Tuesday, January 26, 2021


 by JB

This is a column about the Beatles, but it is also a column about obsession, control, and counting.

Every few years as a die-hard Beatles fan, I find myself revisiting the Beatles own, execrable version of their story, The Beatles Anthology, which was first broadcast on ABC Television in the United States over three nights: Sunday, November 19; Wednesday, November 22; and Thursday, November 23, 1995. Each episode ran two hours with commercials, for a total of approximately four-and-one-half hours of mop-top fun.

HISTORICAL NOTE: The final installment of The Beatles Anthology, while garnering great ratings, did not manage to attract more viewers than a new episode of Friends on NBC, which attracted almost twice the viewers. Because the American people have PRIORITIES.
In 1996, the documentary was released on the VHS and laserdisc and significantly expanded, becoming eight episodes of approximately 75 minutes apiece, for a total of almost 11 hours. That’s a lot of Beatles. That’s the version (with a spiffed-up picture and greatly improved sound) that landed on DVD in 2003.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I am a rabid Beatles fan, but a begrudging Paul McCartney fan. I recognize that he was a prime reason the Beatles achieved their success; I do not enjoy his music as much as I enjoy that of John Lennon and George Harrison. I defy anyone reading this to listen to “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and not cringe just a little bit. 

I am also a big fan of counting things. Perhaps this gives me the illusion that I am in control; I do not know. I am not a psychiatrist. F This Movie! guru and great friend Patrick Bromley often tells me to “stop counting.” I cannot. One advantage of being old, retired, and terrified of the COVID is that I have time to do things... like revisit all eleven hours of The Beatles Anthology, notice something funny, THEN GO BACK AND WATCH IT AGAIN WITH A PEN AND PAPER IN ORDER TO KEEP SCORE. I know that’s petty.

SUPERFAN TRAIN OF THOUGHT: Tom Petty performed with George Harrison in the Traveling Wilburys in 1988. (Listening to their song “The Wilbury Twist” is a great way to cheer up. Try it!)
My thesis here is a simple one: It’s the winners who get to write the history. John Lennon was assassinated in 1980, fifteen years before The Beatles Anthology was put together. He is represented by archival television and radio interview snippets. George Harrison, who died in 2001, was alive for the Anthology project and sat for hours of interviews, as did bandmates Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.

As I watched the Anthology over two cold January days, I wondered why any documentarian would feature four separate performances of the song “All My Loving” over four episodes of the series. Even with the expansive canvas of eleven full hours to fill, why repeat that song so many times? Were the performances stylistically different? (No, they are exactly the same, except for their locations.) Were the specific performances of historical note? (As the first song performed on their famous first Ed Sullivan Show appearance, yes. The other three, not so much; they were only parts of larger concerts where other songs were performed.) Then why are we treated to four identical performances of “All My Loving”? What could possibly be the reason?

“Whoops!” I said to no one as down the rabbit hole I tumbled. I puzzled and puzzled until my puzzler came through, and I realized why “All My Loving” is featured four separate times. It’s a “Paul” song!
Though every song the two men wrote during the period of 1961 to 1970 was credited to “Lennon-McCartney,” John and Paul didn’t collaborate on songs to the extent that people may think. After 1963, the lead singer of a song is pretty good indicator of who the principal songwriter was. Plus, in Anthology’s captured live performances, lead singer status grants even more “Front Man Facetime” in the documentary. I am now convinced that, going into The Beatles Anthology, the documentarians were tied to a casual or legal agreement to feature Lennon and McCartney equally. To prove this, I began to re-watch the entire thing, meticulously keeping a list of all the featured performances.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I only got through half of it this time. The documentary is so basic, ham-fisted, boring, amateur, repetitive, bland, and awful that my pen, paper, and I could stand counting things for only five hours. I am sorry, gentle readers, I have failed you.

Still, the totals for the first four episodes are telling: out of a total of 94 songs or snippets shown performed, 41 are John, 41 are Paul, 10 are George, and 2 are Ringo. That can’t be an accident or coincidence. So, was “All My Loving” featured four separate times in Anthology to keep the ratio of Paul songs to John songs “in check?” The Beatles Anthology also features two numbers from a famous early television appearance, on the Swedish show Drop In. The Beatles performed four numbers: two John songs and two Paul songs. Guess which two are included in the documentary?

