At several points during the early episodes of The Beatles Anthology, Paul McCartney comments on the stair-step rise of the early days of the Beatles’ career, from small to larger clubs, to conquering first England, then America, then movies, and then mastering the recording studio. Of course, nobody could have predicted their early meteoric success, but once the spark was lit, their course under manager Brain Epstein’s hand was sure and solid.
But what was fascinating, at least on the first viewing of several episodes of The Beatles Anthology, especially after Sgt. Pepper, and really especially after Epstein died, is how haphazard the rest of their career was, once they reached their apogee. It’s only in retrospect, and only in looking in from the outside, that the arc of albums and movies from Magical Mystery Tour to Yellow Submarine to the White Album to Let It Be really was. It’s almost as if the Beatles subliminally replaced the chaos of touring with a self-created chaos: the madness of the Maharishi, the insanity of Apple (where the Beatles actually encouraged-encouraged!–people to send in tapes to their offices on Savile Row! And if that wasn’t enough, look-there’s Yoko in the studio, alpha cyanoacrylated to John’s hip!
And if all of that wasn’t enough madness, the straw that broke the Beatles’ backs was filming Let It Be in Twickenham Film Studio. Filmmakers’ hours are the exact polar opposite of musician’s hours: filmmaking begins early in the morning and ends when the sun goes down. Musicians record at night. The two are mutually incompatible.
So naturally, the Beatles decided to record a live album there, and film it, complete with Yoko, for their Apple label. They were also unknowingly about to hit multiple icebergs in the Polar Lawyer Arctic Circle, as Apple and their affairs with duelling potential managers Allen Klein and Lee Eastman (Linda’s dad and McCartney’s father in law) simultaneously imploded. With no lifeboats present, the result was simple: no more Beatles.
Before the ship sank though, the Beatles went out with two grand gestures: a final live concert, on the rooftop of their Savile Row office building, and then a proper swan song: Abbey Road.
Which is where the actual episodes of Anthology end. But for the true hard core Beatlemanic, there is also a fifth disc’s worth of ancillary material-more clips of from the mid-1990s of the three surviving Beatles (it’s astonishing, considering how crisp George Harrison looks (and sounds-for ‘the quiet Beatle’, he was easily as sharp an interview as Paul McCartney), and lots of “making of” stuff: the making of their more complex 1960s songs, the making of their “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” songs and videos-in which producer Jeff Lynne (a rabid Beatlemanic himself) mated mid-1970s cassette demos by John Lennon with mid-1990s studio performances by the rest of the Beatles-and not surprisingly, the making of the Anthology series itself.
So is the $59.99 cost of The Beatles Anthology worth it? For the die-hard, there’s a treasure trove of images here. God knows, all the big events in the group’s history are covered in a surprising amount of depth for a television documentary. Of course, because it’s a documentary, it goes where the footage is. Thus Let It Be, despite being only a so-so album, gets a disproportionate amount of coverage , because of all of the film footage shot (and the footage looks wonderful-brilliantly restored compared to the haphazard videotape and laser discs floating around from the early 1980s. It certainly wets the appetite for its much-anticipated DVD release later this year). But Abbey Road, which is a far, far better album, gets less analysis, because there’s no footage from the studios (but there was a nice film clip shot to promote “Something”, which is included here).
But that’s a minor gripe. If you’re like me, and grew up reading Beatle biographies and magazine articles by the score, there aren’t a whole not of new revelations in the actual history of the Beatles here. But seeing the enormous amount of footage assembled here-and hearing the songs (all remixed for 5.1 surround sound) again make it all worth while. Plop off your Cuban heals, light up a ciggy, curse Sir Walter Raleigh, kick back and enjoy. You’ll feel fine.