Release Date: November 12, 2013
After the six-CD Beatles Anthology overload and the 56-song Live at the BBC compilation, you could be forgiven for wondering what might be left worth exhuming from the vaults of history’s most revered rock band. After all, nearly everything worthwhile from the hundreds of hours the band spent at the BBC between 1962 and 1965 has been available legally and otherwise (mostly otherwise) for decades, and is but a YouTube search away. So why would even a die-hard fan want another volume of Beatles BBC recordings?
Actually, there are several reasons why. The archive is so vast — 88 different songs and 275 performances, if I’m understanding the avalanche of statistics correctly — that careful curation goes a long way; in addition, there’s the fastidious sonic retrofitting and beautiful packaging that the Beatles’ reissue team has brought to all their recent releases. But most of all, On Air provides a bounty of something in surprisingly short supply: high-quality recordings of the Beatles at their peak as a live act. Sure, the Ed Sullivan and Hollywood Bowl and Shea Stadium performances are legendary, but by then the group was well past its gigging prime; the long-out-of-print 1962 Hamburg Star Club recordings capture a great but obviously inebriated band in horrific sound quality, which is why the group has suppressed them. But in 1963, when the overwhelming majority of On Air‘s songs were recorded, the Beatles were at their absolute zenith as performers: They were playing virtually every night and many days. (For a sample, check out the snarling version of “Money” on this Swedish radio show.)
Even though nearly all of On Air was recorded in presumably antiseptic BBC studios, the Beatles tear through their sprawling early repertoire — rock, R&B, and country covers mixed with originals, show tunes, and more — with a jauntiness and dexterity long gone by even mid-1964, after the deafening crowds made these formerly razor-sharp musicians clumsy and ultimately uncaring. But most of all, they sound hungry: Success beyond their wildest dreams was just within reach. As McCartney says in the liner notes, “We’re going for it, not holding back at all, trying to put in the best performance of our lifetime.”
This 37-song set follows the template of 1994’s first volume, which roughly followed the format of the radio shows themselves: songs plus brief interview segments, with the Beatles and (usually) presenter Brian Matthew reading fan letters, talking about Paul’s 21st birthday party, plotting a forthcoming trip to America, and the like. The band’s trademark cheekiness is in full effect as they rib each other and the hosts (“Oh, that’s yer posh voice, eh?”).
The performances are rough-hewn but often riveting, with the group’s raw side on display in raucous versions of Little Richard’s “Lucille” (a McCartney showpiece) and Chuck Berry’s “Talkin’ ‘Bout You,” the latter delivered with classic early powerhouse drive — a striking contrast to the Rolling Stones’ loose groove on their contemporaneous version of the song.
A few of these recordings are wobbly, presumably sourced from audience tapes or transcription discs — before the mid-’60s, the BBC infamously erased untold thousands of classic recordings in order to save money on tape — but here they’ve been rendered as listenable as possible. And the sequence of tracks is imaginative, mixing the well-worn with the unfamiliar: For every “Twist and Shout,” there’s an “I’ll Get You”; the pioneering pop rush of “She Loves You” is followed with a rustic “Memphis, Tennessee.”
These 50-year-old “new” recordings are like voices from a quaint, distant world: The ’60s (and the Beatles themselves) hadn’t really happened yet. And while there are mistakes and bum notes — and the group’s enthusiasm about recording for the BBC had pretty clearly waned by the later sessions — the gorgeous harmonies from those legendary young larynxes sound as glorious as ever.