Since declaring themselves defunct more than 30 years ago, the Beatles have alternately receded and loomed as figures of cultural authority and musical influence. While their spirit has hovered over and coursed through reinventors as diverse as David Bowie, Funkadelic, Elvis Costello, Prince and Kurt Cobain, there are other shifts of the pop paradigm to which they were never issued an invitation. (They're hard to find in hip-hop, unless we trace, as some have strained plausibility to do, a lineage from the word salad of "I Am the Walrus" to freestyle rap.) But the Beatles have never quite gone away -- nor are they likely to, since their continued popularity is due less to boomer nostalgia than to the band's timelessness.
Like friends, the Beatles are never far from a fan's thoughts; like family, they loom largest when an anniversary approaches, as it does now. Things are falling into place for their latest commercial resurgence. The Great Beatles Revival of 1976 -- compilation albums assembled, old singles set loose on the charts, magazine covers, a new subgeneration of fans hoovered into the happy fray -- set the pattern for all subsequent bonanzas, including the 1995-96 release of the multimedia Beatles Anthology project and 2000's midsized flurry attending the ascension of the 1 album to the top spot on the album charts of 29 nations.
Presently we are entering the run-up to the 40th anniversary of the band's arrival in America, which will fall on Feb. 7 of next year. No doubt in the months ahead there will be specials for TV and radio, cover stories and celebrity reminiscences. A spate of books is either here or on the way, including the updated third edition of Hunter Davies' 1968 authorized biography, a book of photos by early backstage chronicler Harry Benson, and a memoir of their first U.S. tour by disc jockey and fellow traveler Larry Kane.
But this winter's mini-mania will be kick-started by Let It Be ... Naked, set for release by EMI Records on Nov. 18 in the United States. The latest Beatle- or Beatle estate-sanctioned reissue is a revision of the band's final album -- almost universally recalled as a weak and wavering kiss-off, a collection of minor rockers, modest ballads and incongruously fulsome orchestrations. These were tortured into form under the uncertain hand of "reproducer" Phil Spector, who was handed the tapes of the January 1969 recording sessions by an uninterested John Lennon and who promptly adorned several of the tracks with precisely the kinds of syrupy orchestrations that it had been the goal of the project to avoid in the first place. The Beatles.com Web site flacks the Naked package as "the no-frills, back-to-basics album that The Beatles first set out to make ... but which was never released as they intended, the band back to the bone." But there is less portent to this reissue than the title's ellipsis implies, and less exposed skin than the press release promises.
Though EMI has been parsimonious with prerelease copies, the Naked song list, detailing changes to each track, has been posted on Beatle news sites; fans familiar (as I am) with both official and bootleg recordings of these songs can play the album in their heads, as most of the selections have appeared many times in illicit form. The "new" versions run from the subtly tweaked (slight edits to "Dig a Pony" have been restored) to the genuinely stripped ("The Long and Winding Road," sans strings and chorale) to the freshly fused ("I've Got a Feeling," welded from two separate outdoor performances). The previously absent "Don't Let Me Down" now assumes a slot of honor, and "Across the Universe" holds its beauty despite being no longer sunbathed in Spectorsound. The selections are solid, the running order cannily calibrated for highs and lows, hard and soft, beginning, middle and end. Naked, it would seem, works.
But what does it work at? Not really that much. Where this low-key, bare-bones approach might have been tonic to the overloaded, sensation-clogged rock ear of 1969, today it is only a retouched, reshuffled reissue of a badly botched bummer. It's ironic that this album, the product of the Beatles' lowest ebb and (almost) last days, should precede the anniversary of their international coming out as fresh, young rebels, absurdly randy pop idols -- an irony that could well have been mined for the richness of its contradictions and conflicts, a juxtaposing of Beatle histories. Working against the teary smiles and sighing nostalgia that will attend the 40th-anniversary festivities, Naked could have shown us a darker, deeper picture of that same beginning now dissolving in the rancor and frustration of four men falling out of love amid the slow decaying of the world they'd made.
