Following on behind the release of the CD, the digital download and the accompanying documentary, could it be time, at long last, for the live Beatles vinyl record we truly deserve?
Release date: 18 November 2016
‘Beware the 1977 album The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl‘, I have often told myself (in a scary voice), ‘or prepare thee to suffer the high-pitched din of thousands of screaming teenage fans in the vague hope of making out the actual band’. And yet, in spite of my warnings, I have got a hold of The Beatles: Live At The Hollywood Bowl, a reissue of this LP, of sorts, to accompany the Ron Howard movie cumbersomely titled The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years. You see, I’ve been sold on the idea that it offers a ‘de-mix’ of the original live recordings from the legendary Los Angeles stadium (meaning quieter screaming, I think), together with a gatefold sleeve, a shiny cover photo of the lads looking cool and groovy under a blue sky, vinyl of the durable 180-gram kind, and an essay by the esteemed US music journalist David Fricke. It certainly has the potential to be a live Beatles release I can get on board with. But let’s take a proper look at the thing.
It’s a vibrant cover shot of John, Paul, George and Ringo, for sure, taken at Seattle Tacoma Airport on 22 August 1964 and highly evocative of their heady summer tours of fifty years past, when they conquered North America. But it bothers me slightly that the words ‘A Ron Howard Film’ are emblazoned in green across the top of it, not because Mr Howard is the director of the abysmal The Da Vinci Code, but because the record is more, surely, than just a soundtrack to his latest project. Quibble aside, Fricke presents valuable insider detail in his essay on how the record was put together, following on from his pleasingly Beatle-centric interview with McCartney for Rolling Stone back in August. Furthermore, the essay is accompanied in the gatefold by some illuminating contemporary clippings from the Los Angeles Times pertaining to the two live events that the LP draws from. It is here that I was intrigued to see, saddo that I am, the spelling of ‘teenagers’ with a hyphen (‘teen-agers’), along with one journalist sniffily referring to the screaming at the concerts as ‘keening’ (a great old word meaning ‘an eerie wailing sound’), which, he said, ‘eased off marginally during numbers’.
More to the point, the sound that emanates from the record is an absolute revelation. It is now official, therefore, on the immortal format of vinyl, that Giles (son of George) Martin and Abbey Road engineer Sam Okell have done an outstanding job in bringing clarity to the concerts of 23 August 1964 and 30 August 1965, after having gained fresh access to a US archive of original three-track tapes of these gigs. What we get is substantially toned-down keening, inviting a whole new appreciation of the newly audible band as a band – in the happiest sense of the word. We hear a charismatic bunch of comrades delivering a level of tight and vigorous musicianship that is astonishing considering what they had to put up with from the hysterical maniacs they were playing for, when they could hardly even hear their own instruments. The audio quality is such that I’ve heard one person describe the band on this record as ‘more Beatley than before’, a summation that you simply have to admire. And I concur, most definitely, that it is thrilling to hear the boys sound, not only recognisable here, but immediate and upfront, coming across as a raw and energised rock ‘n’ roll band as they bang out revved-up versions of their adopted Isley Brothers and Chuck Berry songs amongst a handful of peerless originals.
Hearing the Beatles as we do, the long-familiar songs in their catalogue gain fresh significance, which is enough in itself to make this record truly compelling. ‘Twist and Shout’ manifests itself as an explosive, two-verse signature tune that serves to announce their entrance onto the stage. ‘She’s a Woman’, once an unremarkable B-side (to ‘I Feel Fine’), now becomes a sizzling rocker that McCartney injects with a marvellously guttural and bluesy vocal, while sounding all the better for its intoxicating extended outro. It still has the rubbish line ‘I know that she’s no peasant’ (did anyone really say this in the 60s?) but we’ll overlook it on this occasion, in light of the quick arrival of ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy’, another song which sounds harder and more primal here, in front of 170,000 fans, than on the Beatles’ studio version to be found on Help!. Lennon provides the sublime, throat-damaging vocal this time, over some stupendous drumming from Ringo, while George’s guitar riffs sound edgy and alive where, before, the double-tracking made them a little too synthetic and shrill. John completely fluffs the lyrics, too, making the fourth verse into the second verse and inventing a couple of lines like ‘love me till I’m satisfied’ and ‘love me till the end of time’, but it all adds to the fun.