This “fairness doctrine” reaches its silly apotheosis during the famous skiing sequence from Help, which famously features John’s song “Ticket to Ride”—only in The Beatles Anthology, Paul’s song “The Night Before” has been dubbed over it. This whole concept seems strangely reminiscent of the ratio of John songs to Paul songs to George songs on most of their albums. The Beatles Anthology was originally titled The Long and Winding Road, but that title was nixed by George Harrison, who objected to the band’s lengthy career being encapsulated using the title of a “Paul” song.
But my brain, and my pen, were not finished yet. I wondered: If the performances were so balanced between John and Paul, why does the whole enterprise seem so Paul-centric? Carefully counting the number of contemporary “talking head” interviews with the surviving Beatles, plus the archival contributions from John Lennon, gave me my answer. As I re-watched the first four episodes and counted performance leads, I also kept track of how many times each Beatles’ commentary was used. This was exhausting; some of the interview answers are only a single sentence. But I did it for YOU, Dear Reader… and for me, the crazy counter.

In the first four episodes of The Beatles Anthology, Ringo Starr speaks 69 times; John Lennon speaks 71 times; George Harrison speaks 88 times; and Paul McCartney speaks a whopping 110 times. That’s a lot of Paul. I resisted the temptation to employ a fleet of four stop watches to actually clock how much time these interviews represent. I know that Paul’s segments are always generally longer, and he also often speaks to matters one would think the others probably weighed in on. Case in point: George met his first wife, Patti Boyd, on the set of A Hard Day’s Night, where she was an extra in the film’s train sequence. Yet in The Beatles Anthology, PAUL IS THE ONE WHO TELLS THAT STORY.

In one of the documentary’s only sequences showing the three (at that time) surviving Beatles interviewed together, the Beatles recount how John was responsible for the first feedback ever recorded on a pop record for “I Feel Fine.” Paul tells the whole story. Ringo never speaks. George looks straight at the camera and suggests that John “started Jimi Hendrix;” Paul doesn’t realize that George is joking and confidently agrees with him. Paul is also the only one during his individual interview segments who whips out an acoustic guitar to illustrate whatever story he’s telling. Was Ringo expected to set up his full drum kit so he could do the same?

TANGENT: George’s laconic, sly wit really gets me through The Beatles Anthology. He was hilariously passive/aggressive while in the Beatles (for instance, his famous reply to Paul: “I’ll play whatever you want me to play. Or I won’t play at all. Whatever will please you, I will do.” from the still-unreleased Let It Be documentary.) This sly, dry sarcasm continues in his segments in the documentary. From George’s straight-faced explanation that having a Number One hit single was “very handy” when going to America for the first time to him talking about all of John and Paul’s “wondrous hits” later in the program, I wish there was more George in The Beatles Anthology. But that would leave less time for Paul.

Besides the fact that Paul dominates the interview segments, starting with Episode Four he pulls a move so transparently designed to grab the spotlight that it’s downright silly. George and Ringo’s interviews take place in rooms or, occasionally, outdoors in front of a garden or pool. They sit in chairs. Meanwhile, by Episode Four, Paul is being interviewed… while piloting a small tugboat. I am not making this up. It’s one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen in any documentary. Does it have anything to do with what they are talking about? Is he discussing the Beatles’ famous unreleased album I’m the Captain Now? Was one famous Beatles song originally titled “All You Need is Tug”? Of course not. It’s just Paul being Paul. Subsequent McCartney interview segments will feature him sitting alone in darkness at a small campfire in the woods, standing in front of a brightly-lit stage at a concert soundcheck, and naked in a bathtub full of bubbles talking about John’s famous Two Virgins album cover (and assuring us that, back then, he was “frequently naked too.”)

Okay, I made that last one up. But you believed it, right? See, now you’re beginning to understand Paul.
I next turned to the delicious teaser for the upcoming The Beatles Get Back documentary that Peter Jackson is readying for a fall release. Jackson is taking the 56 hours of footage shot but not used for the Beatles 1969 documentary Let It Be and fashioning it into a whole new film. The Beatles released the sneak peek on December 20 on the YouTube machine; it can now be seen in better quality on Disney+. Thanks to quick edits and short snippets, John is glimpsed in the footage 40 times, Ringo appears 33 times, George is shown 23 times... and Paul? He’s in there 41 times. I’m really looking forward to Jackson’s film! I’m guessing that Paul’s song “Get Back” will be performed eighteen separate times.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Two shots in the teaser footage may bring tears to your eyes if you’re a big Beatles fan. In one, John and Ringo walk out of the studio arm in arm; in the second, John gives Ringo a playful kiss on the forehead. From what I’ve read, they had a sincere and deep friendship. I miss John.

