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!
5. The Beatles/EMI era also had plenty of live options. The longest Beatles concerts were in the half-hour range, so space isn't a factor. One of the best is a homecoming show in Liverpool from December 1963. The Beatles aren't global stars yet, but world domination is imminent and the concert feels like a valediction. Lennon introduces "Till There Was You" with a reference to the Cavern Club, where they had been regular giggers, and Paul McCartney's vocal is a veritable love note to the faithful.
6. Global domination is in full evidence on a tape of their Sept. 2, 1964, show from Philadelphia on the band's first U.S. tour. No one would confuse the Beatles with the Sex Pistols, but their playing—at least as far as I can tell—never got more manic. George Harrison's solo on "Roll Over Beethoven" might be the high point.
7. Back in the studio in November 1965, we find one of the most illuminating Beatles artifacts: a 19-minute rehearsal of Rubber Soul's "Think for Yourself" that is by turns hilarious, slack-assed, and virtuosic. The band members rag on one another and there are some X-rated lyrics, but about halfway in, the group just nails the track, resulting in the pronouncement, "That was it." There's also an especially nasty take of "Run for Your Life" from the Rubber Soul sessions, with a deep Scouse vocal from Lennon. The album-concluding version is flat-out hateful; this is hateful and predatory.
8. Grail, baby. Take one of Sgt. Pepper's "A Day in the Life." Two snippets exist on bootleg, and Lennon's "sugar plum fairy" intro was used on Anthology. But what wouldn't a Beatles fan do to hear the entire track? So what if it breaks down? If it does break down. Who knows? And while the Pepper-era single "Strawberry Fields Forever" is represented in several incarnations on Anthology, that's a fraction of what's out there. Would 20 minutes of extra takes constitute overkill? To the casual fan, probably. But the casual fan who ponied up this kind of money could always stop listening at the end of the proper album.
9. The reissued Abbey Road disc is a highlight of the box set—the stereo mix pops with new life. Including the 37th take of Harrison's "Something" would've have blown some minds when the familiar love song all of a sudden morphs into a bluesy behemoth of a track. It's practically heavy metal, a living, pulsating mass that could have doubled as an outro to a Black Sabbath song.
10. The Get Back sessions from early 1969 produced enough material to fill up dozens of bootleg CDs. A lot of it's terrible; a goodly amount of it is fascinating, though, and perfect for bonus material. A tape from Jan. 14 offers the only surviving Beatles performances of the McCartney original "Woman"—a song he gave to Peter and Gordon in 1965. A couple of weeks later, we get a Lennon-led romp through Buddy Holly's "Maybe Baby" that's downright gleeful. It was too late for rootsy rock 'n' roll camaraderie to save the group, but in the here and now, who wouldn't want some new Beatles treasures to go along with their old ones? Sorry—I'm not interested in the box set because it has all those additional goodies on itthat I've never heard. Who on earth is going to think that way? Madness!