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On January 10, 1962, BBC head Peter Pilbeam demonstrated that he had at least one tin ear. Writing in Brian Epstein’s BBC audition application concerning a Beatles performance he’d just witnessed, the broadcasting executive assessed the band’s two lead singers thusly: “John Lennon – yes, Paul McCartney – no.”
“At least it had a happy ending,” says Kevin Howlett, producer (along with Mike Heatley and Jeff Jones) of the just-released Beatles set On Air – Live At The BBC Volume 2. “Paul did sing on The Beatles’ first BBC broadcast, so Brian Epstein or somebody must’ve persuaded Peter to give Paul a go.”
He laughs, adding, “But it is one of the great understatements of all time when Peter said in his notes, ‘Not as rocky as most. More country and western, with a tendency to play music.’ I guess some of the other groups that Peter was auditioning didn’t have as varied a sound as The Beatles.”
Between March 1962 and June 1965 – when they weren’t creating a new paradigm for how rock bands would operate, establishing the LP as an art form, making films that laid the groundwork for MTV and doing that whole, you know, taking-over-the-world thing – The Beatles somehow found the time to record 88 different songs (275 performances) for the BBC, with many of their appearances going direct to air.
“They treated those sessions very seriously,” Howlett says. “What’s extraordinary about the recordings is, you can really hear a band hungry and desperate to do anything they could to make it. That meant traveling hundreds of miles through the night to appear at a BBC studio, because the BBC hardly played a record in those days – you had to perform live to get your music out there.”
But what On Air makes abundantly, exquisitely clear – a case that was already soundly made on the previous BBC set from 1994 (now reissued, remastered, with some new goodies) and, if you can find it, the out-of-print 1962 Hamburg Star Club recordings – is that, for a time, before the constant exposure to mass hysteria forced them to quit performing, The Beatles were a live juggernaut.
Focusing largely on 1963, when they still had a head of steam from their sweat-filled nights at the Cavern Club, On Air’s 37 musical performances capture the band turning in tight, punchy, exuberant versions of originals, spanning from Please Please Me to I Feel Fine. In many cases, however, it’s their raw, affectionate, creative covers (McCartney is positively unhinged on Little Richard’s Lucille, while Lennon owns Chuck Berry’s Memphis, Tennessee) that showcase The Beatles at the height of their onstage powers.
Howlett and Heatley sat down with MusicRadar recently to talk about the making of On Air – Live At The BBC Volume 2 and the history of The Beatles as radio performers.
Talk about the evolution of the new BBC set. When did you start to work on it?
Kevin Howlett: “It started in 2011 – that’s when we did some initial work. The idea was to do something with the first album, which hadn’t been on iTunes. We were thinking of what bonus material could work, but I then thought there was enough for a whole new album, ‘cause I was very familiar with the material and had worked with it for many years making radio programs about it.
“Mike and I got together and put together lists of songs that could go on a new album, and then we made sort of a demo of a tracklisting. A first draft went to [Apple Corps CEO] Jeff Jones, Paul and Ringo and Yoko and Olivia. There was some fine-tuning from then on.”