Unlike most of Beatles history, the Anthology extravaganza is something I actually lived through. In the fall of 1995, when the TV series started airing and when Anthology 1 was released with "Free as a Bird" as its opening track, I was in my junior year of high school. And I was geeking out on the whole thing, believe me. The whole world was in a tizzy. I still remember that ABC, which aired the TV specials, started referring to themselves in promos as ABeatlesC, which, dorky. And I remember thinking that this blurb on The Onion was the funniest thing ever. (Which it still kind of is.)
But what I particularly remember is dissecting this new song, "Free as a Bird." As my husband rightly points out-- and he's not the only one to have done so-- the video to "Free as a Bird" is actually much cooler than the song, which I agree with, having worn out my VHS tape watching it back in 1995. Here's the video again for you.
There's a pretty exhaustive accounting for all the Beatles references in the video right here, if you'd like to check it out.
So what of the song? Whatever our opinions of the Beatles recording on top of old Lennon demos, "Free as a Bird" exists, and we should give it at least a little consideration. And one thing we need to keep in mind is that by 1995 the Beatles weren't really the Beatles anymore. I know this sounds obvious, but do remember that all four of them had been on their own for a while, and all four of them had released their fair share of really lousy albums in the years since breaking up. John isn't exempt from this (ew, have you listened to, say, Mind Games lately? don't). At the time, Paul's latest release had been 1993's sorta-okay Off the Ground, and he'd also recently put out the Liverpool Oratorio, which I freaking can't stand. (His classical pieces since then have improved a lot, actually, but that oratorio is awful. Sorry, Paul.) Ringo's Time Takes Time, released in 1992, is, you know, fine. And George had most recently been out on his own with 1987's Cloud 9-- when he'd briefly dominated the charts with "I've Got My Mind Set on You"-- and 1990's Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3, which is admittedly the best album I've mentioned in this paragraph so far. But still, rumor had it that George had only agreed to do this Anthology thing because he needed the money.
Here's my point: after all these years, it seemed fair to question the taste of these four people who had at one time been so awesome. Who would show up to the "Free as a Bird" sessions: "Hey Jude" Paul, or "Silly Love Songs" Paul? (Substitute the songs of your choice for the other two Beatles, but you get the idea.) The fact is, it's all one Paul, and you can't just pretend "Silly Love Songs" never happened, even if you want to-- each band member brought his own mixed history to this. And, you know, even if you like the Beatles' solo records more than I do, you have to admit that they start to sound like old guys after a while, maybe no one more so than John. John's last album, 1980's Double Fantasy, was hailed a huge comeback for him, and it's full of totally solid songs, but they're songs an old guy would write. They're just, you know, so inoffensive, and kind of slick, and... I don't know. I don't want to offend older people here-- I'm just saying that I prefer John rocking out on "Leave My Kitten Alone" or trying to get into my pants on "All I've Got to Do" than singing sweetly about domestic bliss on "Cleanup Time" or mugging to the aggressively cheery strains of "Dear Yoko."
And the thing with "Free as a Bird" is that it was written and recorded in the late '70s, and John seems to have been getting into his old-guy sound. The original demo is just for voice and block-chord piano, and there's no question (to my mind) that it sounds quite pretty. The song is very slow, with a gentle lolling kind of rhythm behind the nice little melody, and the lyrics that John contributed are not only kind of weak but resolutely sweet and happy, hailing as they do the joys of being free and also of being at home. Maybe he would have done something interesting with it someday, but of course he never got the chance. (Instead, his recording got bootlegged, and was known to fans in original form before Anthology changed it so drastically. Here it is below for you.)
When the Beatles embarked on their "Free as a Bird" production, Paul set about fleshing the thing out, writing the middle eight based on John's loosely sketched "whatever happened to..." section. This makes "Free as a Bird" almost one of those nice joint John/Paul songs, another "We Can Work It Out" or "A Day in the Life" or something (though it obviously never reaches those levels of greatness). Paul wisely introduces some much-needed tension into this jolly little song with his lyrics, which are vague enough to mean a lot of things ("can we really live without each other?") but were widely understood to be about the Beatles themselves and their breakup. See, Paul does one of these things here that he does sometimes, which is channel what we feel-- why DID you idiots break up, when you were so awesome and everything was so great?-- into this kind of universal language, and we just love it. If John had actually taken his unfinished song to Paul, as he did in the old days, and asked him to fill in what it needed, Paul surely could have provided nothing more suitable than this.
Elsewhere, the other Beatles step up admirably. We get a solid McCartney bassline, which at its best acts as a seemingly independent counter-melody. George can still play the guitar as well as ever, of course-- his slide guitar solo is one of the more impassioned moments in "Free as a Bird," as are the little licks he contributes to the coda. And Ringo does all he can to inject some life into the slow, sloooow tempo of this thing and keep it from getting dreary-- and he about half succeeds. (It's not his fault, though. It would have been hard to keep a bit of dreariness entirely out of here.) The best moments are when Paul and George are singing backup to John, though-- that's when it sounds the most like the real thing. And I swear Jeff Lynne, who produced this, is consciously going for a dry George-Martin-esque kind of sound, particularly on the moments when the backup singing is really shining-- like when they head into the guitar solo section.
In the end, I think "Free as a Bird" works almost as well as anyone could expect something like this to. It has a bit of the slow-moving groan to it that a Zombie Song is bound to have, and even listening to it without any knowledge of the song's background I think you'd be able to tell that something about this Beatles song is a little... off. Just as a zombie isn't really human anymore, the Beatles on "Free as a Bird" aren't really the Beatles anymore. But you can't knock 'em for trying.
"Free as a Bird," released in the U.K. and the U.S. disc 1 track 1 of Anthology 1, November 20, 1995.