THE BEATLES: AT THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL (1964-1965; 1977)
1) Twist And Shout; 2) She's A Woman; 3) Dizzy Miss Lizzie; 4) Ticket To Ride; 5) Can't Buy Me Love; 6) Things We Said Today; 7) Roll Over Beethoven; 8) Boys; 9) A Hard Day's Night; 10) Help!; 11) All My Loving; 12) She Loves You; 13) Long Tall Sally.
For some reason, this album still has not seen a properly authorized CD release; maybe they are just waiting to lay George Martin peacefully in his grave before that happens, considering how reluctant he was to put it on the market back in 1977 — when the release was triggered by the concurrent propagation of the horrible Live At The Star-Club, Hamburg tapes from 1962. Because there was no way Capitol could stop these recordings from going public, they quickly needed their own reply, and ended up holding George at the allegorical gunpoint. Various factual sources will let you know how much of a challenge it was to handle and process the old tapes; the whole thing was anything but a love affair, and so, the only officially released Beatles' live album still remains sort of a bastard, despisable child.
Ironically, though, as the years go by, its importance increases, if only because there are so many young fans now who do not know the proper answer to the question: «So why exactly did they stop touring?» One good listen to Hollywood Bowl will provide that answer. Although the tracks are taken from two different periods, more or less equally divided between August 23, 1964, and August 29-30, 1965, little had changed in the interim: the banshee wailing flying over the amphitheater never loses a single decibel of intensity. You, the listener of At The Hollywood Bowl in its LP form, have the magnificent benefit of actually hearing the band. The girls in the audience did not have that benefit — not that they had any need of it. And the band itself did have need of it, but couldn't have gotten it unless somebody built a soundproof glass wall around them. Like the blue bubble around Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in Yellow Submarine.
That said, the Beatles did play well under the circumstances. Occasional flubbed notes in Harrison's solos or a few tripped beats here and there could happen at any Beatles show, screamfest or no screamfest, and John's major stage curse — that of constantly forgetting the lyrics and having to mumble, improvise, or fall back on older verses — was, I am fairly sure, aggravated by his nonchalant personality rather than teenage howling getting him off the right track. They were never «great» stage performers, but they did what they could do: rev up the energy level of their studio recordings and play them faster, crazier, more aggressively, the way any good rock show should assert its advantages over the «calculated perfection» of the studio.
The problem was not that they «couldn't play»; the problem was that they couldn't improve. In the studio, every new batch of recording sessions brought on new discoveries and challenges. Live, there was no way they could profit from these discoveries. It is quite telling that, although the performances from 1964 and 1965 are shuffled, there is hardly any way to distinguish earlier and later stuff — even if, in August 1965, less than two months separated the Beatles from the breakthroughs of Rubber Soul. (Well, clearly, other than the numbers performed — in 1964, they couldn't have been singing ʽHelp!ʼ or ʽTicket To Rideʼ, but I'm not talking about that).
The oddest moments, I think, are the ones where either John or Paul strike up some clumsy, «humorous» stage banter — banter that, under normal circumstances, could either be ignored or produce a laughing reaction, but under Beatlemania rule, triggered something much simpler: «A Beatle is talking — time to scream louder!» They genuinely seem lost on that sea, talking and joking to no one in particular, and playing well enough to not lose confidence in themselves, but who really cared? A few headshakes, a few falsetto whoo-whoos, and that's all they need to send the audience to heaven. Led Zeppelin sure hope they could get away that easily.
Today, there is no pressing need to hunt down Hollywood Bowl as long as you already have a general idea of what a Beatles live show used to be like — for which purposes, the Anthology CDs and videos would be perfectly sufficient. Maybe someday the tapes will get the benefit of proper remastering, and the setlists will be expanded to make this document more coherent and comprehensive (at the very least, there is something disrespectful about the almost random shuffling of the running order). But clearly, none of these performances will ever replace the studio originals in your heart — although I do admit that, Ringo yells his head off quite effectively on ʽBoysʼ, going at it far more ferociously than when locked in the comfort of Abbey Road Studios. On the other hand, the decision to strip ʽThings We Said Todayʼ of a part of its subtlety, and introduce the bridge with a rock'n'rollish "yeh!" on Paul's part, was a mistake. They should have rather included more Carl Perkins in the program.
Of course, the only official live Beatles album (bar The BBC Sessions, which isn't really «properly» live before a real audience) cannot and will not get a thumbs down. What might get a thumbs down is the band's uncompromising decision to quit touring, once and for all. Had they endured just one more year (and even then, when you look at their touring schedule for 1966, you will see that they already spent an absolute minimum of time on the road many months prior to abandoning the practice altogether), the screaming would have died down on its own, and then, finally... remember that the best touring years for the Stones and the Who, two of the Beatles' finest competitors, only began around 1968-69; before that, live bootlegs and scraps of official recordings show that they had relatively limited advantages over the Beatles on the stage. But, as they tell us, history knows no ifs, so let us just bear with the fact that Paul Is Dead, after all.