Book review of The Unreleased Beatles

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Book review of Unreleased Beatles, Richie UnterbergerBuy your copy The Unreleased Beatles starstarstarhalf starhalf star Author: Richie Unterberger
Publisher: Backbeat Books (2006)
Genre: Music 

Why is it, just when you’re certain that everything about the Beatles that needs to be written has already been written, someone has to go and prove you wrong? 

If you’re a Beatle obsessive, it’s likely you already have a couple of titles on the tip of your tongue when someone asks you to recommend your favorite book about the band. Personally, I’ve always sworn by the late Nicholas Schaffner’s 1977 book, “The Beatles Forever,” because it was the first in-depth look at the Beatles’ career that I ever owned. (That, and it comes sans the depressing ending of most post-1980 Beatles books.) I know many others, however, who very reasonably consider Mark Lewisohn’s exhaustive tome, “The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions,” to be as good as it gets. Now, thanks to longtime music journalist Richie Unterberger, we have the perfect companion to Lewisohn’s book: “The Unreleased Beatles.” 

Before you say anything, however, let me just state that, yes, you’re right: if Lewisohn’s book is truly the complete look at every single Beatles recording session ever, then it does indeed contain the unreleased Beatles songs discussed in Unterberger’s book as well. There’s a tremendous difference, however, between the two authors’ works. While Lewisohn’s material was done with the assistance of Abbey Road Studios and contains insights about the various recording sessions from the band’s longtime producer, George Martin (not to mention an introductory Q&A with Paul McCartney), Unterberger provides a look into the treasure trove of the Beatles’ history from the perspective of a fan

In his introduction, Unterberger speaks of how, as a young lad growing up in the 1960s, he became obsessed with the band after buying his very first album, Meet the Beatles. When he went to buy his second album, he unwittingly ended up in possession of a bootleg containing demos from the Let It Be sessions. (He’d walked into a record store and asked if they had any Beatles albums, and that’s what the sales clerk steered him toward.) From there, there was no turning back. Although it would take him several years to figure out where to find more such releases, Unterberger remained fascinated by the idea of hearing this mysterious material from the vaults that hadn’t officially been released. 

With “The Unreleased Beatles,” Unterberger’s fascination paid off in a big way for the Beatles enthusiast. He spends more than 375 pages discussing every single Beatles recording that resulted in a performance of note that’s never seen release, whether it’s an alternate take of otherwise-available material, a live performance recorded for some radio station, even the occasional TV gig. They’re sometimes only a few seconds long – a verse here, a chorus there -- but, still, if they’ve been committed to tape and he’s heard it, he speaks of them. Indeed, sometimes Unterberger speaks of them even if no one has actually heard them. In the early pages of the book, he observes that McCartney recorded a cover of the folk song, “Pick a Bale of Cotton,” with his schoolmate Neil Harding at some point in the late 1950s, but acknowledges that “the tape cannot be found, and even if it is, it can probably be assumed that it’s only of the most marginal interest.”  

Unterberger’s eye for detail is tremendous, as might be expected from someone who’s studied the band for as long as he has, but what’s far more impressive than that is his ability to offer an unbiased opinion about the quality or performance on a particular recording. Yes, he’s a Beatles obsessive, but while he acknowledges the historical importance of these recordings, he’s not afraid to admit if a particular performance might prove to be an excruciating listen. Unterberger also pointedly references Lewishon’s book and acknowledges that, with “The Unreleased Beatles,” he’s gone out of his way to avoid redundancy between the two books and he succeeds far more often than he fails. In addition to offering his personal positions on the songs he’s actually heard first-hand, he includes reminiscences from countless other sources, including the Beatles themselves, albeit in quotes from other books or publications. The result is a collection of fascinating minutiae of the group’s history that you never knew about, such as how they recorded their first demo of “When I’m Sixty-Four” 1960, more than half a decade before it ever appeared on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; or that, during the Let It Be sessions, the group took an aborted stab at a cover of The Foundations’ “Build Me Up, Buttercup.” 

You’d think “The Unreleased Beatles” would eventually prove to be a tiring read, but Unterberger’s breezy yet in-depth commentary keeps things interesting and eminently enjoyable from start to finish. Yes, as noted, this is the kind of book that will tend to appeal to an audience consisting predominantly of the already-obsessed, but if you have even a slightly more than casual interest in the Beatles, be prepared to find yourself beginning a quest to hear this material long before you come to the end.

~Will Harris