Take Me to the River
Rock & Roll Books
The Beatles Anthologyby the Beatles
Chronicle Books, 368 pp., $60
Although there is nothing new left to write or say about the Beatles, you have to hand it to the Fab Four. For a band that broke up in 1970, they stand unchallenged when it comes to annually flooding the marketplace with high-dollar holiday gift ideas. The lads release BBC recordings? The faithful line up with cash. The band puts out a third set of previously unreleased studio outtakes? Beatles completists fork it over. Thirty years later, the Beatles myth remains an impressive moneymaking enterprise.
A small forest has already been cleared for the more than 400 Beatles books out there, but only the newly released The Beatles Anthology wears the title of official biography. Is this exhaustive (more than 300,000 words) and cumbersome (the thing easily weighs six pounds) tome worth the $60 price tag? If you're an amateur Beatles scholar, yes, but if you're more of a recreational user, probably not.
This is the companion to the 1995 Beatles Anthology video series, an oral history edited with the surviving Beatles' blessings. There is nothing earth-shattering between its covers. As such, it should be viewed for what it is -- printed source material for the much-ballyhooed eight-part TV documentary. Although it's impossible to curl up with, and despite the fact that it is decidedly light on controversy and lacks a clear consensus on what actually broke up the band, The Beatles Anthology is nevertheless the definitive Beatles oral history.
Presented in chronological order by Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, the Anthology also includes interview excerpts from the late John Lennon as well as insights from band insiders, including associates Neil Aspinall and the late Mal Evans, producer George Martin, and the band's late publicist Derek Taylor. The 1,300 illustrations -- many from the group's never-before-published personal collections -- include rare letters, handwritten notes, and song lyrics.
The depth that the book's extended monologues provide is worthwhile. Paul and George openly discuss the band's drug use and some early sex stuff, and Ringo expands on having been in a youth gang, but on the whole the three survivors are careful to present sanitized versions of Beatles lore. Throughout the book, several of the surviving Beatles' recollections contradict one another, or point to present-day revisionism. The details surrounding the dismissal of original bassist Stu Sutcliffe seem to be in dispute, for example. And the band's ousted original drummer Pete Best, whom history remembers sympathetically, was apparently a less-than-reliable band mate, sometimes not showing up for gigs.
The Anthology's very real and unavoidable weakness: Many of John's remarks were made during periods of intense intra-Fab animosity. Each Lennon interview excerpt was culled from previous broadcast and print interviews (relying heavily on the well-known "Lennon Remembers" sessions with Rolling Stone) and includes a footnoted reference to the year the comment was made. We can only speculate whether Lennon's often-acrimonious takes might have softened had he lived long enough to look back fondly on it all, as his mates have.
Too rosy and not enough thorns? Perhaps, but The Beatles Anthology is as close as we're ever going to get to these guys telling all. Beatles fans are always looking for new takes on their obsessions, and this fanzine on steroids adds depth as well as a unique perspective. It's overwhelmingly inclusive, this book. Were it anything less, the critics would be writing about that instead.