Newly released recordings reveal Beatles before they inspired mania

Before the Beatles took America by storm, Paul, John, Ringo and George were featured on BBC radio programs 53 times. Those Beatles performances, recorded between 1962 and 1965, have now been released. Jeffrey Brown talks to Kevin Howlett of BBC about his laborious search for many of these live, early, pre-Beatlemania recordings.


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HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally tonight: Jeff Brown takes a look at a newly released C.D. of very early Beatles performances on BBC Radio, recorded in the days when almost no one in this country had even heard of them. 

JEFFREY BROWN: In the early 1960s, when the rest of the world was just beginning to learn of the Beatles, they were already a sensation at home in Britain, propelled by live appearances and, for millions more, by radio broadcasts, a series of live-to-air performance on the BBC.

Between 1962 and 1965, the Beatles performed 88 songs on the BBC, many of them multiple times in hundreds of radio broadcasts. In the worldwide Beatlemania that followed, those radio performances were largely forgotten in Britain and mostly unheard of in the U.S., until 1994, when the first collection of BBC recordings was released.

Now a new album is out, this one capturing some 40 songs from those early radio broadcasts, including several never before available on record or disk. Many are by now long familiar Beatles standards delivered with the energy and verve of the live performances the young band was famous for.

Others are covers of then lesser known American titles, R&B songs, country music, and early soul music. It's a playlist that illustrates the strong eclectic influences that helped shape what became known as the Beatles sound.

Kevin Howlett, a BBC Radio producer, is co-producer of the new album and author of the companion book "The Beatles: The BBC Archives."

Kevin, welcome to you, sir.

So, everyone knows the Beatles, right? But this is a kind of unique setting and moment. In a nutshell, what's been captured here?

KEVIN HOWLETT, "The Beatles: The BBC Archives": Well, the great thing about this is, it is an alternative recording history.

We all know about the Beatles recording at Abbey Road Studios and making wonderful records. But here we have another alternative recording history, the Beatles at the BBC. And they did so many performances at the BBC, 275 between 1962 and 1965.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this also represents a times that's maybe hard to imagine now, when the BBC played such a huge role in British life.

KEVIN HOWLETT: Yes, the BBC in those days had a monopoly of broadcasting. There were just three national channels for the U.K. And that was all there was to listen to during the day. And we didn't have wonderful fast -talking American deejays, like the New York guys, Dan Ingram, Cousin Brucie, those kind of people.

So it was a very kind of a formal institution. And the Beatles really shook it up.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, they're already pop stars, but they're also extremely young. It's fascinating and kind of fun to hear them talking, as well as playing, their public personalities still forming, in a sense.

KEVIN HOWLETT: Yes, this is very early days for the Beatles. It's 1963. They haven't broken internationally, but they're gathering momentum in the U.K.

They're -- they're -- it is their breakthrough year, and they're desperately trying to make it. And they will do anything to appear on the BBC, because the BBC hardly played a record. You had to appear on the BBC and play live to get your music out there. So, the Beatles were determined to do that.

JEFFREY BROWN: And these are, in fact, performances. They're not recordings.

So part of the thrill of this is a kind of Beatles in the raw, right, playing even some familiar songs in different ways?

KEVIN HOWLETT: Yes.

The wonderful thing about this legacy is that it's the Beatles, and they're absolutely live most of the time, sometimes directly live on to the air, not even recorded in advance. And they're playing some very unusual material, cover versions that they did at Hamburg and in the Cavern Club in Liverpool.

So you really see the kind of songs that they cut their teeth on. And you hear wonderful live performances. It really proves they were a fantastic live group. You know, they are really going for it. There's no question of going back and starting again. They have to do it right. And so you get that wonderful feeling of, this is it, boys, the lights on. Don't make a mistake, because it will go out on air like that.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mentioned covers. There are a number of covers of songs by other people, many that never made it on to Beatles albums. So what do they tell you about the Beatles musical tastes and their influences?

KEVIN HOWLETT: Well, the Beatles were absolutely vinyl fanatics. And in England at that time, you couldn't get ahold of American rhythm and blues. Motown records, for example, were never played on BBC Radio.

So the Beatles sought these records out and covered them. And I think they had a great influence on the way that British people got into American rhythm and blues and discovered Motown and artists like Arthur Alexander.

And -- and the rock 'n' roll favorites, of course we hear, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, but there are unusual performances of songs that you never heard on the BBC at the time.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about the process of collecting all this?

I gather it involves some real detective work. This -- it is kind of amazing, but the BBC didn't keep a good archive of these sessions?

KEVIN HOWLETT: Yes, I first investigated this material way back at the end of 1981.

And you could discover all the paperwork relating to the Beatles radio programs, what songs they covered. But finding the tapes, that was another matter. There was just one out of 53 musical performances in the BBC archives. So I had to track them down from various sources.

And over the years, 30-odd years, I have been doing that and trying to restore the Beatles BBC archive. And we're getting there. There are a few still missing. But we're very lucky to have this wonderful legacy now.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kevin Howlett is the co-producer of "On Air: Live at the BBC Volume 2" and author of the companion book, "The Beatles: The BBC Archives."

Thanks so much.

KEVIN HOWLETT: Thank you.