Twenty years ago today, The Beatles released new music. A recent studio reunion bore out two new singles: “Free as a Bird”, released November 21, 1995, as the first track on Anthology 1, and “Real Love”, released on March 4th, 1996. It was good marketing — a ploy to draw attention to Anthology, the three-part TV documentary and six-CD rarities compilation produced by the band’s surviving members. It was also a treat for the millions of Beatles fans who would unquestioningly eat up anything under the band’s name. And it was, of course, lucrative for everyone involved.
The reunion was also grotesque. The two “new” songs were really old songs: songs John Lennon had sketched and recorded in his bedroom during his househusband years; revived by Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, and Jeff Lynne; dubbed over, souped up, and reanimated. And it fumbled. The band’s last real opportunity to make something together ended up being not much of anything.
The story of those two songs — of the biggest band in history’s weird Frankenstein of a reunion project — started in Lennon’s New York apartment, where they were born as grainy snapshots of his newfound contentment; became the centerpiece of a studio summit of the surviving Beatles, who’d grown far apart in the 25 years since they’d last called themselves The Beatles; and then went out into the world, helping to spark a new wave of Beatlemania. But was it worth it?
John Lennon’s halcyon days began in 1977, with a comment from a customs officer at JFK airport. “Welcome home, Mr. Lennon,” he said.
For several years, Lennon had been battling to regain legal residency in the United States. President Richard Nixon, annoyed by Lennon’s anti-war organizing in 1972, had ordered him to leave the country. In 1976, President Ford finally granted him his green card, an immense weight off his shoulders; by 1977, he was finally free to roam as he pleased.
He proceeded to live in remarkable peace. He had reunited with Yoko Ono after a debauched year and a half crashing bars in Los Angeles with Harry Nilsson. His recording contracts were finished. He and Ono had a new baby. They both vowed to retire from art: She would manage the finances, and he would serve as a stay-at-home dad.
Ono spent days on the phone negotiating the prices of Holstein cows and Egyptian relics, shoring up the fortune. Lennon’s days unfolded like poems. In Lennon myth-making, the days of idyll are often discarded — not much happens. But there’s a soft beauty in them; they’re meticulously, elegantly structured. Hours are consumed by baking bread, planning out Sean’s meals, and teaching him to swim at the Y. Lennon finally looks like an adult — his cheeks have hollowed out a bit, he hides less behind the beard and the glasses. He looks just like a rangy American dad. Seven floors above 72nd Street, Lennon was as quiet as he had once been bombastic, though, in a way, no less radical.
Free to move about, the three of them traveled the world together, staying in Japan for five months to steam themselves and drink tea. Lennon sent postcards to Ringo with WWII news clippings or drawings of the family and flowers and shooting stars.
There was the cheap tape recorder in his room, where he went to jot down the stray melodies that still popped into his head. We can hear “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” take shape this way on the old tapes — in pieces, a melody and a feeling and then chords and then a song. Each represents a single feeling: “Free as a Bird” is calm but touched by melancholy, yearning for something outside his rote freedom, perhaps for the “life that we once knew” Lennon sings in the bridge, though the lyrics aren’t finished. “Real Love” is its counterpoint, reassuring, openhearted.
They both convey naked feelings. They’re not like anything he’s written since Hamburg, really, because they aren’t an answer to anyone else’s demands; they aren’t part of a political statement or written to fit into an album. Often, when Lennon wasn’t fooling around with songs, he used the recorder just to talk to himself.
When Ono and Lennon decided to come out of retirement and make Double Fantasy together in 1980, the two songs weren’t included. They were already of a different, quieter time; they didn’t fit with songs like “Watching the Wheels” and “(Just Like) Starting Over” that Lennon addressed directly to Yoko, Sean, and the outside world.
And anyway, if there was one thing his time of solitude showed him, it was that the past was best left alone. Playboy asked him, in an interview that didn’t run until a month after his death, if he thought there would ever be a Beatles reunion. “Do you want to go back to high school? Why should I go back 10 years to provide an illusion for you that I know does not exist?” Lennon replied testily. “The Beatles don’t exist and can never exist again.”
“I had a really obnoxious customs man when I was going through New York,” Paul McCartney said in 1995, as the Beatles were finishing Anthology. “A very serious and pasty lad who said, ‘The project you’re doing with The Beatles?’ I said, ‘Yeah?’ ‘I just wanna tell you I don’t consider it a Beatles project without John.’
“I don’t need this shit,” McCartney explained to the interviewer. “I said, ‘I don’t care what you think, and it shows how much you know anyway, because John is fucking on it.'”
In 1995, the world was awash in Beatles hype the likes of which had not been seen in decades. The 11-hour Anthology documentary was scheduled to air on network TV at the end of November, and with it, a three-volume, six-CD collection of Beatles rarities and outtakes. There were rumors there would be new Beatles music.
The Anthology project started as early as 1989, and by the time 1994 came around, the surviving Beatles knew they wanted to do something — some musical thing — but they all felt weird doing it without Lennon. They approached Ono with a vague suspicion that she was hanging on to unused Lennon recordings, but it wasn’t until January 1994 that Lennon’s bedroom tapes made it into McCartney’s hands.
It happened at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in New York. McCartney had inducted Lennon that night, and near the end of his speech, he recalled his final memories: “The joys you told me about how you were baking bread now, and how you were playing with your little baby, Sean. It was great for me, because it gave me something to hold on to.” Ono found him later and pressed two cassettes into his hands. The songs had been bootlegged before, but McCartney — and the vast majority of Beatles fans — had never heard them.
