While the Beatles are known today for their prolific and creative recording career, to their earliest fans, they were also an exciting live act only a lucky few had a chance to see in close quarters.
There was one place, however, where the group performed live and was heard by millions during their earliest days (and beyond) — in the studios of Britain’s BBC Radio. On Nov. 11, Universal Music Group will release “On Air — Live at the BBC Volume 2,” a companion to the Grammy-nominated “Live at the BBC” issued in 1994. The latter also has been remastered and given a tune-up, taking advantage of both sources for some tracks as well as state-of-the-art mastering technology not available when the album was first released.
“On Air” grew out of a desire to provide additional material for fans upon remastering the first set for digital release. “At first, we were thinking of simply including a second disc of songs,” says historian Kevin Howlett. Adds colleague Mike Heatley: “But we didn’t like the idea of fans having to buy the first album again to get them.”
There was also a plentiful supply of alternate versions to create a complete second set.
The 2-CD package was produced and compiled by Howlett and Heatley, who spent 38 years with EMI Records. Howlett has been working with the group’s BBC material since the 1980s and is also the author of a new companion book, “The Beatles: The BBC Archives: 1962-1970” (Harper Design).
As Howlett’s book details, between March 1962 and June 1965, the Beatles appeared on 53 BBC radio shows, making 275 recordings of 88 individual songs (some recorded more than once), both of their own hits and classic — and not-so-classic — favorites.
“They were on a series called ‘Pop Go the Beatles’ for 15 weeks during the summer of 1963, and each program required at least six songs,” he explains. “At that time, they only had a small number of their own songs out on record,” forcing the group to delve into their stage repertoire for content.
That collection often included some rather obscure recordings. “On Air” includes a Paul McCartney-led version of “Beautiful Dreamer,” which the group drew from a rocked-up rewrite by Jack Keller and Gerry Goffin of the sentimental favorite.
“They really did enjoy coming along and experimenting at the BBC sessions; it was a kind of a refuge away from the madness,” says Howlett.
“Saturday Club” host Brian Matthew (whom John Lennon calls ‘Brian Bathtubes’) is often heard in a jokey “headmaster keeping the unruly schoolboys in order” on-air relationship with the band. But the host also delivers some strikingly honest and serious “Pop Profile” interviews with each Beatle on “On Air.” One such interview from December 1965 reveals a now-wealthy, almost jaded John Lennon discussing family life and his three-story house. “It’s absolutely amazing how quickly they changed, particularly after just hearing this excited, cheeky lad in recordings made just two years earlier,” Howlett notes.
The BBC did not keep an audio tape archive of the sessions, requiring Howlett and Heatley to pore over vinyl transcription discs and tapes borrowed from one of the original hosts, Bernie Andrews. The process allowed them to identify the highest-quality sources for each recording.
A drive loaded with the recordings was then handed off to Abbey Road mastering engineers Guy Massey and Alex Wharton and restoration engineer Simon Gibson.
The team spent months cleaning up the recordings, Massey explains. “The transcription discs were the most problematic, because of surface noise and crackles.”
Massey and Wharton then brought each track to its optimum, before creating the discs’ masters by adjusting equalization to allow them to match previous and following tracks. The result is a smooth-flowing experience. “The idea was to make it sound like a radio show,” says Howlett.
Heatley agrees: “You’ve got these amazing performances, with entertaining speech tracks in between every so often — so you can catch your breath before getting back on the roller coaster again.”