Album Review: The Beatles—The BBC Recordings

In 1994, Apple Records and the BBC combined forces to unlock the gates of unreleased recordings being issued officially with the two CD release of Live at the BBC. These songs, recorded from 1963 to 1965, owe their existence to the British Musicians Union. Fearing for their members’ livelihoods, the union insisted that records be strictly limited with airplay. The BBC, seeking to increase air time for teenage pop groups, began broadcasting shows which featured new recordings made in their studios of the hits of the day. The Beatles first appeared on one of these shows, Teenager’s Turn (Here We Go), on March 8th, 1962. They performed Roy Orbison’s Dream Baby, Chuck Berry’s Memphis, Tennessee, and the Marvelettes’ Please Mr. Postman. At the time, Pete Best was still their drummer, and they did not yet have a recording contract. Sadly, this performance has never been issued, although Dream Baby has turned up on bootlegs and was aired on a retrospective BBC show in 1982.1

From that moment, the band’s appearance on BBC radio was assured, particularly once they had their first hit with Please Please Me. They appeared on shows like Saturday Club, Side By Side, Easy Beat, Top of the Pops, and two created especially for them: From Us To You and Pop Go The Beatles. Still, these recordings might have been mostly forgotten, but the Beatles made a point early on of covering many songs which they never recorded in the studio. The three albums released containing BBC material–Live at the BBC, On Air: Live at the BBC Volume 2, and The Beatles Bootleg Recordings 1963–include almost every cover song otherwise unavailable. Most of them are brilliant, proving that the group was one of the best “bar bands” of the era.

Because of the wealth of material here, I’m not going to do a track-by-track assessment. Instead, I’ll list the songs on each album, and then point out the highlights. An asterisk indicates speech.

Live at the BBC (released November 30th, 1994): Beatle Greetings*, From Us To You (opening), Riding On A Bus*, I Got A Woman, Too Much Monkey Business, Keep Your Hands Off My Baby, I’ll Be On My Way, Youngblood, A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues, Sure To Fall, Some Other Guy, Thank You Girl, Sha la la la la!*, Baby It’s You, That’s All Right Mama, Carol, What Is It, George?* (added to 2013 release), Soldier Of Love, A Little Rhyme*, Clarabella, I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Cry (Over You), Crying, Waiting, Hoping, Dear Wack!*, You Really Got A Hold On Me, To Know Her Is To Love Her, A Taste Of Honey, Long Tall Sally, I Saw Her Standing There, The Honeymoon Song, Johnny B. Goode, Memphis, Tennessee, Lucille, Can’t Buy Me Love, From Fluff To You*, Till There Was You; Crinsk Dee Night*, A Hard Day’s Night, Have A Banana!* (replaced in 2013 by Ringo? Yep!*), I Wanna Be Your Man, Just A Rumour*, Roll Over Beethoven, All My Loving, Things We Said Today, She’s A Woman, Sweet Little Sixteen, 1822!*, Lonesome Tears In My Eyes, Nothin’ Shakin’, The Hippy Hippy Shake, Glad All Over, I Just Don’t Understand, So How Come (No One Loves Me), I Feel Fine, I’m A Loser, Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby, Rock And Roll Music, Ticket To Ride, Dizzy Miss Lizzy, Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey!, Set Fire To That Lot!*, Matchbox, I Forgot To Remember To Forget, Love These Goon Shows!*, I Got To Find My Baby, Ooh! My Soul, Ooh! My Arms*, Don’t Ever Change, Slow Down, Honey Don’t, Love Me Do, From Us To You (closing) (added to 2013 release)

As you can see from the above list, the compilers of these releases chose to include many of the spoken asides and between-tracks chatter from the original broadcasts. This was done both because in some cases, the announcers would speak over the songs’ beginnings and endings, and because the Beatles’ wit showed to good effect in their banter with the hosts, which included Brian Matthew, Lee Peters and Rodney Burke. Originally, these tracks crossfaded into the songs; however, in 2013, this was changed and some of the songs were replaced with better sound quality sources. However, the dialog after A Hard Day’s Night was abbreviated, unfortunately. The sepia tinting on the original cover was also removed for a black-and-white rendition.

