The Magazine

Remember the Beatles!

They actually were as good as you think

Nov 6, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 08 • By DANIEL WATTENBERG
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The Beatles Anthology

by The Beatles

Chronicle Books. 368 pp., $ 60

During their time as an active group, the Beatles never paused to anthologize themselves. Unusually -- maybe uniquely -- among popular rock bands with large song catalogues, the Beatles never released a greatest hits or concert album before their breakup. They couldn't stop to anthologize their old songs, because they were too busy surpassing themselves with new ones.

And somehow -- despite a prolific output of songs and records, punishing touring schedules in the early years, and saturation levels of publicity -- the Beatles always left you wanting more. They stopped performing live too soon, in 1966. They stopped recording too soon, in 1969. John Lennon stopped existing too soon, in 1980. Unlike Elvis with his many "comeback" specials, the Beatles never came back.

In contrast, The Beatles Anthology trilogy -- comprising a six-CD collection of live performances and studio outtakes, an ABC documentary, and, now, a group "autobiography" -- is curatorial and superabundant. The contents of these recordings, film, and book are useful, often delightful, and quite revealing. But unlike the band's original output, the Anthology does not leave you with an appetite for more.

The newly published autobiography, also called the Beatles Anthology, is the latest and final piece of this sprawling, three-legged multi-media history of the twentieth century's most successful recording artists. With a first printing of one and a half million copies, the coffee-table book weighs 6.6 pounds and is clad in a shimmering silver dust jacket, its colorful glossy pages crowded with rare photos and scribbles, doodles, and documents from the Beatles' personal collections. And this scrapbook eye-candy is fitted in among 340,000 words of text. You may need your Lennon glasses: The type is small, and looks even smaller on the oversized pages.

Like the Anthology CD compilation (how many retakes of "Strawberry Fields" are enough?), the book suffers from repetition. The multiple re-tellings of the same events (the speed-fueled white nights on the Reeperbahn, say, or Yoko encamping in the studio during the White Album sessions) by the individual Beatles may make you feel like a replay official reviewing the same play from every conceivable angle.

The autobiography also suffers from an inescapable asymmetry. In long interviews conducted for this volume, the three surviving Beatles look back on their eventful lives from the settled maturity of men approaching sixty. In contrast, John Lennon's "autobiography" is pieced together from interviews spanning almost two decades, when he was still caught in the riptides of a turbulent life cut short at a relatively young forty. The emotional debris churned up by parental abandonment in childhood and mass adoration in adulthood never quite subsided.

Fragments of Lennon's interviews given years apart are often fused together, sometimes in the same paragraph, to create the illusion of continuous narrative. The effort to blend the Lennon fragments in with the oral histories of the other three is unconvincing and rather sad, much like the new "Beatles" songs "Free As A Bird" and "Real Love," confected for the Anthology CDs by bringing the surviving three into the studio to layer their voices and instruments on top of homemade demo tapes of unfinished songs recorded by Lennon in the late 1970s.

The Beatles' development paralleled that of the 1960s counterculture so conveniently that the band's identity seemed to merge with that of an entire generation. They began their professional career in earnest in Hamburg in 1960. No hubcap was safe from these boys, dressed in leather and jeans like their 1950s idols Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, and Marlon Brando. They broke up in 1969, by which time they looked like wizened religious ascetics.

And in between, it seemed like the Beatles couldn't catch cold without a generation sneeze. They discovered pot during the recording of Rubber Soul, and it seemed like right angles softened into gentle curves everywhere. They costumed themselves as "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," and undergraduates started turning up in their fathers' old service jackets and boots. They escaped to an ashram, and a generation seemed to abandon utopian politics in favor of self-discovery.