Magical Mystery Tour

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Even before the history of the Beatles was recorded in "The Beatles Anthology" (Chronicle Books; 367 pages; $60), it was written on the faces of John, Paul, George and Ringo. Just look at the comedy-musical "A Hard Day’s Night" (1964), from the dawn of Beatlemania: the footage is black and white, the lads are all in proper-looking suits, their hair cut just below their ears, their faces bright and clean shaven (except for McCartney’s fake goatee in the opening scene). Then screen the edgier "Let It Be" (1970), the documentary that recorded the Fab Four’s final days: the film is in gritty color, and the music is tougher. The lads are now men, their hair grown down to their shoulders. McCartney’s full beard is real. The suits are long gone, and most of the smiles too.

"The Beatles Anthology" is billed as the Beatles’ own “permanent written record.” Essentially, it is an attempt by the surviving Beatles—Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr—and John Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono to write the story of the band before somebody else writes it for them.

Actually, they’re too late. There are already enough Beatles-related books out there to fill the Albert Hall, and in the next few weeks several more are arriving. They include "YES Yoko Ono" (Abrams; 352 pages; $60) by Alexandra Munroe with Jon Hendricks, a survey, complete with a CD by Ono and her son Sean Lennon; "Paul McCartney Paintings" (Bulfinch; 146 pages; $50), which features the cute Beatle’s artwork; and" In My Life" by Debbie Geller (St. Martin’s; 208 pages; $24.95), a biography of Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager.

But "The Beatles Anthology," a coffee table–size volume of text and photos, is the big one. The saga of the group is told primarily in the alternating voices of McCartney, Lennon, Harrison and Starr. Their magical mystery tour is related in straight-ahead chronological order: Lennon growing up on Penny Lane (yes, that’s really where he lived for a time); John and Paul meeting as teens and later hooking up with Harrison and then Starr; the early days of the band in Hamburg, Germany; and the making of each one of their albums. There are some interesting tidbits and stories along the way. Lennon (his quotations are drawn from various published and unpublished sources) says the legend of his rough background is untrue: he was “brought up to be a nice lower-middle-class English boy.” Bob Dylan shows up quite a bit—his music, according to the Beatles, was an inspiration to their own work. He also turned them on to marijuana.

There’s an endearing British quality to the Beatles’ voices in this volume, and that sometimes gives the anecdotes an Austin Powers–ish twist. Harrison remembers this story about the band’s salad days in Germany: “Our friend Bernie came out from Liverpool to visit us. We were in a club, and Bernie walked in and said, ‘I’ve just had a wank off this great-looking bird in the lav.’ We all said, ‘That’s not a bird, Bernie!’”

As readers, many of us carry a secret longing for unauthorized histories, works that are therefore free to deliver the real story. "The Beatles Anthology" is an official version, and although we’re occasionally surprised by the Beatles’ candor, much of the time we’re left thinking that there must be better stories about the group and more eloquent ways of telling them.

The Beatles, of course, are four of the best-known and most-beloved personalities in the history of rock. How many other band members are still recognizable by their first names the world over 30 years after their breakup? The Beatles represented pop music in its most basic form (undistilled teen idolatry) and its most sophisticated (just listen to "Abbey Road"). "The Beatles Anthology’s" greatest accomplishment is to detail the hours the Beatles spent in the studio looking for new sounds and new ways of recording them on such classic releases as "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band." Sure, it’s fun to read about the breakups and the makeups, the brainstorms and the triumphs, but we also hear the music for the first time all over again. Any book that can do that belongs in every fan’s collection.