The new Apple/Capitol/Universal release On Air: Live at the BBC Volume Two sets the Wayback Machine at Destination: 1963 and 1964, when four Liverpool lads named John, Paul, George and Ringo ignited a British Invasion that continues to this very day. All 63 tracks (both spoken-word introductions and songs) on this new 2-CD time capsule date back to those two years, when the Fabs recorded unique performances for such BBC programs as Saturday Club and Pop Go the Beatles. A belated follow-up to 1994’s Live at the BBC (which itself gets a remastered reissue today), On Air can’t help but flash back listeners to a simpler, pre-Sgt. Pepper’s time, when The Beatles could cause a firestorm of controversy simply because of the length of their hair. Though Beatlemania was in full swing by the time Meet the Beatles arrived in the U.S. on January 20, 1964, the sense here is mostly of a hard-working, eager-to-please band. Knowing the experimentation (sonic and otherwise!) that came next for the lads from Liverpool, one can’t overlook just how basic and primitive some of these recordings sound – how completely, wonderfully rock-and-roll!
These in-the-moment recordings – 40 musical performances, 37 of which are previously unreleased – are filled with youthful abandon and exuberance. Most of the songs are far less polished than their studio counterparts, but largely follow the studio templates. The result is a fine “alternate” listening experience, as the originals are so familiar. One can hear The Beatles working, truly, as a band: Paul’s melodic bass; Ringo’s direct, clean and accessible drum style; George and John’s guitars spurring each other on. Each part was essential to the whole.
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On this set, the spoken segments are equally integral to the overall listening experience, and offer up plenty of nostalgic amusement. You’ll hear The Beatles wryly talking to DJs Brian Matthew and Alan Freeman and Pop Go the Beatles hosts Lee Peters and Rodney Burke. (In a break from the 1963-1964 time period, On Air also appends the candid interviews recorded for the Pop Profile series in November 1965 and May 1966 as bonus tracks.) In one segment from the July 30, 1963 Pop Go the Beatles, we learn that Diane and Jenny of Bedford found George Harrison to be “the most marvelous thing since boys were discovered.” How about a song by the so-called Quiet Beatle? George complies with “Do You Want to Know a Secret,” at a faster clip than the familiar studio take.
The Beatles’ dry, offbeat humor comes through even as they’re reciting requests, bantering with the straight-laced deejays, or informing fans that they’re actually singing live in the studio and not playing one of their records! It’s easy to see why the girls at home were swooning over the Fabs; you, too, might feel your body beginning to sway during “This Boy,” with its delicious Motown and doo-wop –inspired harmonies. Paul goes lightly Latin on Meredith Willson’s “Till There Was You” from Broadway’s The Music Man, a song which he learned from Peggy Lee’s recording. Things have certainly come full circle over the years; today, Macca’s MPL controls the publishing for Willson’s esteemed catalogue. In a not-dissimilar vein is “And I Love Her,” the Lennon/McCartney staple which showed Paul maturing as a ballad writer. Harrison’s exquisite central guitar riff showed just how attuned he was to Lennon and McCartney’s evolving style, too. John offers a lovelorn vocal on Arthur Alexander’s “Anna (Go to Him),” but On Air isn’t all low-key love songs or breakup ballads.
John’s vocal on Chuck Berry’s “I’m Talking About You” is positively rip-roaring, and the song is otherwise notable for being one of a handful of BBC-recorded songs not otherwise released by The Beatles to have been left off the 1994 compilation. This volume finally includes the rocker in rough but listenable quality. “Beautiful Dreamer,” like “I’m Talking About You,” makes a long-overdue appearance here, as does “Lend Me Your Comb” (which was also featured on Anthology Vol. 1). It’s believed that the BBC recordings of “Besame Mucho,” “Dream Baby” and “A Picture of You” haven’t surfaced yet in sufficiently releasable quality.
Lennon also tears it up with a vibrant lead on “Twist and Shout,” which is almost as throat-shredding as his studio version...but not quite! Paul takes his turn with an uninhibited rock vocal on Little Richard’s “Lucille.” But even the more relaxed songs got a shot of adrenaline in the live BBC setting. In the “Bumper Bundle” segment, the Fabs take turns reading notes. We learn that two girls “are worried...because it doesn’t say on the LP who sings this next song – who does?” The next song is “P.S. I Love You,” in a brisk rendition led by...Paul, of course! Paul and John also turn in a boisterous “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” while Ringo has fun with a raspy “Boys,” with Harrison tearing into his brief guitar solo. “Boys” was co-written by Luther Dixon and Wes Farrell, two veterans of the fertile New York pop-soul scene, for The Shirelles. It’s not the only Brill Building-era tune here; Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Chains,” Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s “Kansas City” and Goffin and Jack Keller’s adaptation of Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer” all got airtime. Just as exciting are the Beatles’ Motown covers such as “Please Mr. Postman” and “Money (That’s What I Want).”
All told, no fewer than 275 unique Beatles performances were broadcast over the Beeb’s airwaves between March 1962 and June 1965. 88 distinct songs were played, meaning that some songs were performed numerous times and others just once. As The Fabs frequently revisited repertoire at the BBC, six songs heard on the 1994 release are reprised here in different performances: Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee,” Little Richard’s “Lucille,” Chan Romero’s “The Hippy Hippy Shake,” Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman,” and two tracks the band learned from Carl Perkins’ records, “Glad All Over” and “Sure to Fall.” The Beatles’ affinity for these early rock-and-rollers has arguably never been more evident than on the energetic BBC takes.
On Air is housed in a digipak in the style of the recent Beatles reissues. Kevin Howlett and Mike Heatley have followed in the footsteps of Sir George Martin, producer of the 1994 collection, in helming On Air. Guy Massey and Alex Wharton have remastered all tracks at Abbey Road, and though sound quality does vary from track-to-track, these songs have never sounded as crisp as they do here. Paul McCartney has penned a new introduction (“By the way, of course, we were brilliant! Let’s not forget that. I always say to people, ‘Not a bad little band.’”) Howlett has also provided an illuminating essay and track-by-track annotations in the lavish 48-page booklet, but his liner notes are really just the tip of the iceberg. His hardcover tome for Harper Design, The Beatles: The BBC Archives, is currently available in stores, and its 336 pages chronicle the band’s recordings for the BBC – on both radio and television – in truly definitive fashion. It makes the perfect complement to On Air.
As Apple Corps has long resisted the temptation to flood the market with Beatles releases, each new title is always an “event.” On Air: Live at the BBC Volume Two is no exception. With its rare content that only collectors have experienced – and likely not in such a luxe package with improved sound – On Air is an immersive and enjoyable trip back to the days, long time ago, when they were Fab.