Come Together

Waiting for the Beatles has been an international pastime for 25 years, making it the longest-held breath in pop history. In an exclusive report, McCartney, Harrison and Starr talk about life, death and their reunion. The Fab Three are about to launch a comebock with a TV documentary, music from their famed archives and two new songs. Who's singing lead? Would you believe John Lennon? ..MR0-

There was reason to believe Lennon and McCartney would never sing together again. In 1980, John Lennon was murdered outside the great haunted house that is New York's Dakota building--shot dead by a fan one of the singer's old friends refers to, with a shiver, as the Man Whose Name We Must Never Mention. But last year Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr convened at McCartney's studio outside London and set about completing an old, unfinished Lennon tune called "Free as a Bird." It was a lovely, melancholy slip of a song about family. Lennon had written it for "The Ballad of John and Yoko," a musical that he and his wife, Yoko Ono, were collaborating on shortly before his death. To get everyone psychologically prepared to finish the song more than 15 years later, McCartney asked them to play make-believe. "When we did 'Sgt. Pepper' we pretended we were other people," says the singer, 53. "It sometimes helps to get a little bit of a scenario going in your mind. So we pretended that John had just rung us up and said, 'I'm going on holiday in Spain. There's this one little song that I like. Finish it up for me. I trust you'." McCartney pauses. "Those were kind of the crucial words: 'I trust you'." They had a copy of Lennon singing his song on a dodgy-sounding mono cassette. Soon, his high, wavering voice was in their headphones. "Free as a bird," he sang. "It's the next best thing to be/Free as a bird/Home, home and dry/Like a homing bird I'll fly." Lennon's son Scan, 20, had warned McCartney, "It's going to be a bit spooky hearing a dead guy on lead vocal." But in fact it was comforting to hear Lennon drift in from the great beyond. Wherever he was, he was singing.

The mood in the studio that day was mostly upbeat. "It's the only session I've ever done where the talk in between is so good that I don't even want to start recording," says producer Jeff Lynne. "They were doing all the old anecdotes, and one of them would laugh and say, 'What about you, you bugger?'" McCartney says there was some tension between him and Harrison when it came time to write a few new lines for the song--"George and I were vying for best lyric"-but it passed quickly. Since they were pretending Lennon was alive, they could joke about his sloppy piano track: "Lennon's always out of time! He can't hold a tempo!" Starr started the song off with two beats on snare. Harrison broke in with a bluesy slide-guitar riff. He and McCartney also added harmonies, bass, acoustic guitars and a new piano part. Lennon had left one half-finished verse behind: "Whatever happened to/the life that we once knew?" Harrison and McCartney finished it off and took rufus singing the first new verse in decades, which Paul recites as, "How did we lose the touch?/It always meant so much/Do we really live without each other?" All those voices. Together again. When Starr heard "Free as a Bird" in the control room that day, he couldn't contain himself: "It sounds like the bloody Beatles!"

Well, it's about bloody time. Waiting for the Beatles has been an international pastime for 25 years, making it the longest-held breath in pop-music history. Now hear this. The former handmates have reunited for "The Beatles Anthology," a multimedia campaign that will make for the most fearsome flood of product since the days of the Beatle wig. On Nov. 19, 22 and 23, ABC will air a six-hour documentary--a 10-hour version will later be available on video--along with a music video for "Free as a Bird." On Nov. 20, EMI Records will finally fling open the door of the legendary Abbey Road archives and begin releasing CDs devoted to the Beatles' studio outtakes. Such outtakes are so revered that pirated copies have long circulated among avid fans as part of a $2 million-to-$3 million bootleg industry. NEWSWEEK has had an exclusive first look at the making of "The Beatles Anthology" and has obtained a tentative track listing for all the forthcoming CDs, about which there's been enormous speculation. (It seems Beatlemaniacs can expect about a half a dozen unplugged "White Album" demos and three early versions of "Strawberry Fields Forever"--page 71.) Once, in that edgy voice that was always grieving to be understood, Lennon said, "Don't you think the Beatles gave every sodding thing they had to be Beatles?" They've finally given us a little bit more.

"The Beatles Anthology" will obviously be a mother lode of nostalgia for fans who came of age with the band. Where were you when Kennedy was shot? is an interesting question. Where were you when the Beatles played on "Ed Sullivan"? is not. Everybody was in the same place: in front of a TV. Many people's memories of the '60s will be forever bound up with memories of the Beatles. Their lives, like the band's music, moved from innocence to acid with the speed of time-lapse photography. Last year EMI tested the Beatles' fan base with a rarities compilation called "Live at the BBC." The two-disc set was one of the fastest-selling albums of the year--it debuted at No. 3 in the States and No. 1 in Britain--which indicates that Beatles lovers remain a vast standing army. But the "Anthology" also marks the band's official introduction to generations who grew up in the '70s and '80s, who didn't hear the gong but the echo, who, in some cases, checked out the Fab Four because they liked Wings. In the late '80s, when Starr began appearing on the kids' show "Shining Time Station," a young reporter asked him what he'd done before he was on TV. Starr said he'd been in a band. Maybe she'd heard of it?

