Grumbling about the Beatles can be a bit like getting on the sun for being too bright. And now that their back catalog has been burnished to glow with a sonic sheen that eluded the band's initial CDs from 1987, you'd think all was well in the Beatle universe. That is, if you're willing to plunk down $200 or more for a box set that contains several discs that clock in around 30 minutes each. No extras—no outtakes, no live tracks, no vault gems, just a few measly QuickTime making-of "mini-docs." Why the stinginess? As the Beatles and EMI have said, the whole point of the Anthology albums in the mid-1990s was to gather up the odds and sods. And now, with the Beatles Stereo Box set, the integrity of the original albums must be maintained!
In a word, bollocks.
The Beatles themselves preferred mono mixes for most of their career, and to get those recordings, i.e., the recordings as they really sounded originally, you have to buy a separate box from the stereo set—a limited edition that will, presumably, soon be going for a fortune on eBay. As for Anthology, the producers cherry-picked its selections. There's not a full concert anywhere and no documentation of a song evolving over six or seven takes. This kind of stuff could have been included on the new set without adding any additional CDs. Why just cash in with pristine albums when you can add more heft to this most massive of legacies?
Consider some of the material that could have been used in the cause:
1. The bulk of Please Please Me was cut in one marathon session lasting 585 minutes on Feb. 11, 1963. Dozens of takes survive. John Lennon has a bad cold going, and as he soldiers through the first eight takes of "Misery," you wonder if he's going to make it. And you can hear "I Saw Her Standing There"(called out as "Seventeen") and the perpetually underrated "There's a Place" take shape virtually from first take to last. The band is entirely at ease in the studio—never mind that its first long-player hangs in the balance—and the guys even throw in a few quotes from their second single, "Please Please Me," between takes.
2. The Beatles liked to give away songs (pricey box-set irony aside). Songs that other people would turn into big hits. Songs they often didn't record themselves, except as demo versions. "Bad to Me"—an eventual hit for Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas—is among the most tuneful. Lennon sounds a little twee on the acetate that dates to spring 1963, but hear it once and you'll be hearing it in your head for the next few days. "I'm in Love," from the midpoint of the same year, is a nice piece of bluesy pop with a haunting off-mic element, a dry run for the single by the Fourmost, another Liverpool band.
3. There are a lot of Beatles home recordings, and some of the best are the multiple renditions of "If I Fell" that come from a tape once owned by the Beatles' chauffeur. Really. It's basically A Hard Day's Night Unplugged. You can hear the beginnings of "I Should Have Known Better" during some ad-libbed asides. The Revolver track "She Said, She Said" got an early airing as "He Said, He Said"—a real gender-bender—on some more home recordings that likely date from the start of 1966 and feature the lyric "I know what it's like to be dead." The song is actually kind of folksy.
4. The band's fourth album, Beatles for Sale, is often cited as a downer, with the Beatles sapped by the events of 1964—Ed Sullivan, their first film, world tour—but you'd think they were rarin' to go if you heard the 11th take of "What You're Doing" from late September. It's nothing like the album version, with an almost absurd modulation on the instrumental break. Workshop high jinks!