Anthology II makes Beatles sound brand new again

By Norman Provencher
Ottawa Citizen music writer

OTTAWA, March 16, 96. The details are a little hazy right now. For one thing, we're dealing with a gap of almost 29 years in a field that has trouble remembering back 29 weeks. For another, our personal memories of the Summer of Love tend to be subject to interpretation.
    What we do know for certain is that, if Feb. 3, 1959 was the day the music died along with Buddy Holly, then June 1967 was the day The Beatles brought it back with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
    There had not, quite frankly, been anything like it in rock history. There has not, arguably, been anything like it ever since. It wasn't just the music, although that was quite spectacular enough. It wasn't just George Martin's astounding production, an extraordinary mixture of music and technology that opened minds and ears to the potential of pop and rock. Everything about Sgt. Pepper was new, an exhortation by the Fab Four to move into the future, to challenge and look at things differently: Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream...
    Lord knows we wanted to, but Sgt. Pepper didn't make it easy. Nobody could figure out how they did out, how those fantastic sounds were made. It was bad enough that nobody in the world could write and sing as well as Lennon and McCartney did together, the record's dizzying multi-layer sound was put together on machinery that had less technological heft than most of today's telephone answering machines. We listened and listened, trying to find clues.
    George Martin himself tried to explain it to us late last year when he released his book Summer of Love, his diary of the four-month process that brought the album to life. But as is often the case, a genius can sometimes have difficulty explaining how he achieves brilliance, you have to see it or hear it happen.
    Finally, we have an answer: Anthology II (in stores Tuesday) shows a group of musicians quite simply at the peak of their creative powers taking us, over two discs and 45 songs, through the incredibly fertile studio years of 1965- 68, as they left behind the mobs and live pressures of Beatlemania to forge a sound that, whether you realize it or not, is now part of western culture's subconscious.
    As bad as last year's Anthology I was with it's goofy collection of atrocious outtakes and cover tunes Anthology II's material, a mind-bending assortment of various versions of classics such as Strawberry Fields Forever, Penny Lane, Ticket to Ride and A Day in the Life, among dozens of others, legitimately qualifies it as a new Beatles album.
    Songs for which you know every word, every bass run, the tiniest element, become brand new as you listen to the band work their way through the development.
    An excellent example occurs starting with the first track of the second CD, a demo session with John Lennon alone with a guitar agonizing over the arrangement to Strawberry Fields, the acid-driven nostalgia classic that probably changed popular music forever. The famous lyric, Lennon's patented brilliant nonsense, is already in place ("No one I think is in my tree/ I mean it must be high or low/ That is you can't, you know, tune in...") but he's accompanying himself with a strange, almost folk-blues fingerpicking style. He comes to his senses quickly and mutters in an atrocious Scottish brogue "I canna doooo it, I canna dooo it." The next track has the more familiar harmonium/organ vamping in the background, but features George Harrison's worst slide guitar playing. Finally, the third track features Lennon's double-tracked vocals and most of what was finally released as a single.
    (Martin reveals in his book that the final, final version of the song was actually a combination of two takes, recorded in separate keys, which were spliced together and then manipulated to make them segue back and forth).
    The colleciton's second CD contains the most intriguing material for fan and non-fan alike. The version of Penny Lane is actually a collection of different takes showing the band toyed with, at one time or another, everything from cor anglais horns to piccolo trumpet. Only the piccolo trumpet made the final cut. Later, we hear Paul working the changes in a beautiful piano version of Fool on the Hill. The "Day in the Life" highlights acoustic guitar rather than the more familiar bass-heavy piano accompaniment. (The session also illustrates how refreshment intensive the Abbey Road studios were. Before starting his part, John mumbles "sugar plum fairy" repeatedly into the mike and in the middle - the "Got up, got out of bed part" Paul flubs his lines repeatedly, finally muttering "oh, sh--" before letting it go).
    The first side concentrates more on the four moptops period, with an excellent four-song live session recorded at Blackpool. The session includes the first live versions of both Yesterday and Help! (which, Lennon tells the crowd, is "our latest record, or our latest electronic noise, depending on whose side you're on.") Less than a year later, the screaming fans and touring pressures would prompt the band to stop live concerts forever.

Norm Provencher
Ottawa Citizen
Used with permission

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