THE BEATLES: LIVE AT THE BBC (1962-1965; 1994)
CD I: 1) Beatle Greetings; 2) From Us To You; 3) Riding On A Bus; 4) I Got A Woman; 5) Too Much Monkey Business; 6) Keep Your Hands Off My Baby; 7) I'll Be On My Way; 8) Young Blood; 9) A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues; 10) Sure To Fall (In Love With You); 11) Some Other Guy; 12) Thank You Girl; 13) Sha La La La La; 14) Baby It's You; 15) That's All Right (Mama); 16) Carol; 17) Soldier Of Love; 18) A Little Rhyme; 19) Clarabella; 20) I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Cry; 21) Crying Waiting Hoping; 22) Dear Wack; 23) You Really Got A Hold On Me; 24) To Know Her Is To Love Her; 25) A Taste Of Honey; 26) Long Tall Sally; 27) I Saw Her Standing There; 28) The Honeymoon Song; 29) Johnny B. Goode; 30) Memphis Tennessee; 31) Lucille; 32) Can't Buy Me Love; 33) From Fluff To You; 34) Till There Was You.
CD II: 1) Crinsk Dee Night; 2) A Hard Day's Night; 3) Have A Banana; 4) I Wanna Be Your Man; 5) Just A Rumour; 6) Roll Over Beethoven; 7) All My Loving; 8) Things We Said Today; 9) She's A Woman; 10) Sweet Little Sixteen; 11) 1822; 12) Lonesome Tears In My Eyes; 13) Nothin' Shakin'; 14) The Hippy Hippy Shake; 15) Glad All Over; 16) I Just Don't Understand; 17) Top So How Come (No One Loves Me); 18) I Feel Fine; 19) I'm A Loser; 20) Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby; 21) Rock And Roll Music; 22) Ticket To Ride; 23) Dizzy Miss Lizzie; 24) Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey; 25) Set Fire To That Lot; 26) Matchbox; 27) I Forgot To Remember To Forget; 28) Love These Goon Shows; 29) I Got To Find My Baby; 30) Ooh! My Soul; 31) Ooh! My Arms; 32) Don't Ever Change; 33) Slow Down; 34) Honey Don't; 35) Love Me Do.
Although the BBC has really gone on a limb to empty its vaults in the past couple of decades — by now, there must already be hundreds of official releases of sessions recorded by different artists — it is interesting that not a single one of these archival albums ever went «legendary». Some of the packages are, on the whole, rather disappointing (Cream, the Who, etc.), others are consistently listenable and highly enjoyable (Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, etc.), but not a single one ever managed to add something very, very important to what we already knew of the artist in question. (Of the several dozen that I have heard, at least — cannot pretend to completeness of info, or else I'd have to be «swamped in the beeb»).
Of course, one shouldn't really expect too much of archive releases; but the whole «recorded live in the studio» experience is not a completely trivial thing, either — basically, it's a live album recorded with good quality and without external noise, something that can, at least theoretically, be more than worth our while. Somehow, it is never more than that. As it turns out, a real live album needs external noise — for most bands (unless we're talking of those that have stage fright), an active audience, be it a club, theater, or arena crowd, unlocks some other dimension in the mind, so that they can «lose themselves» in the playing. The BBC studios, on the other hand, never unlocked anything — sometimes, quite the opposite happened instead. Maybe some sort of claustrophobia, maybe subconscious pressure to exercise restrain and calmness in your playing since nobody is really watching (some of these performances actually were played before small audiences, but that usually wasn't enough), maybe a feeling that this is not really a live show, but rather a simulation of one — anyway, once they are inside the BBC studio, musicians tend to stick close to the notes and chords, and just provide a half hour of simple fun for those fans who don't have enough money to buy the records (but, perhaps, have enough money to buy blank tapes).
The Beatles, who were among the first of the Beeb's clients to get a deluxe 2-CD official treatment of their BBC history — extracted from over 9 CDs worth of material, as can be found on the bootlegged Complete BBC Sessions — are no exception to this general rule. On one hand, it is nice to get over two hours of vintage live Beatles material where you can actually hear the guitars and vocals, not just Ringo's drums trying to rise over the girlie din. On the other hand, where would the real live Beatles be without the girlie din? There's something about the whole atmosphere of this thing that makes them feel naked — no access to either the perfection screen of George Martin or the mighty scream curtain of the fans.
