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Guest column - Let it BBC: On air with The Beatles

Guest column - Let it BBC: On air with The Beatles
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With the second volume of The BeatlesLive At The BBC released this week (11 November), the record’s compiler and author of The Beatles: The BBC Archives 1962-1970, Kevin Howlett has written us a special guest column on how they put the “radio show album” together.

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I compiled the new Beatles album On Air – Live At The BBC Volume 2. Working with my co-producer Mike Heatley, the aim was to make it sound like a radio show from the 1963/64 era, so alongside the 40 songs there are speech tracks featuring The Beatles sending up the avuncular BBC announcers and each other. This sort of witty irreverence from a pop group had rarely been heard on the wireless before the arrival of The Beatles. These were the days when every programme featuring records linked by a presenter had to have a script written weeks in advance so that it could be scrutinized by Anna Instone – the formidable Head of the BBC’s Gramophone Department. She was notorious for returning scripts with numerous alterations marked with a blue pencil. Fortunately, The Beatles were heard speaking in shows made by the Popular Music Department, which permitted more freedom in the announcements. They could be themselves on air.

The Beatles’ musical performances were heard on radio shows broadcast by the BBC’s Light Programme. The clue is in the name. Much of the popular music heard on this national network was ‘light’ – easy-on-the-ear melodies performed by string ensembles, dance band orchestras and crooners. To hear The Beatles delivering a raucous version of Money or Twist And Shout was shocking to the older part of the listening audience. (By the way, according to the BBC Audience Research Department back then, ‘old’ was defined as anyone over 20.) With that in mind, it is remarkable how The Beatles conquered the British show business world in 1963 without compromising their musical mission. They were allowed to play their own songs and unusual material by the American rhythm and blues artists they adored.

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I was five years old when The Beatles’ first Parlophone single Love Me Do was released in October 1962. The record was soon playing in my home, because I have an older brother who was quick to spot the potential of the new group. Their popularity rapidly spread during 1963 and I have memories of hearing and seeing The Beatles on the BBC. I witnessed their British success hit a peak on 7 December 1963 when I was allowed to stay up late to see The Beatles dominate the BBC’s Saturday evening television schedule. ITV was the only other channel to watch at that time, so audience figures were enormous. First, 23 million viewers saw The Beatles make up the panel for Juke Box Jury at 6.05pm. Based on an American format, each week four jurors reviewed a record and then ruled whether it would be a hit or a miss. Presenter David Jacobs rang a bell if the panel’s verdict was Hit. A Miss was rejected by the sound of a klaxon.

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Following the recording of Juke Box Jury, the group had performed a wild concert at the Empire Theatre in Liverpool that was transmitted at 8.10pm with the title It’s The Beatles. It was watched by 41 per-cent of the population of the UK, who saw the audience screaming non-stop at the group. When researching my recently published book The Beatles: The BBC Archives 1962-1970, I was fascinated to read viewers’ correspondence and BBC memos about these two TV shows. Tom Sloan – the Head Of Light Entertainment, Television – reassured the apologetic director of It’s The Beatles that “I do not believe any of us had any idea of the disorganised frenzy that could take place during such a performance. I still think that in its way this was an instant documentary showing a slice of life which, whether we like it or not, exists”.

Yes, The Beatles were that radical in 1963. Thirty-one of the 40 songs included in On AIr – Live At The BBC Volume Two were first broadcast in that breakthrough year. The album captures the exciting sound of history being made. As you listen, remember that what The Beatles had achieved by the end of 1963 laid the foundation upon which all the revolutionary movements in sixties pop culture were built.

Kevin Howlett


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