c.1986 — At the Beeb Vol. 4 (bootleg)
Beatle bootlegs. A diverse glut of them appeared, illegally, in the 1980s... and then were re-issued on CD in the 1990s and beyond. The Beatles at the Beeb series — a bunch of great discs of the BBC recordings — was one of these. Volume 4 of that bootleg series is the disc I will now discuss. Holy crap, it's awesome!
(You can still find CD issues of this series in many bootleg shops. I live in Tokyo, which is rife with them. And most of the BBC tracks have still never been officially issued. Many of the better-quality BBC recordings have been cleaned-up and given official release by Apple, notably on 1994's Live at the BBC. For reasons unknown, Apple then waited 19 long years before issuing the sequel, On Air — Live at the BBC Vol. 2 (2013), by which point everyone who cared had already downloaded or bought the entire BBC recordings archive, meaning the album passed with little notice. Any Beatle aficionado could have told Apple the smart thing to do MUCH EARLIER would have been to issue the entire known-recordings of The Beatles at the BBC, rather than waiting twenty years to issue another skimpy collection, by which point nobody cared. But Apple, like Paul McCartney's attempts at movie-making, is embarrassingly inept.)
Brian Epstein and The Beatles went apeshit with BBC radio sessions between March 1962 (when Pete Best was still the drummer) through May 1965. This included no fewer than 32 sessions in the first nine months (!) of 1963 alone. In total, in The Beatles' history at the BBC, 275 recordings of songs were put down on tape, of 88 different songs (many songs were repeated). Of these 88 songs, 36 never appeared on a Beatle album or single, which makes them of particular interest.
Anyway, the Vol. 4 CD that I'm inordinately fond of comprises live studio recordings from two separate days: two sessions, on July 10th, 1963, at the BBC Aeolian Hall, and another single session on July 16th, 1963, at the BBC Paris studios (both venues are in London).
The disc kicks off with Lennon rip-roaring his way through Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen". The Beatles were always dialed-in when John sings rock'n'roll, and Chuck Berry, as we all know, is rock'n'roll. When The Beatles covered Chuck, John Lennon almost always took the lead. This is an awesome performance — essential Beatles. If you don't love this song, whether Chuck or John sings it... you probably don't need to keep reading.
After Rodney Burke's short intro, George Harrison's scouse timbre jumps out singing Eddie Fontaine's "Nothin' Shakin' (but the Leaves on the Trees)" (originally released 1958). George's voice always works with rockabilly, and he is dead-on this one. The guitar leads are sharp and strong, and everyone seems to be having a good time in this great song, which is about... not gettin' any (presumably no longer a problem for George by this point).
John does a jokey intro to the next number, which he sings: "Lonesome Tears in my Eyes", originally released back in 1957 by Johnny Burnette. Ringo's shuffling beats really stand out in this shuffling, Latin-flavored tune, although George's first solo is a little rough (actually the second is, too). But never mind: what a pleasure to hear young John singing away like this. His voice was just so great circa 1963/64. When he sings, "I can't forget that you to-o-o-old me / So many promising lies", your heart just melts. Rave on, John.
When The Beatles were rockin' out at the Top-Ten club in Hamburg in 1961, or The Star-Club in 1962, it was often their vocal harmonies that most impressed rival groups. "So How Come (No One Loves Me)" is a great example (of a song made famous by The Everly Brothers) where George and John sing together to great effect. Paul might chip in here and there, but if so I can't hear him. Yeah, there are some cheesy lyrics in this song (do kids nowadays even know who "the ugly duckling" is?), but it's great stuff, for all of 110 seconds.
The next track on the bootleg is, in fact, probably the first number recorded that day: Chuck Berry's "Memphis, Tennessee". This is my favorite Chuck Berry song of them all, and he has a lot of good 'uns. John, as usual, takes the lead, and his voice is to die for. What's funny is that in the countless times The Beatles played this song — they did it five times for the BBC, and probably hundreds of times live at the Cavern and in Hamburg — John never quite got the lyrics correct. The correct lines in the first verse are:
She could not leave her number, but I know who placed the call
My uncle took the message and he wrote it on the wall
But evidently John could not make out the "my uncle" part, which Berry sings kind of lazily — sounding like "m'ahncle". Anyway, what John always sings is always this:
'Smallco' took the message and he wrote it on the wall
What the hell does "smallco" mean? I've no idea, and I'm sure John didn't either. Sometimes the young teenage Beatles heard "Americanisms" on 45-singles and didn't understand the slang or regionalisms. This might be a case where they guessed there was a slang being used... and there wasn't. In any case, this song is fabulous and so is the boys' performance, which is typically taken at a little faster tempo than Chuck's original.