The four dudes who gathered in McCartney’s studio in the winter of 1994 to turn them into Beatles singles were a motley crew. McCartney looked vital, had been dyeing his hair brown, was still making records and touring. Harrison was a bit grizzly, could have been mistaken for the groundskeeper, wearing baggy flannel and weatherbeaten eyes and a wizardly beard. Starr hid behind dark shades and munched constantly on a bag of seeds. Former ELO frontman Jeff Lynne, who sat behind the boards, had the appearance of a teddy bear that had taken too much acid. Together, in McCartney’s hideout in rural southern England, an old windmill overlooking the rolling hills of Sussex, the four of them set about recording new parts for “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love”. They agreed to pretend Lennon was out of town for the weekend.
McCartney had reservations about Lynne. George Martin was everyone’s first choice to produce the sessions, but he hadn’t wanted any part of the new songs — he said his hearing was going bad. Lynne was Harrison’s pick; he’d produced Harrison’s 1989 Cloud Nine, and the two had done the Traveling Wilburys together. McCartney was leery of his distinctive production sound — gleaming arrangements, reverberating snares, rippling curtains of acoustic guitar. They went with him anyway, perhaps as an olive branch from McCartney to Harrison. (In the end, McCartney conceded Lynne was “precise.”) He’d never had an easy relationship with Harrison himself, and in the studio, the two butted heads over the two lines of lyrics they needed to write to finish “Free as a Bird” and whether Harrison should use a slide in his solo.
Actually, McCartney seemed dubious about the entire process. He wasn’t sure about the idea of remaking “Real Love”. He thought the song was already done. He told an interviewer “it was like boiling your cabbages twice” (an old Liverpool saying, apparently). Both Lennon and the critics loomed in his mind. Outwardly, he spited the critics. (“We weren’t worried about what the pundits said. I was like, ‘Fuck them. Really fuck them.’”) And as any person who valued their sanity would do, he tried to set speculation about Lennon aside. After rejecting every stupidly high offer in the last 15 years, he was only OK with this reunion, he told reporters, “because John’s voice is there … we can really say it is The Beatles, we’re all together. We’ve done the impossible. We’ve pulled it off.”
Lennon wasn’t around to give his opinion, but the critics were less than kind. Jon Pareles, reviewing “Free as a Bird” in the New York Times, said, “An ornate edifice built on a shard of a dead man’s music can’t help sounding creepy.” Greil Marcus also called it creepy.
Rolling Stone, in an issue that featured Snoop Dogg on the cover and a review of Tupac’s brand-new All Eyez on Me: “It answers the question: What if Lynne had produced Double Fantasy with some really famous sidemen sitting in? But who asked?”
Melody Maker, featuring Jarvis Cocker on the cover and lots of Oasis gossip: “[‘Real Love’ is] the flimsiest of throwaways. [Lennon] let it be, and the present-day mop top mercenaries should have done the same.”
In retrospect, with all the hype washed away, the critics were mostly right. The recordings aren’t a satisfying listen. The guitar solos are classic Harrison, little snapshots of melodies, sweet and easy to sing. But for the most part, The Beatles are a backing band here and not even a distinctive one. There are the reverberating snares, the rippling acoustic guitars. “It sounds like them now,” Starr had famously remarked after hearing the finished songs. That may be a truer statement than any of the others, because what it sounds like is a band trapped somewhere between the past and the future, too uneasy to be vital, too glossy to be the real thing.
The songs themselves aren’t throwaways. They are, of course, the same songs Lennon sketched out on his tape recorder in 1977. But in place of the domestic euphoria and the tinges of melancholy — the contradictions that always made Lennon the most fascinating Beatle — is a general feeling of seamlessness. And it was creepy that the band had taken Lennon’s bedroom recordings and released them as a marketing gimmick.
McCartney, one biographer reports, was “chagrined” when “Free as a Bird” failed to hit number one. If that seems perverse, consider what McCartney wanted to get out of all this, anyway. He later described the recording sessions, oddly, as “like drowning.” He meant that when the band was in the room together, he saw his life flash before his eyes. They were running out of time to get the surviving band members in the same room together. If they didn’t do it then, they’d never do it again. It was a way of trying to do the impossible, to defy mortality.
It didn’t end up mattering much, anyway. Anthology, with its massive marketing efforts and primetime reach, sparked a mainstream Beatles revival. It was especially tangible for younger generations; if the reunion project seemed to critics like an anachronism in the newsstand next to Tupac and Pulp, it gave those of us of a certain age something friendly to grasp onto. Capitol reported that 41 percent of those who bought Anthology were teenagers. It gave the band a very significant overall sales bump, too – consumers (like our parents) bought about 89,000 more copies of Rubber Soul in 1995 than they did in 1994 – a 67 percent jump – according to Nielsen Music and about 119,000 more copies of Abbey Road, a 48 percent jump. In 2000, four years after Anthology 3, Capitol put out 1, a collection of the band’s number one hits; it sold a staggering 31 million copies around the world. I got it for Christmas.
Even when we were teenagers, we kept The Beatles in our CD binders. Led Zeppelin and Queen were easy to wrap our heads around, too, but those felt like our parents’ albums; The Beatles, by turns strange and pretty, so unstuck stylistically that they transcend style, always felt contemporary. I called one of my best friends from high school recently, and we remembered how he would pick me up for school in his baby blue Explorer with Abbey Road or Rubber Soul in the CD player. (By the way, he loves the Beatles’ versions of “Real Love” and “Free as a Bird”.)
If the goal of The Beatles reunion was to jump-start the re-entry of the band into the forefront of popular culture, it was a success. Through sheer marketing muscle, it made the music meaningful to the children of the boomers the way Ed Sullivan had made it meaningful to the boomers. The Beatles, as a brand, were as huge as they had ever been — something like immortal.