Paul McCartney was an ex-Beatle on a mission as he arrived at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Midtown Manhattan on 19 January 1994. He was there for the induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame of John Lennon, his friend, collaborator and occasional rival.
Also at the ceremony was Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono, who would appear that night onstage alongside McCartney. In Beatles lore, the two were sworn enemies (an overstatement, though McCartney had admitted to feeling “threatened” by Ono when she started turning up to band recording sessions with Lennon). So it was seen as hugely significant that they would come together to honour a fallen husband and comrade. This was the hell-freezes-over moment many “Fab” fanatics had never imagined they would witness.
“I wish John could have seen this,” Ono said as she and McCartney publicly patched up whatever differences they had. Later that evening, back at Yoko’s residence, she and her 19-year-old son, Sean, went further with the reconciliation by handing over to McCartney and his wife Linda several battered recordings, dating from the late 1970s. And with that, began the next chapter in the story of The Beatles.
The Beatles Anthology, released 20 years ago this September, was both a bit of a muddle and hugely ahead of its time. This deep dive into the band’s catalogue and history was a many-headed multimedia onslaught unleashed at a time when few people could have told you what “multimedia” even meant.
There were, in fact, several “Anthologies”. A six-part documentary, aired on ITV from 26 November to 31 December, featured new interviews by Jools Holland of McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. This was accompanied by Anthology 1, a double album of unreleased demos and alternative versions of familiar songs (the first of three such collections), released on 20 November 1995.
Later came a book, credited to “The Beatles” and featuring further interviews. Together, documentary, albums and book traced The Beatles’ evolution from scrappy skiffle merchants to the biggest, occasionally weirdest band on the planet. And the key to the entire endeavour was contained on those tapes handed over in Yoko Ono’s living room.
“Once we get the bulls**t behind us, we all end up doing what we do best which is making music,” Ringo Starr would say of this unusual reunion. On 11 February 1994 he, McCartney and George Harrison – quickly dubbed the “Threetles” – had convened at McCartney’s Hog Hill Mill studio in East Sussex. Their mission was to breathe life into the scratchy John Lennon demo recordings that Yoko had given to Macca.
This was in service of a big idea. The biggest idea: to open the first Anthology collection with a new Beatles single. This would be an extraordinary statement of intent – particularly when their “final” single was the peerless “The Long and Winding Road”, released a month after their split in May 1970. Of course, with Lennon not around and with the three surviving bandmates determined to include him in some way, options were limited.
Hence McCartney reaching out to Yoko for demos which Lennon had recorded on a boombox at his Dakota Building apartment in New York in the late Seventies along with another demo recorded in Bermuda in 1980.
Two tracks had immediately jumped out. These were woozy ballads “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” (the latter already released as part of the soundtrack to the 1988 documentary Imagine: John Lennon). “Free as a Bird” was ultimately picked first because the lyrics were unfinished. That gave Macca and the gang the opportunity to meaningfully add to the song.
In New York in 1994, McCartney had become emotional hearing Lennon’s voice from beyond the grave. Struggling to stay composed he promised Yoko and Sean that he wouldn’t release any new music without their blessing. At the same time, once he and his fellow “Threetles” took material away and brought their own perspective they needed to know there wouldn’t be any external interference. Yoko could hear the results. She needed to stay out of the way during the sessions.
“We don’t know, we may hate each other after two hours in the studio and just walk out,” he told her. “So don’t put any conditions, it’s tough enough.”
The surviving Beatles didn’t hate each other. Not after two hours in the studio, at least. And that despite the fact that some of the power struggles that had doomed the band in the late 1960s had continued into the new undertaking.
Harrison had, for instance, pushed for “Free as a Bird” to open with a languid slide guitar solo. McCartney didn’t necessarily see the wisdom in it but shrugged: sure, why not? Harrison had also insisted he would participate only if his friend and collaborator Jeff Lynne produced. Which meant an invitation was not extended to George Martin, the miracle worker who had overseen their progression through the 1960s from naive scallywags to pop geniuses.
“It was George [Harrison] who said, ‘no, we need a producer,” McCartney later said. “It could be dangerous just to all get in the studio. Could get nasty. You’ve got egos flying around.”
“It was really quite scary,” said Lynne. “I really didn’t know Paul very well at all. I’d only met him a couple of times before. He was a bit worried about me because I was George’s pal.”
Not that George Martin would necessarily have said “yes”. Years later he appeared to imply that he considered it ghoulish to record a “new” song featuring vocals by someone who had passed away 15 years previously.
“I kind of told them I wasn’t too happy with putting them together with the dead John,” he told Rock Cellar magazine in 2013. “I’ve got nothing wrong with dead John but the idea of having dead John with live Paul and Ringo and George to form a group, it didn’t appeal to me too much.
“In the same way that I think it’s OK to find an old record of Nat King Cole’s and bring it back to life and issue it, but to have him singing with his daughter is another thing. So I don’t know, I’m not fussy about it but it didn't appeal to me very much.”
