Re-Meet The Beatles

It was 40 years ago today, the Beatles taught the world to play.  With the June 3 anniversary of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” there are Fab Four projects in abundance, though none will have the seismic effect on the music world of their 1967 masterpiece.

“Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m 64?” asked Paul McCartney on that record.  Now he’s reached that ripe old age, and Sir Paul isn’t waiting around for an answer.  Instead, he’s pulling out all the stops to assert his relevance.  Ringo Starr, the only other living Beatle, has an art show, greatest hits package, and two live DVDs in the pipeline – in addition to a rumored new studio album.

John Lennon’s memory is being invoked anew by Amnesty International, and George Harrison’s work with the Traveling Wilburys has been re-mastered and given the box set treatment.

McCartney’s “Memory Almost Full” is an album’s worth of new material that moves from his Beatles tenure (“Ever Present Past,” “Vintage Clothes”) to his looming mortality (“The End of the End”) with breeziness reminiscent of “Band on the Run”-era Wings.

But more attention is being paid to the record’s marketing effort than its musical content.  Starbucks enjoyed success selling exclusive CDs from Ray Charles, Bob Dylan and Sheryl Crow in their national chain of coffee shops.  Last year, they wooed Paul away from longtime label EMI to their Hear Music imprint.

Beginning last Tuesday, every Starbucks latte came with a venti helping of McCartney.  “Memory Almost Full” played 24/7, and the baristas were restless.  Word began to leak out about sabotaged store CD players and disgruntled customers unhappy at being force-fed Macca with their milk foam.

More embarrassing was a “report from the trenches” published on the blog.  An anonymous Starbucks manager noted that McCartney, a vegetarian and avid PETA supporter, would likely object to a sign posted in many east coast stores, urging customers to grab the album “while enjoying a new Classic Sausage Egg and Cheese Breakfast Sandwich.”

Of course, when a video of McCartney begging fans to buy the record showed up on, it seemed he’d countenance most anything in the name of commerce.

All the brouhaha is a shame, really, because “Memory Almost Full” is actually quite good, when stacked against his recent solo work.

It’s no “Venus and Mars,” though.

With “Instant Karma: The Campaign To Save Darfur,” at least John Lennon’s dignity is still intact.  Amnesty International gathered a blue chip collection of classic and hip new artists to cover Lennon solo material made available with the help of widow Yoko Ono.  Proceeds from the CD go to support the human rights organization’s continuing work, and specifically draw attention to the dire situation in the Sudan.

Highlights include Aerosmith’s “Give Peace a Chance,” re-worked with help from the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars, country stars Big & Rich doing a surprising cover of “Nobody Told Me” and Regina Spektor’s eerie take on “Real Love.”

Green Day’s rocked-up version of “Working Class Hero,” and the Black Eyed Peas’ transformation of “Power to the People” into a hip-hop anthem are also nice touches

Overall, however, the project loses its way.  Two songs, “Imagine” and “Gimme Some Truth” are performed twice on the two-disc set.  Surely the Lennon catalog is deeper than that.  “How Do You Sleep?” and “Well Well Well” are two that might have made the cut.

The record’s producers may have also forgotten that it’s already been done before – in 1995, when the Humane Society raised money with a CD’s worth of Lennon covers.  Amusingly enough, the Flaming Lips contributed a song to both compilations.

What is probably the most potent supergroup in rock history began when George Harrison called on friends Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison to help him with a B-side, “Handle With Care.”  Bob Dylan joined because he had a studio they wanted to use, and Tom Petty came on board after Harrison and Lynne stopped by his house to retrieve George’s guitar.

“If we’d tried to plan it, it never would have happened,” Harrison says in “The True History of the Traveling Wilburys,” a film included in the 3-disc “Traveling Wilburys Collection” released Tuesday.  The set includes both Wilburys albums (the second recorded after Orbison’s death), along with four bonus tracks, and a DVD with the documentary and five music videos.

“It was magical,” said Harrison – an understatement when one views just how ego-free this band seemed to be.  They made up songs in the kitchen, and crowded around a single studio microphone to record “Dirty World” and other tracks.

“There was just a lot of music in the air, a lot of fun going around, a lot of parties,” says Tom Petty.  “We’d play ukuleles until dawn, with our children dropping like flies around us.”

“The Traveling Wilburys Collection” is the sound of close friends enjoying each other’s company, and one of pop music’s great moments.

That leaves Ringo, who’s made a career repackaging his past.  The most earth-shattering thing Starr’s done this year is claim in a recent interview, “Sgt. Pepper’s wasn’t our best album.”  Beyond that, it’s been more greatest hits collections and tours with the “All-Starr Orchestra,” a B-list band that’s been treading the summer sheds for over a decade.

Perhaps “Liverpool 8,” done with the help of ex-Eurythmic Dave Stewart, will shake things up a bit.  The record is rumored to have a more modern sound.

But with the power of their past obviously still intact, why would any Beatle want to try for modern?