Friday, December 20, 2013

Beatles 31: On Air

It only took the Apple powers that be nineteen years—yes, that long—to release a no-brainer sequel to Live At The BBC. Considering all the work done by bootleggers in the meantime, digging up the best sources and whatnot, On Air, helpfully subtitled Live At The BBC Volume 2, should have been another terrific collection, right?
Well, not exactly. Given the dozens of heretofore officially untapped possibilities, any one Beatlemaniac’s choice is going to be different from another. And when you’ve got the suits involved, they’re going to go for the common denominator, stressing beloved hits over historical rarities.
One of the things that made the 1994 set so exciting was the bumper crop of otherwise unheard Beatles songs—covers, mostly, but still fun. Having used most of those up already, On Air essentially frames an “alternate” Please Please Me (or The Early Beatles, for those of you playing in the U.S.), with all their singles and most B-sides represented as well. Because they repeated several songs throughout their dozens of BBC appearances, 12 songs appear in alternate versions from the first batch, two come from a 1995 EP that all the fans have (plus another alternate here) and the one BBC track on Anthology 1 shows up again too. We’re not about to compare all the different versions, but this particular run through “Glad All Over” here is fairly raucous. Meanwhile, John still sings “small coat” instead of “‘cos my uncle” on “Memphis, Tennessee”.
There are some “new” songs—“Beautiful Dreamer” and Chuck Berry’s “I’m Talkin’ ‘Bout You”, both in fuzzy sound but we’ll take them, and a rockin’ run through “Happy Birthday Dear Saturday Club”—leaving a few still in limbo. The lead track is Buddy Holly’s “Words Of Love”, recorded a year and a half before its appearance on a Beatles LP (and two years before the Americans got it). “Please Mister Postman” is heard with a full stop ending, instead of a fade, and “And I Love Her” is the arrangement we all know, but electric. “Honey Don’t” and “Kansas City”, which appeared in 1963 versions on the first set, come from the more obvious Beatles For Sale era here. They even include an outtake sequence from the recording sessions for the BBC version of “I Feel Fine”.
Naturally, snippets of dialogue and canned chatter sets up several tracks; the excruciating commentary by Lee Peters makes the less-intrusive presence of Brian Matthew all the more welcome. (Beatle historians will wince at the reference to Paul’s upcoming birthday party, as we know that was the occasion that John got drunk and beat up one of their Liverpool buddies.) Each disc ends with a half-hour’s worth of individual interviews with the boys from 1965 and 1966, which, while interesting, lack the exuberance of only a few years before.
Taken all together, On Air is a stretch for two CDs. It could also be that so much of the fun was already spent on the first set (which got a mild facelift the same day) so that the potential riches to be were inevitably been diluted. It’s still the Beatles, and it’s still fun. But you’ll still listen to the other one more.

The Beatles On Air—Live At The BBC Volume 2 (2013)—3

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