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Music for the masses // THE BEATLES

The first airing of the new Beatles song Free As a Bird touched off a second round of Beatlemania _ this time minus the screaming fans. The new album arrived at stores Monday under extraordinarily tight security.

Radio stations, even all-news stations, aired the new song incessantly and many music stores across the country planned to stay open past midnight to start selling the album on its official release date, today.

"A lot of Beatles fans have called to say how emotional it is to listen to it," said Andre Gardner, program director at New York City's WXRK-FM, which played the song every hour. "Even if they're not Beatles fans, they're calling to say it's a great song."

"I walked in the door this morning and had three calls before I could put my purse down. The phone hasn't stopped ringing since then," said Karen Aamodt, clerk at the Music Disc store in Denver.

Free As a Bird was first broadcast Sunday night during ABC-TV's airing of a documentary on the band, which split up in 1970. Based on overnight ratings, ABC estimated 47-million people watched the show. The Beatles' first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 drew 73-million viewers.

The midtempo ballad was originally recorded on a home cassette player in 1977 by the late John Lennon. Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr added their voices, instruments and new lyrics.

With Harrison's slide guitar and production by Jeff Lynne, its sound owes as much to the Traveling Wilburys as the Beatles. The composition is reminiscent of Lennon's 1970 solo song Love, and Harrison's Beatles elegy, All Those Years Ago.

Reaction was mixed among some longtime Beatles fans. Charles Rosenay, publisher of the Beatles fan magazine Good Day Sunshine, said he had hoped for something infectious and bouncy.

"It didn't meet up with what I expected," said Rosenay, of New Haven, Conn. "It wasn't a mop-tops song and it was probably naive to think that's what it would be."

The song is included on the two-disc Beatles Anthology I album. The highly anticipated album also features previously unreleased material from the band's early days, such as the audition tape sent to a record company that turned them down.

Some 31,000 boxes of the album were distributed across the country Monday from the United Parcel Service center at Louisville, Ky., under tight security.

A convoy of trucks carrying the CDs from the Capitol Records factory in Jacksonville, Ill., had been tracked by satellite and radio as it crossed Indiana on Sunday. The record company had an exclusive deal with ABC to air the song first and went to great lengths to prevent leaks.