Despite their enormous popularity, the Beatles released few live recordings. The closest the group ever came to releasing a live album was in 1977, when Live at the Hollywood Bowl made its debut. Inferior sound quality and incessant crowd screaming marred the performances, however, and gradually the collection fell out of print. Fans had to be satisfied with bootlegs of concerts and their BBC studio appearances until 1994’s landmark Live at the BBC. At last, enthusiasts could experience the group outside the recording studio, imagining how they must have sounded in concerts or small clubs such as Liverpool’s legendary Cavern Club. Almost two decades passed until the recent release of the long-awaited sequel On Air: Live at the BBC Volume 2. Ranging from 1962 to 1965, these pristinely restored recordings successfully argue why the Beatles were (and are) considered one of rock’s greatest live acts.
Prior to the internet and MTV, radio proved a crucial tool in breaking new bands. Knowing this, the Beatles appeared on an astounding number of BBC shows in order to gain exposure and sell records. While the group performed their original songs, they also played covers of their favorite artists such as Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, and Ray Charles; they even salute unusual songs such as “Beautiful Dreamer.” Many of these versions appear on no studio albums, making the BBC sessions special for Beatles fans. In the past, one had to make do with bootlegs of horrible-sounding home recordings; now, the sound is mostly flawless, with tape hiss and static virtually eliminated. It’s fascinating to compare On Air to the original first volume of Live at the BBC — one can clearly hear innovations in remastering and restoration over almost 20 years.
Highlights include Ringo Starr’s ebullient rendition of “Boys,” the sublime harmonies of “That Boy,” and George Harrison’s ferocious guitar during a high energy version of “I Saw Her Standing There.” The aforementioned covers still delight, such as Paul McCartney’s screams emulating Little Richard on “Lucille” or Harrison’s charming rendition of Perkins’ “Glad All Over” (note Harrison’s vocal mannerisms — they demonstrate how much Perkins influenced his work). One can imagine the Cavern Club crowd rocking to “I’m Talking About You” and marveling over John Lennon’s edgy vocals. Their raucous rendition of “Hippy Hippy Shake” gives listeners an idea of how they sounded to Hamburg audiences.
Interspersed with these tracks are brief clips of the Beatles being interviewed, or cheerfully reading letters from fans. These announcements are charmingly local, with the group mentioning specific schools, areas, and names that were evidently instantly familiar to BBC listeners. As the Beatles grew in popularity, BBC hosts quizzed them about their latest tours, films, and albums — here the group appears more rehearsed, repeating what manager Brian Epstein likely wanted them to say. But they retain their humor and allegiance to their hometown, attempting not to sound like overindulgent rock stars.
Bonus tracks include longer interviews with Harrison, Lennon, McCartney, and Starr separately. Since these took place in 1965 and 1966, the men provide slightly more candid answers, reflecting on their fame, their futures, and private lives. The interviewer prompts the Beatles to speculate on family lives, implying a “you will eventually grow up and settle down” attitude. While Lennon and Starr discuss marriage and children, Harrison and McCartney tactfully avoid those issues. At one point, Lennon is asked about his political views, which he seems reluctant to discuss in detail. He was probably complying with Epstein’s directive to not discuss controversial topics; obviously, Lennon would completely reject this notion in a very short time.
Hardcore fans probably already own much of the material on On Air: Live at the BBC Volume 2. However, hearing the tracks in superior sound quality is a treat, and presents a new opportunity to hear the Beatles as they intended during their early period: live, unvarnished, and pure rock ‘n’ roll.