The Beatles Anthology, 25 Years On

I can without a doubt pinpoint the exact moment in my early childhood that set me onto the path that made me who I am today. My lifelong passion for music, writing about music and my intents to devote the rest of my life to fostering an entire community around music can all be traced to one single moment. 25 years ago around Thanksgiving, an abridged 3-part version of The Beatles Anthology aired on national TV (starting the weekend prior, then continuing on the day before and day of Thanksgiving), along with the debut of the band’s reunion singles, “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love,” via a pair of music videos. In the same way that Baby Boomers caught their first glimpse of The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show a little more than 25 years prior to this night, this broadcast singlehandedly changed the course of my life forever. 

While saying that, I do not mean to snub my parents and all of their many efforts to instill an appreciation for music and the arts. The record and tape collection that my mom and dad amassed over the years left an indelible impact upon my young brain. 

The copies of Rick Wakeman’s Journey to The Center of The Earth, Gentle Giant’s Octopus album and records by Maine maritime folk singer Gordon Bok that lived on our shelves caught my attention early on, in a peripheral sort of way. I think it was mostly the strange covers and the unusual sounds they made. Yet, it was actually my parent’s enthusiasm and excitement about the Anthology series that initially drew me to the program. I mean they taped it after all, and Anthology 1 was the first CD my family ever owned. (So if it weren’t for my parents, I truly wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing right now.)

It wasn’t really just a program. It was an event. For what felt like weeks before the airing on the ABC network, trailers and teaser blurbs pumped up the hype for this show like crazy.

I remember our local news stations held segments about what the news anchors and other regional figures were doing and what our city was like back in ’64 when The Beatles made their first US appearance. There were ads for Beatles-related products, like a new Mastercard based on a painting by Ringo Starr. Commercials for the Anthology 1 album ran ceaselessly, saying that 25 years after the screams finally died down, [Beatlemania] was happening…again 

::cue the concluding piano chord from ‘A Day in The Life’:: 

How could you not feel pumped by that?

Every store I went into for even months later was filled with Beatles merch, albums and displays. I even remember coming across a tiny calendar store in a mall being completely decked out in large posters and decals of very artsy photographs of the fab four that you rarely see. It was 1995, and Baby Boomer nostalgia was being repackaged and sold back to them in earnest. 

An official merch mail order catalogue from my parents’ original copy of Anthology 1. I’ve often wondered how many people actually mailed in for a Beatles embroidered hemp wallet.

In a less cynical light, I loved it. At six years old, I didn’t really know much about music or even group names. I just knew what I liked when I heard it. My parents always played the radio in the car, usually classic rock and NPR. Whenever I heard something I liked, I would ask questions about it and totally gush about it (little has changed after all). There was one particular sound or musical quality that I kept hearing in songs on the car radio that I absolutely loved. I didn’t know what it was at the time, but I recognized it each time I’d hear it, and when I’d ask who it was, it always turned out to be either The Beatles or The Beach Boys. I think what kept stirring my soul was the sunny quality of their harmonies. I have never forgotten that feeling. 

So I knew of The Beatles and I knew that I liked their songs, but this barrage of promo material, products and TV coverage, plus my parents’ own excitement really made this return feel like the biggest news on the planet to my child brain.

In my memory, my parents were absolutely thrilled that The Beatles were going to be on TV to tell their story themselves and that they actually had new songs! 

They grabbed blank VHS tapes, labeled and timed them properly to catch each of the three episodes, and gathered my older brother and I around the TV to see this momentous occasion play out. They even let us stay up late for this. I believe this is the first time I was allowed to be up past 10 PM. 

Throughout the day leading right up to the moment of the premiere, commercial breaks would announce just how much time was left before Anthology would begin. 

“The wait is over….The Beatles Anthology is here in one hour…”

“…in just half-an-hour…”

“In 16 minutes, it’s the television premier event of our lifetime…”  

ABC even temporarily changed their logo to say “A Beatles C” during the weeks that the show aired, so even if you weren’t watching it, you were still aware that it was happening. It was impossible to escape and impossible not to catch some of the excitement. 

As the show played, I was totally transfixed by all of the music that I heard and I was struck by the irreverent and natural humor that the band had, which was even obvious in just some of the talking head contemporary interviews. Yet, hearing early rockers like “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Twist and Shout” and the catchy melodies of “Please Please Me” and “From Me To You” immediately caused a fire within me and I just craved more. I wanted to hear those songs again, and I needed to hear more sounds like those. I was hooked. 

I unfortunately fell asleep before the end of the episode, so I missed seeing “Free as a Bird” airing in real time, but like I said before, my parents taped it. I couldn’t wait to watch the VHS tape the next day. I ended up loving the song, its mosaic of Beatles references of a music video, and I still do to this day (yet most people seem to ignore or forget about the reunion tracks). 

Now after this initial airing, I watched my parents’ tapes countless times throughout my childhood. I eventually ended up knowing so much about The Beatles’ story, and I could endlessly rattle off random obscure facts about them in the same way that other kids my age could spout the names of all 150 Pokemon. Hell, I watched those home dubbed cassettes so much, I even knew all of the dialogue from the commercial breaks by heart.

