The Beatles (at the BBC) Again


The Beatles, with Pete Best on drums, rehearse for their first BBC appearance, Playhouse Theatre, Manchester, June 11, 1962. Photo by Mike McCartney.

DEVIN McKINNEY  •  What a bounty this autumn brings us. In addition to the long (as in loooong) awaited first volume of the Lewisohn biography (the multiple iterations of which will blanket like sweet snow our Fall and Winter); Kevin Howlett’s The Beatles: BBC Archives 1962 to 1970, which looks indispensable for the cover alone; and The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story, a new graphic novel by Vivek J. Tiwary (which I can only hope comes close in revisionist brio to the obscene, invidious, scandalous, defamatory comic, authored by John Hughes, that appeared in the National Lampoon‘s 1977 Beatles parody issue, depicting Epstein as a mad scientist and pederast who kidnapped the Silver Beetles from Hamburg streets and stitched together the lovable Cardin-suited moptops to be his sexual playthings: what a notion for an 11-year-old Beatle fan to encounter), news comes through today that On Air — Live at the BBC Vol. 2, a collection of Beatles radio shots recorded on Mother Beeb mostly between 1962 and 1964, will be released on November 11. As if all that lineup were not enough of a call for your coin, a remastered reissue of the new volume’s precursor, 1994’s Live at the BBC, will appear the same day.

Why do I/we look forward to a collection of this sort? A look at the tracklist confirms one’s guess that there’s nothing on the new release that hasn’t been on bootleg since Hector was a pup (that is, 1986, when the Beatles at the Beeb vinyl boot series commenced). The sound is bound to be better than before, though even that affirmation is stained with relativism:  I still rue what the first BBC album’s digital engineers did to the 1962 “Keep Your Hands Off My Baby,” sanding and planing its rough edges so thoroughly and unsubtly that it sounded barely human—which not only obviated the cleanup work but sorely missed the musical point:  The source tape was so poor, and the performance so raw, that it was all rough edges, and technology is mindless unless it allows for that.

So again, why? For the packaging. That’s it. New photos, new graphics, new liner notes (unamazing though those are bound to be, and probably unamusing too, with Derek Taylor no longer around to spin his webby weavings of wordings). We want to hold the slick, shining, dreamy thing in our hands, smell the newness, feel the cream of luxe surfaces, ogle the pix and go to bed dreaming of Beatle teeth.

That’s why, that’s it, and that’s a lot. The look, feel, entire physical reality of Beatle-ness has always been a big part of the joy of owning their product, of buying it freshly minted, living with it, having it unto old age. Beauty and novelty are wonderful, sustaining things, and there was never anything so beautiful and novel as You Know Whom.

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  1. I like the BBC stuff–glad we have it in official formats–but I must admit I don’t listen to it much. The music itself is best suited for a gloriously lo-fi vinyl boot of questionable provenance, and out-of-place in today’s pristine digital world. It is sonic journalism of the type that Lennon became obsessed with, but never recognized he’d already pulled off. There’s a magic in radio, but it’s a tabloid magic, not the coffeetable kind.

    That said, I’ll probably buy BBC 2: Electric Boogaloo, just like everybody else reading this blog.

  2. Avatar Linda wrote:

    Believe it or not, I only fell in love with BBC Vol. 1 a few months ago. Purchased it in when it was originally released, but played it maybe once at that time. I am just this year, rediscovering why I loved the Beatles so much back in the day. For me, the BBC series shows them at their most “Cavernesque” performances. It is almost like seeing them at some British dance hall in 1963. Okay, so it’s lo-fi and they will try to beef it up–I do hope they don’t spoil the “rawness” of it in the process, that’s what I love. Not to mention that it is great fun to have all these covers in one place. Hearing the Beatles do “Please Mr. Postman,” Anna,” “You Really Got a Hold on Me” (from BBC Vol. 1) goes back to that “Happy Music” thing, Plus, as Devin said, “The look, feel, entire physical reality of Beatle-ness has always been a big part of the joy of owning their product, of buying it freshly minted, living with it, having it unto old age. Beauty and novelty are wonderful, sustaining things, and there was never anything so beautiful and novel as You Know Whom.” — still the biggest selling acts annually all these years later. Incredible.

  3. Avatar James wrote:

    Agree totally. Luckily those with devious minds and fingers will have “acquired” the Unsurpassed Broadcasts set which has, imho, the best sound overall. Having a real, albeit retrospective, new Beatles album is always, ALWAYS something magical! It seems to strip away the cynicism and disappointment at how much of a twit Ringo has become (don’t ask for a positive word about him in Liverpool…) and how Paul has become a karaoke machine for hire and constantly alters his memories to suit any occasion. It makes me feel like I did in the eighties when I got into them, where each album seemed like a revelation. The progress from record to record (singles included) was amazing. I’ve ordered the cd and will be ordering the vinyl when it becomes available. Sucker? Maybe, but a happy sucker!

