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20 Years Ago: The Beatles Do the Unthinkable and Reunite for ‘Anthology 1’

On Nov. 20, 1995, shortly before Americans indulged in their traditional annual meal of turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, Beatles fans had their own form of Thanksgiving. That day, the band released Anthology 1, a double-CD set that was part of a massive historical project that gave the world the first new Beatles recording since 1970.

The CDs, the first of three volumes, were a collection of rare recordings they had made between 1958 and 1964, beginning with a cover of Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day” and a Paul McCartney and George Harrison composition called “In Spite of All the Danger.” Many of the other tracks were rooted in Beatles lore. There were three from their Hamburg-era sessions with Tony Sheridan, five of the failed audition for Decca, two from the successful audition at Parlophone and live takes from the Royal Variety Performance, The Ed Sullivan Show and other televised appearances.

Of the rest, there were a handful of studio outtakes, such as a couple of attempts at “I’ll Be Back” as a waltz, the demo of “No Reply” and a stunning version of Little Willie John’s “Leave My Kitten Alone” that had inexplicably been left off Beatles for Sale.

In between some tracks were clips of the group and manager Brian Epstein telling their story. These were culled from the Anthology documentary, a six-hour oral history narrated by the key participants. The first two hours premiered on ABC two days before the CD’s release, with the other four coming later in the week. But part one concluded with the premiere of the video of the new song, “Free as a Bird.”

The original piano-and-vocal recording had been made onto a cassette by John Lennon in 1977. Yoko Ono gave the tape to the three surviving Beatles, who holed up in McCartney’s home studio in Sussex, England in early 1994. Jeff Lynne, who had worked extensively with Harrison, was hired to produce the record, The process involved cleaning up the original crude recording and overdubbing the other instruments. A b-section featuring lead vocals by McCartney and Harrison was written.

It was a daring proposition for them to undertake, and one that opened themselves up to a lot of criticism. But they shielded themselves by noting that it was something that happened fairly regularly in the old days. As McCartney said in the liner notes, “We took the attitude that John had gone on holiday, saying, ‘I finished all the tracks except this one but I leave it to you guys to finish it all. And once we agreed to take that attitude, it gave us a lot of freedom.”

Bolstered by a video that contained sly references to dozens of Beatles songs, “Free as a Bird” reached No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. Anthology 1 debuted at No. 1 and stayed there for three weeks. Subsequent volumes containing similar Beatles rarities were released in March 1996 and October 1996, with Anthology 2 containing another new song, “Real Love.”

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