The Beatles' longtime company, Apple Corps, has exerted complete control over the "Anthology" project and reportedly stands to make $100 million this year. McCartney, Harrison and Starr all sat for extensive interviews for the documentary. Ohio is also on the Apple board. Though she passed along Lennon's "Free as a Bird" cassette with her blessing, she declined to appear in the TV documentary. Which is a shame: she's a fascinating figure in the Beatles story and her recollections might have sparked fireworks. For instance, a reporter asks her if she's bothered by the perception that her presence in the recording studio hastened the band's breakup. Ono, 62, stubs out a skinny Capri cigarette and says patiently, "I was just trying to sit there very quietly without disturbing them. You know, John always wanted me there and if I was not there, John might not have gone to those sessions. So think of that side of it. If he didn't go to those sessions, maybe 'Abbey Road' and the 'White Album'--maybe all those albums wouldn't have been made." Stick that in your documentary and smoke it, Ono has remained silent for the best of reasons -- "It was much more important that John get the fight amount of space" -- and she may pull off a sly reversal. Beatles fans missing Yoko Ono. Imagine.

Apart from granting interviews for the documentary, the three Beatles will approve every frame of footage and every studio outtake for the CDs, as will Ono. Earlier this year, McCartney, Harrison and Starr also Beatleized a second unreleased Lennon song, the touching and winsome "Real Love." ("Free as a Bird" will be out on disc on Nov. 20; "Real Love" should follow in February.) Will they tour? It's a terrifying thought, in a way. A Beatles concert threatens to be what "Anthology" director Geoff Wonfor calls "the biggest anticlimax of all time." And, in truth, a tour seems unlikely, if only because trying to get all three Beatles to agree on a single course of action is like trying to get the planets to align. Still, a proposal sits on the table at Apple Corps: the Fab Three have been offered $100 million to play 10 concerts. (You do the math.) McCartney insists there'd be too big a hole where Lennon should be. "I really feel strongly that it would be a mistake for the three of us to go on tour," he says. But then he smiles coyly and adds, "However, the money's good."

The "Anthology" may not be the reunion the world once hoped for--a reunion made impossible by the Man Whose Name We Must Never Mention. But it seems an astonishing round of activity from three men who for decades have seemed mortally weary of being Beatles. "The Beatles exist apart from my Self," said George Harrison, 52, in a rare interview conducted by fax. "I am not really 'Beatle George.' 'Beatle George' is like a suit or shirt that I once wore on occasion and until the end of my life people may see that shirt and mistake it for me." Harrison is said to have dreaded the idea of sitting through all the old Beetlemania footage: the girls at the airport, the goofy press conferences, the frenzied chase scenes from "A Hard Day's Night." But his pride eventually kicked in. "I want somebody like U2 to watch this," he told Wonfor in the editing room one day. "Then they'd see a band that was really famous."

Nineteen ninety-five is a good time for a Beatles revival--for the Beatles and for us. It's good for us because after the group transformed pop into art with songs like "A Day in the Life," 25 years' worth of bands have conspired to turn it back into pop. MTV is a jukebox, and beneath the surface noise of the surliest grunge anthem, you invariably find a four-minute pop single eager to get its hooks into you. "Music has changed and I think not for the better," says theBeatles' famed producer George Martin, 69, who selected the tracks for the forthcoming CDs. "It has become much more ephemeral and much more disposable. There are no such things as a long melody or an interplay of musical ideas. The public hasn't got the time or patience for that." Martin has always had a particular fondness for the concept album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and for the medley on "Abbey Road." What's become of idea-driven pop like that? Martin replies a little sadly: "I think it's now a dodo." There's nothing wrong with a great pop song--the album "A Hard Day's Night" can still you give a contact high--but "The Beatles Anthology" should remind us of a time when more really was more.

It should also blow some of the dust off the Beatles' image. Once it was controversial to claim that Lennon & McCartney wrote songs on a par with Rodgers & Hart; now it's so obvious it hardly seems worth mentioning. But it's a mixed blessing to have one's tunes turn into standards. Sometimes it's as if songs like "Yesterday" and "Something" have been loved by too many people for too long: overhandling can take the edges off a song, like a statue that tourists touch for good luck. Michael Stipe, of R.E.M., made this astonishing remark not long ago: "I've always referred to the Beatles as elevator music because that's exactly what they were. I've never sat down and listened to a Beatles record from beginning to end. Those guys didn't mean a f--king thing to me." With any luck, "The Beatles Anthology" will turn the composers back into human beings. As Starr, 55, puts it, "Before we were a big deal-before we were 'the Beatles'--we were a cool little band." They were a band who wrote a lot of great songs and a few lousy ones, a band who loved each other and hated each other, a band whose adventurousness in the studio was a rising tide that raised all boats. Elevator music? R.E.M. is a great group, but if it weren't for the Beetles, Stipe would still be taking the stairs.

