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Not all of the Beatles’ early recordings were for the EMI label.

Mike Mitchell,

BBC recordings reveal early Beatles

  • Article by: ALLAN KOZINN
  • New York Times
  • November 18, 2013 - 2:50 PM

In the summer of 1971, one of the first Beatles bootlegs turned up, packaged in a white sleeve with “The Beatles — Yellow Matter Custard — Previously Unreleased Studio Material” rubber-stamped across it. It offered an odd lineup of tracks (performances of Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman”; Buddy Holly’s “Crying, Waiting, Hoping”; Carl Perkins’ “Sure to Fall (in Love With You)”; Arthur Alexander’s “Shot of Rhythm and Blues”) — 14 in all, in decent, if slightly tinny, quality.

Beatles scholarship was in its infancy then, and collectors had no idea what these tracks were. When a fan played the disc for John Lennon in 1972, he said it was the Beatles’ failed Decca audition from a decade earlier. He was wrong. By the late 1970s, the recordings’ provenance was established: The Beatles recorded these songs in 1963 for a 15-week BBC radio series, “Pop Go the Beatles.”

Few U.S. fans knew of the half-hour show, or knew that the Beatles performed regularly for the BBC from 1962 to 1965, and British fans rarely mentioned it. On both sides of the Atlantic, the Beatles narrative focused instead on the group’s amazing musical development, as captured in its EMI studio recordings.

But the BBC was crucial to the Beatles’ career. It presented them on its airwaves months before they had a record deal, and when it offered them “Pop Go the Beatles,” the group had released only three singles and one LP.

Missing links recovered

A new release, “On Air — Live at the BBC, Vol. 2,” and a reissue of its 1994 predecessor, “Live at the BBC” (both Apple/Universal) are a reminder of how important this material is to understanding what made the Beatles tick.

And a lavishly packaged, deeply researched new book, “The Beatles: The BBC Archives 1962 to 1970” (Harper Design), by Kevin Howlett — a former BBC producer who has assembled several shows about the Beatles’ BBC work, and is an executive producer of the CDs — clarifies the importance of the relationship to both sides.

Consider that the Beatles’ EMI studio output, from 1962 to 1970, amounted to 212 songs (not counting variant versions or post-breakup releases). At the BBC, they recorded 88 songs, most in multiple performances, for a total of about 280 tracks. Among the 88 are 36 songs, nearly three albums’ worth, that the Beatles never recorded for EMI.

That’s a significant chunk of repertoire. Most are covers of U.S. records, and though that may seem a drawback for a band distinguished by its songwriting, they tell us what most influenced the Beatles: namely, Motown hits, Chuck Berry, rockabilly (mostly Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley) and East Coast girl groups.

Different takes on old songs

You know that from the covers the Beatles included on their early albums, of course, but the BBC recordings add depth to the playlist.

“Live at the BBC” includes 30 of the non-EMI 36. “On Air” adds two more — a rocked-up version of Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer” and Berry’s “I’m Talking About You” — and a third, Perkins’ “Lend Me Your Comb,” that was included on “The Beatles Anthology 1.”

“On Air” also offers hits that the first volume ignored (“She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” among them) and alternative performances of tracks on the earlier set, some superior, all different in illuminating ways.

The accounts of Little Richard’s “Lucille” on the two sets were recorded only two weeks apart, but show Paul McCartney taking different approaches to the screaming lead vocal. Lennon sang the version of Perkins’ “Honey Don’t” on “Live at the BBC.” Ringo Starr sings it on the new set.

Apple has revamped “Live at the BBC.” All the tracks were freshly transferred, and a few have been replaced with recently discovered, upgraded sources.

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