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Vaunted Beatles 'Reunion' Has Fans Holding Breath

David Whitney has mixed emotions about this Beatles reunion. Whitney, an architect and musician, has heard the hype surrounding the release of new music by the legendary pop group. What he wants to know is: Will it be any good?

''I want very much for it to be great,'' says Whitney, a longtime fan. ''But will it be the Beatles? Or will it just be three guys trying to sound like the Beatles?''

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Whitney's ambivalence is typical among the group's fans, many of whom have waited 25 years for a reunion - but now are worried about how it might come out.

Their long wait ends Sunday, when ABC broadcasts ''Free as a Bird,'' one of at least three songs begun by the late John Lennon in the 1970s and finished by Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr in the last two years.

The new songs are the highlight of ''The Beatles Anthology,'' the documentary planned almost since the group broke up in 1970. Along with the broadcast on Nov. 19, 22, and 23, the group will release the first of three double-disc sets of unreleased material - studio outtakes and other rarities.

The historic recordings will be treasured by collectors, many of whom already have some of the tracks on unauthorized ''bootleg'' releases. But it is the studio reunion that has landed the Fab Four back on magazine covers.

The Beatles and their albums ''Revolver,'' ''Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band,'' and ''The Beatles'' (The White Album) defined the era's pop music and predicted much of what followed.

Ultimately, business difficulties, creative differences, and personal strains led to the group's split in 1970. While the former bandmates continued to play on each other's records, all agreed the time of the Beatles had passed, and warned their still-adoring public that a group reunion would be anticlimactic.

''You cannot get back together what no longer exists,'' Lennon said days before his death. ''[We] could put on a concert, but it can never be the Beatles.... We cannot be that again, nor can the people who are listening,'' he said in a 1980 interview.

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In 1993, Yoko Ono, Lennon's widow, gave McCartney demonstration tapes of four songs on which Lennon had been working when he died: the elegiac ''Free as a Bird,'' the wistful ''Real Love,'' the romantic ''Grow Old With Me,'' and an as-yet unheard song, reportedly titled ''All for Love.''

''We just pretended that he'd gone home on holiday,'' McCartney said of his former songwriting partner. ''As if he'd said, 'Just finish it up. I trust you,''' he told the Associated Press last year.

Thus fortified, they entered the studio to finish what Lennon had started, fleshing out the songs with new vocals, guitars, piano, bass, and drums. The finished recordings, on which all four Beatles perform, have been guarded closely. The Beatles themselves are pleased with their work.

''['Free as a Bird'] really sounds like a Beatle track,'' Starr has said. ''So much distance has gone down from those days, but it sounds just like them.''

''Free as a Bird'' will be included on the double-disc set the ''Beatles Anthology Vol. 1,'' due out Nov. 21. ''Real Love'' will appear on Vol. 2 in February 1996; ''Grow Old With Me'' on Vol. 3 later that year.

Capitol is pressing an unprecedented 2 million copies of Vol. 1, and still seems assured of a sellout. Last year's ''Live at the BBC,'' a collection of recordings the group made for radio in the 1960s, sold an astonishing 10 million copies; remarkably, Forbes Magazine recently named the Beatles the best-selling musical artists of 1994 and 1995, with sales of $130 million.

The Beatles have always sold records. The question for fans is: Can they still make music?

''The whole idea repulses me,'' says Doug Sulpy, publisher of the 910, a magazine devoted to the group. ''This is not a current, healthy, functioning band. This is three guys who are well past their prime. I don't want Beatlemania coming back that way.''

But others say they will take their Beatlemania any way they can get it.

''I want ''Free as a Bird'' to go to the top of the charts,'' says Charles F. Rosenay, head of Liverpool Productions, which publishes its own magazine and organizes fan conventions. ''I want the people who love R.E.M. and Barbra Streisand to love it.''

* A review of the TV special ''The Beatles Anthology'' will appear tomorrow.

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