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 between 1963 and 1965. The result was Live at the BBC, released in 1994. 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 two-year period.
The new set offers a bunch of revelations...
Though much of the material on the album is from 50 years ago, you can still hear in the Beatles' cut-up sense of humor that their snarky tone would eventually become the template America's youth would adopt as it rebelled against parents and institutions.
The Beatles pre-October 1963 material is quaint. Like the chugging motors of early '60s London cabs and double-decker buses, the Beatles's yearning for approval had a coarseness that would be polished after they arrived in the States and became a sensation. Before then, it was unashamedly uneven and garage.
The pre-America Beatles hard edge. This is a good thing. It's fun to hear many of the songs in their club state before they were smoothed in the recording studio. By the time they toured in the States, you could barely hear them over the din, leaving their albums as our sole sourse. This set provides a more naked sense of their approach and sound.
The Beatles' R&B covers—inlcuding The Hippy Hippy Shake, Lucile, Chains, Mr. Postman and Twist and Shout—all sound forced. As good as they were, the covers sound like white kids copying American R&B recordings. The band was always more comfortable performing Lennon-McCartney originals.
British pop radio was ruthlessly geared to drive young girls crazy, which in turn led to the enomorus sales of singles and albums. In the States, the on-air female bias was disguised. Not so in Britain, where the host's courtship and seduction of female listeners was was relentless, and teenage boys were all but written off.
As you listen to the Beatles' swipe clever remarks and respond to questions by their on-air hosts, often cracking up each other 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.
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. And This Boy and And If I Fell are superb, providing a unique opportunity to hear the band's special brand of vocal harmony.
But perhaps the most enjoyable aspect 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 the studio. Here, you get to visit with songs you know well but with Paul's bass louder than the other instruments and Ringo's drums isolated and distinct, providing insights into both artists that the albums don't detail.
The Beatles in 1963 were charming, dashing and unsure of what lay ahead. After 1963, they were terrified and consumed with managing their ballooning popularity. As this album proves, the Beatles were a band best-suited to deliver 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...
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