A Facebook friend recently lamented at hearing some vocal tracks off some very early recordings of some beloved 1960s pop artists. They sounded, he said, like “a brace of baby chickadees peeping for seed.” It was, it seems, the production team—the guys twirling the knobs, the session musicians who may have joined in later--who improved them into legends of their time, at least initially. But for that, how could they ever have reached the Top 1000, never mind the Top Ten?
From there, the thread briefly waded into the recording process, with discussions of “sweetening” and tape editing, including “Auto-tune” whereby poorly pitched vocals are corrected. Twirl a knob or two and a bleating goat becomes Pavarotti.
It sounds like cheating, and I’d say it is. But it’s been a part of the record-making process in all genres since the first stereo and multi-track recording systems. Hardly anyone remarks on it anymore. Recording has become so hi-tech clever that some stars—Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney pop to mind—can refashion themselves into one-man bands who work sans any studio musicians, playing all the music, all the instruments, every note and chord, all by themselves.
God bless Stevie and Sir Paul, but I have to wonder. These musical octopi occasionally bring to mind the acts you see on TCM’s “Soundies” short films of the 1930s; or a street corner novelty act at Fisherman’s Wharf.
Sure, everyone loves a virtuoso, but I’m one of those who pore over liner notes, in search of my favorite guest and unexpected backup musicians. (“Clapton on nose flute!? Oh joy!”) At best, there’s no one in the studio to share a grin and a cheer: “Hey! We rocked that!” What they save in union wages is lost in the companionable glow cast by a band of musical brothers and sisters.
While on the long Thanksgiving drive back from Pasadena, I by chance pulled out a double that featured Sir Paul’s old backup band from many years ago. It’s been many years since then, but it illuminated the difference between inherent greatness and greatness music that’s been auto-tuned into the Top Ten.
The album is The Beatles Live at the BBC(released in 1994, with an expanded reissue in 2013). It’s the sole remnant of a once fair stack of Beatle bootlegs and ephemera I collected during my years as Beatlephile. Almost the entire pile was made of up stuff suitable only for serious Beatle-ologists (or the zombie fan who rifles garbage cans for tapes, like you know, of that time George accused Paul of using his guitar strings for dental floss).
I don’t think I listened to any of this material more than once. (Most of it the Beatles might well call “rubbish”). Except for that onewith the photo of John Lennon with his schwanzon display, I recall next to none of it. I finally sold them all off, with no regrets. From this, it would be fair to say that the Beatles, in their final product, got it exactly right and there really is little need for anymore for anyone (excepting for of course, scholars). As I recall George Harrison putting it sagely: “They’ve got thirteen albums. What more do they want?”
And so, of all the Beatle ephemera and re-packaging you could own, I would call Live at the BBCby far the best.
Live at the BBCis one of pop music’s greatest act as themselves, pure, unsullied outside protective studio walls, and stripped to its gears. It’s the band you would have heard if you happened to stumble into the Cavern Club in Liverpool or the Star Club in Hamburg, or any of the other venues they played in early days. (One other example is The Beatles Live at the Star Club Hamburg, a performance caught on a home tape machine, making it unlistenable, though it captures them at their most punk.)
It proves The Beatles didn’t need no stinkin’ Auto-tune.
Abbey Road studios, where the Fab Four made all their records, was nothing much when they walked in, in 1962. It wasn’t even called “Abbey Road.” Studio Two, to which they were assigned, contained was called a REDD mixing console, which I gather, was like the proverbial tin cans and string compared to today’s digital wonders.
Within that shelter, the Beatles didn’t need much sweetening, mind you, but there was some. George Martin (the true “Fifth Beatle”) was known for producing classical and comedy albums and light musical acts and wasn’t well acquainted with Rock n’ Roll (though the Beatles were big fans of the comedy recordings he made with Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and the Goon Show).
Martin muffled their sound a bit and would, among other things, add piano riffs. He also muted Ringo’s drums in order to bring John and Paul’s vocals to the fore. He said, maybe inaccurately, that fans didn’t care about drumming and, initially, he didn’t think much of them as musicians. (It was he who finally nodded Pete Best toward the door, opening the way for the pursuit of Ringo). It took awhile, but he changed his mind.
After years of grueling work, the Beatles were getting noticed. As part of the marketing push, their brilliant manager, Brian Epstein, got them a gig on BBC radio. This was a very big deal—in those days there were only two radio stations in all of Britain, and, as now, only twenty-fours in a day.
They made their first BBC appearance in 1962 for a live concert (when Pete Best was still with them). According to the CD liner notes, these recordings, while still extant, are of poor quality and hence left off both editions of this CD.
Finally, in January 1963, after the release of “Please Please Me,” they made their first major BBC appearance on “The Saturday Show,” broadcast to an audience of 10 million. From that point until June 1965, they appeared on fifty-two BBC radio programs, performing eighty-eight songs. Best of all, thirty-six of these songs never appeared on any of the official releases.
John, Paul and George were still in the dawn of their songwriting career, so most of these songs were covers by the artists who inspired them most, especially Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley. They do a great job with every song, bursting with both professionalism and raw enthusiasm. But again, their final decisions for album inclusion were the right ones.
But the limits placed on them by playing in a radio station provide, for me at least, some of the most illuminating pleasures. These performances were recorded in mono, not four-track stereo, so the mixes are not what we hear on the studio albums. This is a sin for serious audiophiles, but for fans of their musicianship, the result is that Beatles rhythm section—Ringo Starr, drums; Paul McCartney, bass; and John Lennon, rhythm guitar—is brought into full light. You can actually hear all of them play their instruments, providing a worthwhile contrast with the studio albums.
It’s especially true in the case of Ringo and Paul. The drummer is the engine of any band, the center out of which the music grows and springs. Ringo Starr is the most basic of drummers, but John, Paul and George pursued him for good reasons—the basics were exactly what they needed. Besides his own large fan base, he brought both raw power, plus a variety of styles and precise timing. He provided solid ground from which Lennon and McCartney and George Harrison could grow their songs. (Paul has described the moment when Ringo first played live with them and he realized he no longer had to look behind him to make sure the drummer was keeping up.) Whatever’s been said about Ringo outside the Beatles, for them, there could be no one else.
Paul McCartney’s bass playing also sounds a little buried in the studio albums. With the BBC album, though, you can hear him working the strings, growing from a young fella copying Chuck Berry’s bass-lines into what many call rock n’ roll’s greatest bass player, his playing growing more fluid and elaborate, maybe reaching its peak with Abbey Road(where Ringo also excels).
In the fifty years since they first appeared, the Beatles have always flowed but never seemed to ebb. Like all great artists, their music has defied both relentless time and fickle fashions. Live at the BBCshows the roots of it all, shows that some artists don’t need no stinkin’ auto-tune. The Beatles remain a soundtrack for the world.
Thomas Burchfield’s Butchertown,a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up novel is now out! His contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Arkwon the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil and Dracula: Endless Night (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon,Barnes and Noble, Powell's Books, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journaland The Strand and he recently published a two-part look at the life and career of the great film villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.