FREE. AS A BEATLE

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WELL, WHAT DID YOU EXPECT to find in the Abbey Road vaults--Al Capone? The hype preceding last week's debut of Free as a Bird, the Beatles' first new single since The Long and Winding Road in 1970, was so intense that anything short of the world premiere of Beethoven's 10th would have been anticlimactic. The clock on the Sunday edition of abc's Beatles Anthology didn't help: Two minutes to Free as a Bird ... one minute ... 15 seconds ... as if it were a countdown to a very special Dick Clark's Rockin' New Year's Eve. Coming at the end of two hours of good music and great vibes, this souped-up, no-muffler megaproduction of John Lennon's wispy little air made the surviving Beatles sound--and their longtime fans feel--very old indeed.

In the original 1977 demo tape, widely available on bootleg cassette, Lennon prefaces the tune by announcing, in the terse gutturals of a Brooklyn gangster, "Free. As a boid." That larkish spirit, absent in the new version, abounds on the two-CD album The Beatles Anthology (Apple/Capitol)--60 tracks of the group's compositions, cover recordings, outtakes, TV skits and reminiscences.

As the Sunday ABC show expertly evoked the Beatles' burgeoning popularity from 1958 to 1964, so this album produces all the evidence anyone will ever need of their growth during those years as musicians, singers and composers. Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison began the way a million other children of early rock 'n' roll did: by singing rough copies of their idols' numbers into clumsy tape recorders in their parents' rec rooms. Six years and two crucial recruits (Ringo Starr and producer George Martin) later, voila--meet the Beatles.

The big news on this album is the emergence of seven early, previously unreleased songs by Lennon, McCartney and Harrison in various collaborative permutations. But before anyone starts the countdown clock, be warned that there are no unpanned nuggets here. The five vocals and two instrumentals hold mainly archaeological interest, offering vague signposts to the musical trails the lads would later blaze. The first, In Spite of All the Danger, is a Paul-and-George ballad with John singing lead, the others singing doo-wop with a perversely rockabilly twist, and an anonymous pal banging out triplets on a piano. They imitate the Everly Brothers' tight harmonies on Hello Little Girl, Maurice Williams on Like Dreamers Do.

The most entertaining cuts show the Beatles' early gift for parody. You'll Be Mine, a Lennon-McCartney jape from 1960, suggests a Five Satins love song as it might have been tortured by a fourth-rate crooner in a Blackpool pub. John offers a basso-preposteroso spoken verse: "My darlin'...I looked into your eyes, and I could see a National Health eyeball..." The band brought the same proto-camp tone to covers of Three Cool Cats and Sheik of Araby, on a failed audition tape for Decca Records on New Year's Day, 1962. Raw and cheeky, the Beatles sound at best like a dance-hall novelty act. You wouldn't have signed them either.

With George Martin's guidance at EMI, they improved immediately. Lennon finds a rude authority in his voice; it blossoms into the plaintive curl that distinguished his Beatles career and oddly disappeared later. McCartney's "wooos" get full-bodied; instead of the girlish falsetto of early days, he now screams like an electrocuted tomcat. And they suddenly learned how to write songs--the Beatles' enduring legacy. Even their cover versions sound great. "What we generated was fantastic when we played straight rock," Lennon says in an interview heard on the album. "And there was nobody to touch us in Britain." Listen to Money or Roll Over Beethoven here to see he wasn't bragging.

The music was ferocious and keen, but the Beatles made sure they were seen as decent boy-os from Liverpool. They worked fantastically hard--a concert in Hull, then drive down to London for a recording session and back home the same day for a radio interview. They appeared on all the popular TV variety shows, allowing the hosts to make genial mock of Beatlemania. The album underlines the band's close ties to mainstream British show biz. It was this grounding that helped them endure and enjoy their success with such amazing poise.

Thirty years on, McCartney pays homage to the ur-Beatles in the lyrics he wrote for the bridge to Free as a Bird. Lennon had laid down only the first couplet: "Whatever happened to/ The life that we once knew?" And Paul comes in with, "Can we really live without each other?/ Where did we lose the touch/ That seemed to mean so much?/ It always made me feel so ..." "Free," sings John's disembodied voice, and the other aging lads harmonize ecstatically. The Anthology album vividly recaptures the days when John, Paul, George and Ringo were free as young birds, learning to soar higher than anyone in pop had ever flown.