The Beatles 'Anthology' Series: 15 Demos & Alternate Versions You Need to Hear
Six hours of Beatles bonus material is streaming now. Here are the highlights.
Back in 1995, the then-surviving Beatles -- Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr -- joined forces one final time to help create a definitive 11-hour documentary series about their culture-shifting run as the greatest rock band of all time. Accompanying The Beatles Anthology TV series were three separate double-disc albums featuring more than six hours of unreleased live recordings, demos, alternate versions and, yes, even new material ("Free As a Bird" and "Real Love" were adapted by the three remaining Beatles from demos left by the late John Lennon).
Today (April 4), less than four months after the Beatles' studio album catalog hit music streaming services for the first time, those Anthology releases are finally available on international streaming services, too.
Longtime Beatlemaniacs will be pleased to see the Anthology 1-3 material so readily available; new obsessives will happily dig into the treasure trove. But for the rest of the world -- those who are Beatles fans but don't have six hours of attentive listening time to spare -- we're here to help with a more manageable guide to the Fab Four's three Anthology releases.
Below, here are the 15 songs from the Beatles Anthology series that you need to know. [Note: We're not including the two new (at the time of the Anthology's 1995 release) Beatles songs. It goes without saying you should give those a listen, especially "Free As a Bird."]
"Ain't She Sweet"
Knowing the historical outcome, it's hard to imagine a time when the Beatles struggled both commercially and creatively. But prior to their debut, the Beatles hadn't quite honed their songwriting skills and were still focused on doing covers. While recording as Tony Sheridan's backing band (The Beat Brothers) in Germany 1961, the group -- operating with soon-to-be-replaced drummer Pete Best on the kit -- cut a rock n' roll version of this 1927 cutesy pop hit with Lennon on vocals. No, it's not going to become one of your favorite Fab Four tracks, but the Anthology 1 version is an important snapshot of a good rock band on the cusp of becoming a great artistic force. Later in the series, on Anthology 3, we hear the band playing the song during the laborious Let It Be studio sessions. With Ringo drumming the tune with them for the first time, the band actually sounds like it's having a blast -- which wasn't always the case during the recording of that album, as anyone who has watched the hard-to-find Let It Be documentary knows.
"You Know What To Do"
Even though he wasn't an immaculate craftsman like Lennon or McCartney, Harrison's songwriting abilities were nevertheless imposing -- and tragically underused and under-appreciated in the Beatles' early days. This song is a prime example: It's an affable, instantly memorable shuffling pop tune that could have fit in nicely on Beatles for Sale. But the rest of the group wasn't a fan and the song sat neglected for decades until the Anthology 1 release, at which point Harrison admitted he had forgotten it existed.
"Can't Buy Me Love"
While it's hard to imagine a different take being better than the studio version of "Can't Buy Me Love," this looser take shows the song at a stage before they had each millisecond flawlessly mapped out. While the backup vocals are louder to the recording's detriment, McCartney's vocals on this take sound wilder and more uninhibited -- his performance arguably rocks harder here than on the final version.
"Got to Get You Into My Life"
Without the punchy, soulful horns of the final version on Revolver, McCartney's ode to weed takes on a quaint lo-fi charm here. Maybe it's the presence of an understated organ paired with a sweet melody, but this Beatles demo makes an argument that before all the studio polish, what McCartney was doing in the studio wasn't terribly removed from what the Velvet Underground was doing across the ocean around the same time -- at least as far as Lou Reed's lo-fi pop tunes were concerned.
"Tomorrow Never Knows"
Speaking of the Velvet Underground, it's hard to listen to the demo version of "Tomorrow Never Knows" and not be reminded of the droning rock shuffle of the New York avant-garde rock outfit. True, Lennon's melody is nowhere near what the VU was doing, but the Beatles as a rock band are laconic here in the best possible sense. While the studio version features tight drumming and intricate tape loops, this is the sound of a drugged out band plodding away at a song without bothering to properly mic the setup. If the Beatles hadn't been interested in commercial success, maybe they would have experimented further in drone-based rock. As for what turned them on to drone in the first place, it seems likely that the sound of the tanpura, an Indian drone instrument Ravi Shankar used, introduced them to the idea of a consistent note throughout a composition.