“Free as a Bird” was the first track on Anthology 1, released five days before Queen’s post-Freddie Mercury release Made in Heaven. Parlophone, the Beatles label, did their best to turn the release into an event. In the run-up to the song’s first play on Radio 1 the record company issued a “timetable of events” to the press, tracking every minute from the moment copies of the Anthology 1 CD left the pressing plant at Uden in the Netherlands. In the event presenter Annie Nightingale judged it merely “alright”.
A grand press conference was arranged for the Savoy with 350 journalists attending. George Martin and Jeff Lynne were there. But no Beatles. They were at home, said their press officer Derek Taylor, “But they send their love.”
With the Fabs having flown the coop, the media was not in the mood to play nice. The mood in the room probably wasn’t helped by over-the-top security. “This is not the Rosetta Stone,” shouted one reporter. “This is just a pop record that you are marketing.”
“People are ready for it now, and they probably weren’t in 1970 and 1980,” said Martin. He was responding to the question of why The Beatles were putting out an odds ’n’ sods compilation when the official line for decades was that there was nothing in the vault worth releasing.
Lynne was asked why “Free as a Bird” sounded less like The Beatles than it did his and Harrison’s supergroup, The Traveling Wilburys. “I put a lot more work into this,” he joked (presumably). “The Wilburys take 10 minutes, and this took 15.”
Martin would also contradict his later statements on “Free as a Bird”, saying he would have liked to have produced it. “Jeff Lynne has done a brilliant job, and having heard it now, l wish I had produced it. Because if anything, it would have given me 30 number ones, instead of 29.”
To this day, “Free as a Bird” divides opinion. Whatever the ethics of using Lennon’s scratchy home recording, from a technical perspective the results were flawed.
Lennon’s demo was of poor quality. And Lynne, for all his studio wizardry, couldn’t quite paper over the cracks. “What you ended up with was quite a thick homogeneous sound that hardly stops,” critiqued George Martin. “There’s not much dynamic in it.”
“It was a crackly old thing, it was a cassette,” said McCartney of the original demo. “You don’t use that. [Jeff] took the cassette and put it in time.”
“It was so hard,” said Lynne. “Layering that voice in there, which had piano glued to it. Really difficult, virtually impossible. But we got it done somehow.”
Tellingly, the producer Lennon had been working with when he recorded the demos in the late 1970s had already rejected the “Free as a Bird” demo. The ex-Beatle had sent Jack Douglas the tapes of “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love”. This was in 1979 as they were preparing to make Double Fantasy. Douglas told him bluntly that the compositions were too embryonic.
“Here’s the basic thing about those songs,“ Douglas explained to The Washington Post. “I rejected those for Double Fantasy because I didn’t feel they were completed.”
“‘Free as a Bird’ is disappointingly low-key, to put it mildly,” agreed Andy Gill in his assessment in The Independent. “A slight song taken at sluggish pace, it sounds like what it is: Jeff Lynne’s graduation exercise from the School of Beatlism.”
Gill also suggested the Anthology project had been conceived of as a cash-cow as the Fabs neared retiring age – in particular George Harrison who had apparently fallen on the rock star equivalent of hard times. “Down to his last £20m or so,” wrote Gill. “Poor lamb.”
The rest of Anthology 1 was less contentious. It was what it was – a grab bag of demos, often spectacularly scratchy, from The Beatles early days as the Quarrymen through to their stint in Hamburg as back-up band for Tony Sheridan, spruced up with live recordings from the Ed Sullivan and Morecambe and Wise shows.
It undoubtedly came along at an important time, however. The Beatles had never quite gone out of fashion. Still, it is safe to say that through the 1970s and 1980s they were not perceived as entirely at the cutting edge. What was left of McCartney’s credibility after the often supremely cheesy Wings had evaporated when he released “We All Stand Together”, aka the Frog Song, in 1984.
Ringo Starr had meanwhile spent the 1980s narrating Thomas the Tank Engine. George Harrison was releasing hokey novelty tunes such as his 1987 number one, “Got My Mind Set on You”. This is remembered chiefly for its video in which Harrison vied for attention with a dancing grandfather clock and a singing moose’s head.
As the Britpop era dawned, though, perceptions of The Beatles changed. Oasis covered “I Am the Walrus”. Liam Gallagher tried to bring back the John Lennon Windsor “rounded” glasses look (he also mimicked Lennon’s haircut at one point). The Boo Radley’s Britpop classic Giant Steps was an unabashed love letter to The White Album.
“The Beatles have to be the best band of all time. There’s no one to touch them,” Suede’s Simon Gilbert told The Independent in 1995. “Revolver is the only album I’ve listened to at least once a week ever since I first heard it. ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is my favourite song from it. It’s just way ahead of its time.”
And then there was Blur v Oasis, a chest-bumping jamboree explicitly modelled on The Beatles-Rolling Stones rivalry. The defining moment of Britpop was just another Beatles rehash.
