Review of The Beatles’ set ‘On Air — Live at the BBC Volume 2′

by John M. Borack

With Paul McCartney recently kicking off the U.S. leg of his “Out There” tour, it seemed like a good time to share my thoughts on the latest successful plundering of the Beatles’ vaults, 2013′s On Air - Live at the BBC Volume 2.

BEATLESPresented in glorious mono, the second installment of the Beatles’ Live at the BBC recordings (released nearly 20 years after the first volume) includes a generous helping of 37 previously unreleased performances and 23 interstitial spoken word intros and such from BBC programs such as Top Gear, Saturday Club, Pop Go the Beatles and others.

The songs alternate between tried-and-true early Beatles originals such as “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Please Please Me” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and handfuls of the covers they cut their musical teeth on, including Little Richard’s “Lucille,” Arthur Alexander’s “Anna (Go to Him)” and Carl Perkins’ “Honey Don’t,” to name a few. Everything here, by and large, is typical of the sharp and spirited Beatles performances of the ‘63/’64 era, with the big beat sound and trademark harmonies out in full force.

Slight variations of well-known numbers from the Fabs’ catalog are sure to catch the ear of discriminating Beatle fans: the different vocal phrasing on “Words of Love” (recorded for the BBC more than a year before its official release on Beatles For Sale), the speedier tempo on “Do You Want to Know a Secret” and George Harrison’s use of electric guitar for the solo on “And I Love Her” are a few that stand out.

Although there is a bit of overlap with titles found on both the first volume and Live at the BBC Volume 2, each performance is unique (even if some were recorded and aired only weeks apart). And even though some of the titles here are saddled with less-than-pristine sound — Chuck Berry’s “I’m Talking About You,” which features a ripping John Lennon lead vocal, and an amped up version of the standard “Beautiful Dreamer” — they’re still important to hear for archival purposes. (Both of these are previously unreleased.)

While On Air - Live at the BBC Volume 2 showcases a legendary band at peak form, there’s also some aural evidence that the boys weren’t infallible: there’s some tentative lead guitar at the beginning of a rather ragged “Please Please Me” (which Ringo Starr does his best to drive home, as he does so often here), and an instrumental flub towards the beginning of “Lucille,” after which you can hear a Beatle screaming, “Aaaggghh.”

But all is forgiven, of course, when John, Paul, George and Ringo work their collective magic and make their way through fantastic versions of “Chains,” “Please Mr. Postman,” “Long Tall Sally,” “She Loves You” and so many more.

Even though most of these recordings have been available via bootlegs for many years, it’s nice to have them well-packaged and collected in one place. A well-annotated 48-page booklet with photos and an introduction by Paul McCartney provides icing on the cake, as do eight-minute interviews with each Beatle from 1965 and 1966. A five-star release, to be sure.

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