‘From Us To You’ – re-doing the hits, BBC-style

When Live at the BBC came out in 1994, it was seismic moment in Beatles history. Although now a little overshadowed by the launch of the Beatles Anthology multi-media behemoth 12 months later, it represented the first official release of ‘new’ Fabs material since Live at The Hollywood Bowl in 1977, and the first time we’d had any unheard songs for almost a quarter of a century. True, hardcore fans had heard most of the tracks on the 1988 BBC radio series The Beeb’s Lost Beatles Tapes but to actually be able to go to your nearest record store (how quaint!) and buy a double-CD set crammed with unreleased recordings….well, in this age of plenty when Apple/EMI are opening the vaults every year it might not seem much but, let me tell you, back then it was really something. The primary appeal of the album, of course, was the 29 cover versions of songs never recorded for EMI, along with a Lennon-McCartney original (‘I’ll Be On My Way’) and a reworking of ‘Honey Don’t’ so radically different from the Beatles For Sale track it might as well have been a new song. This extremely generous helping of fresh tracks (eventually topped up with a few more rarities on 2013’s On Air – Live at the BBC Vol. 2) effectively forms a double album which sits snugly alongside their 1963 work and has been part of my regular Beatles playlist ever since – so much so that I’ve scarcely listened to the other 24, more familiar, songs which make up the rest of the album. Until now.

The sepia-tinted cover shot which adorned the album’s original 1994 release

It’s easy to forget (for me, at any rate) that, as well as revisiting lots of tunes from their clubland days that never came near to a proper recording session, they also used their BBC radio appearances (on shows like Saturday Club, Pop Goes The Beatles and the like) to promote their singles and albums from Please Please Me through to Help! In doing so, they gave us modified versions of the songs we’re accustomed to hearing; in fact, a lot of the hype when the album came out was that (as its title indicates) this was our chance to hear The Beatles perform live, like you would in a concert hall, only without the screaming. I’m not too sure about that – laying a song down straight onto tape in a recording booth, usually without an audience present, is not quite the same playing before a crowd, without all the added atmosphere, energy and slightly fuzzy sonics that a real gig brings with it (and, if I’m not mistaken, there are overdubs on some of the late-1964/early-1965 tracks). If you want to sample a true ‘live’ Fabs experience, I would recommend the Star Club or Hollywood Bowl albums every time. Nonetheless, the BBC sessions do allow you to hear them play songs you know and love in a slightly different way. The arrangements are pretty much identical, but a little rougher, lacking the polish they and George Martin would apply at Abbey Road.

So what have we got? A couple of stand-outs are numbers which were taped before an audience of excitable fans – a gritty, spirited take on the B-side ‘Thank You Girl’ and a quite wonderful sprint through ‘I Saw Her Standing There’. This was always one of their best live tunes, and like other renditions from that period, it features a wilder, more spicy solo from George and dispenses with the second “My heart went boom…” section which follows it on the Please Please Me recording. By contrast, another couple of numbers from the same early period, ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘A Taste of Honey’, offer nothing new, just some variations of vocal phrasing here and there. There is a nice performance of ‘Baby It’s You’, though even that sticks note-for-note to the official recorded version (apart from a marginally longer solo and ending on a very typical Harrison guitar chord rather than fading out as on the record). Apple certainly rated it, as it was the plucked off Live at the BBC and released as a single early in 1995, hitting #7 in the UK charts (although only a lowly #67 in the US). They also put together a new promotional video for it which, alongside familiar photos and footage of the Fabs from 1963-65, featured some fantastic home movie-style film of them goofing around outside the BBC studios in Regent Street, London (presumably the same spot where the fabulous Live at the BBC cover shot by Dezo Hoffman was taken).