Live at the BBC is the one compilation to buy if you want to hear the Beatles at their BBC best. Almost all of the otherwise unreleased cover songs are included here. Some of the best include Too Much Monkey Business, A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues, Soldier Of Love, Carol, Lonesome Tears in My Eyes, I Just Don’t Understand, I Got To Find My Baby (all John); That’s All Right, Mama, Clarabella, Lucille, The Honeymoon Song, Ooh! My Soul (Paul); and Youngblood, Nothin’ Shakin’, Glad All Over, So How Come (No One Loves Me), and I Forgot To Remember to Forget (George). Paul and George do a fantastic Everly Brothers imitation on Don’t Ever Change, and the band covers their composition given to Billy J. Kramer, I’ll Be On My Way (Paul). Of note is that John sings this version of Honey Don’t, not yet recorded in the studio with Ringo on lead. All of the songs were recorded more or less live and in mono, the BBC not possessing multi-tracks and overdubbing being problematic. The guitar solo in A Hard Day’s Night was inserted from the studio take due to its difficulty.

Because Live at the BBC had included almost all of the unreleased covers, On Air is spottier. However, it does include a couple of new ones and some alternate takes of others. It also sweeps up Lend Me Your Comb, left off the first set and stuck on Anthology 1, where it didn’t quite fit. Finally, it includes four interviews with each Beatle, which I have listened to twice, at best.

On Air (Live at the BBC Volume 2) (released November 11, 2013): And Here We Are Again*, Words Of Love, How About It, Gorgeous?*, Do You Want To Know A Secret, Lucille, Hey, Paul…*, Anna (Go To Him), Hello!*, Please Please Me, Misery, I’m Talking About You, A Real Treat*, Boys, Absolutely Fab*, Chains, Ask Me Why, Till There Was You, Lend Me Your Comb, Lower 5E*, The Hippy Hippy Shake, Roll Over Beethoven, There’s A Place, Bumper Bundle*, P.S. I Love You, Please Mr. Postman, Beautiful Dreamer, Devil In Her Heart, The 49 Weeks*, Sure To Fall, Never Mind, Eh?*, Twist And Shout, Bye, Bye*, John–Pop Profile*, George–Pop Profile*; I Saw Her Standing There, Glad All Over, Lift Lid Again*, I’ll Get You, She Loves You, Memphis, Tennessee, Happy Birthday Dear Saturday Club, Now Hush, Hush*, From Me To You, Money (That’s What I Want), I Want To Hold Your Hand, Brian Bathtubes*, This Boy, If I Wasn’t In America*, I Got A Woman, Long Tall Sally, If I Fell, A Hard Job Writing Them*, And I Love Her, Oh Can’t We? Yes We Can*, You Can’t Do That, Honey Don’t, I’ll Follow The Sun, Green With Black Shutters*, Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey!, That’s What We’re Here For*, I Feel Fine (Studio Outtake Sequence), Paul–Pop Profile*, Ringo–Pop Profile*

You can see that there’s a lot more speech on this release. That’s because the rarities were becoming sparser. Still, it’s an enjoyable album, and includes Beautiful Dreamer (a rocked-up version) and I’m Talking About You, as well as the fast version of I’ve Got A Woman, my favorite. I also like their rock take on the standard Happy Birthday for the Saturday Club show, and the electric guitar version of And I Love Her.

The Beatles Bootleg Recordings 1963 is not strictly a BBC only release. It appeared in iTunes exclusively on December 17th, 2013, to beat the expiration of copyright protections in the UK and to keep the material from entering the public domain there.2 Fans were scrambling to download the tracks for fear they would vanish again; as of today, the album is still available for purchase. Caveat emptor, however; most of this material is not worth the download, unless you truly can’t live without five almost identical versions of A Taste Of Honey. The boys recorded many of the BBC tracks multiple times, with only slight variations in the performances. Some hardcore fans out there want each and every one. I am not one of them. Still, the studio outtakes are more interesting (and much better sound quality), and the two demos from John are worth having. (Also, DO NOT TRUST the track information. Some of it, such as the date for Too Much Monkey Business, is incorrect.)

