Narendra Kusnur's music musings …


On Air: Live At The BBC Volume 2/ The Beatles

Genre: Rock, popular

Apple Records/ Universal Music

Rating: ***

IT’S amazing and admirable how the Beatles brand continues to be in the news, 43 years after the group split. Right now, they are being talked about for quite a few reasons.

To begin with, Paul McCartney’s latest solo album ‘New’ was released last month, to generally positive acclaim. Secondly, the band’s former secretary Freda Kelly is to appear in a documentary called ‘Good Ol’ Freda’, where she recalls her glorious days with the band. At number three and four are the recent release of the double album ‘On Air: Live At The BBC Volume 2’ and the accompanying video for the Beatles version of Buddy Holly’s ‘Words of Love’, which opens the album.

Like its predecessor, the 1994 release ‘Live At The BBC’, ‘On Air’ contains live mono recordings of various Beatles songs on BBC shows like Saturday Club, Top Gear, Easy Beat and Pop Go The Beatles. As these shows were broadcast in 1963 and 1964, when John Lennon, McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr had already taken the world by storm, they feature the band’s earliest songs, which include a good mix of originals and covers.

Even the template is similar to ‘Live At The BBC’, which has incidentally been re-released in a remastered version (make that reason No 5 why the Beatles are currently in the news). The songs are interspersed with short audio segments, mainly humorous snippets of the band members speaking between recording sessions.

Strangely, 11 days after its international release, ‘On Air’ is still not available in Indian stores. This writer managed to hear it thanks to a friend who ordered it on Amazon, and gladly offered to lend it. The truth is that a lot of diehard fans are curious to pick up this kind of an album at the earliest. They have other means to access it, and delaying the release doesn’t seem like a very appropriate thing to do.

One thing that goes totally against ‘On Air’ is the fact that many songs overlap from the 1994 compilation. And this is not a small number – 13 out of 37. Though they are different takes recorded in separate sessions, one gets repeats of covers of Little Richard hits ‘Lucille’ and ‘Long Tall Sally’, Chuck Berry’s ‘Memphis, Tennessee’ and ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, Chan Romero’s ‘The Hippy Hippy Shake’, Ray Charles’ ‘I Got A Woman’, the Carl Perkins-popularised ‘Glad All Over’, ‘Honey Don’t’ and ‘Sure To Fall’, and the medley ‘Kansas City/ Hey Hey Hey’. This is besides repetitions of the Beatles originals ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, ‘From Me To You’ (sung in the earlier version as ‘From Us To You’) and ‘I Feel Fine’ (in a studio out-take).

While one or two such instances may have been fine, it’s ridiculous to repeat almost a third of the track-list. The sub-title Volume 1.67 would have been more apt in this case, Even though they might be separate recordings, the Beatles were never known to change their versions too drastically, especially in their early numbers. Thus, what the listener gets to hear is basically the same thing, with some very minor changes here and there. And this is not only the case with the repeated songs. The same holds true with all the other popular Beatles hits that have been included in this set.

Still, if one ignores this major gaffe, there are a few reasons fans should pick up ‘On Air’ to add to their collections. Most important is the presence of separate interviews of the band members by Pop Profile BBC Transmission Service’s Brian Mathew. They aren’t extraordinary or in-depth interviews, but good enough for the show-off fans to boast about.

Conducted in 1965 and 1966, and lasting about eight minutes each, the interviews have John speaking on his home, why he chose black as the colour for his Rolls Royce and what kind of education he wanted his son Julian to have. Paul has this interesting thing about how he always switched off Indian music from the radio, but slowly got to admire it thanks to George, who had begun following it deeply. Strangely, George doesn’t mention Indian music, but talks of his fondness for folk artistes Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Donovan. Ringo dodges most questions, and says he’d prefer spending time sitting around doing nothing. His interview is quite meaningless, and seems just like an effort to not to exclude him.

That brings us to those songs which we didn’t hear in the 1994 set. Though many of these have been featured in earlier Beatles albums, they represent a good selection from the early days of the band. Here, we could divide them into three categories – covers, originals and extra-popular originals.

The covers include Holly’s ‘Words Of Love’, which the band recorded in the 1964 album ‘Beatles for Sale’, country-soul singer Arthur Alexander’s ‘Anna (Go To Him)’, Carl Perkins’ ‘Lend Me Your Comb’, the Marvellettes’ ‘Please Mr Postman’, the Isley Brothers-popularised ‘Twist and Shout’ and Barrett Strong’s ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’. Chuck Berry’s ‘I’m Talking About You’ and Stephen Foster’s ‘Beautiful Dreamer’, dropped from the 1994 compilation as the producers weren’t happy with the sound, find a place here in corrected versions. And yes, there’s a short take on ‘Happy Birthday’, which the Beatles sang when the show Saturday Club turned five.

Among the originals, we have ‘Do You Want To Know A Secret?’ (sung by George), ‘There’s A Place’, ‘Misery’, ‘I’ll Get You’ and ‘You Can’t Do That’. And the extra-popular songs include ‘Please Please Me’, ‘She Loves You’, ‘PS I Love You’, ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, ‘This Boy’, ‘If I Fell’ and ‘I’ll Follow The Sun’. For some variety, the recording of ‘And I Love Her’ has George playing the electric guitar and not the nylon string acoustic one is accustomed to. It’s a different matter that the acoustic one sounds far better.

Like most of the Beatles reissues and newer compilations, ‘On Air’ has a neatly produced booklet to attract fans. Highlights are the song-by-song descriptions, and the publication of the first audition form sent to the BBC’s variety department, where manager Brian Epstein entered the band’s permanent address as ‘All of Liverpool’. Of course, there’s a nostalgic introduction by McCartney, who says: “When I listen to the BBC recordings, there’s a lot of energy. I think spirit and energy – those are the main words I’d use to describe them. We are going for it, not holding back at all, trying to put in the best performance of our lifetimes.”

In the overall perspective, though, the compilation has its pluses and minuses. While many songs are featured in the first compilation, there are others which fans would have heard most of their lives. Even the most die-hard fan would have spent half his life listening to ‘PS I Love You’, ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ and ‘She Loves You’, and one wonders whether he’ll discover anything new in this compilation. As such, only the less-heard songs may really sound exciting now, either reviving old memories or making people discover something new. At best, this compilation will be a treasure trove for the younger generation which knows only the bigger songs and hasn’t closely followed the early Beatles music.

Undoubtedly, the Beatles have been the most path-breaking band ever. No question about that. But by and large, this is like old wine in a new bottle, or a bid to re-milk the same old cow. Why Beatle about the same bush?

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Simply outstanding


Comments on: "CD review/ On Air: Live At The BBC Volume 2 – The Beatles" (3)

  1. Shankar Shenai said:

    Excellent review.

  2. 25.11.13

    Dear Naren:

    A very pleasantly written and extremely objective review.

    Although I own “Vol.1”, I did not realise the repitition of songs between the two BBC compilations until your review brought it to my attention. Thanks!

    I could not, not own “On Air” as it was necessary for me to complete my Beatles CD collection but, after reading your review, I would be a little cautious on purchasing a “Vol.3”, should it arrive in the next 20 years or so…

    Kind regards,
    Parag K

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