x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

The Beatles and the Beeb

Nineteen years after the first volume of songs performed by the Fab Four at the BBC studios in London, a second volume will soon be released, writes John Robinson.

Left to right, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison perform Paperback Writer at the BBC television studios in London in the mid-1960s. Cummings Archives / Redferns
Left to right, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison perform Paperback Writer at the BBC television studios in London in the mid-1960s. Cummings Archives / Redferns

John Robinson

For all they did to bring the world into magnificent colour, there’s an enormous romance about the time that The Beatles spent in black and white. Most will know the biopic version of the band: young pals on their way to “the toppermost of the poppermost”; Hamburg; their creation of a world that suddenly wants Beatle wigs. Act two features moustaches and the retreat into the studio to make music that will be untouchable 50 years later. The final act is far sadder: death, new girlfriends, legal proceedings.

If there’s a particular strength to this new collection of Beatles BBC recordings (it is the sequel to a 1994 set that sold five million copies), it’s what you might call its time capsule quality. The Beatles made 56 appearances on BBC radio programmes between 1962 and 1965, the first at the Playhouse Theatre in Manchester for a spot on a show called Teenagers’ Turn – Here We Go when they wore their suits for the first time. Among the last was one collected here: a stab at I Feel Fine from November 1964. Their work at the BBC finds The Beatles frozen in time: forever the loveable moptops, forever on the rise; forever young.

The Beatles did still appear on the BBC after this time, but in very different ways. Their film Magical Mystery Tour debuted on BBC1 on Boxing Day in 1967. John Lennon and Yoko Ono once informally dropped in on a John Peel programme. The group were quizzed by news reporters. But so rapid was their rise, after 1965 it was never again possible for the group to accommodate BBC sessions in their plans. If The Beatles’ career after 1966 was all about their retreat into the recording studio, the story here is all about the most active engagement possible with the public.

As this collection proves, if that wasn’t always dignified, it was often fun. An appearance on Saturday Club (appearances on which make up much of disc two) meant a benignly surreal exchange with host Brian Matthew, often on the puzzling topic of “Harry and his box”. There are dedications to schoolchildren, who think that George is “gorgeous” and want to send the group jam sandwiches for Christmas. To celebrate Saturday Club’s fifth anniversary, they sang “Happy Birthday” to the show.

Every Tuesday evening at 5pm for 15 weeks in 1963, meanwhile, The Beatles had their own dedicated show, Pop Go The Beatles (selections from which make up the bulk of disc one). Here, they sparred with the host (“My name’s Rodney Burke!” John Lennon: “That’s your fault.”) and each week played five new songs – some originals, some covers. The collection alternates chat and music in emulation of the original broadcasts.

What we find here is a young group, but one accomplished in all sorts of ways. There are strong versions of first album classics like I Saw Her Standing There, but Beatles fans turning to this collection or its predecessor craving unheard Lennon-McCartney work will come away disappointed – what they had written by this early stage, The Beatles, or their fellow Epstein-managed acts had recorded. In spite of Lennon-McCartney’s productivity, to fill their own albums or their radio show at this stage required a vast repertoire of cover versions.

Hardened by their experiences playing three sets a night to German sailors, they had such a repertoire to draw on. As Paul puts it here: “We like the old numbers”, and many of them (versions of Little Richard sung by Paul; Chuck Berry numbers by John or George; and a take on Berry Gordy’s Money (That’s What I Want), where they sound more like The Fall than The Beatles) are all featured impressively here.

Producers then and the compilers now treat all the material (speech, original songs, cover versions) as equal – representing as it does something if not original, then at least bespoke to the BBC. Ammunition for those who criticise that institution for its bureaucracy is the discovery that while there exist exhaustive written records of what went on between The Beatles and the corporation, the BBC had in its sound archive only one of the 56 broadcasts.

The search that has led to this new set has taken the compilers to radio stations abroad (where “transcription” discs of broadcasts were sent), to the collection of producer Bernie Andrews, who kept copies of recordings that would otherwise be lost to the BBC’s “wiping” policy, and to home tapers. The variable fidelity of the sound only adds period detail.

In consequence, this is a thrilling documentary record of a decisive period in the band’s life: nine months in which The Beatles changed from young hopefuls to the subject of their own phenomenon, Beatlemania.

Saturday Club would reach an audience of 10 million listeners, which doubled when the last half hour was broadcast worldwide. When people say things like “The Beatles changed the world”, this is part of the reason they do so. Rather than a mere beat group, The Beatles engaged with an essentially captive audience not just as great musicians but also as four distinct personalities. Who could fail to be charmed by them?

Here that charm is palpable. “Gorgeous” George is a fan favourite, Paul is game if non-committal (“yeah, great, yeah”), while at one point on disc one, Ringo calls John Lennon “posh”. There’s always a certain tension when Lennon himself is on the microphone, a young man constantly on the cusp between irreverent and inappropriate. Their gathering phenomenon is caught magnificently on disc two. At a mid-October performance in front of a live audience for a show called Easy Beat, Brian Matthew first attempts to calm the screaming crowd (“Hush, hush …”) before asking Paul about an upcoming engagement. This will be at the Royal Variety Performance, where The Beatles will play before the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret. It is conceived of as a great honour – and will prove to be the event at which John Lennon will instruct people in the cheap seats to clap their hands “and the rest of you, rattle your jewellery”.

As Paul expresses his view on the engagement to Matthew (“yeah, it’s great, yeah”), the crowd scream their approval. With the release of I Want to Hold Your Hand three weeks later, they will have even more to scream about.

The same couldn’t quite be said for those whose job it was to attempt to bottle this lightning and secure future Beatles performances for the BBC. From the release of their single Please Please Me in January 1963 to the first rumblings of outright Beatlemania in the autumn, the band had appeared on 34 programmes. In spite of their desperate telegrams to him, it was not possible for Beatles manager Brian Epstein to grant anything like that regularity in the future.

With their engagements abroad, in films (even on ITV), the solution was an amusingly old-fashioned arrangement where the band played public-holiday “specials” called From Us to You – and a greatly reduced number of appearances on the new radio show Top Gear (not to be confused with the TV show of the same name).

The band’s changing focus from live performances to studio composition is neatly illustrated with the last music track here, a failed take of I Feel Fine. A nod towards their coming direction, it begins with a drone of feedback – which they can’t get right.

The band’s association with the BBC doesn’t quite end there, however. In late 1965 and the spring of 1966, Brian Matthew met the band individually for a series called Pop Profiles. These eight-minute chats catch the band subtly changed: George recommending folk music (“Dylan, the good ones …”), John waiting in his “stockbroker-area” house for the atmosphere around The Beatles to “quieten down” and Ringo discussing what he likes in a foreign holiday. Most interesting is Paul’s interview. He likes new musical experience. We deduce he’s just been to see electronic music composer Luciano Berio, and that like George he’s interested in “Indian music” – which has “millions of things in it”.

As we know from act three of their story, The Beatles went on to explore some of these avenues themselves. It was simply not an investigation that the BBC – or indeed anyone else – would be able to accompany them on.

John Robinson is associate editor of Uncut and the Guardian Guide’s rock critic. He lives in London.