Monday 9 March 2009

The Beatles "Live At The BBC" (1994) (News, Views and Music 24)

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“My name’s John and I too play a guitar – sometimes I also play the fool”

“Just let me hear some of that rock and roll music, got a backbeat you can’t lose it, any old time you use it, just got to be rock and roll music if you want to dance with me”

The Beatles “Live At The BBC” (recorded 1963-65, released 1994)

Back in 1963 the old established traditional cautious giant that was the BBC met the young and energetic beat groups head on. Reduced to re-creating their often complex and technical masterpieces in a single take before an audience of sceptical and time-watching tape operators, many of the 1960s’ greatest beat groups crumbled and truth be told most of the rest didn’t care all that much. A majority of the 1960’s groups went onto the airwaves primarily to plug records and were fully aware that, once broadcast, the tapes were unlikely to be re-used or re-issued. For the BBC it meant that, for a minimal price, they could virtually guarantee a weekly teenage audience and could be seen to be fulfilling their age-long remit of providing cultural to all spectrums of their audience, not just the ‘educated’ or ‘high-art-loving’ mums and dads. Hearing these stripped-down often-one take recordings is a generally messy but genuinely revealing experience, with the chance of hearing what got left out of these recordings reminding us of what was there on the original. All too often this is the closest we’ll ever get to hearing most of these groups live, in relatively decent sound at least, and in the Beatles’ case is the closest we’ll ever come to hearing what they were like in their Hamburg days (yes OK we have the ‘Star Club’ tapes’, but by their own admission they feature a bored Beatles at the end of their last booking wondering when they can go home).

The Beatles’ BBC set paved the way for most of the others that came out in the 1990s – the Animals, the Kinks, the Who, the Moody Blues, etc, all detailed below – but is by far and away the best, partly because of the sheer volume of Beatles radio recordings compared to their colleagues and also the sheer volume of otherwise unreleased covers the fab four did. The set is a revealing one, a set that underlined just how tight and professional the band were in their early recording days and above all just how enthusiastic they were for their music, especially that of their early influences. The vast majority of the Beatles’ 2CD set is made up of cover material of skiffle, rock and ballads from the 1950s – but, even more revealing is the fact that only a few of these previously unreleased songs sound familiar. Gerry and the Pacemakers and the Searchers were equally influenced by American 1950s recordings, but whereas they would more often than not cover the more famous A-sides, the Beatles’ encyclopaedic knowledge and the amount of hours they were forced to play in their Hamburg days allowed them to cover more obscure songs, with a definite emphasis on flip-sides. For instance, most bands covering Buddy Holly would do ‘Peggy Sue’ or ‘That’ll Be The Day’ – in this period of their career the fab four covered ‘Crying, Waiting, Hoping’; most bands covering the Everly Brothers sang ‘Bye Bye Love’ or ‘Wake Up Little Susie’ – the Beatles covered ‘So How Come No One Loves Me?’ The Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins choices are rather less original, admittedly, but back in 1963 had any other band even heard of the Ann Margret-sung rarity ‘I Just Don’t Understand’ or the Johnny Burnette trio’s ‘Lonesome Tears In My Eyes?’

Generally speaking, the ‘Beatles At the BBC’ is and was a big success. It sold in much higher numbers than anyone at Apple or EMI had hoped for (it became the second-best selling album of 1994, which isn’t bad going for a double-disc set) and even the spin-off single of ‘Baby It’s You’ made #7. It also proved to the Beatles that there was a market for their half-planned Anthology project – and yet in many ways the band, their advisors and the record companies involved still manages to mess things up badly. ‘BBC’ was marketed very much as a ‘collector’s release rather than a mainstream one, unlike the Anthology out-takes project(s) – but surely they got the two mixed up the wrong way around? The general public has much more patience with unreleased recordings as long as they sound ‘finished’ as per the BBC recordings – Anthology was very badly received on most fronts because to the general collector those recordings didn’t always sound that different from the originals. Also Anthology came out as three double-disc (and pricey) sets which didn’t mine the archives as well as true Beatles collectors had hoped but did so in far too much detail for the average fan. On the otherhand two CD’s worth of BBC recordings seems like short shrift given that the Beatles recorded no less than 52 radio shows for the BBC, most half an hour and some an hour in length. Even accounting for the occasional guest stars, this means 88 separate Beatles songs/covers were taped between 1962-65 (and there are a good dozen recordings each of tracks like ‘She’s Love You’ ‘From Me To You’ and ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, nearly all of them good and the vast majority fascinating. The 1994 set releases just 57 of those (with three more on the back of the tie-in single) and certainly not the best.

On top of that, most of the links between songs – typically hilarious half-serious half-tongue in cheek banter from the band – has been cut, understandably in the case of reading out requests from fans (who, legally, would not have given permission for a re-release of their names being read out 30 years in the future and would have proved too hard to trace!) but less understandably given the banter between BBC DJs and the Beatles. Also, back in 1963-65, hearing your favourite group sing songs for free (well, the cost of a radio license, but you got to hear other programmes for that money too) was typical of the Beatles’ generosity and respect for their fans. Forking out £20 for the same rushed material 30 years later, all too often with bum notes and annoying dialogue, and suddenly the set seems less value for money and merely a reflection on how money-grabbing everything connected to the music business seems to be these days. Oh and would it have really hurt Apple to have organised the thing into chronological order? Hearing the likes of ‘Ticket To Ride’ before ‘Love Me Do’ even in a reduced, no overdubs version, is just plain wrong! No wonder the collector feels short changed, especially given all the material we’d have rather had on the set – but then no wonder the general public who had never heard the Beatles sound as raw and fun-loving as this took to this album so well.   

Above all, this set is fun. Recording a weekly radio show in-between constant touring (often on the same day) and keeping up a ridiculous stream of single and album releases might not sound fun, but for the most part this is the Beatles letting off steam without the pressures of their recording work or the I-can’t-hear-above-the-noise lethargy of the concerts. There are several highlights here. Lennon’s take on ‘I Got A Woman’ gets the set off to a flying start once the opening title music and dialogue are out the way, with Lennon outdoing Elvis in every conceivable way, being both playful and deadly deadly serious. Everybody in the 60s seemed to record a version of Chuck Berry’s ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ (the Hollies and the Kinks among them), but the Beatles’ radio version here is  the best of all. George Harrison’s solo is one of the Beatles’ best on record, simply flying away with the song at 100 mph while Lennon simply spears Berry’s frustrated lyrics with those classic rock and roll tonsils of his and Paul and Ringo cook up a mean storm in their anchoring role as the band’s rhythm section.

The under-rated Arthur Alexander (who wrote ‘Anna Go To Him’ as recorded by the fabs on ‘Please Please Me’) is well represented too, with Lennon obviously identifying with the African-American’s emotional and obsession-filled songs far more than the other often trivial pop the Beatles cover. ‘Soldier of Love’ especially is a classic recording, with John yelling, Paul and George answering and all four Beatles pushing the song to its limits as the narrator tells his partner to stop giving him the cold shoulder. Lennon (again!) successfully drops the tempo of Phil Spector’s ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’, a song that meant a lot to its composer and to its cover artist – Spector wrote the song at a ridiculously young age after a line chalked on his father’s tombstone; Lennon of course lost his mother in tragic circumstances when he was 16. No wonder the pair got on so well in the 70s – most versions, including the original it has to be said, make a classic and emotional song sound like standard tweeny-bop fare of the mid-1950s but on the Beatles’ version Lennon simply howls the middle eight (‘Oh why, why can’t she see?...’) and like all good Beatles recordings it has the power to it raise the hairs on the back of your neck like no other band. Hearing songs like these you understand just why the Beatles made such an impact in the clubs of Hamburg once they’d got their act together (and extended it by six or seven hours) and why their style became so important to the world on their return back home.   

The Beatles’ originals are a mixed bunch, with most of them adding little or nothing to the original (the perfunctory version of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ here has even put me off the song it sounds so bad), but there are two stand-outs here. ‘I Feel Fine’ – one of the Beats’ most unfairly neglected singles - sounds fabulous, especially the re-creation of the opening feedback drenched guitar note, which is obviously done live in the studio rather than recorded later and added on (as happened with George Martin’s piano solo in ‘A Hard Day’s Night’). The other song is ‘I’ll Be On My Way’ – no, I thought you’d never have heard of that song but it is a genuine Lennon/McCartney original, one that was given away to Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas and was in fact relegated to a B-side (this in a period when any Beatles cover seemed to scale the charts!) You can see why John and Paul gave it away – the short line scansion of the song means that the pair had little room to manoeuvre when filling in the song and it is indeed full of some of the most atrocious lyrics they ever penned (‘as the moonlight turns to Junelight…’). But the actual melody of the song is terrific, with a gentle hummable tune guaranteed to stay stuck in your head, plus there’s a sweet country-rock guitar introduction from George and a delightful reflectful middle eight that acts as a pre-cursor to the downbeat tone of ‘Beatles For Sale’ (‘They were right, I was wrong – true love didn’t last long’).

John has been mentioned several times in this review already and it’s no surprise really – he was the undoubted star of the group in the 1963-65 period (Macca largely took over after that) and he takes the majority of the vocals here. Despite the ridiculous time pressures on the group, not one of his vocals for the BBC radio broadcasts are poor or in any way half-hearted – a staggering achievement by anyone’s standards. However, the other standout Beatle here is George – freed of his bandmates’ perfectionist leanings and thriving on the time pressures, he turns in some fantastic guitar solos here. ‘Monkey Business’, as mentioned above, may well be his best solo on record. More than anything, George seems to be enjoying being a ‘Beatle’ on most of these tracks – a true music fan, collector and connousier, many of the unusual material choices here are George’s and you can hear his passion for this period of music shining through. He gets more vocals than usual on this album too, although this early in his career (George was barely 22 when the last Beatles’ radio show went on air) he hasn’t yet mastered the art of staying on key!

George too is the subtly humorous star of the ‘banter’ part of this double-disc, the all too brief excursions into Beatles humours that acts as far more of a time vault for the 60s than the timeless music. The announcers – be it Brian Matthew, ‘Fluff’ Freeman or Rodney Burke (annoyingly Rolf Harris’ turn as the compere of a Beatles’ show isn’t represented on this record – he’s the best of the four!) are treating the show as nay other BBC programme, with a mixture of grandfatherly indulgence and genuine interest in what mad sounds these teenagers are coming up with. The Beatles share an equal mixture of wanting to reveal to the mums and dads of the world just what their music is all about – and sending the whole thing up at the same time. All four Beatles’ personalities shine through loud and clear, whether its John interrupting a semi-serious interview with McCartney to plug his newly-published collection of prose ‘In His Own Write’ and comparing the Beatles programme to the Goon Show, Paul letting down his guard slightly to tell us how he misses simple things like ‘riding on a bus’ (the Liverpool buses must have been a lot nicer in his day!), a 22-year-old George getting so obsessed with the guitar lick from ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ that he keeps kicking back into the song and telling us that he’s been singing ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ for 28 years and finally Ringo yelling to us from the back of the studio that he likes grapes. Alas, so many other classic bits of Beatle banter are missing – George telling us that it really was his mother who wrote in with the last request and that’s she’s probably listening to the show while digging in the back garden, Paul reading out a letter from his old school and the nicknames for all his old teachers and all four Beatles and all four Beatles chastising Rolf Harris for forgetting the words to his own special Beatles-orientated take on ‘Tier Me Kangaroo Down Sport’. Lovable, witty, intelligent and wise, these clips are rivalled only by the Beatles’ long-unheard Christmas fan-club discs in terms of recording their effervescent personalities for posterity.

It has to be said, though, there’s an awful lot of filler – even for the collector who wants everything. Hearing alternate versions of songs like ‘She’s A Woman’, ‘Things We Said Today’ ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzie’ and ‘Long Tall Sally’ sounds like an inviting prospect (especially given that George plays on this version of ‘Woman’ but was poorly for the studio recording) – but, alas, inspiration is all too obviously wearing thin and time is running all too short. And why on earth did the record company choose to release the hideous poor quality cover of ‘Keep Your Hands Off My Baby’ on which only Lennon shines instead of the fantastic but poor quality cover of ‘Dream Baby’ (which is also one of the most important recordings of the Beatles’ careers – the only song that exists from the band’s first radio recording and the introduction to the general masses outside Liverpool and Hamburg of their talent). Also, why use a live version of classic B-side ‘Thank-you Girl’ where the band obviously can’t hear what each other is playing (even with 1990s clean-up technology the listener can only just tell) when there exists a staggeringly 1964 BBC radio recording which knocks spots off the studio take? And where oh where are the Beatles’ surprisingly polished radio recordings of their early originals ‘There’s A Place’ and ‘Misery’, both of which sound great. Grrrr, Apple have blown it for us Beatlemaniacs yet again.

But having said that, there’s simply so much here to smile about and that Beatles collectors might never have got the chance to hear that it’s still hard to find anything to fault this set with. The Beatles are free and innocent as never before, the sound is – with the two exceptions outlined above – among the best their recordings have ever sounded and this set is never less than fascinating and frequently essential. It remains, too, the best BBC recordings release by some margin, outdoing all of the Beats’ contemporaries with ease (though I might beg to differ if they ever dig out some Hollies or Searchers recordings). A must for all Beatles fans or anyone curious about the 60s – which, let’s face it, in my book should cover just about everybody – every single human being should listen to stuff like this at least once. Bet we wouldn’t have the Spice Girls still around then would we? Classic time capsule stuff which makes us feel young again (even those of us who weren’t there at the time…)

A now complete list of Beatles links available at this website:
'Rubber Soul' (1965)

'Revolver' (1966)
'Sgt Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band' (1967)

'Magical Mystery Tour' (1967)

'The Beatles' aka 'The White Album' (1968)
'Yellow Submarine' (1969)
The Best Unreleased Beatles Recordings

A Complete AAA Guide To The Beatles Cartoons
The Beatles: Surviving TV Appearances
A 'Bite' Of Beatles Label 'Apple'
The Beatles: Non-Album Songs Part One: 1958-63
 The Beatles: Non-Album Songs Part Two: 1964-67
The Beatles: Non-Album Songs Part Three: 1968-96
The Beatles: Compilations/Live Albums/Rarities Sets Part One: 1962-74
The Beatles: Compilations/Live Albums/Rarities Sets Part Two: 1976-2013
Beatles Bonuses: The Songs John and Paul Gave Away To The World/To Ringo!

Essay: The Ways In Which The Beatles Changed The World For The Better
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

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