Get Back ranks among the most compelling accounts of the Beatles' final days; it's the rock 'n' roll equivalent of reading Richard Nixon's surreptitious Oval Office tapes, a literary exercise in voyeurism. But in the end, sitting down with the book is an utterly joyless experience. Without the soundtrack -- the ragged rehearsals of embryonic classics, the improvised wanking, the half-remembered versions of their own hits, the bitching and moaning -- what is the point? It's like listening to someone describe an episode of Seinfeld or a porn video. You had to be there -- or, barring that, at least own the bootlegs from which the authors "wrote" their book.
For the first time, such a thing is actually possible: Last month -- no doubt to coincide with the release of the Beatles' own "autobiography," the 60-buck, six-pound oral history The Beatles Anthology -- the Vigotone label released the 17-disc bootlegged boxed set Thirty Days: The Ultimate Get Back Sessions Collection. It's the most complete account of those sessions ever made available (legally or, in this case, otherwise), including four discs' worth of material recorded at the Twickenham Studios and a complete disc of producer Glyn Johns' first compilation for the scheduled but never released Get Back album. The discs dispense with much of the sarcastic, bitchy chitchat; only here and there do we get glimpses of the body beginning to stiffen with rigor. On January 29, when Paul suggests the band run through "One After 909," an especially testy John responds with a sneering "fuck you"; we also hear, quite literally, Harrison storming out of the rehearsals, after which the band continues without him as though nothing's happened. Priced at nearly $300 -- or five times the cost of the new coffee-table book, which is a coffee table all by its lonesome -- the box is for fetishists only, or, at the very least, the fan who felt dissatisfied with the three double-disc Anthology collections released in 1995 and 1996, which were the ultimate tease: They gave us only enough to want more. (As with the book, the Beatles' most recent compilations always seem to leave out the best parts.)
Thirty Days, which Vigotone says consists of the best material culled from "more than 500 rolls of tape," fills in gaps even Doug Sulpy and Ray Schweighardt overlooked. The label insists that more than 50 percent of the box is being released for the first time, with most of that (indeed, about 90 percent) coming from the rehearsals at the band's own Apple Studios on Savile Row, which take up nine discs. For the first time, we can hear in its entirety the 47-minute concert on the roof of the Apple Studios; we hear the dozens of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Gene Vincent covers (not to mention McCartney's version of "Hello, Dolly!"); we hear myriad run-throughs of "All Things Must Pass" and "Let It Down," both of which ended up on Harrison's solo debut; we hear John Lennon and Billy Preston funking up "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," until one take sounds as heavy as Blue Cheer. And we hear off-the-cuff versions of Lennon-McCartney songs that date back to the earliest days of their friendship, among them the country-tinged "I'll Wait 'Til Tomorrow" and the most appropriately titled "Won't You Please Say Goodbye."
The boxed set, like the new book, does its very best to demythologize the Beatles -- to present them as just four guys in a band who loved each other 'til they could no longer stand to be in the same room with one another. If these guys thought so little of their own history -- on January 28, for instance, they turn out a slow, bluesy, nearly off-key rendition of "Love Me Do," the band's first single -- how come we've spent 30 years turning them into gods? "The Beatles were always a great little band," Paul McCartney insists near the end of Beatles Anthology. "Nothing more, nothing less." The true believer might take umbrage with his modesty -- indeed, the Beatles' shadow will forever touch any band that springs to life in a garage -- but after listening to the boxed set in its entirety, you kind of see his point. Out of the public's earshot, they were known to make a horrible mess. It's nothing less than astonishing to discover the Beatles forgot words to songs you've known word for word, note for note, since you were a child. They thought nothing of legacies, of myths, of meanings. They wanted only one thing by January 1969: out.