At the height of Beatlemania, the band’s management denied a licensing request from an American firm that wanted to produce a line of Beatles sanitary napkins.

The merchandising surrounding Beatlemania ’95 isn’t quite so unabashed. Still, left to their own devices, the liner notes to The Beatles Anthology Vol. 1 fall open to a center spread advertising, among other things, a $40 “hemp mini-backpack” graced by the Apple logo.

Released in conjunction with the obnoxiously overhyped six-hour ABC documentary The Beatles Anthology, The Beatles Anthology Vol. 1 is the first in a projected three-part series of double CDs compiling previously unreleased material by the band. (Officially unreleased, that is. Critics note that the collection’s best material has long been available on bootlegs.) The long-overdue completion of both projects—the film has been a work-in-progress since the early ’70s—was made possible by the relatively recent cessation of hostilities among the three remaining Beatles and between Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono.

This newfound spirit of cooperation is symbolized by Vol. 1‘s set piece, “Free as a Bird,” the simulated Beatles reunion that opens the album. The surviving bandmates created the “new” song by adding vocal and instrumental tracks to a 1977 demo tape by John Lennon. But though it’s a study in studio wizardry, the song is maddeningly sluggish and eminently forgettable. “Free” is also the anomaly in an otherwise chronological format—by rights, it should be the last song on Vol. 3.

It’s hard to imagine a less appropriate introduction to a collection intent on depicting the Beatles as they were. (The present-day Beatles, as anyone who made it through all six hours of The Beatles Anthology can attest, are a singularly dour bunch.) A more germane beginning is provided by track 2, a soundbite in which a typically dismissive Lennon declares, “We were just a band that made it very, very big, that’s all.”

Much of Vol. 1 predates making it very, very big. The earliest numbers date from 1958, when the Quarry Men recorded a 78 rpm record at Phillips Sound Recording Service in Liverpool. Other selections are drawn from taped practice sessions, from the band’s first commercial recording session in 1961 (backing Liverpudlian rocker Tony Sheridan), and from its unsuccessful audition for Decca records. Most of these early performances were recorded in mono, and their sound quality is uniformly awful. The music is interspersed with short interview excerpts and with bona fide curiosities like the audio from the band’s 1963 appearance on The Morecambe and Wise Show and Brian Epstein reading aloud from his autobiography, A Cellarful of Noise.

The discs are a completist’s dream come true—virtually every track comes with a superlative attached. The collection contains “the only existing recording of George Harrison’s “You Know What to Do,’ ” “the earliest surviving recorded version of “Please Please Me,’ ” “the only extant recording of the Beatles performing “Lend Me Your Comb,’ ” and so on and so forth for nearly all of its 60 tracks. It also includes some of the few recorded performances by famous almost-Beatles Stu Sutcliffe and Pete Best. (History’s bitterest also-ran, Best reportedly stands to make millions from the royalties generated by his brief appearances here.)

Though this collection is breaking sales records, it’s hard to imagine that it will be of more than passing interest to anyone except Beatles obsessives. Listening to the very early work in particular is more often interesting than enjoyable. Hearing the fledgling band blunder through the hits of the day provides an instructive historical context for the group’s later development, but the disc’s most compelling revelations—like Lennon mimicking the Ink Spots during a late-’50s practice session—are those of personality. If there’s someone somewhere who doesn’t know that the group started out as a scrappy little R&B combo, this record will convince them, but the Beatles tenure as a bar band is better represented elsewhere.

Vol. 1 picks up as the band gains confidence; the later material consists largely of botched or alternate takes of familiar songs that offer fascinating glimpses of the quartet as a working band. (And, of course, the flubbed vocals on the alternate takes afford the same idiotic satisfaction as watching Bloopers and Practical Jokes.) In one sequence of takes from 1964, for instance, the band starts out performing “I’ll Be Back” in 3/4 time before changing to the final version’s 4/4. “It’s too hard to sing,” John wails. Collectors will relish rejected intros to “Eight Days a Week,” a slowed-down “Love Me Do,” and “Can’t Buy Me Love” with different backing harmonies. More interesting than such minor variations, though, is simply hearing the band sound tentative.

Vol. 1 doesn’t convey the Beatles’ insouciant charm as well as last year’s Live at the BBC. There’s little dialogue here except studio bickering, all of which seems chosen to reflect Lennon’s tacit role as the band’s leader. During one series of “One After 909” takes, McCartney stops playing and a familial-sounding altercation ensues: Lennon yells at McCartney, who turns whiny and blames road manager Neil Aspinall for the fact that he doesn’t have his plectrum. During another session, a sullen McCartney is heard saying, “I’ll try to remember, John, and if I don’t it’s just too bad.” These moments are revealing, but it should be noted that most of the unused takes are ruined by laughter; at the end of Vol. 1 the Beatles are still having fun.