When Fab Four took over the airwaves

By Graham Reid

Graham Reid goes inside one of the lesser-heard corners of the Beatles' career

If there's been a part of the Beatles' much-analysed career which hasn't been put under close scrutiny, it's the many hours they spent recording for the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Through their manager Brian Epstein's persistence, on March 7 1962 - Pete Best still their drummer and seven months before their first single, Please Please Me - they recorded four songs before a live audience in Manchester for the BBC light entertainment show, Here We Go.

It was the start of a long association with various BBC programmes and in total the Beatles made 275 recordings of 88 different songs between that session and their final one in June 1965.

This is a phenomenal output and commitment - given they were also touring, recording and filming - but, as with their time in Hamburg and at Liverpool's Cavern, these sessions made them roadworthy and studio-savvy. Little wonder they could record their debut album, Please Please Me (released April 63), in about 16 hours.

On July 16, 1963 they recorded three Pop Go The Beatles programmes for the BBC, 18 songs in one marathon seven-hour session. The following day they recorded another four songs, the day after they began recording their second album before going to Wales for two concerts, the next night to Lancashire...

Their stamina was extraordinary.

They also knew a lot of songs before they started writing their own. At that first BBC session they sang a John Lennon original Hello Little Girl which wasn't broadcast, Chuck Berry's Memphis, Tennessee and Roy Orbison's Dream Baby which had only just entered the British charts. They also performed the Marvelettes' Please Mr Postman, the first time any music on the Tamla label (the forerunner to Motown) had been played on British radio.

Regrettably nothing from 62 was preserved but later broadcasts provided the 59 songs that appeared on Live at the BBC released in 94 which went to number one in the UK (three in America) and sold five million copies in six weeks. Remarkable for a band which hadn't existed for almost 25 years (it won a Grammy for best historical album), and it was a double-disc set.

At the time Ringo Starr said, "You tend to forget that we were a working band. We were in at the count-in and that was it. I get excited listening to them."

Yesterday a belated companion volume, On Air; Live at the BBC Vol 2, was released and it reminds again what a peculiarly distant time their early career was.

They were the days of steam trains, only two channels on British television (both in black and white), mono recording and pop singers performing on bills with dancing dogs and jugglers. Hmm, maybe in these days of New Zealand's Got Talent that last one doesn't seem so unusual?

On Air has another 63 songs which include 37 previously unreleased performances. Again what comes through is their love of black American music (Little Richard, Chuck Berry, more Motown, Arthur Alexander) alongside Buddy Holly songs (Words of Love), standards (Beautiful Dreamer) and their own blossoming hit-spinning career (She Loves You, This Boy, I Want to Hold Your Hand, a studio out-take of I Feel Fine and the rare Paul McCartney juvenilia I'll Be on My Way).

As McCartney recently noted about these recordings: "There's a lot of energy and spirit. We are going for it, not holding back at all, trying to put in the best performance of our lifetimes."

On Air has been compiled by former BBC producer Kevin Howlett, who has also written an authoritative account of the Beatles at the BBC, an association which changed both parties: The Beatles; The BBC Archives 1962-1970.

So this less-scrutinised aspect of the group's career is getting a spotlight shone on it again, and those first sessions with Pete Best are covered in Mark Lewisohn's just-published Tune In: The Beatles; All These Years, Volume 1, a 930-page tome that gets the Beatles' story only to New Year's Eve 62, the year before the floodgates burst and Beatlemania washed over the world.

From then on their names would be written across popular music, culture would change and their voices become as recognisable as their faces. And it began more than 50 years ago and was captured by that most British of institutions, the BBC.

When they auditioned for BBC producer Peter Pilbeam a few weeks before that first session in early 62, he was unimpressed by McCartney's voice and concluded they were "an unusual group, not as 'rocky' as most, more C&W [country and western], with tendency to play music".

Whatever he meant we'll never know, but his final word said everything: "Yes".

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