The Beatles - On Air – Live at the BBC Volume 2
The return of the Fab Four at the Beeb and live - now with added Beatle wit...
You’ll be wanting to know about the music, of course. We’ll get to that. But first it’s necessary to identify and celebrate the work of the secret hero of the second selection of recordings made by the Beatles at the BBC, released almost 20 years after its predecessor, which represented the first legitimate issue of the material taped for the old Light Programme between 1962 and 1965.
That hero is the great Brian Matthew, still functioning with seemingly effortless geniality every Saturday morning on Radio 2 at the age of 85, whose interviews with all four Beatles – John and George in November 1965, Paul and Ringo in May 1966, with about eight minutes devoted to each -- were transferred to seven-inch 33rpm discs by the BBC’s transcription service and sent out for use by stations around the world as part of a series titled Pop Profiles.
A sympathetic and amused but never sycophantic interviewer, familiar to the Fabs from their many encounters during sessions for Saturday Club and Easy Beat, Matthew caught them at a wonderful moment, between the release of Rubber Soul and the sessions for Revolver. They had the big houses and the Rolls Royces, but the edge of their curiosity about the world remained sharp as they began to accelerate away from their origins.
John is as forthcoming and unguarded as he remained to the end of his life. “It’s in what they call the stockbroker area,” he says with an air of mild embarrassment when Matthew asks him about the house in which he lives with Cynthia and the young Julian. “I didn’t care where it was as long as it was somewhere quite quiet. I wanted to live in London but I wouldn’t risk it until it’s really quietened down. I only realise how big it is when I go home again to Liverpool or visit relations."
It doesn’t take much effort to detect prophetic undertones in these exchanges. When Matthew asks George about his reputation as “the silent Beatle”, Harrison tells him: “I got fed up before the others with all these questions like, ‘What colour teeth have you got?’ … I shut up until someone asks me something worth answering.”
Paul talks about discovering other kinds of music. “Indian music,” he says. “Whenever you got on an Indian channel, fiddling through the radio, I always used to just turn it off. But George got this big Indian kick. He’s dead keen on it, you know? We’ve been round to his house a couple of times and he plays it to you. It’s so boring! No, no… it’s good, you hear millions of things that I never realised were in it.” He’s asked what he thinks he might do when the group ceases to exist. “Like the others,” he says, “I don’t like doing nothing.”
He can’t have meant Ringo. What does the drummer do when they’re not working? “Sit around most of the time. Don’t do anything. Play records.” He gets bored on long holidays. “I like to sit at home doing nothing. Because if you do want to do something, it’s right there.”
Volume Two contains more talk than its predecessor, and by linking the 39 songs on these two discs with snippets of dialogue from Saturday Club, Easy Beat, From Us to You, (the original) Top Gear and Pop Go The Beatles, the compilers attempt to replicate the mood and flow of those shows, showing us how the group broke through the barriers of formality hitherto erected between performers and audience. They send up the two posh-voiced professional actors, Lee Peters and Rodney Burke, who present the early programmes, while establishing a different and more relaxed rapport with Matthew.
“What happened to our request, Brian Bathtubes?” Lennon inquires while reading out letters from fans. “Yeah, we sent it in about two weeks ago and you haven’t played it,” says George. “Have you done?” says Matthew. When John and Paul play a dead bat to the DJ’s inquiry about their rumoured plans to write a musical, George breaks in to announce that he and Ringo are planning to paint Buckingham Palace. What colour? “Green, with black shutters.” Not exactly the last word in wit, but they weren’t playing by the conventional rules of decorum.
And the stuff between the jokes? The earliest piece of music here is a version of “Misery” recorded in Manchester in March 1962, three months ahead of their first session at Abbey Road. It’s from a weekly programme called Teenagers’ Turn – Here We Go, an appearance that followed a successful BBC audition. Interestingly, the performance is already greeted with squeals from the live audience at the Playhouse Theatre.
Mostly taped at the height of Beatlemania, these straightforward, unvarnished performances are what they would have sounded like if you could have heard them beneath the screaming. This is the unit formed by countless sessions in the Star Club and the Cavern, hacking their way through the cover versions – “Kansas City”, “Memphis, Tennessee”, “Long Tall Sally”, “Talkin’ About You” -- that formed the core repertoire of working groups at the time, as well as a handful of selections that show the kind of music fans they were: three items learnt from Carl Perkins’ records (“Lend Me Your Comb”, “Sure to Fall” and “Glad All Over”) plus a pair of girl-group songs, “Devil In Her Heart” and “Boys”, unearthed on the B-sides of singles by the Donays and the Shirelles. Their own B-sides are also among the highlights, including “PS I Love You”, “I’ll Get You”, “You Can’t Do That” and “This Boy”.
The sound in the various BBC theatres and studios isn’t of the quality achieved under EMI’s auspices, but on some of the rockers, like “Hippy Hippy Shake” and “Twist and Shout”, Paul’s bass guitar and Ringo’s kick drum come through with unusual clarity and oomph. Unlike their Abbey Road counterparts, the BBC’s engineers could set their levels without worrying about whether a sudden spike in the low frequencies would make the stylus jump out of the groove.
Kevin Howlett is a radio producer and author who has written three books about the Beatles at the BBC and, with Mike Heatley, researched and compiled On the Air -- Live at the BBC Volume Two
What were the sources of this material for this volume?
When I did the original research for The Beatles at the Beeb on Radio 1 many years ago, I discovered that the official archive in Broadcasting House contained just one of the 53 programmes they’d recorded. So I had to look in other places. Fortunately some of the sessions from 1964 and 1965 had been preserved on transcription discs, sent abroad as part of the BBC’s mission to disseminate British culture to the Empire. Others are from the collection of Bernie Andrews, who produced Saturday Club and Top Gear. And some songs have come from people who taped them off the radio.
Have audio restoration techniques evolved greatly since the first volume, almost 20 years ago?
They really have. The object is to make the tracks sound as good as possible, so we repaired drop-outs by inserting notes and generally ironing out the tape blemishes. We’ve also remastered the first volume and you’ll hear a great improvement in sound quality there, too.
Are you envisaging a Volume Three in another 20 years’ time?
I don’t think so. I think these two volumes have all the essentials. But maybe someone, somewhere will pop up saying, “Oh, yes, I taped that, and I’ve got it in the attic.”
INTERVIEW: RICHARD WILLIAMS
Click here for the full tracklisting for The Beatles Live At The BBC Volume 2
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Rating: 8 / 10