Formally, Live At The BBC is a treasurehouse. It does wisely by focusing on the early shows from 1963, because this way, we now have access to clean recordings of lots and lots of covers that the band performed in their early days — everything from American rock'n'roll (ʽCarolʼ, ʽJohnny B. Goodeʼ, ʽI Got A Womanʼ, ʽToo Much Monkey Businessʼ) to American R&B (even more of that sympathetic Arthur Alexander fellow!) to songs the band must have learned from the repertoire of Billy Fury (ʽNothin' Shakinʼ) to one or two really crappy «Europop» numbers (ʽThe Honeymoon Songʼ, next to which ʽA Taste Of Honeyʼ and ʽTill There Was Youʼ have the anti-establishment potential of a Patti Smith). And, just so you do remember that these are the Beatles you are listening to, a nice, thick selection of originals that also cluster around 1963 and early 1964, but extend a little bit into 1965 as well (ʽTicket To Rideʼ, etc.).
The actual playing, I must say, is almost uniformly bad, and I do mean B-A-D bad. Ringo seems either asleep or dozing half of the time, George is simplifying or flubbing his lines, and Paul is captured in his early-bass stage, when he still had relatively little interest in improving the reputation of that instrument. It is especially painful when it comes to straightforward rock'n'roll numbers: the band is positively sagging on ʽCarolʼ (which the Stones covered in a far sharper and focused manner), ʽI Got A Womanʼ is a total failure next to the Elvis version, etc. Again, it does not really prove that the Beatles completely sucked at playing live — there are plenty of first-rate takes on both originals and covers in the Anthology series, but, somehow, the BBC studios never got them properly attuned. They just don't seem to be trying too hard.
In fact, once the original pleasure of «more Beatles! more Beatles!» had faded away for me, I found that my fondest memories of the album are all related to the silly, but charming bits of banter. John is the undisputed King of Banter here, opening the album with the unbeatable "I'm John, and I play guitar... sometimes, I play the fool", poking fun at silly schoolboy fan poetry with an exaggerated accent (ʽA Little Rhymeʼ), noisily promoting his book (ʽFrom Fluff To Youʼ), guessing the name of the band's latest movie in Portuguese (ʽCrinsk Dee Nightʼ... right), and recording what was probably the first little swipe at bandmate Paul while reading a fan letter (ʽDear Wack!ʼ), even if it is just a short interjection, but such delicious tonality! Next to that outpouring, Paul, George, and Ringo all come through as sissies, but everybody is given a few brief moments to shine anyway, and somehow, when the band is talking, they often come across livelier and merrier than when they are playing.
Still, even without the banter, the record is still worth owning for at least the following tracks: (a) ʽSoldier Of Loveʼ — John had the perfect voice to offer interpretations of Arthur Alexander's ballads, and this one is a worthy companion to ʽAnnaʼ; (b) ʽSome Other Guyʼ — a rocking highlight from the Cavern days, available here in good sound quality; (c) ʽThe Hippy Hippy Shakeʼ, done a little slower and lumpier than either Chan Romero's original or the Swinging Blue Jeans' hit version from 1963, but saved by Paul's ʽLong Tall Sallyʼ-style hysterical vocals and the overall heaviness of the rhythm section; (d) the dark slow waltz of ʽI Just Don't Understandʼ — just because anything sung by John Lennon is always better than anything sung by Ann-Margret; (e) Little Richard's ʽOoh! My Soulʼ — if you actually loved Paul doing ʽLong Tall Sallyʼ, you'll love this, because there's really very little difference.
Only one previously unissued original surfaces here: ʽI'll Be On My Wayʼ, a song very much in Buddy Holly's style that the Beatles originally donated to Billy J. Kramer, then rearranged it in a slightly less Crickets-derived manner and tried playing with themselves. It doesn't take a lot of intellect to understand why it never ended up on a proper Beatles album, but it's nice to have it all the same — every once in a while, you need to reassure yourself that the Beatles were human, after all, and did actually learn and improve by trial and error rather than have God establish a beeline from heaven right around the time Ringo joined the band.
In short, this is far from the «great lost live Beatles album» — something that may yet surface on the market one day if somebody really puts his mind to the idea. But it is a modestly good package all the same: at the very least, kudos to the BBC for focusing on the little-known stuff rather than on a dozen versions of ʽFrom Me To Youʼ or ʽI Feel Fineʼ, and for including just the right amount of banter with merry announcer Brian Matthews — just enough to make the whole thing homely, and compensate for the bits of clumsiness and occasional discomfort in the playing. The only real disappointment is that I never get the feeling that the Beatles really enjoyed playing at the Beeb — even at the Hollywood Bowl, you could sense more inspiration fighting its way through the deafening screaming than in these studios. At the Beeb, there was really nothing to fight against. Maybe that's why the enthusiasm is so low.