I listened to my parents’ copy of Anthology 1 to death. The rarities compilation might have been a strange place for a six year old to start with the band, but I loved every second of it. Even the spoken word interview segments (side note: I always thought it was odd that these weren’t continued on the other volumes). I even brought the double disc set to friends’ houses at the time, excitedly showing them the early Quarry Men-era recordings of Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be The Day,” and the loose rockabilly vibes of the legendary flopped Decca audition tape (“Three Cool Cats” especially), much to my buddies’ puzzlement and disinterest. Obviously, they were more enthused about playing with our Star Wars action figures than hearing scratchy archaic demos by a band they didn’t know, let alone any music period. 

Eventually, I managed to track down copies of Anthology 2 & 3, the mammoth tome that is the accompanying book and the expanded VHS boxset version of the series, and I ate those up voraciously as well. I quickly became a Beatles fan for life, and I would go on to study all of their albums, films and singles religiously.

I believe that seeing the artistic growth of the Liverpudlians throughout their career, and being able to hear exactly how far they would experiment in the recording studio to create totally new and original sounds left the biggest mark upon my psyche. This particular spark of inspiration would lead me onto a life of testing the limits of creativity and thinking outside of the box. This would also lead me to befriend and follow others who did the same. A love for daring creative expression, wildly experimental art and of course all things psychedelic could be absolutely traced to this show, particularly the second and third episodes, which covered everything from the acid-fueled explorations of Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, the absurdness of the Magical Mystery Tour film and soundtrack (massive favorites for my brothers and I) to the totally unfiltered outpouring of ideas that would be The White Album and the fractious but nevertheless genius work on Abbey Road and Let It Be.

Most of all though, this docu-series showed me that a life around music could be very fun. Watching candid footage of John Lennon and Paul McCartney clowning around in hotels and backstage before a show during the height of Beatlemania, clips of George Harrison and Ringo Starr being sardonic and sarcastic to puzzled middle-aged journalists gave me the idea that being in a band with likeminded friends could the most fun a person could have. All I wanted from that moment forward was to be in a band, play on stage and push the limits of instruments and technology to create the most unique sounding recordings ever. 

This desire plus our unparalleled appreciation for the much-loathed “Revolution 9” lead my older brother and I to discover we could create sound collages with a home stereo that had two tape decks. Somewhere in my parents’ house, there’s a crate filled with countless cassettes of nothing but homemade tape manipulations. This unusual form of analogue DIY entertainment even lead to us having an album officially released through a small label run by a DJ at Mankato, MN’s 770 Radio K when I was just 12 years old. That’s another story for another time.

Throughout my teenage years, I attempted to live my dream by playing guitar, joining a few bands and recording heaps of strange experimental music on my own that existed somewhere between the realms of ambient music, psychedelic folk and musique concrète. My only problem was, I never could commit myself to practicing and taking enough lessons, so my guitar playing and singing were extremely amateurish at best. I still carried on, though, undeterred, much to my cringing embarrassment now. Before I graduated high school, I played in a biker bar, smashed a guitar on stage at Rochester’s infamous Bug Jar and lived through as much drama as an old episode of VH1’s Behind The Music with some of my closest friends, all in the name of loving music. 

A 16 or 17 year old me at a solo cafe gig. Note the necessary music sheets.

In more self-aware and adult times, I’ve chased this same inspiration in a more practical way, deciding to put down the guitar, and instead write about other people’s music that also pushes boundaries and seeks to create new and unique sounds, genre labels be damned. I found that while growing my own record collection, I love nothing more than to share my enthusiasm about music that absolutely moves me. Music that is daring. Music that is different. Music that needs a vast amount of appreciation, but might not be necessarily receiving it. I want to help move others by bringing this music into their lives and to help spread the awareness and appreciation that these unique artists truly deserve. The blog that you’re reading right now is the culmination of a lifetime spent chasing this inspiration, coming to perhaps its final evolved form. 

Now, 25 years later (nearly) to the day, I can smell the turkey gravy and cranberry sauce bubbling away in the kitchen, and I am instantly brought back to that Thanksgiving night, sitting with my excited family around the TV, as images of John, Paul, George and Ringo flashed upon the screen. I can still feel that sense of a door being thrown open and an entire new world being revealed to me. That incredible sensation that nothing will ever be the same again, for the better. The possibilities were endless, and they still are, even in 2020. 

-KH

From the final page in the Anthology book.

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Published by Record Crates United

Keith Hadad, the creator and manager of RCU, has been a contributing writer to Elmore Magazine and Thewaster.com and maintains a regular column, “Keith Hadad’s Choice,” in Blicker magazine. His writing has also appeared in the Smithsonian Folkways' Guest Blog and the Optical Sounds Fanzine. Also, please check out the blog's super-active Instagram account, @recordcratesunited for daily blurb-styled music reviews.

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