IN 1989 GEORGE HARRISON WAS ASKED That Question for the thousandth time. There would be no Beatles reunion, the quiet one said, "as long as John Lennon remains dead." Yet here they were, George and Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, in the Abbey Road studios, putting aside rancors that had festered for decades and making music. "Working together, they've found themselves again," says the Beatles' longtime record producer George Martin of the sessions last winter. "There was a great spirit of camaraderie. It's almost as though John was with them too." And he was. Lennon's audible ghost sings lead on Free as a Bird, the--never thought we'd get to say this--new Beatles single.
Shortly before his death in 1980, Lennon recorded the unfinished tune--a slight hymn to deliverance, with the structure of his 1964 This Boy and the feel of his 1970 post-Beatles Love--on a low-fi home cassette, which Yoko Ono Lennon turned over to her husband's old chums. "It had hums, hisses and clicks that had to be removed," says pop maestro Jeff Lynne, formerly of Electric Light Orchestra, who produced this year's eerie session. "But that was the easy part. The hard part was getting the Beatles to play together along with him." Once they did, though, Beatle magic allegedly ensued. Says Martin: "Paul wrote more lyrics and added a bit more music with George. Ringo plays lovely drum; Paul does bass; George does a blinding guitar solo. And voices from Paul and George are complimenting John's beautifully."
For now, no outsiders may hear the song, and armed guards are protecting the E.M.I. pressing plant in Jacksonville, Florida. But on Nov. 21, Free as a Bird will be issued as part of The Beatles Anthology Volume 1, a double album that Martin assembled from early (1958-64) outtakes--including unreleased songs, variations of familiar ones and banter from studio sessions. Free as a Bird and another collaborative effort, Real Love, will be heard on a three-night, six-hour TV show, also called The Beatles Anthology, that abc will air starting this Sunday. After all these years, and despite all their fears, the No. 1 group in recording history is making a comeback.
The TV documentary (another version, 10 hours long, will appear on video in 1996) is a jolly, narratorless, comprehensive ramble that captures the thrill of the glory years, as reconstructed with rarely seen footage and recollected by the very Fab Four--John from old snippets, of course, the others in recent interviews, individually and together. The CD package, the first of three, promises choice nuggets as well. "It won't be, as some feared, just a ragbag of rejects," says Ian MacDonald, author of Revolution in the Head, a close study of the group's music. "It'll be the vital concluding installment of the Beatles' story in sound. It'll sell squillions."
Last year's thin but charming excavation, the two-CD Live at the BBC, sold 8 million copies worldwide, so there may yet be fresh gold in the Beatles. abc thinks so; it paid $20 million for the documentary. E.M.I. paid several millions more for the three "new" double albums, and last week Sony paid $95 million to Michael Jackson to share in his ownership of part of the Beatles song catalog.