  4. Avatar Drew wrote:

    Well believe it or not but I’m going to buy this because I haven’t heard most of these tracks. I think the Beatles obsessives who go around gathering every bootleg are a minority. The vast majority of Beatles fans wouldn’t even know how to get a bootleg or where to look. And like Devin says here, I don’t want an unofficial bootleg in a boring plastic case with someone’s bad handwriting on it, I want a glossy official CD package with the official photos, liner notes, etc. Consider it pre-ordered. 🙂

  5. Avatar Devin McKinney wrote:

    As you know, James, it no longer requires much deviance, let alone obsessiveness, to obtain this stuff, since 90 percent of it (everything worth having, anyway) is up on YouTube. Which is bound to seriously reduce the number of people who might, one day long ago, have bought this out of mere curiosity.
    And which reminds me once again of the utterly changed landscape of bootleg collecting. It used to be such a long, protracted hunt for the one record, the one song; such an indescribable thrill once it was found. Often it was a disappointment to actually hear the thing, but in bootlegland, as in many similar realms, most of the experience lay in the hunting and the having, not necessarily the using. It used to be such fun. Now, thanks to the Internet, like a lot of things, it’s just another fast-food option on the touch screen. Sad.
    More geezer talk: My first Beatles bootleg was a wretched, recorded-on-portable-cassette-player-on-floor-next-to-stereo-speaker copy of Yellow Matter Custard (1973), which we didn’t find out until later was BBC material. (Following Castleman and Podrazik, we’d believed it was a collection of Please Please Me-era studio outtakes.) So I go back with the BBC material a long way. After moving to New York in the early ’90s I made it a point to collect all the Beeb Transcription vinyls (though I’m still missing 9, 11, and 12, I think). Later came the Great Dane box and around 2001 a Beeb box of music and dialogue spanning 1962 to 1970, each definitive for its time. My last amassing of BBC material is the 2004 Purple Chick set, the next definitive, which I think runs to 10 discs, most of which I still haven’t listened to. Like I said, the hunting and having, not the using.
    Mike, you’d agree with me that the BBC material cannot be overrated as historical material, and I still hold with what I wrote in Magic Circles 10 years ago–that at least four songs (“I Forgot to Remember to Forget,” the unadulterated “Keep Your Hands Off My Baby,” “I’ll Be on My Way,” and the June 1 version of “I Got to Find My Baby”) rate with their best work. Beyond that, there are probably a dozen others of unusual interest that I would never want to be without (“Soldier of Love,” “Don’t Ever Change,” “I Got a Woman,” “I Just Don’t Understand,” others). Beyond that, 17 versions of “From Me to You” and 15 of “I Saw Her Standing There” and 13 of “Love Me Do” can try any fan’s patience. But I’m glad it’s all there.

    • Mike, you’d agree with me that the BBC material cannot be overrated as historical material

      Oh absolutely Devin. Perhaps the clearest way to perceive this is to imagine if it had all been lost. Think of the lamentation! “The lost BBC songs” would be the object of so much speculation, and freighted with such a sense of what might’ve been known, that is not.

      Your thoughts on bootlegs sum the passion up so nicely. For me, the two poles of collection were Twickenham-era stuff (which I despised from the first note, before I knew much of the backstory) and BBC stuff, which I loved even when it was wobbly and filled with tape noise. But of course the objects of my greatest affection were the unreleased tracks which were “Leave My Kitten Alone”, “That Means a Lot”, “If You’ve Got Troubles”, and “Not Guilty”. I still remember the frabjous day I bought “File Under: Beatles”. Life’s been all downhill ever since. 🙂

      To me, the BBC stuff is a core sample of what the group was, before fame and fortune made that much more difficult to see. Perhaps because it was just trickling out during the years I was most obsessed, the BBC material informs a lot of what I think about The Beatles–especially when it comes to comparing them to their contemporaries. Unlike so many British bands, The Beatles often improved on the originals they were covering (at least to my ears) and at the very least created covers that could stand up to the originals. Perhaps it was because they were playing R&B rather than blues, but when I listen to the BBC stuff, I never hear The Beatles as fanboys, slavishly mimicking the original, but musicians determined to reinterpret, and give their version more of what they love about the original. The Beatles never attempt to be what they are not, and that honesty, sincerity and fearlessness in the face of judgment is part of why I think they are great artists. And why I think so much of the solo stuff is so poor.

    • Avatar Linda wrote:

      Devin. That is an amazing collection of rarities you’ve amassed. I totally agree that we don’t really need another version of “I Saw Her Standing There,” or “Love Me Do,” as I agree with your list of very cool covers. Another good one is “I Need a Shot of Rhythm and Blues.” My all-time favorite cover the Beatles did was of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles,’ “You Really Got a Hold on Me.” John’s vocal performance on this song from BBC Vol. 1 is nothing short of miraculous — pun intended — and is the definitive performance of his for this song. His voice is smokey and sexy, sparingly punctuating the song with falsetto. I was never one to seek out rare Beatles recordings over the years, although Tower Records in The Village in NYC used to have a few, so I do own some of the German stuff, but nothing near as extensive as what you’ve collected. And yes, all — or much of — it is available on YouTube and when I find myself with a craving for a particular song, You Tube is the first stop. Michael, “Leave My Kitten Alone,” is excellent. What’s interesting is that John has played with the original lyrics, only singing what he wanted to sing and not the full song. (John omits the second chorus and instead, repeats the first.) Listen to Little Willie John’s original version: Gotta love that Lennon. And your assessment of The Beatles often improving on the original songs or at least producing something that could stand up to the original recordings is why I believe, and have said before, The Beatles were the Best Cover Band EVER!

  6. Nancy Carr Nancy Carr wrote:

    I’ll buy this compilation to get decent sound quality—though, like Devin, I hope the digital engineers didn’t smooth things out too much this time around. Listening to things on YouTube is, to me, no competition at all. Listening to a not-great recording through my definitely-not-great computer speaker is like listening to a terrible bootleg. And in general, I’m a fan of physical, as opposed to metaphysical, media.

    Mike, what you say about “honesty, sincerity, and fearlessness” characterizing the Beatles’ recordings but not much of the solo stuff is interesting. I’d like to hear more about that sometime.

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