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FREE AS A BIRD

The Beatles

 

Proto-Prog

3.89 | 9 ratings

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Chicapah
Prog Reviewer
4 stars In the mid 90s when we aging Beatlemaniacs got wind of the group's upcoming anthology series we weren't nearly as interested in the state-of-the-art rehashing of their incredible story as we were in the rumor that the documentary would include at least one new song. By all means we were, as ever, interested (read: obsessed) in discovering any extra tidbits of information, trivia and/or minutiae that had somehow been left out of the reams of literature that had been generated about the Fab Four since their inception but the idea of being graced with an unheard recording was almost too much to bear. High anxiety was rampant. I, for one, had never really wanted a full-scale reunion to materialize during the 70s because I instinctively felt it would never have served their legacy justice. I was content for them to leave well enough alone. But after a despicable, cowardly, pea-brained imbecile cruelly snatched the life and art of John Lennon from us one bitter evening I changed my point of view. In the face of such ugliness I welcomed any resurrection of the benevolent spirit the Beatles had so magically spread throughout the world in the 60s because now I believed it would be accepted in reverential remembrance of their contributions to mankind, not in wistful mimicry of what we all once had. They wouldn't be reuniting, exactly; they would merely be adding a respectful coda onto a resplendent career.

When the much-anticipated day finally arrived (December 4, 1995) I wasn't disappointed. Not in the least. In fact, I was amazed at what they had achieved. For those of you who don't know the details, "Free as a Bird" was born as a bare-bones demo John taped on a cassette inside his Dakota apartment in 1977. There were bootleg versions out and about but it had never become a finished product. Yoko Ono gave it to Paul when the concept of producing something special that all of the quartet could be a part of for the big event was formulated. Advanced digital technology made it possible for producer Jeff Lynne (George Martin humbly bowed out due to hearing ills) to improve the fidelity of Lennon's living room performance and allow Ringo, George and Paul to embellish the tune with their own influences. Considering how it came together, the end result is remarkable. It shot up to #2 in the UK and #6 in the USA, becoming the band's 34th top ten single. It's also the only time that Lennon, Harrison and McCartney sang separate lead vocals on the same song. And, while it'll never be mentioned in the same company as their greatest compositions, it's nonetheless a fitting, honorable tribute to their lofty artistic standards and a loving gift to their adoring fans.

The tune's moodiness reflects the somewhat trippy yet earthy attitude of their Magical Mystery Tour era and that's fine by me. Having said that, it doesn't really sound like anything else they ever did. John's typically unorthodox chording distinguishes it from the familiar doo wop pattern it could easily have fallen into and his thin, phantom vocal suits the somber occasion perfectly. When Paul sings "Whatever happened to/the life that we once knew/can we really live without each other?/where did we lose the touch/it seemed to mean so much/it always made me feel so free," he echoes the nostalgic sentiment of millions. The background harmonies are as lush as they always were, George's inimitable slide guitar work can't be mistaken for anyone else's and the same compliment can be applied to Ringo's unique drum fills. The false ending is so delightfully Beatle-ish and the added touch of Harrison's ukulele strumming accompanied by a backwards snippet from Lennon himself during the fade is pure genius. (He actually said "turned out nice again" but when reversed it sounds eerily like "made by John Lennon." That's the definition of serendipity, boys and girls.) I don't see how anyone could ask for more under the circumstances. It's another excellent song from the lads from Liverpool. Period.

The EP I have also contains take #9 of "I Saw Her Standing There" from February '63 which provided McCartney's enthusiastic 1-2-3-4 count that got spliced onto the front of take #1, the track that made it onto their debut album. It hints that they might've grown weary of playing it by the ninth time around because George's lead break is uncharacteristically sloppy. The October '63 studio version of "This Boy" included on the CD is actually two different stabs at the number, both of which end prematurely/rudely in gales of laughter. To hear them cutting up together like that reminds me that they were, at heart, just good pals getting to do what they loved and that in itself is music to this enthusiast's ears. "Christmas Time (Is Here Again)" was their annual holiday present to their fan club members in '67 and has all the evidences of being composed hastily on the spot with Starr intoning "O-U-T spells OUT." Individually they offer their cheerful season's greetings and then John utters a soliloquy so heavily accented (British, Irish, Scottish maybe?) as to make it unintelligible to this befuddled Texas native. It's probably very coy and witty.

The bottom line is that they didn't fail either us or themselves with "Free As A Bird." For decades we fanatics and followers begged for one last treat but I dare say that we would've settled for a mere crumb, if necessary. In true Beatle fashion, though, they surprised us and gave us something of quality, something substantial, something worthy of our unflagging adoration. The tune is an exceptional epilogue to one of the greatest tomes ever written. Doubtful that the inhabitants of this crazy planet will ever know their like again. A pity.

Chicapah | 4/5 |

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