Apple's small staff began gathering materials for a film history after the Beatles' contentious breakup in 1970. The project was shelved, then revived in the mid-'80s: Apple showed Steven Spiel-berg a rough edit during a failed search for a director. And then it was shelved again. Apple had by now metamorphosed into a lawsuit factory. The Beatles spent much of the '80s suing their record company--and each other--in an effort to recoup some of the cash and control that their naivete had cost them in the '60s. In 1989, Apple won a reported $80 million settlement from EMI, and all parties agreed to unilaterally make nice. Suddenly the documentary was on again. "I think it was probably because the lawsuits were over," says "Anthology" producer Chips Chipperfield. "They couldn't find anything to sue each other about."

The filmmakers interviewed the bandmates over the course of three years, and screened the work-in-progress for them. They received praise and scolding at the hands of their famous bosses ("When my ass needs kicking, I get it well and truly kicked," director Wonfor says of McCartney). And they prayed the band members wouldn't kill the project. As Apple's longtime press officer, Derek Taylor, puts it, "We were all prepared for them to say, 'Oh, f--k it, who needs all this?'" If that wasn't pressure enough, the world press soon learned a reunion was afoot and began calling for updates. Taylor confides that the folks at Apple took to calling the project "T.T.T.F.O." When the receptionist told them a journalist was on the phone, somebody would invariably groan, "T.T.T.F.O!" Taylor laughs at the memory. Tell Them to F -- Off.

The fact that Ono and the Beatles had absolute control over the "Anthology" documentary is not entirely a blessing. There aren't likely to be any shocking revelations here, and there certainly won't be any renegade voices. Neither Lennon's first wife, Cynthia, nor his elder son, Julian, were consulted, according to Cynthia's manager: "They've made the be-all and end-all of the Beatles story without her! As if she wasn't there! It's ridiculous!" But then they made this documentary without so much as a narrator, at least partly because Ono and the Beatles would have clashed over the text. "There would have been untold horrors," says a source close to the project.

All this is not to say that "The Beatles Anthology" won't be a helluva good show. The documentary boasts an unparalleled collection of Beatle films. There'll be TV and concert footage that haven't been seen in 30 years, as well as clips that Apple has been hoarding all along. You'll see Linda McCartney's film of the Beatles' last photo session. Outtakes from the "Let It Be" film and the "Strawberry Fields Forever" promotional video. A colorized version of the international "All You Need Is Love" TV broadcast. And home movies from Greece and India, some of which had never even been developed. It should be an extraordinary tour, and who better than the Beatles for your guides? "I quite enjoyed telling the story," says Harrison. "The upside of the Beatles was really always far bigger than the downside, and it was good to remember that." Over the years, the bandmates' memories have undergone the inevitable slip-page. But the filmmakers have turned that slippage to their advantage, and made a documentary that revels in conflicting memories and emotions. At one point, McCartney, Harrison and Starr are brought together for a historic summit--and they end up arguing about what Priscilla Presley was wearing the night they met Elvis. Just like Beatles.

Today, Ono and the Beatles have been flung so far and wide it's a wonder they reconvened for "The Anthology." Ono and son Sean have been working on a powerful and evocative new album called "Rising." McCartney has simply been cleaning up, both as a solo artist and a music publisher: he's one of the richest men in Britain and worth an estimated $600 million. Starr has been, well, the only Beatle willing to play the legacy for laughs. He's popped up on all-star tours with his ponytail bobbing sweetly, as well as on "Shining Time Station" and a recent Pizza Hut commercial, during which he reunited with . . . the Monkees. Harrison re-emerged in the late '80s with the Traveling Wilburys. But his finances are not what they once were. Last year, HandMade Films, his movie-production company--which had a spectacularly uneven record with hits like "Life of Brian" and disasters like "Shanghai Surprise"--was sold for a paltry $8.5 million. Now, Harrison is suing his former business manager for $25 million. According to the British press, if Harrison loses the case, he could also lose his mansion near Henley-on-Thames. Which makes you wonder. In 1989, the guitarist issued a now famous statement that read, "As far as I'm concerned, there won't be a Beatles reunion as long as John Lennon remains dead." Why the about-face? Does Harrison need the money? Taylor dismisses such speculation. But then he adds drolly, "Now it may be the ease that they all would like the money, because once you've got a lot of money you do like to have more."

