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SHOW BUSINESS: Becoming the Beatles

5 minute read
Richard Corliss

The lads politely introduce themselves to the radio audience. “I’m George, and I play a guitar,” etc. Then the Beatles’ leader speaks: “I’m John, and I too play a guitar. Sometimes I play the fool.” In the beginning, John Lennon was the group’s soul and wit, its Elvis and its Groucho. But unlike Elvis, the early Beatles had the quick, larky humor of kids assured enough to make fun of themselves and everyone else. And unlike the Marx Brothers, these were no anarchists — they were many a mother’s daydream of the pop star her daughter might bring home.

All of which made them ideal emissaries from the caves and caverns of rock ‘n’ roll to the sedate duchy of the British Broadcasting Corp., whose listeners were more used to hearing poetry readings, gardening tips and news in Welsh than raucous cover versions of Little Richard and Little Eva. This odd couple, the Beatles and Auntie Beeb, hit it off, as the lads gaily bantered between numbers. When asked, “Do you ever get tired of being Beatles?” the four break into yawns of boredom. George Harrison explains that to avoid mob scenes, the guys go to restaurants “where the people there are so snobby they’re the type who pretend they don’t know us, so we have a good time.” To which Paul McCartney gives a twist: “Joe’s Caf. Social comment, that, y’know.” The gigs were half Bandstand, half Goon Show.

All this is on the “new” Beatles album Live at the BBC, a two-disc CD of 56 songs the band played live on the radio. In its raw comprehensiveness, Live at the BBC (supervised by Beatles record producer George Martin) documents the group’s vertiginous rise in a three-year period that marked both the birth of pop music’s international era and a sweet autumnal bloom in rock’s age of innocence.

The BBC exposure worked; it brought the Beatles radio celebrity first, recording stardom later. They made their BBC debut on March 7, 1962, three months before their first EMI studio gig and seven months before their first single was released. Nor did they desert the radio after Beatlemania became a benign worldwide epidemic. They continued to work hard and play hard on the BBC, recording 18 songs in one throat-strepping, fingernail-rending session. Up to June 1965, they appeared on 52 BBC broadcasts and played 88 different songs — some their own compositions, but most the band’s diligent imitations of American rock and pop tunes.

The glory and limitation of this package is that musically, it’s kid stuff — the infant sounds of a quartet that shortly would grow up and outgrow its American masters. Juvenilia may be the last refuge of a cultural historian, and mere Beatles browsers will find as few buried treasures here as they would in Hemingway’s high school journalism, Quentin Tarantino’s first script or Madonna’s early nudes. But as a time capsule, the set is invaluable. To eavesdrop on their casual musicianship and their ad-lib ease is to hear a hopeful teen heart, circa 1962, beating in good-rockin’ four-four time.

At that time, the British airwaves were calcified in good taste. The only rock ‘n’ roll reached England from the piratic Radio Luxembourg. But BBC welcomed the occasional pop group, and the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, knew it could make them. The band auditioned for producer Peter Pilbeam, who reported with guarded enthusiasm: “an unusual group … with a tendency to play music.” Rating the Beatles’ singers, Pilbeam wrote, “John Lennon: yes; Paul McCartney: no.” Anyway, they got the job.

Most of the renditions have an engagingly primitive sound; it’s as if the boys told themselves, “Let’s get on the radio, pretend it’s John’s basement and have some fun.” Sometimes they fiddle with (or bollix up) the chord structure of the original tune. On a few songs they finesse the lyrics (George’s vocal on Roll Over Beethoven alters “Dig these rhythm and blues” to “Dig these heathen blues”) or finically polish the grammar (John’s “You’ve really got a hold on me”). Some of their covers (Young Blood, Johnny B. Goode) sound sluggish, anemic next to the originals. But Paul’s raveups — his countertenor superscreaming on Long Tall Sally or the understandably obscure 1956 rocker Clarabella — still have a clear pulse. John leads a happy assault on Sweet Little Sixteen. And George is the musical star; he lays down plenty of inventive improvs on his lead guitar.

As was evident by 1963, the Beatles’ genius was best exhibited not in their glosses on archival rock but in Lennon’s and especially McCartney’s gifts for melody and harmony. In short order the Beatles’ own compositions became more elaborate, and so did their studio technology, which the resources of the bbc could not meet. But the early songs still sound great. The full-note, three- part harmony (“Iiiiii’m sooooo glaaaad”) in the bridge of I Feel Fine still seduces the listener into singing along. It’s the expression of a pop- musical spirit eons removed from the rage and anxiety that replaced it — a spirit that found, in simple romantic joy, a reason for singing. “I’m in love with her and I feel fine.”

Rock hasn’t felt fine — not in that zesty, presexual way — for a generation, ever since the Beatles got off the radio.

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