It was no surprise, then, that, notwithstanding the response of critics such as the late Andy Gill, “Free as a Bird” and Anthology 1 were rapturously received. The single reached number two in the UK. No doubt its success was bolstered by the cinematic Joe Pytka video in which a bird in flight soars through the Beatles history (fluttering past references to “Eleanor Rigby”, “Helter Skelter” and “Strawberry Fields” among an estimated 100 Beatles allusions).
Anthology 1 did well too. Incredibly, it was the first Beatles album to debut at number one in the US. In the UK it suffered the arguable humiliation of being held off top spot by Robson and Jerome. Nonetheless, in its first week of release it sold in excess of 900,000 copies worldwide.
“It was great to have some Beatles product again in 1995,” says Tony Barrell, journalist, writer, Beatles expert and author of The Beatles on the Roof.
“It wasn’t the best time for music – yes, we had Oasis, Garbage and Björk, but there was also a lot of Robson & Jerome and Take That, and it was a good moment to be reminded of The Beatles’ brilliance.
“On one level, ‘Free as a Bird’ was an imagining of what they might sound like if they’d remained together as a band, and I loved it. The double CD Live at the BBC had been released the year before and sold very well, and I think Apple [The Beatles’ record label, and technically a subsidiary of Parlophone] may have been using it to test the market for the big Anthology releases.”
“It’s important to remember that the general public didn’t yet have the internet in 1995, and it was still hard to find good unreleased recordings,” he continues.
“You might hear a vague rumour that someone at Camden Market was selling Beatles rarities, and you’d spend good money and come away with something very dubious. I recall hearing a lot of distorted songs on dodgy cassettes and doubting if they really were by The Beatles. It felt much better to have releases that were properly mixed and were sanctioned by the three remaining members of the band.”
“I think the Anthology, especially the first volume, was incredibly important in The Beatles’ catalogue and story for a couple of reasons,” says David Thurmaier, who hosts I’ve Got a Beatles Podcast and is associate professor of music theory and chair of the Music Studies Division at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory.
“First, it contained ‘Free As A Bird’, the first ‘new’ Beatles song since 1970… also, it proved that fans really liked hearing unreleased material of all types – music from live shows, demos, Decca audition songs, aborted takes, and alternate versions.
“George Martin was reportedly unable to understand why fans would want to hear such things – as was Paul McCartney, at one point,” continues Thurmaier. “Anthology 1 showed how there was a market for such material.”
Twenty five years later – and 50 since their original break-up – are The Beatles still the biggest brand in rock? The case can be made that Anthology marked one of the last occasions the group could command global headlines. If there’s a 1960s band young (and older) musicians today strive to emulate it isn’t The Beatles, with their silly haircuts and interesting moustaches.
It’s the Rolling Stones, those paragons of bad boy glamour. Just look at Johnny Depp and how he ruined his career by living out his Keith Richards fantasies.
Who today fantasises about being Paul McCartney or John Lennon? The coolest rock star Danny Boyle could persuade to cameo in his dreadful 2019 Beatles fantasy movie, Yesterday, was Ed Sheeran. The hip kids have moved on.
Even at the time of Anthology’s release, there was some unease over the direction the surviving Beatles were taking.
“Anthology 1 divides the fans,” says Tony Barrell. “It’s a great historical document for completists, but it’s quite rough in places, and I certainly don’t listen to it as often as Abbey Road, Rubber Soul or even Beatles For Sale. If you don’t have all of The Beatles’ main albums, you really should complete the set before you dive into these recordings. And Anthology 2 and 3 are more listenable, because the musicianship is better.”
“As to whether it has held up, I think in some ways yes, and in other ways no,” says David Thurmaier. “For me teaching courses on The Beatles and doing a podcast, it’s invaluable material and the students nowadays really enjoy hearing the material that wasn’t released.
“So as a scholar, the Anthologies are important. But as a listener, I don’t think they hold up all that well. The mixture of material in bad quality, studio “doctoring” – ie, blending a demo with the finished version – and too many fragmented tunes can be jarring as a listening experience.”
Nor did it herald a new beginning for the remaining Beatles. There were further sessions on 5-6 February 1995 at which they recorded “Real Love”. It was released on 4 March 1996, to nowhere near the acclaim as that received by “Free as a Bird”. Radio 1 declined to playlist it, saying, “It’s not what our listeners want to hear ... We are a contemporary music station.” Ooof.
Yoko Ono may have agreed with that assessment. “John always said there could be no reunion of The Beatles,” she had commented when the prospect of the “Threetles” was mooted. “If they got together again, the world would be so disappointed to see four rusty old men.”
It likely wouldn’t have lasted, anyway. The surviving Beatles had reconvened in March and May 1995 to work on the remaining Lennon demos (having initially attempted to tackle another Dakota recording “Now and Then” in June 1994). But they weren’t getting on quite as famously as during “Free as a Bird”. The tensions that had brought an end to the group in the first place in 1970 had seemingly flared again. Harrison, who had always felt stifled by Lennon and McCartney, was overcome with déjà vu. As he put it: “It’s just like being back in The Beatles.”