The 1994 promo video for ‘Baby It’s You’

I’ve occasionally read that some people prefer this take of ‘Baby It’s You’ to the album version but, good though it is, for me it epitomises the difference between BBC settings and the superiority afforded by EMI studio equipment and engineers, plus George Martin’s production expertise. The Please Please Me rendition is crisper, fuller; the drums, in particular, have more presence. These differences are even more apparent on other tracks, particularly the 1963 and early 1964 numbers. While you can always hear what a tight, intuitive and exciting band they were, sometimes they come over like they’re playing inside a tin can. Ringo occasionally sounds like he’s hitting a cardboard box, George’s guitar can be thin, twangy and brittle, and Paul’s bass rather muffled. A prime example is ‘You Really Got A Hold On Me’ – compare the rather muted BBC recording here to the monstrous, gut-wrenching version on With The Beatles. No comparison. Other picks from their second album, like ‘All My Loving’ and ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, are likewise solid but unspectacular, though ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ has a certain ramshackle charm and it’s nice to hear an all-electric performance of ‘Till There Was You’ (which is how they always played it onstage), with George expertly reproducing the tricksy solo on his Gretch Country Gentleman guitar.

Recording another BBC show in 1963

While constrained by some of the same audio limitations, it is fascinating to listen to all three of the covers which featured on 1964’s Long Tall Sally EP performed for the BBC many months earlier, in the summer of 1963. ‘Slow Down’ is subtly different – stripped of George Martin’s piano part, with a more intricate solo from George and some frenzied but clever drumming from Ringo, it’s probably closer to the way they played it in the Cavern. And ‘Matchbox’ (with slightly altered lyrics) is definitely more in line with Live at the Star Club version than the lackluster one recorded for EMI, with more intent, a meatier sound and a stronger vocal. ‘Long Tall Sally’, on the other hand, is – like the one cut later at Abbey Road – rather under-powered and tame compared to the fiery Star Club take from 1962, Macca’s storming vocal notwithstanding. The band cooks to much greater effect on the other Little Richard songs included here: ‘Lucille’, ‘Oh! My Soul’ and ‘Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey!’ (also heard here in 1963 form, almost identical to the one recorded for Beatles for Sale more than a year later).

Tunes laid down from the summer of 1964 onwards benefit from an uptick in sound quality. Another largely acoustic song, ‘Things We Said Today’, is turned electric here to decent effect, with Ringo’s aggressive drumming cutting through loud and clear during the middle sections. ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ also comes over well, though I’ve never understood the bizarre decision to drop in the EMI studio recording of the guitar solo onto this. I can only presume George made a hash of the BBC take, but it sticks out like a sore thumb. They were doing overdubs by this point, so I can’t figure why he just didn’t record it again – he plays it just fine on the Hollywood Bowl album, so it’s not like he couldn’t nail it. Certainly, his lead on ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’, taped at the BBC a few months earlier and included here, is spot-on.

Bantering with ‘Saturday Club’ host Brian Matthew. Some of their memorable verbal sparring is included on the album

Some of my favourite numbers on the album date from the Beatles for Sale period at the end of 1964, ironically around the time their sessions at the Beeb were becoming increasingly rare. ‘I Feel Fine’ and ‘I’m A Loser’ are terrific, fluent performances with excellent harmonies, while ‘She’s A Woman’ has a slightly looser groove than its B-side progenitor. That said, ‘Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby’ and ‘Rock and Roll Music’ are standard duplications, although the latter is shorter and loses some its power without its studio augmentations. This is also apparent on ‘Ticket to Ride’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy’, cut during their final BBC radio visit in 1965. Their progress in the studio was now far outpacing what they could effectively replicate in the cramped, relatively primitive confines of the Beeb, and they probably realised that attempting to do so no longer served any real purpose. The rock scene they had pioneered had become well established by this point and, as with their gradual reduction in live shows and introduction of promotional films, things would be done differently in Beatledom from now on.

For me, Live at the BBC is all about the treasure trove of otherwise unavailable songs which made up much of their pre-fame repertoire, and I’ll discuss those another time. None of the other tunes (with the exception of ‘Matchbox’) match up to their EMI studio counterparts, and none are substantially different enough to make me play them very often. And the sound quality, though perfectly fine for the most part, is never going to be as good – remember, these recordings were never meant to be played on big hi-fi units, but rather transmitted to old-fashioned radios, often crackly transistor sets. But, as a way of recapturing the vibe of what it must have been like as a young fan sat next to one of those radios on a Saturday morning or bank holiday just as the first thrilling wave of Beatlemania was breaking, the whole album (especially with the often hilarious introductions and banter which link some of the tracks) is worth its weight in gold.

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