The Beatles were perhaps the first rock ‘n roll band to create a completely unified image. Today we call it branding, and hire consultants.
For years after The Beatles broke up, not much was known about the material in the EMI vaults, partially because no one at Abbey Road had bothered to go through and catalog it all. In 1982, an EMI engineer named John Barrett was tasked with organizing the tapes, and as he listened to them he ran off cassette copies of anything he found interesting. Inevitably, these cassettes leaked out, and the tracks appeared on bootleg collections from whimsically named labels like Yellow Dog and The Swingin’ Pig. By the mid-‘90s, the Beatles enough of this and other material floating around to convince the surviving Beatles that they needed to release it themselves and beat the bootleggers at their own game. The result was the long-delayed group documentary project, Anthology.
Predictably, the announcement of Anthology was greeted with rapture by Beatle fanatics. Once it was actually released though, people just as predictably started complaining that Anthology wasn’t good enough. Some members of the Beatles bootleg underground were outraged by what they termed “Frankenstein” takes: alternate versions that had been edited to make them more palatable to the general record-buying public. “A Day In The Life” was the most egregious example. Up until the final master was put together, the song was in so many pieces that no definitive “alternate” version really existed. So Anthology’s compilers edited one together, effectively creating an alternate take that had never quite existed before.
This kind of thing is necessary if you want to spare the listener the enormous amount of boredom that goes along with the process of making of even the most sublime music. For example, in Here, There And Everywhere, engineer Geoff Emerick notes how much a perfectionist McCartney could be—how he would rehearse even a simple tune like “Blackbird” over and over again before he was satisfied. Several bootlegs of the White Album sessions have these rehearsals—20 takes in all—and after a while even this lovely, bucolic song becomes excruciating.
In at least one aspect, the Anthology project was a failure—it didn’t stop the bootleggers, but gave them even more to work with. When the Anthology film was released on DVD with a 5.1 Dolby mix, and later when “stems” of the songs were created for games like Rockband, it became possible to isolate particular sounds in new ways, to approximate the individual tracks of the original multi-track tapes.
A bootleg set like Granny Smith’s The Revolver Sessions takes this to the extreme, and breaks each recording into as many individual components as technology will allow. Thus we have the individual sound loops that were incorporated into “Tomorrow Never Knows,” each one presented both at the speed at which McCartney originally recorded them in his home studio, and at the (usually increased) speed at which they were mixed into the master take. This is certainly interesting: who knew for instance that the track’s famous “seagull” sounds are actually a sped-up snippet of McCartney laughing into the mic? But it also takes away from the power of the final track. Those seagull sounds used to be mysterious and otherworldly, but now they seem a little cartoonish. (Not that “Tomorrow Never Knows” was ever immune to that type of thing: check out how the infamous Beatles animated series utilized the track).
Now that most of the outtakes are available in one form or another, and the initial thrill of hearing them has worn off, it’s clear that one of the hidden factors in the Beatles’ success was the extraordinarily good judgment of the band and the people around them. There’s a reason this stuff was relegated to the vault: so much of it sounds amateur and uncertain, miles from what finally made it to the record stores. The group’s quality control was better than any other band of the era, at least as far as the actual recordings were concerned.
Here’s the problem: every new Beatles outtake that surfaces undermines that quality control. Like a digital image that gets pixilated as you enlarge it, the more you dissect the recordings, the more diffuse the experience becomes. The Beatles were perhaps the first rock ‘n roll band to create a completely unified image, so that it wasn’t just a group of musicians recording hits but a sort of four-headed, eight-armed entity creating a pop experience. Today we call it branding, and hire consultants to help us achieve it. But the Beatles did it unconsciously—or maybe it’s more accurate to say their audience did it for them.
The common wisdom now is that in the Beatles collaborative spirit broke down in the latter days of the band’s existence, and they functioned like four solo artists, the other members working as sidemen to the author of whichever song they were recording. But it didn’t appear that way to people on the outside. The audience assumed the unity and provided it with that assumption.