The Beatles
Anthology 2
(Capitol 34448)

None of the Beatles' Anthology releases is a wholly satisfying listen, but the second and third installments have more of interest to recommend them overall. Anthology 2 is cool in the respect that it shows how far the band really went in the space of two years (1965-67), from the relatively paint-by-numbers Beatle offerings "Yes It Is" and "I'm Down" to the much more sophisticated pop of Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour.

I personally don't think Sgt. Pepper is a great album, because the songs weren't that hot, although as a production it's a decided stunner. The second disc of Anthology 2 focuses on that album and offers a lot of insight into the creation of those tracks. Sure, they're not songs I care about, but I'd rather hear them in rough-cut versions than the tired finished versions.

The experience of sitting down and hearing this collection is less cool than just thinking about it, but there's plenty of moments that are pretty essential. I think part of the problem for me is that these albums are like primers on Beatles bootlegs, but they hedge a bit on representing some really priceless moments. Case in point is the aforementioned "Yes It Is," which is an early take that features Lennon in really ragged voice, blowing some notes and ending up just bullshitting it with his usual nasty mockery – they've cross-faded the take with the final take, ostensibly to show where the track went after that roughness.

Really, though, they're just not going to show the moments that tarnish the group too much. Fans have heard most of these recordings on bootlegs for years, so the polishing-job is a mixed blessing. The sound quality is immaculate, but sometimes the editorial choices are specious.

High points on Disc One include the oft-booted Paul outtake "That Means a Lot" and the lost Ringo outtake "If You've Got Troubles," a nice run-through of the underrated "It's Only Love," and the very cool early version of "I'm Looking Through You," which is a totally different spin from what it became (arguably better, though it lacks the bridge). A vocal take of "And Your Bird Can Sing" is fantastic, with Paul and John clearly stoned and giggling through the harmony overdubs.

A heavy early take on "Tomorrow Never Knows" is incredible, very out-there and more interesting than the finished cut. An alternate "Got To Get You Into My Life" is wonderful, featuring a very different arrangement and some great live harmonies; a strings-only mix of "Eleanor Rigby" is shimmering; two early stabs at "I'm Only Sleeping" are very cool.

The disc is marred by some ill-chosen live tracks – really, they should have done a separate volume for live stuff, because it just sticks out like a sore ass here. It is interesting (theoretically) to juxtapose the forward movement of the Beatles' studio work with the pandering organ-grinding of their last live shows, but that stuff is never anything I actually want to hear.

Disc Two begins with a suite of tracks that trace the development of "Strawberry Fields Forever," which will thrill true believers and sort of bore people like me who've heard that stuff a million times before (that's probably the #1 most cliched Beatles boot song). My favorite tracks on this disc are the stripped-down early mix of "A Day in the Life" and the absolutely slammin' alternate mix of "Only A Northern Song," which has some different lyrics that reveal the sense of humor much better than the bombastic final mix (which I also like).

A different, much heavier "Sgt. Pepper Reprise" is eye-opening; an unedited "You Know My Name" is glorious; a totally different early attempt at "Your Mother Should Know" shows that the boys were not always barking up the right tree. Too many of the tracks on this disc, though, seem kind of disappointing – different mixes of "Penny Lane" and "Hello Goodbye" that are good, but not as revealing as different versions would have been.

Lennon's stuff at this time, I think, was pure horseshit, so I don't get much out of alternate takes of "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite" or "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds." An instrumental "Within You, Without You" is, needless to say, totally redundant. But overall, the good moments outweigh the lesser ones.

Anthology 2 also features "Real Love," which is the better of the "new" Beatles tracks included on this series. Yes, it doesn't really belong on here, but it's a good song anyway. Ultimately, this is a very flawed collection, but the great moments on it make the whole package worth having. There's probably no way it could have been done in a way that would have really done right by the diehards without losing all semblance of mass marketing appeal.

I wonder, though – it seems like people will buy anything with The Beatles' name on it, so a little more daring would have been appreciated. Who knows, maybe someday we'll get a 10-disc comprehensive "official bootleg" set – yeah right, and maybe someday Ringo Starr will win an Academy Award®.

Review by Billy Zan