Rodney Burke helpfully introduces the next song by explaining that fans had written in to ask George ("the most marvelous thing since boys were discovered") to sing. He does. "Do You Want to Know a Secret" is a song John Lennon wrote and passed to George to sing on Please Please Me, The Beatles' first album. Now, I love Please Please Me, and I don't mind this very tuneful and catchy little song, which by the way rose to #2 on the US pop-charts in 1964 (which is funny because The Beatles clearly viewed it as a slightly forgettable, throwaway track). But it is a rather poor vocal by dear George on the album. However, this (sixth!) BBC recording — also rather fast of tempo — is a treat because George really nails the vocal, which somewhat improves the song. Hey, he even sounds pretty clean on those "Ooo-oo-oo-oo" falsettos at the end! By the way, this is probably the very last time The Beatles ever played this song — about 9 months before anybody in the USA had even heard it.
Next we get our treat of McCartney sugar, with the immortal(ly sappy) "Til There was You". My goodness, they certainly taped enough live versions of this song (eight times for the BBC). This song famously appears in The Music Man musical. But did you know it was written by (Robert) Meredith Wilson, who looked like this:
which is fabulous, because he looks exactly as you'd expect the nerd who wrote "Til There was You" to look. I don't hate this song like some Beatle nuts do, and it's actually a nice change of pace — always a great vocal by Paul. George's guitar solo is fab, too.
Next is Ringo on lead for Carl Perkins' classic "Matchbox". Hot damn, I love this song! Great as Carl's 1957 original is, I think Ringo and The Beatles' 1964 studio cut is the best — and Carl was present for that session, which is kind of cool. Anyway, this early summer '63 BBC recording is great, too, and ol' Ringo sounds really into it. (Incidentally, this is another track where the young Beatles probably couldn't understand the lyrics. There's a video of Paul and Carl talking in the 1980s where Paul asks Carl what the heck the lyric to "Matchbox" was all about.... I dunno, it's simple, isn't it? “I'm such a poor boy that all my worldly possessions could fit in a matchbox.” There ya go.) It's great on the BBC recording when Ringo sings: "If you don't want Ringo's peaches, honey / Don't mess around my tree". Saucy!!
"Please Mr. Postman" appears on With the Beatles, recorded about three weeks after this BBC session (but they'd been playing this song since the Pete Best days). I've never been overly impressed by The Beatles’ album cut of this Marvelettes 1961 hit, and the BBC recordings are actually not even as good as those (no hand-claps, for one thing). Always good to hear John sing like this, though.
"The Hippy Hippy Shake" (by Chan Romero) is a record Paul learned when he borrowed it from a friend in Liverpool. The Beatles quickly added it to their set, and they recorded it five times for the BBC (this is the third one). This take is a bit slower than some others, and it sounds quite good. The song really suits Paul's voice, even if he overdoes the "Oh!"s in the breaks.
The July 16th recordings start with "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry (Over You)". This tune was written by Joe Thomas and Howard Biggs in 1953, but the young Beatles would have learned it from Elvis Presley's first album in 1956. John takes the lead here, and The Beatles play it really fast (compared to Elvis's more rockabilly cut). Great guitar leads by George, and Ringo even gets in a couple of mini-(almost) solos. Pure enjoyment, and every Beatle shines.
