Live at the BBC
The "first new Beatles record in decades" (so says Capitol) is hardly rock and roll's Holy Grail: as a historical document, this 69-track, two-disc collection of British Broadcasting Corporation recordings made from 1963 to 1965 sheds little new light on the music of four men about whom we know perhaps too much. By now, a good hunk of the covers (from Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, and assorted other American R&B musicians and rock and rollers) are predictable, having been made available in other versions on everything from Live! at the Star-Club, The Early Beatles, the Rock 'n' Roll albums, and the earliest official releases. And the live takes on the classics ("A Hard Day's Night," "Ticket to Ride," "Love Me Do," and so forth) are hardly changed from those already familiar to anyone who has inhaled breath in the past 30 years.
Then, revelation is hardly the point anymore; if anything, Live at the BBC is a captivating photograph from the past to be admired one more time before it's filed away. The Beatles captured here are shifting and struggling between influences (McCartney sounds just like Elvis on the poorly recorded "That's Alright Mama," just like Holly on "Crying, Waiting, Hoping"), between hokey ballads like "A Taste of Honey" and "The Honeymoon Song" and frenzied rockers like "Long Tall Sally" and "Slow Down," and between phases as shaggy punks and master craftsman.
It's difficult, in retrospect, to separate the early Beatles from the band that would make Rubber Soul through Abbey Road, yet the soon-to-be-Fab Four featured here doesn't hint at the studio perfectionists who would follow just months after these tracks were recorded. They come off here like the world's greatest bar band, going balls-out on "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" and "The Hippy Hippy Shake" and then throwing in an original when the audience is at the bar ordering another round. Without benefit of trickery and retakes, they had to rely more on power than production: McCartney never sounded so tough or threatening after this, Lennon's growl had only begun to plumb terrifying depths, and as a band they never sounded worse. Or better.