The Beatles, ‘On Air – Live at the BBC Volume 2′ – Album Review
By the time the Beatles began their three-year relationship with the BBC, they could perform their mix of covers and originals in their sleep. Years of playing for drunken and disinterested audiences had sharpened their stage skills to the point where nothing could faze them — not even playing the same songs over and over, week after week, for the BBC’s various radio programs.
‘On Air — Live at the BBC Volume 2,’ the follow-up to 1994’s ‘Live at the BBC,’ gathers 40 songs the Beatles performed on BBC shows in 1963 and 1964. You’ve heard most of them before on other Beatles records (including the ’94 set), even though all but three of the versions here are previously unreleased. Toss in nearly two dozen snippets of studio banter, and it all adds up to a bounty of new (or at least officially new) riches for devoted fans.
But where does that leave everyone else? Do casual fans who already own ‘Please Please Me’ and ‘With the Beatles’ need versions of ‘Do You Want to Know a Secret’ and ‘This Boy’ that really don’t differ all that much from the takes they know? And are covers of ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ and Chuck Berry‘s ‘I’m Talking About You’ — the two songs never collected on a Beatles album before — worth hearing in this context? Depends on your level of Beatlemania.
The quality of most of these recordings captures the band’s vibrancy. Because the Beatles played these songs so often during the period (and remember, the studio versions were recorded in single takes with no overdubs), there’s not much variation among the way they sound. Even Paul McCartney‘s count leading into ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ is exactly the same.
Still, some of the covers — like ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’ and Little Richard‘s ‘Lucille’ — come off as faster and raspier than what you’d expect, no doubt a product of the band’s grueling schedule wearing down their vocal cords and patience. And the raw energy sometimes exhibited here reveals the guts that was occasionally buried in the studio polish.
Because it is a sequel to a previous 56-song collection, ‘On Air’ can’t help but to feel like a set of leftovers at times. The mostly pointless between-song interviews and goofing around doesn’t exactly help dispel this notion. But the the playful if straightforward interpretations of these songs, especially the covers, served as sort of a break from the savages of the road weighing on the band during this period. And that should count for something. As a historical document, ‘On Air — Live at the BBC Volume 2′ is essential. But as an indispensible part of the Beatles recorded legacy, it’s a mere side note.