"Strawberry Fields Forever"
The demo version of "Strawberry Fields Forever" is a gentle reminder than aside from all the studio tinkering, this is one of Lennon's loveliest melodies. The "Take 7" version features one of the most interesting minutes of music on the entire Anthology series. Although some of the tape loops are present, the sound is mostly the Beatles using in-studio percussion to create a psychedelic coda. Incidentally, you can quite clearly hear Lennon saying "Cranberry sauce" in this take -- unlike his utterance in the Magical Mystery Tour version of the song, there's no mistaking it for "I buried Paul."
"A Day in the Life"
It's fascinating to hear the curtain pulled back on this one. At this stage in the recording of "A Day in the Life," the orchestra hadn't entered the picture, so we learn what they were using as a placeholder in between the demos of Lennon and McCartney's verses. Instead of the orchestral climaxes, we hear a repeated chord played from lowest to highest on a piano while assistant Mal Evans counts off the bars, his voice reverberating with echo.
"Happiness Is a Warm Gun"
This demo is worth listening to just to hear Lennon flub his guitar chords and sing, "Mother Superior jumped -- oh shit." This slower version also finds Lennon ad-libbing about his then-new love, Yoko Ono. "Yoko Ono no," he sings, followed by, "Yoko Ono yes." So yes, even John was making Yoko Oh No/Yoko Oh Yes jokes back in the day.
When the White Album dropped, people wondered where the hell the Beatles' crushingly loud "Helter Skelter" came from. Not only was there no antecedent in their arsenal, but there was precious else in rock music that had gone this hard before. This early recording of the proto-metal classic -- the lightning-fast lead guitar isn't yet present -- shows how the song started as a bluesy, plodding guitar number that grows into a hard, muscular song. Since early metal grew out of blues-rock played extremely loud and slow, it makes sense that the Beatles stumbled upon the metal sound in the same way Black Sabbath and Blue Cheer did.
This one isn't worth hearing for its musical value, but for what it reveals about the group at the time. While rehearsing his admittedly simplistic sing-along "Teddy Boy," McCartney is berated by Lennon, who mocks the nursery rhyme-ish tune as Paul attempts to record it. Lennon starts out by adding (presumably unwanted) voices to the song, before he starts singing bits of "The Hokey Pokey" and "Swing Your Partner Round and Round" while McCartney plays. Macca later admitted he dropped the song from the Let It Be sessions because the rest of the band just wasn't having it; it was included on his debut solo album McCartney.
During this run through of the Abbey Road classic, we listen as Lennon learns that Yoko Ono's divorce finally went through. Instead of stopping the recording, John takes over lead vocal from Paul, singing about finally getting his romantic freedom to the tune of "Oh! Darling": "I'm free this morning, the paper told the lawyer it's okay," he ad-libs.
There are two versions of "Glass Onion" in the Anthology series. The second one is musically closer to the White Album version than the first, but it's radically different at the end. Instead of George Martin's nervous strings carrying the song out, the track ends with a massive glass-shattering noise and a sports announcer screaming "it's a goal!" on repeat.
McCartney flubs this early take on the acoustic storytime number by singing about a doctor "sminking of gin" instead of "stinking of gin." But instead of throwing in the towel and starting over, he laughs and keeps singing, rewriting the lyrics on the fly to address the gin sminking situation before finding his way back to the real lyrics.
"What's the New Mary Jane"
A surrealistic White Album leftover from John, the titular "Mary Jane" is generally assumed to be a reference to marijuana. Supporting that is the fact that the second half of the song plays like an acid trip, with atonal instrumentation taking the place of the song's simple melody as random samples and voices cascade back and forth across the speakers. At the end of the ambient portion, Lennon says, "Let's hear it before we get taken away."
While Lennon delivers the album version with a cool detachment, he sings this take like his life depends on it. In full rock mode, his vocal cords scratch at his upper Little Richard regions during this take. At the end, we hear some alternate lyrics for the song; we also hear Lennon crack up laughing at the surrealistic absurdity of the words he's delivering.
Honorable mention: On Anthology 1, skip to 2:33 on "Till There Was You" to hear Lennon's hilarious intro to "Twist and Shout": "Would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands, and the rest of you just rattle your jewelry."