It was bound to happen, and it looks as if it finally has: The influence of the Beatles is waning. Yes, they changed the face of rock and championed a long-hair club for men, and hints of their ebullient, precisely constructed pop can be heard in the likes of the Gin Blossoms. Yet every other act of the past decade that has tried to replicate the Fab Four’s approach — Crowded House, Marshall Crenshaw, Michael Penn, Squeeze, World Party, and so on — has inevitably fallen on deaf ears. Maybe that’s because their ultramelodic, essentially sweet sound doesn’t have much of a place anymore. Rock itself has grown denser, more complicated, grimmer; sex and romance are no longer as simply expressed as in the French cooing of ”Michelle.”
These thoughts are provoked not by Crowded House’s inability to write another ”Don’t Dream It’s Over,” but by the release of Live at the BBC. An actual, all-new Beatles album (not their highly anticipated ”reunion”), the two discs collect 56 songs the group recorded between 1962-65 for broadcast on the radio network. The album is the sound of the young Beatles early in their early career, romping through their own songs and a slew of covers by their favorites, including Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, and Little Richard. It’s also the sound of four talented, hungry-for-success young men just starting to cope with unimaginable fame. (Chatting between songs, they joke about things like not being able to eat at their favorite restaurants anymore.)
On a sheer audiophile level, Live at the BBC is worth hearing because you can hear the Beatles. The band’s only other authorized concert record, The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl, amounts to half music, half screaming teens — an interesting period piece, but little more. This new batch, taped in studios with no audience in attendance, makes you feel as if you’re sitting in a room with the Beatles as they simply play together, without distractions. Lennon’s and George Harrison’s guitars scrape up against each other’s, Ringo kicks up a playful storm, Paul McCartney plays melody lines on his bass, and all four of them tweak the pseudo-hipster deejays who introduce them.
But Live at the BBC is telling in more ways than was probably intended. It’s a reminder that the Beatles made an indelible mark as songwriters, record makers, and personalities, but never as musicians. Even when they try to sound rowdy, the band comes off as scruffy and fairly tame. Harrison’s guitar solos are almost amateurish, and ”Ticket to Ride” sounds more like a scrawny demo than the powerful, ringing single it was. Based on these primitive-sounding takes, it’s almost impossible to imagine how the Beatles could have upset any type of establishment.
The collection also reminds us that Paul liked to coo ballads, that John’s rock & rasp voice was always looking for a fight, that George liked to sing country songs, and that their songwriting leapt from the simplistic (”Love Me Do”) to the relatively complex (”Things We Said Today”) in an astonishingly short period of time. None of that insight is new (the Beatles weren’t much of a jam band, so these versions vary little from the studio versions), and none of it adds much to our understanding of the band. Instead, Live at the BBC is a quaint memento of a time that sounds more innocent than its mythology now dictates. B