There is so much material to draw on. Naked derives almost totally from the January 1969 sessions for what was intended to be a comeback-concert rehearsal and return to roots but wound up, for the Beatles, a workaday grind and joyless chore (not least because, having to adhere to a movie-industry schedule, they were under orders to report to the set early in the morning, a time of day they were well used to seeing from the other end). The sessions were taped and filmed from top to bottom, and as we watch the accompanying documentary or listen to the underground session tapes, the dearth of joy is oppressive. Paul is bossy, George bitchy. John -- Yoko always at his side -- is drugged by heroin and dragged by the abuse of a racist British public. Ringo, patient-souled and sleepy-eyed, is a sponge, silently absorbing the depression of the others.
But there's more to it than that, enough to complicate the conventional picture: blazing rock numbers torn off in two minutes flat, a hundred forgotten oldies and ancestral B-sides busked between failed takes, priceless jokes and rich self-parodies shared in confidence as the Beatles delay the increasingly futile work of planning their return to the stage. There is the fascinating journey of "Get Back" from anti-racist satire ("No Pakistanis") to the cool, spooky crypto-rocker it became. There is a jam, George missing and Yoko screaming, in which the Beatles' sickness with themselves, one another and the fact of being Beatles comes out in a prolonged vomit of distorted sound. Throughout, there are passages of playfulness and humor and preternatural unity that any fan will prize, any admirer of music marvel upon. They provide ballast for Ringo's insistence that "once the count-in happened, we turned back into those brothers and musicians."
These sessions contain enough opposite intensities, enough fruitful tension emerging from the wasteful humbuggery, that any fan with a few bootlegs, minimal mixing technology and some imagination can construct an alternative that would expose Naked for the compromise of a compromise that it is. (Twenty minutes of rehearsal and dialogue excerpts are consigned to a companion disc, included less to flesh out posterity, I suspect, than to toss a bone at barking Beatlemaniacs like me.) A darker, fuller revisioning of Let It Be could have served as a salutary balance to the wistful nostalgia trip that the 40th anniversary will inevitably amount to; against a rosy remembrance of beginnings and youth, it could have been the bracing chronicle of a historical ending.
This needn't matter, of course, if to you the Beatles are one thing only: fab. Which they are; no one who loves the Beatles does not love their loveliness, their joy, their exploding laughter. Historically that is the side of them that has received the most attention, probably because it's the most needless of inquiry and amenable to nostalgiafication. But the sources of their appeal are much deeper and thornier than that -- what has allowed them to replenish their fan base at regular intervals is the certainty in every young listener that there is, and always will be, more to the Beatles than meets the eye. It is the promise of mystery and scintillating delights: sounds, pictures, words, ideas, layered pleasures beneath rapturous surfaces. The Beatles are simple enough for children, but as those children grow, the band becomes less and less simple.
Younger fans, who will carry Beatle fandom into the wilds of this century and prove it wasn't just boomer hallucination, will need to discover the group's multiplicity for themselves. And they will. But it will happen without the help of the Beatle organization's increasingly conventionalized reissue catalog, which has been intent thus far on making the Beatles and the cultural history that revolves around them seem far less extreme, less mad and multidimensional than they were. The Anthology soundtracks were surprising and plentiful, but a few of the knottier, more avant-garde rarities were conspicuously absent (notably the 1967 sound collage "Carnival of Light"). In that and subsequent releases, the Beatle organization has been primarily concerned with polishing or patching existing works -- sanding off the rough edges of the canon, burnishing the Beatle bronze. Like elder poets fiddling interminably with the syntax of earlier works, the remaining Beatles (Paul, mostly) and the packagers of their material toil to perfect the past rather than to split it open and risk complicating its future.
Rather than smoothing out Beatle history, Naked could have filled it with spikes -- made a grousing, grieving, roaring, moving montage of the Beatles drifting apart and of one historical tide turning, even as the 40th-anniversary celebrations peddle boomer nostalgia for Ed Sullivan and shaggy wigs and a happy madness the world will never know again. What is the joy worth without the sorrow to deepen it? With Naked, the Beatle organization had a chance to reconfigure a piece of received history into something that would both encompass that history and build significantly upon it, both for those who thought they knew the history and those who, as we speak, have not yet discovered it.