There is always an auspicious entry to any part of the Beatles story. Dick Rowe famously turned them down and George Martin signed them up. That’s historic fact. Well, yes and no. There is a man called Peter Pilbeam you might like to know. He’s the BBC producer that auditioned and signed the Beatles to their radio career, beating both Rowe and Martin in the talent scout stakes. Turned down by Decca records on an infamous New Year’s Day 1962 audition, it was in February that the humble Beeb arguably gave the Beatles their first major career boost. Pilbeam, auditioning the group, was polite and observed the Beatles “tendency to play music”, favouring John over Paul (slightly). Adding to the Beatles mythology it was the BBC that proved to be the major turning point in the boy’s love of leather smelling of the Cavern club and Hamburg beer to suits more “suitable” for performing live in a radio studio. Meanwhile, George Martin had to wait until June of that year for his role in the history books.
Signing for a series of radio programs, like most things Beatle the BBC would be a gruelling schedule demanding not only stamina but an almost unending catalogue of material. Whilst this may seem an easy task for the greatest songwriters of the 20th century it is important to note that in 1963 when the Beatles had a total of 18 recorded songs to perform the BBC still required 6 fresh performances a week during Pop go the Beatles, a total of 56 songs for that program alone. Whilst the Beatles were able to creatively juggle material recorded for singles, the Please Please me album and some of the covers on the yet to be released with the Beatles they still managed to fill a deficit of 33 songs with covers from their Hamburg/Cavern stage act. It is this unique era that forms the basis of the Beatles BBC output.
With time at a premium, the Beatles usually performed at the BBC’s Maida vale studios. Away from the technical thrills provided by Abbey road’s two and four track tape decks, the BBC offered the simple joy of Mono recording and a few microphones. Despite this, keen engineering on the behalf of the Beeb created solid recordings. Unlike bootlegs of their Star Club performances which sound as though they were recorded via a telephone booth down the road, most of the BBC material sounds as though it could have been recorded in a live studio session today. The Beatles at the BBC is a lot more than a curio for the completist fan. The BBC years were highly regarded by John Lennon, who is rumoured to have owned some of the first bootlegs. These were the Beatles 8 years before they first tried to Get Back and before excessive touring had taken its toll on their performances. This is the other side of Sgt Pepper, The Beatles pushing boundaries not through the use of studio trickery but as a tight 4 piece band.
The highlight of these discs are the previously unreleased cover versions. They possess a vibrancy lost on the group when they became “clever”. Treasures on the first volume include the legendary cover of the Barrett and Strong work “Some other guy”, Lennon’s vocal on “Honey Don’t”, Paul on “Clarabella” and George on “don’t ever change”. This is the Beatles, as heard in the Cavern Club not Candlestick park. It is no surprise that when originally released in 1994 this album rose to chart prominence. 20 years later volume two arrives. Deemed unlikely in 1994, volume two suggests a slightly more commerce oriented release. It’s the Beatles so it’s obviously ok, but with most of the rare performances issued on volume one we are left with more chat and originals better served elsewhere. Universal, the Beatles new record company need not panic; I will still be purchasing Volume two at Christmas. But what has been missed is the opportunity to perhaps relegate both BBC sets to a collector’s box and issue a truly astounding, well priced single disc. Not everyone likes to gift a download, and there has to be some way to get the next generation of Beatle maniacs moving beyond the Pepper and into the grit.