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Beatles' legacy at BBC spotlighted in new book, CDs

BBCPaul McCartneySatellite and Cable ServiceEd SullivanTelevision Industry

When Paul McCartney put out a solo album titled “Memory Almost Full” in 2007, veteran British Broadcasting Corp. producer Kevin Howlett might well have smiled.

Memory can indeed play tricks on anyone -- even Beatles -- as the years roll by. That's one big reason Howlett has spent much of the last 30 years tracking down hard evidence of the group’s long and rich legacy with the BBC.

He relied heavily on the storehouse of documentation related to the Fab Four that the network socked away more than half a century ago. For instance, there's the first global television broadcast of “All You Need Is Love,” a song introduced to the world in 1967.

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“In ‘The Beatles Anthology’ series in which they were telling their own story, they couldn’t agree on whether ‘All You Need Is Love’ was written for that broadcast,” Howlett said in an interview from England to talk about “The Beatles: The BBC Archives 1962-1970” (Harper Design, $60), the exhaustively researched book about the band’s history with the U.K.'s premiere radio and television network.

“One of the great finds for me in going through the written archive was a telegram from a producer who was working at Abbey Road [recording studio] that did confirm that the song was indeed specifically written for this worldwide broadcast that went out to 350 million people," Howlett said. "We have a copy of the memo on Page 221.”

That’s but one of many moments in Beatles history in the book Howlett has assembled in conjunction with “The Beatles: On the Air Live at the BBC, Volume 2” being issued Tuesday, Nov. 11. The latter is a two-CD set, a long-in-coming sequel to the 1994 two-disc "The Beatles: Live At the BBC" release that significantly expanded the range of Beatles recordings commercially available. The performances were live on the air or recorded live in the studio for airing later.

The new volume encompasses an additional 63 tracks, including 37 songs plus interviews with BBC staff and studio banter among the Beatles. Howlett and co-producer Mike Heatley compiled and researched the tracks, often using far-flung source material they had tracked down because, as Howlett points out, “The BBC did not keep its master tapes at that time.”

The original set also has been remastered and is being reissued simultaneously with the second volume so that Fab Four enthusiasts will have a broad sampling of the vast amount of material the Beatles recorded for and on the BBC during the group’s eight-year recording career. The book is packaged with facsimiles of several documents Howlett pulled up during his research, including the Jan. 10, 1962, application form for a BBC audition that opened the door to the group’s many  performances.

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What’s revealing about the Beatles' BBC material is that it includes dozens of songs the group never put on their studio albums, especially their versions of other artists’ songs that were staples in their live shows early on at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, in Hamburg and elsewhere when they were touring constantly.

Howlett and Heatley hope the book and CDs will  “put you back in the era of the 1960s and allow you to see what it was like as this story was unfolding.

“It’s dangerous with 50 years gone to look back and think that the Beatles were universally adored and that everyone knew they’d be around forever,” Howlett said. “That wasn’t the case. If you read transcripts of the interviews from 1963, you see that they were often responding to the question, ‘What are you going to do when this is all over?’ ”

Other interviews range from Ringo Starr’s almost apologetic response in 1965 to a question about how fans would react to the fact that he and John Lennon were married: "I think all fans realize that we’re just human beings and we drink, smoke and get married like anybody else,” Starr said -- to more profound topics including the unexpected death in 1967 of manager Brian Epstein while the Beatles were in Wales with Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

“He told us … er … not to get overwhelmed by grief,” Lennon told an interviewer, “and whatever thoughts we have of Brian to keep them happy, because any thoughts we have of him will travel to him wherever he is.”

From the outset, the BBC played a crucial role in the sowing and flowering of Beatlemania, well before the band crossed the Atlantic for its watershed appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” that spread the phenomenon in the U.S.

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“So much music was live on the BBC -- they hardly played any recordings,” said Howlett, who joined the BBC in 1981, just in time to be drafted to work on a special created to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the group's first appearance on BBC Radio in 1962. “In 1963 alone, there were 39 programs featuring their songs.

“They would drive hundreds of miles [from Liverpool], do their session, and then travel back across the country to do a gig that night. So there was no opportunity for any studio trickery. They recorded straight to mono tape, and they went live straight onto the air. You do hear the group as a live unit. That’s one of the attractions of the albums: You can hear what a wonderfully good live group they were.”

You wouldn’t always think so from their many conversations with BBC interviewers, some of which are included on the CDs, others transcribed in the book. “Individually, I suppose we're all crummy musicians really,” George Harrison said in a 1963 interview.

In another chat, he noted that when they came to play for the BBC, "Everything was done instantly. We probably had a quick set-up of the amplifiers and the drums, plugged in, ran through the songs once while the engineer got a rough balance and then we did them... They were all done very quick -- one take -- and, as they say, warts and all."

False modesty? Perhaps. But Howlett and Heatley said they came away from combing through hundreds of live-to-tape or live-over-the-air performances all the more impressed at the group’s work ethic and musical skills.

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“They knew if they made a mistake they’d have to do it again, so they had to deliver,” Howlett said. “These performances have that wonderful rush of energy.”

From a vantage point decades down the line, it may sound sacrilegious -- or inconceivably short-sighted -- that the BBC did not keep the master tapes of the Beatles' performances (or many other entertainment programs). But it was standard practice at the time to erase and reuse tapes rather than archiving everything that was performed on the air.

So Howlett and Heatley had to track down transcription discs that were pressed to send to other stations outside of England that played BBC programming to find the broadest range of songs for inclusion on “The Beatles at the BBC, Vol. 2.”

“Even on the first [BBC] album,” Heatley said, “I think the version of ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ is better than the [studio] version. They’re not in every case better, but many of them are the equal of the studio recordings, and it’s so different to hear the group playing them in that way.”

Added Howlett: “If there was something we didn’t include, it wasn’t because the performance was lacking -- it’s only because the audio quality of the only existing version we could find wasn’t good enough. Despite the incredible workload they had, what comes through is the quality of their performances.”

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Follow Randy Lewis on Twitter: @RandyLewis2 

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