With the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' arrival in the U.S. coming in February, expect a wonderful barrage of black-and-white clips from the height of Beatlemania, set to a soundtrack of piercing screams. Largely buried under the gleeful cries of teenagers now old enough to share tales of seeing John, Paul, George and Ringo with their grandchildren is the music that ignited the frenzy.
We'll get another kind of reminder of how powerful a live band the Beatles could be – sans the screams – with Monday’s release of “On Air – Live at the BBC Volume 2.” The double CD, with 37 Beatles classics and covers, and lots of radio-show banter, comes 19 years after the first volume offered a fresh look – and listen – at the greatest pop band of them all.
The song list is largely familiar, drawing from tunes the Beatles recorded for studio albums, and, to an extent, the previous compilation of BBC radio appearances. But part of the magic of the group's enduring hold across generations rests in music that sounds as new as the day it was recorded. Every version marks another gem for fans, with something different to discover, even in songs we’ve heard countless times.
Snippets and cuts streamed in the lead-up to the release offer tantalizing tastes of early pulse-pounders like "I Saw Her Standing There" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand." The new album captures the band’s rise while showing signs of the craftsmanship and musicianship (check out the drum-tight harmonies on “This Boy”) that would make them the groundbreaking recording studio perfectionists who launched "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" a mere three years after greeting "The Ed Sullivan Show" audience with "All My Loving."
But the best moments of the BBC sessions, recorded between 1963 and 1965, aren’t products of the Beatles’ own compositions as much as their takes on songs and artists that inspired them. In the new collection, McCartney channels Elvis Presley on a rocking version of "Beautiful Dreamer." Harrison injects unabashed joy into Carl Perkins' "Glad All Over." Starr tears through The Shirelles’ "Boys."
Emerging as a highlight is Lennon's searing vocal on the underappreciated Chuck Berry number, "I'm Talking About You.” The rocker is a godsend for hardcore Beatle fans, teased for years by the barely audible version on the poor quality, but historic recordings of the band at Hamburg’s Star-Club, taped when they were unknowns. Lennon believed the group’s best live performances came in Hamburg before the mania threatened to overwhelm the music.
The BBC sessions, in both volumes, offer recordings still worth twisting and shouting over, all these years later. Check out a promo of “Volume 2” below – all you need is ears:
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.