The Beatles Release Another BBC Bonanza

Craig Rosen
Yahoo Music

Just in time for the holiday season, Apple Records is releasing the Beatles' On Air — Live at the BBC Volume 2. Out Nov. 11, the 63-track, two-CD set — also available on 180-gram vinyl and digitally through iTunes — is the sequel to 1994's Live at the BBC, which has been remastered and repackaged for a simultaneous release.

If that wasn't enough for Beatlemaniacs' holiday stockings, The Beatles: The BBC Archives: 1962-1970, a 336-page book chronicling the Beatles' BBC radio and television appearances, was published in late October by Harper Collins. Written by Kevin Howlett, who also served as a producer on the latest BBC audio release and penned the set's liner notes essay, the elaborate tome comes packaged in a mock tape box, with the cover of the book designed to look like a tape reel.

Separately or taken together, the newly released recordings and the book offer new perspective into the Beatles' early days when the Fabs shoehorned in frequent BBC radio performances in between their relentless schedule of live gigs and recording sessions.

"You may think the Beatles were universally adored, but the audience research reports in the book confirm that's not so," Howlett says. "There's a big dividing line, usually by age. Twenty was regarded as old in those days. It was really the youngsters that loved the Beatles. So you get these comments in the audience research reports that say the Beatles were making 'obnoxious noise' and that they were 'amateur' and 'vastly overrated.' It kind of puts you back in the era."

The book also includes transcripts from interviews in which the Beatles were asked what they were going to do after it was all over, strongly suggesting that their popularity was nothing more than a fad. "Nobody knew that pop music could last, and the group would progress so much and change pop music itself and the way everyone perceived pop music," Howlett says.

Beginning in March 1962, in a little more than three years, the BBC broadcast a startling 275 different Beatles' musical performances in the U.K., often alongside other acts that couldn't have been more different. "Pop music was still part of show business in the U.K. in the early '60s," Howlett says. "So the Beatles were appearing on the radio with all sorts of music — dance orchestras, crooners — fairly tame fare compared to what they were doing. It must have been quite shocking for some listeners to hear some lovely light orchestral piece and then to hear the Beatles do 'Twist and Shout.'"

According to co-producer Mike Heatley, he and Howlett spent two years — on-and-off — going through a number of sources to compile the latest BBC set. Since the BBC didn't save any of the master tapes of the Beatles' performances, they had to turn to BBC Transcription service vinyl discs, tape copies, and even listener recordings of the radio broadcasts. The first BBC album included the obvious choices, so for the second set, the pair had to delve a little deeper. Two previously unreleased gems included on Live at the BBC Volume 2 are the Beatles' live-in-the-studio take of Chuck Berry's "I'm Talking About You," with John Lennon on lead vocals, and Paul McCartney singing lead on the Stephen Foster-penned standard "Beautiful Dreamer."

While some of the songs included on Volume 2 were also included on the first BBC release, Howlett points out that they are different performances, as is the case with the Beatles' take of the Little Richard hit "Lucille." Howlett says, "I think it's valid to have both versions. They're quite different in feel, particularly in the guitar solo."

He adds that Volume 2 also includes alternative versions of familiar Beatles covers and originals with different instrumentation. For example, the take of Barrett Strong's R&B hit "Money (That's What I Want") doesn't have on the piano heard on the studio version, while "I'll Get You" and "Please, Please Me" don't have harmonica. These differences occurred because the band was playing live in the studio without overdubs. "Since they were playing either live-to-air or live-to-a mono tape, you get that extra excitement and adrenaline-fueled performance," Howlett says. Or as McCartney says in the liner notes, "We are going for it, not holding back at all, trying to put in the best performance of our lifetimes."

While top 40 radio was exploding in America with legendary personalities like B. Mitchell Reed and Cousin Brucie, the U.K. didn't have any such official equivalent, but instead music fans had to turn to pirate radio stations, doing their best to emulate the new sound of American radio, or the relatively stiff and stodgy BBC.

However, the BBC's strict rules ended up producing a treasure trove of alternate takes, since rather than merely playing records, they demanded that musicians perform live in their studios.

The Beatles were such frequent visitors to the BBC that they had to expand their repertoire so they wouldn't repeat themselves on the broadcasts, after they performed every track they had officially released on records for the BBC. The band even had their own series, Pop Goes The Beatles, on which they played six songs on 15 programs in the summer of 1963.

"They never wanted to repeat themselves," Howlett says. "So even though they had only released 18 songs by the end of September 1963, they had performed 56 different songs during Pop Goes The Beatles, so you can see they were drawing on a large repertoire and also experimenting and trying out new songs for that series. That's why we have this wonderful collection of Beatles performances that we've been able to share with everyone."

Volume 2 includes Beatles covers of songs by Buddy Holly, Arthur Alexander, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and Chuck Berry; as well as some Talma-Motown hits, and more. Aside from the 37 previously unreleased musical performances, Volume 2 also includes 23 tracks of in-studio chatter and interviews between the Beatles and BBC hosts. Heatley admits that he initially thought Volume 2 should feature less studio chatter, but Howlett convinced him to go the other route. While Heatley wouldn't go so far to say that the spoken segments are as important as the musical performances, he say they do stand up to repeated listening.

Howlett, who also works as a radio producer, says the in-studio chatter is an essential part of the set, and he knows the dialogue so well that he can speak along as well as sing along to the album. "I think people love it. I think they really enjoy hearing the conversation," he says. "The concept for me in putting this together was to create the feeling you were listening to a radio show from this era."

In addition to the studio chatter, the album also includes "Pop Profile" interviews with each of the Beatles. Chats with Lennon and George Harrison from 1965 close out disc one, while interviews with McCartney and Ringo Starr from 1966 close out disc two. The interviews are noticeably different than the goofy studio chatter heard on the rest of the set.

"They were quite relaxed, candid, and personal interviews," Howlett says. "It was quite revolutionary for pop stars to be treated with this kind of seriousness at the time."

The interviews, which are transcribed in Howlett's book, offer insight into where the Beatles were headed. "Paul McCartney mentions the idea that 'I'd like to make films, not big expensive ones,'" Howletss says. "So he's formulating the idea of Magical Mystery Tour back in May 1966, although he didn't introduce the concept until April 1967; then it was made in September 1967, but you can hear that in the interview."

Released simultaneously with Volume 2 is a remastered and slightly retooled version of the first Beatles BCC collection, Live at the BBC, originally released in 1994. "There are some real improvements on a lot of those tracks, particularly 'I Forgot to Remember to Forget,'" Heatley says. Aside from the improved sound, remastered by the team of ace engineers at Abbey Road, Howlett points out that the retooled album features some additional speech tracks and a new booklet.

As for future BBC releases, Howlett and Heatley say it's unlikely. "They did 88 different songs for the BBC, but some of them many, many times, so there are 275 different performances of songs," Howlett says. "On these two albums 81 have been released, so there are only seven that haven't been released because the audio quality of those does not reach the threshold that we've set. My feeling is that these two albums together represent the cream of the Beatles' BBC performances."

While Howlett acknowledges that there are likely Beatlemaniacs out there that would like every version of those 88 songs ever recorded, he says it's not likely that'll be released. However, Heatley leaves the door open just a crack. "Will there ever be a more complete set? At this stage, we don't think so," he says, "but never say never."

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