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Review: 'Beatles Anthology' entertaining, exhaustive -- and exhausting
New book is a heavyweight in more ways than one
"The Beatles Anthology"
(CNN) -- "We always called it 'the eye of the hurricane,' " John Lennon recalls. "It was calmer right in the middle than on the peripheries."
Only four people knew what it was like to live at the center of that storm -- Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr. Their first-person accounts are collected in "The Beatles Anthology." It's a massive book, packed with pictures and text.
Perhaps it's a bit too massive. The large format makes it a handsome volume, but it also makes the book a real handful for the reader. It's not terribly portable; it seems to be designed more for the coffee table than for the nightstand. Reading it can be a physical challenge, not only because of its bulk, but also because some of the text is superimposed over images.
In the end, though, the rewards far outweigh the hardships.
The book is a companion piece to the "Anthology" television documentary series and the three albums of the same name. It draws upon the interviews conducted for the series and additional interviews granted specifically for the book. The Beatles themselves tell the story. The words of the Fab Four are augmented by comments from three other men who were close to "the eye of the hurricane" -- their producer George Martin, their publicist Derek Taylor and their road manager Neil Aspinall. (Taylor -- who died in 1997 -- is credited as a "Consulting Editor" of the book, Aspinall as "Executive Producer.)
Very much an 'official' account
Like the TV series, "The Beatles Anthology" is very much an "official" account of the band. Unlike the series, the book doesn't skirt some of the more sensitive issues, like sex and drugs. McCartney and Harrison freely discuss their early amorous experiences in Hamburg, and Starr recounts losing his virginity in Liverpool. They all talk about smoking marijuana, dropping acid and how Lennon and Harrison became targets of an ambitious London police officer who made headlines by busting rock stars.
The story is told chronologically, with each member of the band giving the story of his early life and the early history of the Beatles. Beginning with the year 1960, the accounts are interwoven to provide a narrative of the band's rise and eventual fall. Lennon's words are drawn from the myriad of interviews -- broadcast and print -- that he gave during his life.
They often stand in sharp contrast to the words of his mates. McCartney, Harrison and Starr are looking back on their days as "fabs" from the perspective of men in their 50s (Starr turned 60 in July). Lennon died when he was barely 40. Most of his comments were made either in the heat of Beatlemania or in the swirl of acrimony that followed their breakup. Only in the interviews given shortly before his death in 1980 does Lennon seem to have made his peace with the phenomenon.
In a sense, the book is every Beatle fan's dream come true -- a chance to sit at the feet of the Fab Four and listen to them talk about everything from their musical influences to their taste in clothes. They discuss many of the people they met along the way -- Little Richard, the Rolling Stones, Donovan, Bob Dylan. And they recount the "rock and roll summit" of 1965.
JOHN: It was nice meeting Elvis. He was just Elvis, you know? He played a few songs, and we were all playing guitars. It was great. We never talked about anything -- we just played music...
Depth of recollection
"The Beatles Anthology" takes us into the studio, into the hotel rooms, into the private lives of the world's most famous band. There are some fresh insights -- Lennon giving McCartney credit for the line "I'd love to turn you on" in "A Day in the Life", the origins of the medley on side two of "Abbey Road" -- but most of the ground has been covered before. What this book adds is a depth of recollection as events are recalled from four, five or even six points of view.
Then there are the pictures. The editors draw on the archives of EMI, Apple and the Beatles themselves to illustrate the book. They also reproduce handwritten notes and song lyrics, plus a number of documents to help tell the story. The production of the book is lavish and -- quite obviously -- loving.
The Beatles who emerge from the "Anthology" are much more human than their public images. There are still squabbles going on (Harrison chides McCartney for his repeated references to Beatles "reunions" over the years). But the sincerity of their friendship comes through as well. After all, they've known each other since they were kids.
Is "The Beatles Anthology" the definitive account of The Beatles phenomenon? Of course not, any more than a definitive account of a real hurricane can be written by a witness who experienced only the eye of the storm. But it is an exhaustive account, and the last one we're going to get from the people who were closest to it. On that level, it succeeds, and succeeds brilliantly.
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