Friday, February 14, 2014

Everybody's Rocking

The Beatles - "Real Love" (The Anthology, 1995)

Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust many times since the band's dissolution in 1970, but it always comes back. The biggest outbreak we've had in the intervening 44 years came in 1995, with the release of the Anthology, an overdue closet-cleaning that finally provided an official release for the best demos, alternate takes, and live recordings still gathering dust in the Apple vaults. (Much of the material was already familiar to die-hard fans from having circulated on bootlegs for years.) It was, definitively, the last word on the Beatles: there was nothing left in the vaults, or at least nothing worth hearing. For any other band, the idea of launching a cross-platform multi-media promotion to sell a documentary and the equivalent of a six-CD box set of odds & ends would be absurd. But this was the Beatles. And this, to paraphrase the Strokes, was it.

And we were grateful for it. There were few real surprises, but the Beatles catalog is so intimately familiar that having the chance to hear all the old chestnuts in alternate form was still remarkably worthwhile. It was barrel-scraping, yes, and it was a bald attempt to sell ad space on ABC primetime (remember "A-Beatles-C"?), but for those of us who missed out on the first time around, it was a nice simulation of the real thing. Everyone got to pretend it was thirty years ago (now fifty years ago), and see the surviving members come out for one more round of applause as a group. Everyone I know watched the documentary. Kids who had never given any thought to the Beatles papered their walls with the same posters with which their parents had papered their walls. The group had never really fallen out of popularity, but they were definitely back "in" again. And the Beatles meant so much to so many people of all ages that we didn't care how contrived it was. It didn't matter.

Most people, however, have politely agreed to never mention what would otherwise have to be considered the most significant part of the Anthology project: two "new" songs recorded by Paul, George, and Ringo, using a pair of John's unfinished demos as their foundation. It's not the kind of thing you can imagine the band doing without the motivation of a demonically large amount of money - but then again, the surviving members were already so rich that it's hard to imagine they could have been offered a payday large enough to induce them if they had been dead-set against the idea. Part of it was money, but that couldn't have been all of it. There had to have been some genuine desire to do it all one more time, make a couple new songs as The Beatles just to see if they could.

Anticipation could not have been higher in the weeks and days leading up to the November 19th airdate of the first episode of the Anthology. A new Beatles song! In the year 1995! And . . . results were mixed, to say the least. It wasn't just a matter of sky-high expectations failing to find purchase in reality - "Free As A Bird" was just plain terrible. With all the life of a funeral dirge, and the weight of 25 years' melancholy pressing down on the proceedings, it didn't work on any level. John's voice floats like a ghost over a deadly dull plod. The new lyrics were depressingly on-the-nose meditations on the subjects of getting older and missing the past. You still hear it sometimes playing on department store loudspeakers, but I'd be seriously surprised if anyone reading this had willingly listened to the track in a long tme.

As a result, "Real Love" premiered three days later to radically diminished expectations. And again, anyone still holding out hope for another full-blooded Beatles classic to take its place in the firmament was sorely disappointed. Both songs charted respectably - although, it must be stressed, enthusiasm was muted. New Beatles music was an occasion for celebration - but these strange zombie tracks barely qualified.


In the years following the Anthology, long after the hype over the "new" tracks had died and the songs had receded into their rightful position as post-mortem footnotes, I found myself working in a department store in northeastern Oklahoma. And if you've ever worked at a department store (or any retail, really) you know how annoying the in-store music can be: even a large selection of songs eventually recycles, and you end up getting up close and personal with a number of songs you sincerely dislike (and a few songs so bad as to actually become perverse favorites). And sure enough, the Kohl's in Owasso, Oklahoma had both nuBeatles tracks in frequent rotation. And so I heard "Free As A Bird" and "Real Love" ad nauseum, again.

No amount of reevaluation could make "Free As A Bird" any better than it was. But a strangely . . . I realized, after a few dozen listens, that I could actually hum the tune to "Real Love." It could even get stuck in my head. Sure, there was John's ghost voice floating over the proceedings, but there was something more. After listening to the song enough times, I could hear a snap in Ringo's metronomic drumming, a bounce in Paul's melodic bass, a bit of teeth in George's joyous guitar solo. Sure, Jeff Lynn's heavy hand was no substitute for Sir George Martin's light touch. But nothing could hide the fact that somehow, against all conceivable odds, the three surviving Beatles had managed to become The Beatles, one more time, if only for just a couple brief moments.

"Real Love" is a trifle. It will never be included in any sane discussion of the Beatles' best work, and if judged against the standard of just about anything recorded in the sixties it falls far short. Despite all of these caveats, however, the song still somehow manages to come alive. You can hear twenty-five years' worth of cobwebs being shaken loose, three excellent musicians who had grown unaccustomed to working together, learning to do so once again. It's stiff and slightly awkward, but its humble imperfections seems almost charming when placed next to the stentorian literalism of "Free As A Bird." There was so much riding on these two tracks that there was no way the songs themselves could ever meet the world's expectation. One of them was a misfire, and justly forgotten. The other, however . . . the other succeeded despite itself. It's not a song about being The Beatles or getting older or self-recrimination. The lyrics are bog-simple declarations of love, barely better than "Love, Love Me Do" -
Thought i'd been in love before,
But in my heart i wanted more.
Seems like all I really was doing,
Was waiting for you.
The circumstances of the song's composition and release - the weight of history - render it almost impossible not to read some kind of grand symbolism into what would under any other occasion have been a mere oddity. But the fact must be stated plainly: "Real Love" is the last Beatles song, the last Beatles song there ever will be. It's not the grand statement that so many fans were desperate to hear. It's just a song. It's just short of a miracle.

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