20 Years ago today The Beatles reunited for a mammoth TV retrospective called "The Beatles Anthology" with an accompanying 9LP/6CD Outtakes and rarities compilation to go with it.
To go along with it, they issued two singles, the first of which celebrates its 20th anniversary today. Entitled "Free As a Bird" it was reconstituted from a home cassette recorded demo by John Lennon. The other three assumed "John was away for the weekend" and finished it without him.
They enlisted the help of Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) frontman Jeff Lynne to produce the two singles. Longtime Beatles producer George Martin declined as his hearing was beginning to fail at that point. Lynne was a curious choice of producer. Suggested by George Harrison, as he'd produced his "Cloud Nine" LP and was a member of his group Travelling Wilburys, Jeff had no doubt fulfilled a dream of his by working with the Beatles.
You see, Jeff's work in ELO always took its cues from the Beatles' experiments with orchestral instruments: "Eleanor Rigby", "I Am The Walrus", "A Day In The Life" et al. ELO didn't necessarily succeed in sounding like The Beatles as Jeff may have envisaged. He did, however, succeed in making The Beatles sound like ELO.
You see, everything Jeff is credited as the producer on all sounds the bloody same as ELO. These two singles were no different. That doesn't make them bad. In fact they're quite listenable. It just doesn't make them as idiosyncratic as the rest of the Beatles' catalog. These sound more like footnotes or, more to the point, "afterthoughts" rather than worthy additions to the canon.
The video for "Free as a Bird" was beautifully animated, full of references to the Beatles folklore and history. After the song finishes proper, there's a strange little reprise that has some garbled message from John that has been warped to sound mysterious, and some ukulele playing in the style of George Formby, whom George Harrison was obsessed with at the time and onward in his later years.
As a single release it didn't set the charts alight, but it was perfect fodder for plugging the release of the "Anthology" which was responsible for repositioning the Beatles in the forefront of every music-lovers mind as the premier band of the Rock era, irrespective of how old you were.
Take a look at the video again below: