In the months prior to the onset of Beatlemania in October 1963, the Fab Four were eager to please and hungry for attention. Among the many promotional efforts orchestrated by their manager, Brian Epstein, the Beatles appeared at the BBC's radio studios in London to perform live and chat with their on-air hosts. In 1994, Capitol released Live at the BBC, a taste of those broadcasts and performances. Now Capitol has issued On Air: Live at the BBC Vol. 2, a two-CD set that further mines the BBC's archives during the same three-year period.
To me, the most fascinating material is the 1963 appearances. Among the highlights...
1. Though much of the material on the album is from 50 years ago, you can still hear, in the Beatles' wise-guy sense of humor, a tone that would eventually become the template adopted by America's youth as it rebelled against parents and institutions.
2. The Beatles' pre-October 1963 material remains quaint. Like the chugging motors of early '60s London cabs and double-decker buses, the music's yearning for approval during this phase still had a coarseness that would be polished after they arrived in the States and became a sensation. Before then, however, it was unashamedly and gloriously imperfect.
3. The pre-America Beatles had a hard, working-class edge. This is a good thing. It's fun to hear many of the songs you know still in their club-performance state, before they were smoothed-out in the recording studio. By the time they toured in the States, you could barely hear them over the din, leaving their album versions as our sole source. This set provides a more naked feel for how this music was supposed to sound and why so many in Britain took to it.
4. The Beatles' R&B covers—including The Hippy Hippy Shake, Lucille, Chains, Mr. Postman and Twist and Shout—all sound forced upon reflection. As good as they were, the covers sound like white kids copying American R&B recordings in an effort to stir things up.
5. British pop radio was ruthlessly geared to drive young girls crazy, which in turn led to enormous sales of singles and albums. In the States, the on-air female pitch was disguised. Not so in Britain, where the BBC radio host's courtship and seduction of female listeners was relentless, and teenage boys were all but written off.
6. As you listen to the Beatles' swap clever remarks and respond to questions by their on-air hosts— cracking each other up in the process—you realize they had their own secret language in which one word could trigger a whole host of mutually shared images and experiences.
7. Music highlights: Anna, I'm Talking About You, Boys, I'll Get You, She Loves You, From Me to You and Ask Me Why. Interestingly, P.S. I Love You closes with an open chord instead of the recording's cha-cha-cha finish. And This Boy and And If I Fell are absolutely superb, providing a unique opportunity to hear the band's brand of vocal harmony.
8. Perhaps the most enjoyable aspects of the new CD set are the sonic imperfections. So much of the Beatles' catalog as we know it is glossy, since it was recorded in a controlled environment. Here, by contrast, you get to visit with songs you know well but encounter them with a different instrumental feel. For example, Paul's bass was often miked louder than the other instruments and Ringo's drums were isolated and distinct. Both flaws provide wonderful early insights into these artists that the albums don't detail.
The Beatles in 1963 were charming, dashing and unsure of what lay ahead, and you can hear all of this in the music. After 1963, they were terrified and consumed with managing their ballooning popularity. This CD set also features plenty of brilliant music at the BBC from 1964 and 1965. But it's the '63 appearances that are most captivating. As this set proves, the Fab Four in '63 were champing at the bit to be themselves and most comfortable delivering the Lennon-McCartney catalog. Everything else got in the way.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find The Beatles: On Air—Live at the BBC Vol. 2 (Capitol) here.
JazzWax clip: Here's a promo videoclip for the new album with rare footage...