Music Review: The Beatles’ ‘On Air—Live at the BBC, Volume 2’

The Beatles' On Air--Live at the BBC Volume 2

Beatles music has never fallen out of fashion, never gone away even briefly, so it can be easy to forget just how long ago the Beatles themselves went away. They officially disbanded in 1970—nearly half a century ago—after little more than six years in the international limelight.

But what a six-year period it was. In that short span, they went from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to “Strawberry Fields Forever,” from “She Loves You” to “I Am the Walrus.” In the process, they conquered the world, which loved virtually everything they did from Day One.

The two collections of their recordings for the BBC—the one that appeared nearly 20 years ago and this new volume—focus on Day One, and, where the world outside Britain is concerned, the period before Day One. Most of the recordings here date from 1963, some from early in that year, and that’s early indeed: the Beatles didn’t top the U.S. charts and appear on The Ed Sullivan Show until January and February of 1964, respectively.

But by 1963, they were already displaying to English fans the magic that would win over America and the world. And that magic comes through loud and clear in this vibrant new collection, which is jam-packed with terrific harmonies and upbeat melodies and exudes the enthusiasm and wit that helped the Fab Four stand out. On the songs recorded before audiences, you can already hear the screams and squeals that the world would come to associate with Beatlemania.

On Air—Live at the BBC Volume 2 offers 40 previously unreleased performances, as well as more talk than on volume one: interspersed with the music are 19 previously unavailable tracks of studio banter between the Beatles and their BBC radio hosts that, while fluffy, do much to convey the group’s charm and conjure up its early days. Four bonus tracks deliver meaty—for the time, anyway—interviews with each Beatle that the BBC’s Brian Matthew conducted in November 1965 and May 1966 (from just before the appearance of Rubber Soul to shortly before the release of Revolver).

The recordings are all mono but the sound on most tracks is crisp and powerful and a noticeable improvement from the first BBC collection (which has just been remastered and reissued). The Beatles recorded some of the songs live in the BBC studios for later broadcast; others they performed live on the air, mostly on the Pop Go the Beatles series of half-hour broadcasts that aired from 1962 to 1965.

Occasionally, the best parts of two takes would be edited together; and sometimes, a tape would be copied to another and overdubbed with more instruments.

As Kevin Howlett points out in his insightful notes in an accompanying 48-page booklet, “Having to record on mono machines at the BBC meant that if any mistakes were made they could not be isolated from the rest of the music and repaired.” Occasionally, the best parts of two takes would be edited together; and sometimes, a tape would be copied to another and overdubbed with more instruments. But fixing mistakes would mean starting from scratch, and there was generally no time for that. So even the material here that wasn’t broadcast live was recorded live. And in some ways, it’s better for being so.

The collection includes classic originals such as “From Me to You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You,” plus covers of early rock hits by the likes of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and Chuck Berry, and Motown favorites that include “Money” and “Please Mr. Postman.” As Howlett observes: “Surveying the choice of songs for Pop Go the Beatles is the nearest you can get to exploring the group’s record collections.”

While most people would likely agree that Live—On Air is highly evocative, well packaged, and loaded with wonderful performances, some will inevitably call it unnecessary. After all, while Apple is emphasizing the fact that all the tracks are previously unreleased and that dozens of the songs never appeared on any of the group’s official albums, the other side of the story is that other versions of all but two of these numbers (“Beautiful Dreamer” and Chuck Berry’s “I’m Talking About You”) have been issued before, many of them on the 1994 BBC collection. In most cases, moreover, you’d have to be a bit of a Beatlemaniac to tell the difference between the newly available readings and the previously available ones.

The thing is, there are still a lot of us Beatlemaniacs out there. And it’s an indication of how deeply ingrained in our minds many of these songs are that any small departure from previously released versions is immediately apparent and of interest. And as noted earlier, the studio banter adds a lot.

The result, for me, is a must-have collection. In fact, I agree with New York Times critic Allan Kozinn, who recently pointed out that a comprehensive edition of the Beatles’ BBC work—about two-thirds of which remains unavailable—is long overdue.

Howlett has said that he doesn’t envision such an edition—or even a volume three—because the two available collections of radio material “have all the essentials.” But as Kozinn suggested, while stopping with “essentials” might make sense if this were some obscure band with a cult following, that’s not exactly the sort of group we’re talking about here.

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