When the surviving ex-Beatles put together their three-volume Anthology series a few years ago, they faced a daunting artistic challenge. On the one hand, they had to satiate long-suffering fans clamoring for a collection of the band's best unreleased tracks. On the other hand, because the Anthology CDs were conceived as companion pieces to a TV documentary on the band, these discs had to tell a story that would make sense to someone hearing Beatle music for the first time.
So they devised an "aural biography" conceit, using a combination of unreleased studio tracks, interview snippets and live recordings in an attempt to document the band's history. Although a John Lennon boxed set was in the planning stages well before the appearance of The Beatles Anthology, it's obvious that Yoko Ono followed the Fabs' template when she constructed the new John Lennon Anthology. Consequently, her four-CD monument to her slain husband suffers from many of the same flaws that dogged The Beatles Anthology.
The biggest problem with The Beatles Anthology CDs was that they attempted to provide a definitive portrait of the group while excluding the definitive recordings that made the band legendary in the first place. The task was a bit like entering a boxing ring with one arm tied behind your back.
For if there is one unarguable truth about The Beatles, it's that in almost every case, they picked the best recorded take of a song for release, and polished it to near-perfection. People can debate the quality of their songs into future millennia, but even their detractors would agree that in the studio they usually got the most out of their material.
In addition, the group--particularly in its early days-- usually had a pretty clear sense of how it wanted to approach each song by the time the tape started to roll. As a result, The Beatles Anthology could not offer many radically different versions of familiar songs ("And I Love Her" and "I'm Looking Through You" were among the few exceptions). Instead of "different," it had to settle for "inferior": a sore-throated Lennon whispering through "Yes It Is"; a McCartney run-through of "Yesterday" without the string quartet overdub; any number of bare-bones rehearsal takes.
Lennon has long been viewed as the Beatle most committed to spontaneity, the one most willing to sacrifice aural sheen for raw feeling. Remember, he's the guy who wrote and recorded "Instant Karma" all in one day. It's to the perverse credit of the Lennon Anthology, though, that after plowing (and I do mean plowing) through more than four hours of the man's rough drafts, you find yourself appreciating what a craftsman he really was.
For instance, critical mythology makes us think of Lennon's debut solo album, Plastic Ono Band, as a feral howl of rage on which he let every ounce of angst hang out. Angry and deeply felt the album was, but it was also carefully calibrated. An early take of "God" features Lennon on acoustic guitar (without the song's signature gospel piano) and barreling into the climactic line "I don't believe in Beatles" without the slightest pregnant pause. Hearing this shoddy version just makes you realize that even on such a spare album, the Walrus made key production choices that elevated his material to higher levels. Like his ex-bandmates, he was a considerable stickler for details.
As a result, what we're left with on the Lennon Anthology is a host of leftovers that are already too familiar on first listen. For diehard fans, it might be endlessly intriguing to hear slightly varied vocal inflections on "Working Class Hero" or "Imagine," but to everyone else it's likely to be much ado about nothing. Also, unlike The Beatles Anthology, which at least presented rough versions of classic songs, the Lennon Anthology lands in some puddles of distinctly spotty songwriting. The second CD devotes six tracks to the liberal-chic anthems of Sometime in New York City, proving only that the years have done nothing to improve these trite political manifestos.
In retrospect, it's easier than ever to see that Lennon's move to New York--while it may have brought him some personal happiness--did great damage to his art. When he stepped off English soil for the last time in September of 1971, Lennon was riding a decadelong string of unabated songwriting brilliance. With the exception of blatant avant-garde indulgences like Two Virgins, he very nearly had an unblemished record as a recording artist.
The moment he landed in New York and began rubbing shoulders with Jerry Rubin, Lennon became a mindless mouthpiece for someone else's causes. By the time he turned away from political propaganda on 1973's Mind Games, both his muse and his sure musical instincts had flown.
For that reason, it's somewhat gratifying to hear an acoustic home recording of the yearning "I Know" and a stripped-down studio take of the underrated ballad "You Are Here." Both tracks suggest that Lennon's melodic gifts never completely abandoned him, even when he didn't know what he wanted to write about. Even his silly offerings to Ringo Starr--the Muhammad Ali goof "I'm the Greatest" and the nonsense boogie-woogie of "Goodnight Vienna" (oddly similar to McCartney's recent "Flaming Pie")--sound clear and focused, loaded with welcome humor at a time when Lennon probably didn't have much cause for laughter.
Ultimately, such modest surprises are the Lennon Anthology's greatest musical rewards. It's reassuring to hear the lovely trifle "Dear John," recorded only days before Lennon's death, in which he revisits a theme from "Hold On" a decade earlier: that everything would work itself out if he didn't worry unduly. Home recordings of "Woman" and "Real Love" are similarly touching.
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Best of all, the pristine outtakes from Lennon's inconsistent Rock 'n' Roll album easily eclipse their muddy official counterparts. A rockabilly romp through the irreverent "Move Over Ms. L" (donated to Keith Moon) breathes fresh life into what always seemed to be an overly hyperactive genre exercise, and Lennon's gusto-filled larynx shredding on "Slippin' and Slidin'" and "Be Bop A Lula" reminds you that even if he'd never written a single song, this guy would've been a major rock artist on vocal ability alone.
But if you're looking for clues to the enduring puzzle that is the Lennon enigma, they're not very plentiful here. You get some hilarious studio chat between Lennon and Phil Spector that confirms that Spector was/is a cantankerous nut case ("You haven't been in tune all evening. Why change?") and you'll get ample evidence that Lennon had an unhealthy Dylan fixation (the strangely vicious "Serve Yourself" and numerous vocal parodies, including one that begins "Lord, take this makeup off of me"). You'll also find some cute exchanges between Lennon and his son Sean, including one where a 3-year-old Sean exuberantly sings the bridge to "With a Little Help From My Friends," while his dad struggles to remember the song's title. But that's about it.
Yoko would have probably served Lennon's legacy best by releasing a smaller set that focused primarily on unreleased songs. Although he later claimed to have hardly touched his guitar during his 1975-80 sabbatical, the home-recording evidence shows that Lennon actually wrote numerous songs during this period, in some cases devoting years to reworking tunes that eventually popped up on Double Fantasy and Milk and Honey. Some of these songs, like "Whatever Happened To," a fascinating third-person account of a has-been artist, or "Tennessee," a tribute to playwright Tennessee Williams, would add more dimension to the Lennon story than a nondescript rehearsal take of "Jealous Guy" or "Steel and Glass."
Yoko probably thought she was being protective of her husband's memory by leaning heavily on familiar material, but in the end it feels like a bit of a cheat to spend so much for so little new stuff. Even with its frequent glimmers of greatness, the John Lennon Anthology--much like The Beatles Anthology--will probably end up being one of those collections that you listen to for a week and rarely go back to again. Rough drafts may be interesting for a while, but who wouldn't prefer to have the finished product