures in the EMI vaults. So all this demonstrates is that, under the guidance of George Martin, the band was quite capable of getting the best out of their material and left very few lost gems on the shelf. `You've Got to Hide Your Love Away' and `It's Only Love' are decent enough takes but the absence of a couple of key overdubs renders them second best to the masters issued, a feeling that is par for the course really on much of Anthology 2.
The tracks that would grace Revolver are, not surprisingly, more complex in structure and bear less resemblance to the finished versions - `Tomorrow Never Knows' represents their "giant leap" in soundscape terms and even the earliest take demonstrated just how far from `Love Me Do' the band had travelled in just four years. An early version of `Got to Get You into My Life' is even more interesting lacking most of the embellishments the track would eventually feature as well as including a few lyrical alterations too. Then there's the briefest section of a rehearsal of `I'm Only Sleeping' complete with vibraphone which gives the song a nice atmosphere that would have worked on the final recording I'm sure. This is where Anthology 2 stands on its own merits and one is tempted to wonder whether a "making of Revolver" album or documentary could ever be made from the surviving tapes.
On that note, the compilers have elected not to feature any speech to provide the sparse commentary that worked so well on Anthology 1. Disc 2 takes all of its content form the vaults at EMI, essentially a string of demos, try outs, although in some cases the compilers have produced new `finished' versions by blending tracks or sections from different takes. `A Day in the Life' is such an example and while undoubtedly intriguing (how could you fail to make it so, with such profound writing as this song so easily displays), its no competition for the finished master. Personally I would have liked a few words to explain the decision to come off the road, as well as some contextual information surrounding Sgt. Pepper but perhaps the remaining Beatles simply wanted the music to speak for itself.
And Sgt. Pepper (which dominates Disc 2) certainly speaks for itself. This is the album that did so much for the format - printed lyrics, gatefold sleeve, inserts, an iconic sleeve design (itself full of icons) - that has become a statement not just for the music but for the times it was recorded in, as well as setting the bar for others to surpass in terms of musical complexity and experimentation. Those that managed to hold onto the pop sensibilities that are the foundations of Sgt Pepper and survived the Sixties' pre-occupation with drugs, went onto tap into the deep reserves of an emerging market where pop turned into rock and fame turned into fortune. Just about every subsequent rock star worth mentioning in dispatches owes a debt to The Beatles in general and to Sgt. Pepper in particular.
By 1967 The Beatles had become a band that appeared neither on radio nor television, although they would make exceptions when they were in control of proceedings of course - their live telecast of All You Need is Love was an event (a TV `happening' if you will) not merely a programme and A Magical Mystery Tour was a Beatles production where they (unfortunately) controlled the entire thing. From here on in The Beatles relied largely on their industriousness, their talent as writers and a solid reputation to hide any sense of crisis that lurked within. And no single event signalled the arrival of that crisis more than the death of Brian Epstein, whose job, it seems, was done.
So, on the whole, Anthology 2 is a fair representation of the period even if precious little stands up as essential listening compared to the material the band issued at the time. But with material this arresting it's impossible to dismiss or downplay the collection, so I'll give it 4 stars.