Music Review: The Beatles - On Air - Live at the BBC Volume 2

By , Contributor
Nearly 20 years after the first Live at the BBC album, The Beatles are back with another double-disc collection of material recorded live for radio broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corporation. As with many sequels, On Air - Live at the BBC Volume 2 isn’t quite the essential release the first one is (which has been remastered and reissued). There are only two “new” songs that weren’t recorded for a studio album or single and that weren’t included on the first compilation. While none of the repeats are the same performance as found on volume one, a few tracks were commercially available on other sources (“Lend Me Your Comb” is on Anthology 1, “Boys” and “I’ll Follow the Sun” were first issued on the Baby It’s You maxi-single in ’94).

That doesn’t mean there aren’t still performances waiting to be heard here. Many of the highlights depend on an intimate familiarity with the original studio versions. For instance, Buddy Holly’s “Words of Love” sounds quite different without the lush reverb applied to Lennon and McCartney’s vocals on the album version. George Harrison barrels through “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” at a faster clip than usual (assuming the recording has been speed-corrected). “Please Please Me” and “Chains” both lack Lennon’s trademark harmonica licks. “And I Love Her” has a heavier feel, with Harrison playing electric lead instead of the more delicate album track’s acoustic.

As with the first BBC collection, fidelity varies from track to track. Many of the master tapes were apparently not preserved, leaving only second-generation recordings as the source. As a result, the compilation producers chose (as George Martin did before them) to omit very early, extremely poor fidelity recordings like McCartney leading the band through “Dream Baby” and “Besame Mucho” (recorded when Pete Best was still their drummer). There are some better-sounding tunes that were skipped in favor of bonus interviews (one with each Beatle, running about eight minutes apiece). For example, I was surprised spirited performances of “The Night Before” and “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You” did not make the cut.

We do get to hear McCartney rock out on “Beautiful Dreamer” and Lennon take the lead on Chuck Berry’s “I’m Talking About You.” Of the non-album tracks that make repeat appearances, “The Hippy Hippy Shake” is tighter and harder-rocking than the version selected for volume one. One of the very best alternate versions is of Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman.” The whole feel of this version is different than the one on the ’94 album (a highlight there, too). This take of “Lucille” is of poorer fidelity than volume one’s, but there’s no annoying announcer voiceover this time. We get a more familiar Ringo Starr lead vocal on “Honey Don’t” (Lennon sings the version on the first BBC album). And though it’s just a brief jingle, “Happy Birthday Dear Saturday Club” offers another previously unheard musical performance.

On Air contains ever more speech/banter tracks than the first time around. Although it could be seen as padding, they’re usually pretty funny bits and offer an authentic “radio show” presentation. I just wish to God they hadn’t edited the disc two track titled “A Hard Job Writing Them.” This introduction to “And I Love Her,” in its original broadcast form, included an absolutely priceless exchange between Ringo and Paul about the song “Don’t Pass Me By.” This was 1964 and Starr was already apparently working on the song that would finally emerge in ’68 on the “White Album.” That’s my favorite little spoken-word nugget on all the BBC broadcasts and for the life of me I can’t imagine why it would’ve been cut.

By and large, while not as revelatory as the treasure chest of rarities that emerged on the first Live at the BBC, On Air - Live at the BBC Volume 2 offers another chance to revel in the greatness of the early Beatles. I question some of the exclusions, but what is here lets us further absorb what the group sounded like live (minor overdubs were allowed some of the time, but most of these are pretty raw). Even the poorest fidelity material could’ve been tacked on as bonuses and likely would’ve been listened to more often than the lengthy interview tracks. The glossy booklet features a new introduction by Paul McCartney, an essay by Kevin Howlett (author of The Beatles: The BBC Archive 1962-1970), and track-by-track notes.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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