It is ‘Things We Said Today’, though, that really surprises as a massively different beast to what we know, demanding reinterpretation. The song has already had the unusual distinction of being covered by both Cliff Richard and Bob Dylan over the years (though not at the same time) and is distinguished here as the only initially melancholy number amongst a tracklist of rockers, to the rather unsettling accompaniment of a crowd who now appear to have been lulled into a state of, erm, calm frenzy. But – blimey! – the band really crank it up a gear on the minor-to-major chord shift of the middle-eight section commencing ‘Me, I’m just the lucky kind’, inciting in the fans a massive roar of excitement and an audible upsurge of energy. Of course, it is possible, at this particular point, that one of the Beatles is doing something visibly spectacular onstage that we don’t know about (such as, I dunno, juggling five balls), but mainly we must attribute this rush of excitement to the band’s sheer skill as a live act in injecting their songs with extra levels of dynamics and amplification. The result here is to accentuate the uplifting aspect of this bittersweet song, which McCartney has so mind-bogglingly called an exercise in ‘future nostalgia’, leading me to reinterpret its lyrics and conclude that the song’s narrator, in the present, doesn’t necessarily believe that he will, in the future, split up with his girlfriend, in the present, to make him pine for the past which is the present. I think.
The lads can also be heard to add new dynamics to ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ to make the crowd go even wilder, similarly making ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ both faster and punkier – to exhilarating effect. Of course, not all the tracks are exactly essential listening. I could probably live without ‘Boys’, if I’m honest, while ‘Baby’s in Black’ still sounds like a morose version of the children’s rhyme ‘Oh Dear! What can the Matter Be?’ But they are all enlivened by the talking bits and banter from the band inbetween numbers, which is another great and revealing aspect of this record. The admirable thing is that, though we are basically witnessing the Beatles pretty much invent the whole business of rock bands playing stadiums, we don’t get all that tedious ‘How y’all doing out there?!’ stuff, or ‘Let me see those hands, Los Angeleeeees!’ Instead, we get a Lennon who sounds weary and befuddled most of the time – ‘This is off our latest LP…album…LP’ – and a George who doesn’t seem to know what the hell their latest album is in the States. Lennon is also at his sardonic best when he makes the introduction ‘This is a charming little ditty called “Help!”‘, no doubt taking in the irony of how the song is his genuine cry for help in reaction to the onslaught of Beatlemania. McCartney, meanwhile, develops a staccato way of introducing songs from having to compete with the crowd noise, which I find amusing. It leaves me wondering, in fact, just how he would have coped leading such a crowd in the singalong refrain at the end of ‘Hey Jude’: ‘All you people on the left… All you people on the right… Oh, forget it!’
While I have no complaints on the sound quality and content of this record, it is the running order of the tracks that proves dissatisfying. As with the ’77 release, the songs are pulled from a mixture of recordings from one gig in ’65 and another in ’66, seemingly in a random order, aside from the opener. But it further features four previously unreleased tracks tagged on the end, which, while intended as a bonus feature, just adds more in the way of utter confusion with regard to the whole notion of a mid-60s Beatles concert. It makes side 2, particularly, look like a total mess. Furthermore, as this random composite of songs, the record leaves you crying out for a full live album – in real time and from start to finish – of a single performance, so as to get a sense of how the Beatles paced a show and more of an idea of what the whole experience of being at one of these events would have been like. In light of this, I’d quite happily welcome a record that documented a gig at far less glamorous a venue than the Hollywood Bowl: ‘The Beatles: Live At The Riverside Dancing Club, Tenbury Wells’, perhaps? Or ‘The Beatles: Live at the ABC Cinema, Croydon’ – I wouldn’t care! And certainly, in the same year that we witness the incredible release of practically all the Dylan gigs in the UK from 1966, it seems crazy that there aren’t more recordings of Beatles concerts out there. Crazy.
But, all in all, this is a very exciting record to own, and essential, really, because it is the only Beatles live album out there. The de-mixing has been worth all the effort, the audience enthusiasm doesn’t drown out the band, and we hear a group that sounds gloriously Beatley. It may not be the perfect Beatles live LP, but it’ll certainly do till it gets here.