Live at the BBC (1994)/On Air – Live at the BBC Volume 2 (2013)


Title: Between March 1962 and June 1965, the Beatles regularly took part in BBC radio sessions. They appeared on 52 shows, recording 275 performances of 90 different songs* (36 of which were never part of their EMI discography). These two volumes compile 56 and 40 tracks respectively, mixing them with snippets of the band being interviewed by the shows’ presenters.

*Sources vary over the total of unique songs. I’m going by the index in Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Chronicle.

Covers: Each volume uses a different photograph of the young Beatles – in both, they’re wearing suits and walking confidently down a London pavement. The first image has a rusty wash, while the second is full colour. I’ve been unable to find out when the first was taken, but On Air’s cover photograph dates from 2 July 1963. On that day, the group were at the Beeb’s Maida Vale Studio, taping episode five of radio show Pop Go The Beatles.

(Thanks again to Fraser Dickson for help with the image for this post.)

Best songs:

* Some Other Guy is, in many ways, one of the big missed opportunities of the Beatles canon. It was a 1962 hit for Richie Barrett, and reportedly fascinated Lennon for the rest of his life. The group recorded it three times for the BBC; it was in their set list for a couple of years; and the only time they were ever filmed in the Cavern – just days after Ringo joined the band – they enthusiastically played Some Other Guy. Given some of the lacklustre cover versions they put on early albums, it’s hard to see why they never tackled it for EMI. The take on the first Live at the BBC album is from an episode of Easy Beat and – unlike most of the stuff here – was recorded in front of a live audience.

* The version of And I Love Her on volume two is notable for George playing an electric (rather than acoustic) guitar. It gives the whole song a different feel.

Honourable mentions:

* We get the only ever Beatles recording of Lennon-McCartney song I’ll Be On My Way – it’s a pleasant enough tune, but has terrible lyrics.

* Terrific covers of Soldier of Love and You Really Got a Hold On Me are well sung by John.

* Paul’s vocal on Long Tall Sally is super (we get a different take on each volume); he’s likewise impressive on two other Little Richard tunes: Lucille and Ooh! My Soul.

* There are good run-throughs of I Saw Her Standing There, Please Mister Postman, Twist and Shout, I’ll Get You, She Loves You and From Me To You.

* Things We Said Today and Till There Was You almost match the versions on With The Beatles and A Hard Day’s Night respectively, while She’s A Woman is interestingly loser than the B-side recording.

* Lend Me Your Comb, originally recorded by Carl Perkins, is good fun, while the Beatles were never as C&W as on this cut of Perkins’s Sure to Fall (In Love With You) – it’s like listening to Gram Parsons.

* And finally, fantastically, volume two features an unedited sequence from a November 1964 session: the Beatles attempting I Feel Fine and discussing the take with the studio staff.

Worst songs: Nothing especially offends, but on the first volume we could probably cope without a sugary, earnest rendition of To Know Her Is To Love Her. (It’s also always a disappointment how tired Johnny B Goode is. Marty McFly did it better.) On volume two, a poor quality recording of Beautiful Dreamer (a 19th-century song with a speeded-up beat) can’t mask what a dull song it is. It even has a key change to try to keep our interest.

Notable outside contributions: Everything was recorded ‘as live’ or with minimal overdubs – so we’re hearing the musical product of four men. One exception is during A Hard Day’s Night on the first volume. Unable for some reason to recreate George Martin’s piano solo, it was rather inelegantly copied in from the single! (The take redeems itself at the end, though, when the boys and host Brian Matthews ridicule the song’s fade-out.)

Review: As an approximation of what the group must have been like live, these albums are lovely: plenty of well rehearsed performances of some covers, plus a smattering of alternate versions of existing Beatles tracks. Yet I doubt many fans dig these CDs out very often (unless they have an unquenchable thirst for rock’n’roll covers). There’s nothing essential here, while no take betters any EMI equivalent. The bits of between-song chat are fun on a first listen – all four Beatles are witty, charming and quick, while the hosts keep things light – but drag the album down when you can recite the jokes in your head. (Volume two also has some longer interviews, one per Beatle, recorded on the eve of Rubber Soul’s release. Paul sells a funny gag about Indian music.)

Five June lights turning to moonlights out of 10.

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