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.
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.
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!)
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!
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.
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.
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.