Every age, it seems, gets the Beatles it requires. Ambitious prog rockers of the '70s looked to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band as proof that rock & roll could accommodate classical aspirations, with whatever mixed results. A bit later, the release of two Beatles hits collections helped launch a revival of smart, concise, hook-driven songwriting, a style that was then called power pop.
These days young musicians and fans — torn between a reflexive eye-rolling dismissal of the quintessential baby-boom icons and a more personal recognition of the band's undeniable achievements — feel most comfortable with the idea of the Beatles as a band. The contemporary desire is for the Beatles off the pedestal and demystified, slamming out songs as a four-piece combo onstage — not the psychedelic aristocrats of swinging London, bored with the road and screaming female fans, obsessed by the urge to create increasingly complex effects in the hothouse environment of the studio.
Last year, along those lines, the Backbeat movie gave us the pill-propelled Beatles of Hamburg, Germany, in the early '60s — playing endless sets in beer halls and strip joints, sorting out their competitive instincts and thick emotional entanglements, as every band must if it is to survive. For the soundtrack, a phalanx of alternative all-stars — Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner, Afghan Whigs' Greg Dulli, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, R.E.M.'s Mike Mills, Gumball's Don Fleming and Nirvana's Dave Grohl — blasted a dozen of the same early rock & roll songs the Beatles performed back then. The message of the raw, roughed-up music was plain: Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran and Little Richard are not the property of one generation alone; they belong to everyone — and so, by extension, do the Beatles.
Now comes The Beatles Live at the BBC, a double CD drawn from the band's frequent appearances on British radio between 1962 and 1965. Over the course of 56 tracks — generously interspersed with the usual charming banter — the Fabs raid the catalogs of their '50s idols as well as the ranks of the Top 40 of the time to deliver an exhilarating portrait of a band in the process of shaping its own voice and vision. Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, Arthur Alexander, the Miracles, the Shirelles, the Everly Brothers and Larry Williams — along with, of course, Chuck Berry and Little Richard — come in for affectionate thrashings.
The virtues of these performances, which also include nine Beatles originals, are far from technical: Notes, harmonies and lyrics are flubbed, tempos slow down and speed up. But in spirit, energy and sheer rock & roll glee, they're irresistible. If the Beatles liked a song — from Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman" to Phil Spector's "To Know Her Is to Love Her" — they were fearless about having a bash at it.
Live at the BBC is not particularly notable as a collection of rarities, though 30 of these songs were never recorded by the Beatles for their own record label, EMI, and one previously unreleased Lennon-McCartney song (the sweet "I'll Be on My Way," tossed to Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas for a B side back in the day) is included. Completists probably have all of this stuff in (sonically inferior) bootleg form anyway, and enough equally worthy material from the BBC sessions exists that a third disc would have been well justified.
That said, the set best serves as a reminder of the Beatles' multiple gifts. Since his death, John Lennon has become a pop-culture saint — an instinctually irreverent figure who is, ironically, now regarded with far too much reverence. But Live at the BBC demonstrates yet again what a great rock & roll singer he was, whether ripping up Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" or crooning Arthur Alexander's "Soldier of Love." Lennon's softer pop side (often overlooked because it doesn't fit the fashionable view of him) and interpretive flair come brilliantly together in his spooky reading of (I kid you not) Ann-Margret's 1961 hit, "I Just Don't Understand."
Paul McCartney's reputation has unfairly suffered in proportion to Lennon's, but Live at the BBC shows him easily to be Lennon's equal as a singer. His swings through Arthur Crudup's "That's All Right (Mama)" and the Beatles' own "She's a Woman" are simultaneously effortless and masterful, while his Little Richard rave-ups (especially "Lucille" and "Ooh! My Soul") prove him once more to be Mr. Penniman's truest and most heartfelt disciple. And as a bassist, McCartney is a marvel; however raucous the setting, his playing is consistently deft, fresh and eminently musical.
For their parts, George Harrison and Ringo Starr shine, too. Harrison's rockabilly fixation — amply evident in his playing on Carl Perkins' "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby" and "Honey Don't," as well as on a more obscure selection, Eddie Fontaine's "Nothin' Shakin'" — emphasizes a more rhythmically assertive aspect of his naturally melodic guitar style than the Beatles' studio recordings or his own solo work typically do. Starr, meanwhile, doesn't so much drive the band as rock along with it in the minimalist way that has influenced every garage-band drummer who has followed him. Always emotionally sensitive to the needs of the song, he'll provide delicate fills and percussive embellishment at some points, unleash a cymbal-shattering high-end racket at others.
So the lads can find a fit place in our time. But 30 years or more after it was recorded, Live at the BBC inevitably raises another issue: It captures the last possible moment when playing rock & roll could be unadulterated fun. For better or worse, no one thought of the Beatles as "artists" when they made this music. No one cared about their opinions on foreign affairs or domestic issues — except as fodder for jokes. The generational struggles of the '60s — and of the '90s — were still in the future, and no one could foresee them. Celebrity was not yet the minefield it is today; the Beatles' biggest problem, they say, was no longer being able to ride the bus. They could rock because they loved to and could cheerily look forward to whatever came down the pike after that.
Lost innocence is a thoroughly threadbare theme, maybe even a self-indulgent one. Nonetheless, when you listen to The Beatles Live at the BBC, innocence floats by again — unmistakably, ephemerally, too late and not a moment too soon.
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