A review of The Beatles: On Air – Live at the BBC Volume 2

 A review of The Beatles: On Air – Live at the BBC Volume 2
(adsbygoogle = window.adsbygoogle || []).push({});             I received “The Beatles: On Air – Live at the BBC Volume 2” for my birthday. While listening to it I kept thinking about a quote from Roy Carr and Tony Tyler’s excellent “The Beatles, An Illustrated Record” – my copy from 1981. They were critiquing “Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl” and said (I am paraphrasing) – “The Hamburg Tapes” show the Beatles live at their beginning, “Let It Be” shows the band live at their end, but “…Hollywood Bowl” shows them in their glorious middle”.
            The awkwardly-titled “The Beatles: On Air – Live at the BBC Volume 2” also shows them in their glorious middle. At the beginning of their middle, so to speak.
            Most of the tracks aired on the BBC from 1963-1965. I prefer the earlier songs. This was when the Fabs just hit their popularity. Fame and fortune was still new and exciting. They were yet to be labeled “the greatest British composers since Schubert”. The mania was in full swing, but the hurricane had yet to reach Category-Five.
            John Lennon said by the time they reached the USthey were pros and already tired of it all. They weren’t musicians they were pop stars. They enjoyed the taste of fame but didn’t like gorging on it. In an interview on the disks, George Harrison says he was the first to get tired of people asking him the color of his eyes or what he drank at breakfast.
            “Live at the Hollywood Bowl” was in the midst of all that. The best and the worst of Beatlemania.
            “The Beatles: On Air – Live at the BBC Volume 2” shows the musicianship of that glorious middle without the mania – when the Beatles were still enjoying being the Beatles.
            Both Volumes contain songs and banter from the various BBC programs from 1963-1965 – including “Saturday Club” and Beatles specials (“Pop Go the Beatles” for example).
            Only a few of the tracks are performed live in front of a screaming audience. But the rest are studio tracks recorded at the BBC per their regulations. In such shows the Fabs could not simply hand the producers their albums to play. Songs had to be recorded for their specific programs.
            Now we would call it “studio live”. The Beatles may have done many takes of their songs, but each one was done in one take and the best picked to be aired during the BBC specials.
            In other words, these were studio live cuts of their hits – without overdubs, without vocal or music effects. Do You Want to Know a Secret without the reverberated introduction. There’s a Place without the harp/harmonica. These different arrangements highlight their musicianship. I’ll discuss that shortly
            They recorded 88 songs for these BBC shows – all either studio live or live before an audience. 36 of these songs were never recorded in their official (EMI/Capital) catalogue.  
            Most of the non-EMI songs were on Volume 1 – here we have only two that have never been officially released – (1) the standard Beautiful Dreamer – a rocked out version of the ballad recorded before an audience but with awful sound quality; comparable to the Hamburg live tapes. Pity – such a rare track and it sounds as if it were recorded through a fish tank; and (2) the Chuck Berry Rocker Talkin’ Bout You.
            Other rarities include different versions of Hippy Hippy Shake, Sure to Fall, and Lend Me Your Comb – which sounds uncannily like Wake Up Little Susie in places – already released on Volume One.
            And there is a version of “Happy Birthday”. Happy Birthday to you! Now I don’t have to ever play Birthday from the White Album – one of the most overplayed of their third-tiered tunes – again! Oh thank you, BBC, thank you and it’s. about. time. … 
            This is where the studio live performances make me enjoy the volumes so much: Songs I have been listening to for (literally) my 49 years on this planet are done differently – even if it is only a difference in the mixing. We hear Paul’s bass much more prominently in most songs. Ringo’s drumming is excellent throughout (and isn’t it time we finally put to bed the critiquing of Ringo’s ability. He’s a good drummer! Accept it!).
            When the initial giddiness of listening to the disks for a few times wears off, I will start rearranging the tracks in the following way:
            I’d like to arrange the tracks from Volumes 1 & 2 in the order of their album releases: in other words, take the song order from “Please Please Me” (their first album) and listen to their BBC versions in the same order. I Saw Her Standing There, then Misery, etc…
            I’ll bet the difference is staggering. In the EMI album “Please Please Me” we have four scared kids from the North going to London on New Year’s Day and nervously recording an album.  The BBC versions will let us hear professionals who are at the top of their craft.
            Perhaps the only disappointment will be Twist and Shout.  In his famous interview with Rolling Stone, Lennon groused about the song ruining his voice during the “Please Please Me” sessions. He said he never recovered the full power of his voice after that. Of course, keep that in perspective: during those interviews he was more bitter over the Beatles than Pete Best was.
            Then I can reconstruct their second album, “Meet the Beatles” with these BBC tracks. And to an extent their movie soundtracks and on until 1965 or so. “New” arrangements of all their songs done studio live at the peak of their musical prowess as a group – as a group, mind you – not as individual musical maestros who happen to share an album – which began with “Rubber Soul” on through “Let It Be”.  With a few exceptions most of the Beatles songs after that were individual efforts, not collaborations.  And even some of those only consisted of adding a line or two. Keep in mind that by “The Beatles” (the White album) they hadn’t even liked each other all that much. Such discord is no where – no where – to be found on these disks.
            On “The Beatles: On Air – Live at the BBC Volume 2”, they were still good mates and, as John Lennon correctly said in 1980, they were “the best fucking group in the goddamned world”.
            The banter in between is pretty banal. McCartney admits so in the liner notes. The hosts were the usual BBC announcers for such things and you could tell how square they were, man.
            The in-between-song bits usually consisted of the Beatles reading fan mail and requests – usually followed by the song itself. “Rita and Freda from West Hempstead love Ringo and think he’s gear and want to hear a song from him. So, here’s Ringo coming out from behind the drum kit to sing … Boys!”
            “And now it’s time for the lads to unshackle themselves as they sing Chains!”  You can almost see Lennon and Harrison look at each other and roll their eyes.
            The banter between the announcer and the band is scripted, although some of it sounds ad-libbed. John jokes about his going to college only to be called a “college pudding” and “posh” by Ringo. I can’t think of a more stinging insult to lob at Lennon. But everyone laughed, Lennon heartiest of all. Such genuine bits of humor are rare and I wish there were more of it.
            What makes up for the lack of non-scripted bits between the shows are interview segments with the four Beatles recorded individually in 1966 or so. Each of the segments are eight minutes plus and contain quiet and candid interviews. John talks about what kind of schooling he wants for his son/ He is hesitant to talk about politics and where he stands on certain issues. Quite a contrast to three years later when you couldn’t get him to shut up about it. George talks about his teen years in school and why he considers himself the Silent (not Quiet) Beatle. These interviews are the best part of the disk.
            Volume One was forgotten quickly, being released so shortly before the “Anthology” series because of the latter’s sheer volume of rare and then-unreleased tracks. “The Beatles: On Air – Live at the BBC Volume 2” led me back to the first volume and I enjoyed it more than I had since its first release.
            Are there going to be Volumes Three and Four? More? I would like to hope so, but no, I doubt it.  The bulk of the 88 tracks have been mined in these first two volumes. There are 40 tracks in this Volume – so what does that leave? A disk of remaining banter would get dull very quickly. Were there guests on these shows? Do we really want to buy a Volume 3 with tracks by Billy J Kramer and Joe Brown (actually I would buy that…)?  I’m not going to worry about that now.
            I have four disks of excellent music from the Beatles’ glorious middle – all done studio live with interesting variations in arrangement and styling. I’ll enjoy those in the meantime.
            I hope you do too.
Copyright 2013 Michael G Curry


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