The most important thing about this album is not the material from the Abbey Road vaults, playful and interesting as much of it is. No, what’s most exciting about the “The Beatles Anthology, Volume 2″ is the album’s new single. “Real Love” is the real thing, a genuine collaboration that recaptures the magic that made the Beatles the most important musicians of the rock and roll era. “Real Love” succeeds on its own terms — as an evanescent pop song you want to
hear again the first time you hear it — but it also serves as a worthy reminder of the extraordinary talents and creative synergy that enabled Lennon, Harrison, McCartney and Starr to produce music that delighted and transformed the world. The mystery is why “Real Love” wasn’t chosen as the single to launch the overall Anthology project last fall. “Free As A Bird,” the song selected instead, is pleasant but hardly a powerhouse. “Real Love” may not rank with
such masterpieces as “Penny Lane” and “Day Tripper” — how many songs do? But it fits very comfortably within the Beatles’ larger canon. Judged purely on grounds of quality, it would easily earn a spot on the band’s later albums.
The difference is, “Real Love” is plainly not the creation of young, avant-garde artists. The sensibility expressed in Lennon’s melody, and
especially his lyrics, is that of a mature, still hopeful but frightened man less concerned with screaming at life than surviving it. In fact, the genesis of “Real Love” appears to be “Real Life,” an earlier Lennon composition from the 1970s in which he describes himself as afraid to get out of bed in the morning. Ironically, it was from “Real Life” that Lennon borrowed the sweet, irresistible hook that seems certain to make “Real Love” a hit.
“Real Love” is a John Lennon song as unmistakably as “Julia” or “Dear Prudence” is, but it’s a Beatles single. Compare the Anthology version of
“Real Love” with that on the 1988 documentary film “Imagine,” and you’ll see how much the other
Beatles brought to the party. Lennon frequently had trouble keeping a steady beat — the other Beatles often teased him about it — and on the single you hear them diving into the breach to save him; Ringo’s drum wallops and Paul and George’s chugging acoustics and backing vocals give the song a groove that moves. The joy the others took in polishing up John’s song is obvious from the video for “Real Love,” which nicely conveys the Beatles’ collective soul with flash cuts that gradually merge those four famous faces into one.
The rest of the album is far from polished, which is, of course, the point. Highlights of the archives material on “Anthology 2″ include early takes of “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” “Yesterday,” “Norwegian Wood,” “I’m Looking Through You,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “Got To Get You Into My Life,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “A Day In
The Life” and “The Fool On The Hill.” To hear the Beatles move from one musical idea to another and yet another as they seek the ultimate expression
of a song is to realize that art for them was as much pursuit as arrival. The larger point is just how solid the Beatles’ collective artistic judgment was. In ways large or small, the version of a given song chosen for official release invariably outshines the drafts consigned to the archives. Listening to these works in progress is sometimes akin to watching a magician explain the mechanics of his trickery; part of you doesn’t really want to know. It’s a measure of the Beatles’ greatness that such deconstruction only affirms the splendor of their achievement.
If “Anthology 2″ has a weak spot, it is the paucity of studio chat and high-jinks that could convey the human interactions behind the art. There are moments: John’s daft warbling after forgetting the words to “Yes It Is,” the peals of giggles that doom an effort to add vocals to “And Your Bird Can
Sing,” Paul’s “Oh, shit” after reversing the lyric during an otherwise dead-on vocal for “A Day In The Life.” But these few exchanges only whet your
appetite for more. There’s plenty still secreted away inside Abbey Road. With any luck, it will find its way onto “Anthology 3,” due out later this