The Beatles Bootleg Recordings 1963: There’s A Place (takes 5, 6, 8 and 9), Do You Want To Know A Secret (take 7), I Saw Her Standing There (take 6), A Taste Of Honey (take 2), Misery (takes 1 and 7), From Me To You (takes 1,2 and 5), Thank You Girl (takes 1 and 5), One After 909 (takes 1 and 2), Hold Me Tight (take 21), Money (That’s What I Want) (take 7 w/o overdubs), Some Other Guy, Love Me Do, Too Much Monkey Business, I Saw Her Standing There, Do You Want To Know A Secret, From Me To You, I Got To Find My Baby, Roll Over Beethoven, A Taste Of Honey, Love Me Do, Please Please Me, She Loves You, I Want To Hold Your Hand, Till There Was You, Roll Over Beethoven, I Want To Hold Your Hand, You Really Got A Hold On Me, The Hippy Hippy Shake, Till There Was You, A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues, A Taste Of Honey, Money (That’s What I Want), Anna (Go To Him), Love Me Do, She Loves You, I’ll Get You, A Taste Of Honey, Boys, Chains, You Really Got A Hold On Me, I Saw Her Standing There, She Loves You, Twist And Shout, Do You Want To Know A Secret, Please Please Me, Long Tall Sally, Chains, Boys, A Taste Of Honey, Roll Over Beethoven, All My Loving, She Loves You, Till There Was You, Bad To Me (demo), I’m In Love (demo)

The big problem with this album, apart from the untrustworthy track information, is the repetition. I can only listen to so many versions of Roll Over Beethoven, She Loves You and the aforementioned A Taste Of Honey before they all begin to blur in my head. The studio outtakes aren’t that much different from the released versions, although it is interesting to hear Misery without the harmonica and celeste overdubs and Do You Want To Know A Secret without the echo on the vocals. The sound quality varies widely from track to track (the first four tracks are stereo, the rest mono), and fans at the time complained that some of them sounded better on bootlegs.3 So if you decide to buy this album, I suggest you sample the tracks first. I think its release was an experiment to see how many would buy records like these; the lack of later releases in 2014, 2015 and so on indicates that the answer is “Not many”. Although we probably have this album to thank (or at least European copyright law) for the deluxe issues of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the White Album.

For those curious, not every BBC cover version is included in these releases. As noted, Dream Baby is missing, as are Besame Mucho, A Picture Of You (another 1962 recording with Pete Best), Sheila (never aired), Side By Side (the theme song for the radio show) and Three Cool Cats (never aired). Besame Mucho is available on Anthology 1 as it was recorded at their first EMI session, and Dream Baby, A Picture Of You and Side By Side can be found on YouTube. The other two are presumed lost (but you never know). Fortunately, Sheila can be heard on the Hamburg live recordings, and Three Cool Cats from the Decca audition on Anthology 1. NB: There was a CD single released entitled Baby It’s You on March 20th, 1995, with three tracks not included on Live at the BBC. Two of them were released on On Air, but the third, an alternate take of Devil In Her Heart where George screws up the lyrics, is still only available on that single. Finally, there are a few original group songs that still have not been released in their BBC takes: I Call Your Name, I Should Have Known Better, The Night Before, and Thank You Girl, as well as the theme song to Pop Go The Beatles! An instrumental based on Pop Goes The Weasel, it may or may not have been recorded by the group, but it certainly sounds like them in style. (It can also be found on YouTube.)

The Beatles’ performances for the BBC are often a joy, and Live at the BBC is well worth purchasing. If you truly enjoy this music, pick up On Air as well. Or just listen on Spotify. Either way, you’re in for a treat.