One of my favorite of all the early Beatles' covers is "Crying, Waiting, Hoping", written by their songwriting hero, Buddy Holly, and with lead vocal by George Harrison. As writer Richie Unterberger aptly points out, this only live BBC version can handily be compared with the January 1st 1962 version played at The Beatles' "failed" audition for Decca Records. George was only 18 years old then, and Pete Best was on drums, not to good effect. That early-morning live take was not very impressive. But good golly, miss Molly, this one hits all the right notes! Both George's sensitive vocal and intricate guitar-soloing are just perfect. (The Beatles actually had an amazing feel for Buddy Holly songs — he was like an honorary Beatle before The Beatles existed.) Ringo is dialed-in, too. The improvement from January 1962 to July 1963 proves that sometimes it is a good idea to shamelessly kick a guy out of your group and never speak to him again.
Next is "Kansas City / Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!". This song was Little Richard's re-write of Leiber & Stoller's US #1 hit "Kansas City", and over a year later The Beatles would cut it and officially release it on Beatles For Sale. That official recording, frankly, has a much better, wilder lead vocal by Paul, but this one ain't bad. George plays "lazier" solos that aren't as sharp, and Ringo sounds a bit confused at both "Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!" interjections, but anyway he keeps going, in time. Young Beatles rockin' out is always a good thing. If you had never heard the 1964 studio recording, you'd love this one more. But you have.
The long history of John (and George) with Phil Spector began with "To Know Him is to Love Him", which topped the US pop charts, by Phil's "Teddy Bears", in 1958, perking the ears of the young Beatles in south Liverpool... and that history ended in late 1973 when Phil Spector stole John's tapes of the Rock'n'Roll album and ran away with them. So, stranger times to come. But back in 1960-1963, this was another of John's showstopping vocal moments in Hamburg and at the Cavern. The Beatles change it to "To Know Her is to Love Her" (unlike when Ringo sang "Boys"). Lennon's vocal is from heaven, and Paul and George "ooh" and "la, la, la" their way through the verses capably, before everyone opens up vocally for the big choruses. Just fantastic.
One of the more obscure early Beatles' covers was "The Honeymoon
Song", which, to my knowledge, they played only this once (like, ever). The
song itself dates from 1959, and was the theme to the film Luna De Meil
(aka: 'Honeymoon', or 'The Lovers of Teruel' in the USA). It was written by
Mikis Theodorakis (later of Zorba The Greek fame), with English lyrics by
William Sansom. It's quite a lovely little song, with a Latin-rhythm and a nice solo by George. Paul's voice really suits this kind of thing, and the melody is really nice, and really... special. Worth a listen if you haven't heard this before. It should be cheesier than it is, but somehow it’s a cool song. (Weirdly, the guitar-ending to this Beatles' version is nearly identical to the guitar-ending of "The Ballad of John and Yoko" in 1969, which concerns, among other things, John’s wedding to Yoko. That can't be a coincidence! John and Paul evidently had long memories for even their more obscure past numbers.)
This wonderful disc ends with "Twist and Shout" (which, as you probably know, The Beatles learned from the Isley Brothers' 1962 recording). This was normally the last number at live shows and radio-sessions in 1963 (and the last song on Please Please Me), simply because John couldn't sing any more after rip-roaring his way through it. Nice as this version is, it probably isn't one of their better ones... but, you know, an average "Twist and Shout" is still an awesome "Twist and Shout".
So, there you have it. Now, to tell you the truth, most of the above BBC recordings (but not all) were mined by Apple and issued on Live At The BBC (1994). Because these were stellar performances. But something about the two official BBC albums doesn’t sit right with me. They somehow don’t capture the charming flavor of the BBC sessions like the single-disc bootlegs do. And then there’s the sound-quality issue: the official releases of course “clean up” the sound and reduce background noise, which is understandable, but they also lose something. Personally, I don’t mind background noise, “bleeding” across audio tracks, and lots of natural reverb. To me, this makes the recording sound more real. Basically, the rougher it sounds, the more I like it. And I’d rather hear the rougher, 1980s-style bootlegs than the official doctored CDs from Apple Records.
So, if you’re in a mood to hear some early Beatles, but are tired of the official albums you’ve heard a million times and don’t want to order expensive double-albums by Apple that sound clinically doctored, you can’t do much better than to buy the old Beatles at the Beeb — Vol. 4, which I am confident you can find online or even order from Amazon or elsewhere. And it won’t be expensive (I hope). It will leave you defenseless because it’s so damn enjoyable.