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Live at the BBC is not a great album, but you can hear the Beatles turning into a great band on it. It occurs on Track 12—of a total of 69, 56 of them songs—which just happens to be the first Lennon/McCartney Beatles tune played in its entirety. (Earlier, there’s a bit of “From Me to You” recast as a jingle, “From Us to You.”) “Thank You Girl” is a simple song, but it’s irresistible from the opening “owww owww.” Nearly all the songs on this two-CD set are covers, 30 of them never recorded for the quartet’s studio albums (though long available on bootlegs). But the collection’s most exhilarating aspect is the hint of the fab duo’s arrival as a songwriting team.
The mythology is that the Hamburg-era Beatles were wild men, so proto-punk that the Backbeat soundtrack was entrusted to members of various grunge and punk bands rather than to, say, Marshall Crenshaw. When they first auditioned for the BBC in Liverpool in 1962, however, producer Peter Pilbeam noted that they were “not as rocky as most, more country and western, with a tendency to play music.” From that description it seems likely that Pilbeam was not much of a Little Richard fan, but his assessment is supported by these recordings, made in 1963 through 1965. (The tapes of the ’62 recordings were deemed too inferior to be included.) No one will mistake the Beeb-session Beatles for the Clash.
With eight songs, Chuck Berry is the most-represented songwriter on Live, and his teen vignettes influenced everything that came after. For the emerging Beatles, however, Smokey Robinson is probably a better reference point, even if “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” is the solitary Robinson tune on Live. The only Lennon/McCartney original here that the Beatles themselves never recorded elsewhere—“I’ll Be on My Way,” a Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas B-side—indicates the influence of Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers, but the tidy, well-built songs of Motown and the Brill Building were clearly just as important.
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Lennon/McCartney didn’t linger long in Robinson’s and Goffin/King’s shadows, of course. The Fab Four had a bit of a jump on America; they’d already been stars in Britain for a year when Beatlemania hit the U.S., and thus had a significant backlog of material. Even so, by the end of ’64 they were deep in new territory, borrowing feedback tricks from the Yardbirds for “I Feel Fine”; six months later George Harrison had successfully assimilated the ringing Byrds guitar sound for “Ticket to Ride.” This collection ends around then; by mid-’65 the Beatles no longer needed the exposure provided by BBC appearances and found it harder to capture their sound in the network’s primitive monaural studios. By ’66, the lessons of Berry, Holly, and Carl Perkins had been absorbed into something that, if not entirely new, is certainly not predicted by the earnest if frequently exuberant oldies on these discs.
If there are any remaining Beatles mysteries, Live doesn’t answer them. Those who haven’t already explored the Beeb-session boots may be surprised to hear McCartney crooning “The Honeymoon Song” or Lennon singing “I Just Don’t Understand,” Ann-Margret’s only Top 40 hit, but everyone already knows that they recorded “Till There Was You” and “A Taste of Honey.” (After all, they wrote “Michelle” and “Yesterday.”) And, despite the number of previously unheard covers, no fan is unaware of the Beatles’ interest in Berry, Perkins, and Little Richard.
Rather than revelation, the set provides a snapshot of the band—and of Britain—at a very specific time. The humor that seemed so irreverent to American viewers of A Hard Day’s Night, it turns out, fit just fine on the mid-’60s BBC, which had been softened up by the likes of The Goon Show. The banter between the various Beatles and such announcers as Brian Matthew, Lee Peters, and Alan Freeman is still charming, even if it now seems tame, not to mention condescending to Ringo Starr (repeatedly, if lightheartedly, suggested to be subhuman) and parochial. Introducing the theme song to their first film, Lennon ventures that its title in Portugal might be “Crinsk Dee Night,” while Matthew pronounces the Portuguese tag for the band, Los Beatles, “ridiculous.”
The Beatles of 1964 may have disdained the non-Anglophone world—Germany aside, of course—but they had a whole universe to explore in the U.S.A. Explorers they were too, unearthing such notable obscurities as Arthur Alexander’s “Soldier of Love,” the Jodimars’ “Clarabella,” and Eddie Fontaine’s “Nothin’ Shakin’ ” and featuring them alongside such obvious choices as “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Lucille.” It’s not clear from these recordings, but in putting together soul, rockabilly, pop, and rock ‘n’ roll the band was just a few steps away from establishing a confident eclecticism that would become a rock ideal.
Everything the early Beatles did, the middle-period Beatles did better, including rock out; “I’m Down” and “Helter Skelter” make a bigger noise than anything the group recorded either in Hamburg or for the BBC. Still, there’s plenty of fire and fun on such Live tunes as “Young Blood,” “A Shot of Rhythm and Blues,” “Some Other Guy,” “Long Tall Sally,” “The Hippy Hippy Shake,” and “Rock and Roll Music.” All four Beatles sing spiritedly, McCartney’s melodic bass lines are more audible than on many of the studio recordings, and Harrison’s flair for modest yet effective guitar fills shines time and again. The Beatles demonstrate, as Pilbeam put it, a tendency to play music.
Almost everything has changed since then—calculated music video has replaced spontaneous radio; songwriting is disdained by rappers, riffers, and trancers; and it is totally uncool to pay homage to one’s inspirations as directly as the Beatles did in their early days. (Now such an undertaking is suspect without a concept, and Lennon and then McCartney obligingly went conceptual with their post-Fab solo albums of oldies.) Perhaps that’s the greatest appeal of rifling the vaults for uneven but upbeat recordings like these: They have a freshness that the latest in digital technology can never simulate.