The Beatles reunion will inevitably trigger some cynicism, particularly because of Lennon's posthumous vocals. (Says singer Marianne Faithfull, "Whatever next? Virtual reality?") McCartney says Apple's famous partners came together largely to set the record straight, but there must have been a dozen more complicated reasons as well. Maybe it was out of love. Maybe it was for a lark. Maybe Ono saw a certain symmetry in donating the demo tape s that brought the band back into the studio. "I did not break up the Beatles," she says, "but I was there at the time, you know? Now I'm in a position where I could bring them back together and I would not want to hinder that. It was kind of a situation given to me by fate."

There's one more maybe: maybe the BEATLES were ready for the whole damn thing to be over. Is the "Anthology" a new beginning, or is it simply the end? McCartney is coy on the subject ("Think of a circle. The beginning is the end"). But the "Anthology" project appears to be the band members' way of emptying their closets and their minds. And that certainly sounds like a door closing, not opening. "There are people who think that now that the Beatles have done the 'Anthology,' the world's their oyster and they can go back on tour,'" says Mark Lewisohn, archivist and author of "The Beatles: Recording Sessions," which McCartney calls "the Bible." "But there's another school of thought which says that this project was hanging over them for 25 years. Now, if they don't feel like it, they need never see each other again." It's obvious the Beatles have a bedrock love for each other. But it's also obvious their relationships can still be epically complicated. Asked if he hugs or shakes hands with McCartney and Starr, Harrison faxed back: "Yes."

There are places where you still can feel the Beatles' presence. One of them is Studio 2 at Abbey Road, where the group recorded for nearly a decade--it's been preserved with so much reverence that the moment you walk in you feel as if you're breathing Beatle air. There's an ancient Hammond organ sitting on the battered parquet floor. There's an old Steinway upright in the corner. And the famed sound-effects closet--which the band members raided like schoolchildren-is still under the stairway, though it's empty now except for a thunder machine, a cardboard box full of tambourines and a flickering fluorescent light. The Beatles blew out of Studio 2 a long time ago. And, having reunited for "The Anthology," they may pull one last vanishing act. If they do disappear, they'll do it knowing that they've told their version of the story once and for all. That they've released every piece of music that doesn't make them blush. That they finally gave a reunion a shot. And that they really did give every sodding thing they had to be Beatles. "I don't know if you ever understand anything," says McCartney. "That's what happened at the end of the 'Anthology': I don't understand it all any better than I ever did. But it's all in one place now. That's the thing." It must be, if nothing else, an enormous relief. Each of the Beatles must feel a little lighter these days, a little less encumbered. What's the expression? Free as a bird.

They were kid rockers. Then they were Beatles. Music changed forever. Was it a long and winding road, or what?

PHOTOS (COLOR): 1957 John Lennon, 16, forms the Quarry Men. He meets Paul McCartney, 15, and brings him in.


George Harrison, 15, joins the band.

Ringo Starr, 22, joins the Beatles. John marries Cynthia Powell.

Please Please Me.

Rubber Soul. The queen names the Beetles Members of the Order of the British Empire. They meet Elvis. Ringo marries Maureen Cox.

The White Album. The cover of Two Virgins, by John and Yoko, features them nude.

Ringo, a musical variety TV special, with Ringo tunes and Beatles hits.

Ringo's wife divorces him.

Stop and Smell the Roses. Ringo stars in Caveman, a dum-dum comedy. He marries costar Barbara Bach.

Ringo and his wife check into rehab for alcoholism.

Ringo gets "seven figures" to star in a commercial for Sun Country Classic wine 1986 Ringo plays an 18-inch-tall train conductor on a PBS children's show, Shining Time Station.

Ringo shaves all his hair, eyebrows, too.

Bad reviews of George's tour push him into virtual seclusion until 1987.

All Those Years Ago. The ex-Beatles collaborate on a song written by George as a tribute to John.

The publication of George's memoir, I Me Mine.

All Things Must Pass.

George organizes two charity concerts for Bangladesh.

Living in the Material World, with Sue Me Sue You Blues.

George marries Olivia Arias.

George divorces Patti Boyd.

George is found guilty of "subconsciously" plagiarizing the John Mack tune He's So Fine for his 1970 hit My Sweet Lord.

Ringo makes a Pizza Hut commercial with the Monkees.

Abbey Road. The Beatles play live for the last time on the roof of Apple's London office. McCartney marries Linda Eastman. John and Yoko get married. They protest the war with a weeklong bed-in.

Mind Games.

John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band. Imagine.

Wings's first world tour.

John gets a U.S. green card after a 4-yr. struggle.

Backed by Eric Clapton and his band, George finally tours after 17 years. In Japan.

Flowers in the Dirt.

Let It Be. Paul announces that he's left the Beatles. The McCartney album.

The Guinness Book of World Records names Paul "the most successful composer of all time."

Paul says his family is "a lot like" the family on The Cosby Show.

Paul doesn't show up at the Beatles' induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.