Book Review: The Beatles: The BBC Archives 1962-1970 by Kevin Howlett

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With the recent release of On Air - Live at the BBC Vol. 2 and remastered reissue of the first Live at the BBC (1994), The Beatles’ recordings for the British Broadcasting Corporation are relatively well documented. Hours of additional material (of widely varying fidelity) have circulated among collectors for years. Aside from the booklets in the official releases, what’s a Beatle fan to do if more detailed information about these sessions is desired? Kevin Howlett has the answer. His sensational new book, The Beatles: The BBC Archives 1962-1970 (Harper Design), leaves no stone unturned in what will certainly come to be recognized as an essential part of any comprehensive Beatles book library.

First of all, when it comes to credibility, Howlett is beyond reproach. The aforementioned On Air that’s currently on the Billboard 200 album chart was compiled by Howlett (along with Mike Heatley), who also served as an executive producer. Additionally, he penned the liner notes for the Beatles’ remastered catalogue, released in 2009. In other words, he’s a knowledgeable authority and his new book is a perfect companion to the audio releases. What’s more, the volume goes well beyond the early period during which the group actually performed live on the air, chronicling their promotional appearances right up until their break-up.

The 336-page hardcover book itself is housed within a sturdy box, designed to look like a reel-to-reel tape storage box (complete with “shelf wear”). Inside are previously unpublished interview transcripts, detailed year-by-year historical accounts of the band’s radio and TV broadcasts, and tons of photographs (many quite rare). Some of the most interesting inclusions are the original audience feedback reports detailing actual listener response, which was often surprisingly critical. The negative response, of course, was from the older BBC listenership, unaccustomed to hearing pop music instead of more traditional fare. A folder, separate from the book, contains facsimiles of some of this original material, highlighted by the brutal report following the broadcast of the Magical Mystery Tour TV special (“A load of RUBBISH,” “perhaps this is ‘sick’ humour”).

BBC Archives display (380x189).jpgPurely as a reference guide, BBC Archives is useful in terms of putting all the officially-released recordings in context (the performance dates are fairly well scrambled throughout the CDs, nowhere near chronologically presented). Near the back of the book is a section listing every single tune the Beatles performed on the network, with a list of when each was performed. But make no mistake, this is far more than a generously-illustrated compendium of dates and stats. Howlett’s text is warm and readable, helping to explain that the band was far from well-known when they first appeared on a BBC program (Ringo Starr wasn’t even part of the band yet, as the first two appearances featured Pete Best on drums). The BBC played a pivotal role in the Beatles’ ascension to U.K. stardom, supporting them from the outset.

The interviews are often fascinating reading for Beatle fans. Paul McCartney at one point hints that “Michelle” was “pinched” from another song, after being asked about winning an award for the Rubber Soul track. He quickly retracts his statement, worrying “the P.R.S [Performing Rights Society] would probably rip me.” A late-1969 interview finds George Harrison cautiously praising Abbey Road, almost reluctantly admitting it’s a “pretty good album.” He later bristles slightly at the suggestion (by the interviewer) that Ringo’s “Octopus’s Garden” is a song “the little kids are gonna love.” “Maybe some big kids like it,” Harrison quickly counters, proceeding to offer a defense of his band mate. Speaking on his songwriting partnership with John Lennon, McCartney plays into the very stereotypes he has spent so much of his solo career attempting to tear down (“I’m a bit more sentimental on the surface… John will write harder songs.”)

And that’s, of course, barely scratching the surface of the priceless nuggets of insight and minutiae that will keep Beatle fans turning page after page. Perhaps you’ve recently acquired the On Air album, or have it hiding for a friend or family member as a Christmas gift. Kevin Howlett’s The Beatles: The BBC Archives 1962-1970 is a necessary component for fully enjoying the greatness of the Beatles’ many hours logged in the BBC studios.

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is music and film. As “The Other Chad,” he has written for the online magazine Blogcritics since 2008. When he’s not writing, Chaz can be found trolling jazz clubs, attempting to find somewhere to play his sax (whether anyone wants to hear…

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