Nov. 10--A half-century ago, pop music's most popular, most important band had its first of seven straight anni mirabiles.
In 1963, the Beatles became an international sensation. A very good year it was. (In a much-discussed June article in the Atlantic, Colin Fleming declared 1963 the quintessential Beatles year.) They released two albums, Please Please Me in March, Meet the Beatles in the fall. In their groundbreaking hit, "Please Please Me," they discovered what they could do in a studio; it got to No. 1 in England. But "She Loves You," released that August, explodes, still, today. It was new, it was better, it was great. They released "I Want to Hold Your Hand" in the States in December. Soon, Ed Sullivan.
During 1963, somehow, they were also touring all over England, and doing no fewer than 39 appearances on BBC. That summer, they even had their own weekly show on the Beeb, Pop Go the Beatles.
Now we have a new, two-disc Beatles album, On Air -- Live at the BBC Volume 2 (Capitol/Universal ***), concentrating on the 1963 radio recordings, with Disc 2 slopping musically over into '64.
It's sparkling. Get it, stick it in the machine, and jack up the speakers. You'll hear what these four young men (John Lennon, the eldest, turned 23 in October) sounded like when they rocked live.
I'm giving it three rather than four stars for a reason, as shall become apparent. It's not the music!
It was all quite mad. The group often had to drive in a van from a gig in the north, travel the length of England, "try and find" the BBC in London, lurch into the studios, record live (one overdub, if that) in next to no studio time. Then they hopped back in the van and broke back north for a gig.
Some recordings stayed on tape, almost all of them long gone. But many were transferred to discs, the source of most of the tracks here. (A few come from fan recordings off the radio. These have an authentic low-fi edge.)
Combed, filtered, digitized, and EQ'd, these tracks are mono, lucid, and vibrant. They sound, to my ear, more present, more bracing than the slicker 1994 CDs Live at the BBC, reissued this week, remastered (2 discs; Capitol/Universal ). The 1994 CDs cover the period up to Help!, so the playing and songwriting are better. But the performances on Volume 2 are more fun.
On record, George Martin, like all producers, emphasized the best (Lennon and Paul McCartney) and tended to sink the less good (he thought, George Harrison and Ringo Starr). Not here. No place to hide. And the band sounds great. They rescue "From Me to You" from its skiffle fate, in a wild live show before an audience on the BBC's Easy Beat. "I'll Get You" builds and sexualizes the tune more than the studio version could. "She Loves You" explodes, almost as nuts as the record. "This Boy" betters the studio version, a steadier performance, the three boys singing at one mike. "There's a Place," a deep-track gem, is rougher, desperate, made into superb rock.
Starr shows he could play -- and was crucial. Thanks to 2000s balancing, we hear McCartney's bass with a presence undoable in 1963. We hear Harrison, playing a better instrument than the hard-driving Lennon, choosing different inversions and colors, already thinking of arrangements.
This was a well-rehearsed band, doing tunes they were doing every night. Singing is far more confident than on the records. On "Money," Lennon earns his rep, in those days, as a "savage" vocalist. Starr sings well on "Boys," which, like the studio version, is one-take-only. And his vocals on "Honey Don't" (one of three Chet Atkins tunes) are much better, the track more muscular, than the polite Beatles for Sale version. Harrison impresses on "Do You Want to Know a Secret," with true vocal personality.
McCartney's tenor-plus is indestructible everywhere. "Lucille" is a dirty, low-fi, unhinged wonder, the band rocking so hard it almost falls apart, McCartney screeching with jungle precision. "Hippy, Hippy Shake," again Paul-led, is positively dangerous; this take is better than one six months later, heard on the 1994 CD. "Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey," one of the latest recordings here (November 1964), is crazy. Starr's snare, right up your snout, imparts a garage-rock feeling, suiting Paul's Little Richard stratospherics.
A final treat: a raw "I Feel Fine" without overdubs (compare it with the finished radio product on the 1994 album). Lennon has trouble finding the harmonic that provokes the famous feedback, but when he gets it, what follows is thrashy, barely-held-together, splendid chaos.
Time to get indignant. There's padding. About 32 minutes of it. We get interviews from 1965 (John and George) and 1966 (Paul and Ringo). Only one (John) is worth listening to, end to end, as he worries over where to send his son to school (he wants racial and class diversity), and how to shake his rep as an uncaring person. The other three, not so much, except maybe for Rubber Soul-era Harrison on songwriting and arrangements.
You'll listen to these exactly once, if that. Meh.
With all the good rocking, on a double-CD package with only 76 minutes total of actual music, many tracks less than two minutes long, why, why, why would you waste such a precious half hour? The music's so good, why not give us more? (There is more, as you can find on many websites and bootlegs.)
As for the remastered 1994 CDs, if you don't have 'em, get 'em. The remastering helps -- only a trifle, to be honest, but at least there's no padding. And there are true knockouts: Lennon on "Baby, It's You," McCartney's all-electric "Things We Said Today," and a late performance of the ditty that began it all, "Love Me Do." The band bumps this execrable song up to something better, something with guts.
Finally, hear "Ticket to Ride," dark, dominated by John's agonized voice and Paul's newly confident bass. Something unexpected was coming.
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