Though fans would have lined up around the block to buy it, the Beatles never issued a live album during their years together. In fact, their first and only official concert recording didn’t appear until May 1977, seven years after their breakup. Called The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl, the vinyl LP contains six tracks culled from an August 1964 show and seven from a pair of August 1965 performances (though the album erroneously credits only one of the ’65 dates).
Like most Beatles shows from the ’60s, the 1977 record includes a generous assortment of covers: the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout,” Larry Williams’s “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven,” the Shirelles’ “Boys,” and Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally.” But the LP also offers a healthy selection of John Lennon/Paul McCartney originals, among them “She’s a Woman,” “Ticket to Ride,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Things We Said Today,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Help!,” “All My Loving,” and “She Loves You.” The record runs just 33 minutes because the Beatles race through this setlist with Ramones-like speed: only four tracks reach the three-minute mark and one (“Twist and Shout”) clocks in at a mere 1:34.
As rough-edged as it is brief, the album suffers not only from the relatively primitive audio technology of the time but also from the fact that the incessant screams of Beatlemaniacs compete with the music. The LP is a historic document but it’s not much more suited to repeated listening than the Rolling Stones’ Got Live If You Want It!.
As Beatles producer George Martin writes in the liner notes, “I was not in favor of taping their performance. I knew the quality of recording could not equal what we could do in the studio . . . Technically the results were disappointing; the conditions for the engineers were arduous in the extreme . . . and the eternal shriek from 17,000 healthy young lungs made even a jet plane inaudible.” Indeed, when McCartney precedes “Ticket to Ride” by asking the audience, “Can you hear me?,” you get the feeling that he’s not sure what the answer might be.
This probably explains why Hollywood Bowl has until now been the only Beatles album to never be issued on CD. As the decades have come and gone, we’ve seen the release not only of all the other original LPs but also of everything from a mono box set and a stripped-down Let It Be to the revelatory Anthology series and the terrific Live at the BBC discs. But for nearly 40 years now, Hollywood Bowl has been available only via the original vinyl LP—and that hasn’t been easy to find, because it has long been out of print.
The sound is noticeably crisper than on the original LP, with instruments and voices more clearly defined, and the album is more listenable throughout than the 1977 release.
The situation changes with the appearance of Live at the Hollywood Bowl, whose release was triggered by the Ron Howard film Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years. The album—an expanded version of the 1977 LP—serves as a sort of companion to the movie, albeit not quite a soundtrack.
The good news begins with the sound quality. The late George Martin reportedly constructed the original record from three-track “safety” tapes of the 1964 and ’65 concerts. But for this new release, his son Giles got ahold of the original three-track masters, then did a superlative job of cleaning up, remixing, and remastering them. The sound is noticeably crisper than on the original LP, with instruments and voices more clearly defined, and the album is more listenable throughout than the 1977 release.
It is also 10 minutes longer, thanks to the addition of “You Can’t Do That” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” from the 1964 concert, plus two tracks from 1965: Carl Perkins’s “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby” and “Baby’s in Black,” which previously surfaced in 1996 as the B side of “Real Love.” It would have been nice to see the album expanded further, to include everything from the original concerts, but I’m guessing that audio problems precluded that option.
Despite Giles Martin’s sonic upgrade, at any rate, these recordings are no match for their studio counterparts. Technological limitations remain, as does the audience’s roar, which constitutes almost as big a part of these proceedings as the music. That’s undoubtedly one reason Lennon later told Rolling Stone that he “hated” the Hollywood Bowl experiences. It’s also a major reason why the Beatles quit touring only a year after the last of the shows featured on this CD.
But while you can glean from this record why the Beatles walked away from the concert world, you can also hear exactly why all those kids are screaming: the group may have disliked aspects of their concert appearances, but that didn’t stop them from delivering great performances with a rare level of exuberance. Their music sounded irresistibly fresh, upbeat, and exciting in 1964 and 1965, and half a century later, it still does.