Thinking about Paul needing to control his legacy—even after his legacy was assured—got me thinking about why we all are the way we are. Perhaps Paul making sure that he gets the lion’s share of coverage in the Anthology is just… who he is. (Wearing a black carnation when the other Beatles wear red ones in the big “Your Mother Should Know” production number at the end of Magical Mystery Tour? Crossing the street barefoot on the cover of Abbey Road? Faking your own death in 1966 so hippies would have an excuse to play records backwards when they got stoned? All Paul.)

Paul was clearly the Beatle who needed and received the most attention and control. Counting things and being a general asshole is my way of controlling things. Perhaps Paul drives me nuts precisely because I see too much of myself in him. The people who really drive us crazy are the ones who are just like us.

Love you, Paul.


  1. Oh I love this, JB. I was really into the Beatles at age 12 and 13 and watched this anthology repetitively, and it's so fun to read someone else's take on it. It was horrible - probably, yea. Knowing how undisciplined I am (not a counter), I probably watched the whole thing once or twice and then just re-watched the parts I liked a hundred times. (Crying. Because I was SOooOOo unbearably in love with George Harrison...'s younger self. Oh I noticed all those "sly dry wit" parts you mentioned, yes I did)

    Paul was going to call it THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD! Haaahaha. That's such a funny band member ego problem.

    I would have never thought to count how much they participated. It makes total sense that that would be true - it would be something pre-agreed on. I think I appreciate the Pauls of the world, to be honest. I always thought he was a ham but refreshing, like well enough equipped to enjoy himself, enjoy life and unashamedly get what he wanted. Of course I liked John's talent but could barely stand his personality in all the clips/footage and movies they made. I have nothing like his legendary genius/talent/artistry like John Lennon, of course, but I did feel akin to his intensity under the surface, broodiness and arrogance. Who knows, but I imagined "being John Lennon" to be torment. Being Paul McCartney seemed fun. What I CAN say for certain is that these stark contrasts in their personalities made obsessing about them as a tweenage girl VERY consuming :)

  2. Meredith, I agree with you 100%. Say what you want; Paul always seems to be having a good time. At the height of the Beatles' fame, John always looked surly, bemused, confused, sarcastic, or "out of it." Clearly, the two of them had very different personalities. Peter Asher hosts a show about the Beatles on the Sirius/XM satellite radio machine, and nowhere is this dichotomy more pronounced. Asher is an unapologetic Paul lover. (Good Lord! Paul dated his sister for years and briefly lived in Peter's family's house! He was the first person to whom Paul ever played "Yesterday") Asher clearly respects John's talent, but every week you can tell he's fighting a losing battle against his personal feelings. He and John don't get along. It oozes through the radio speaker. John was hard to get along with.

    1. Ah, that must be awkward (the Peter Asher show). I wonder why it's such a battle for him to be honest, though. Do people try to paint John as like a saint or prophet? He was obviously an extremely pained person. It likely helped him make inspiring and hopeful music. As Carl Jung's quote goes: "No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.”

      Anyway. I was surprised by how much I could stand that movie Nowhere Boy (did you like it?). I thought Aaron Taylor Johnson did a good job. He looks nothing like him, yet I felt like I was looking at John. Some beautiful, believable scenes btw him and Paul. Man whenever I think about "John and Paul" I can't help thinking Paul had a lot of patience and probably helped him survive. Kind of think they were a good (or necessary) match actually.

      I will read and enjoy more of your takes on The Beatles anytime, JB!

  3. Funny you should mention that (BTW: I loved Nowhere Boy) If you follow the link in the above column for Let It Be, it takes you to my 2015 column on that movie, and at the bottom of that column, there are links to a boatload of OTHER Beatles columns. The boat in question, obviously, is a tugboat. Paul is driving.

    1. Apparently, clicking on the link to the A Hard Day's Night column above will yield basically the same set of links at the bottom of THAT column! It's a !*&%$#+ Beatles parade!

  4. I'm due for a rewatch on this. It just gives me an opportunity to say that Brooke's first concert was Paul McCartney at Summer Fest in Milwaukee. My daughter saw a Beatle live in concert at the age of 6. I'm raising her right.