Down in the BBC vaults, we were told, they had stumbled upon golden tapes containing long lost recordings of The Beatles' radio performances. Richard Buskin spoke to BBC Radio producer Kevin Howlett and Abbey Road Studios engineer Peter Mew to discover the truth behind the hype.
What is it about publicity and press hacks that compels them, every time some legendary, previously‑unreleased material is unleashed on the general public, to summon up images of said tapes being discovered 'down in the vaults'? For one thing, just how many record or broadcasting companies do, in fact, have these mysterious — and, no doubt, cobweb‑infested — underground storage chambers; and secondly, are we to assume that there are regular exploratory expeditions undertaken by brave individuals in order to seek out ever more of this hidden treasure?
Indeed, in the case of the recently released Beatles radio sessions, we were informed by news reports on the BBC itself that the vaults in which the tapes were discovered were actually 'dust‑encrusted', which doesn't say too much for the work of the BBC archivists! Furthermore, the tapes were miraculously all found to be in pristine condition, and they contained songs which nobody could recall The Beatles ever performing. Well, to all of this I will say just one thing — what a pile of tosh!
Of the 275 Beatles recordings broadcast by the BBC between March 8, 1962 and June 7, 1965, various were in fact re‑broadcast by the network in a two‑hour special, entitled The Beatles At The Beeb, in 1982. A three‑hour version was subsequently syndicated in other countries, and in 1988, there was a series of 14 half‑hour shows entitled The Beeb's Lost Beatles Tapes. Furthermore, Beatles fans have had bootleg recordings of many of these sessions since the early 1970s. During the past year, an Italian company has even put out a nine‑CD boxed set containing every single one of the numbers the band committed to tape in the BBC studios. The only reason for the delay in actually releasing some of this material was the protracted legal wrangling between the BBC, EMI Records (to whom The Beatles were contracted from June 1962 onwards), and the group's own company, Apple Corp. So, let's not talk about the mass rediscovery of long lost masters, please...
Kevin Howlett, a Senior Producer at BBC Radio 1, wrote the sleeve notes for the new album, The Beatles, Live At The BBC, having previously re‑engineered (and acted as a conduit in the location of) much of the material that was used for the 1982 and 1988 re‑broadcasts.
"At the press launch for the album, the first question I was asked was whether it was like discovering Tutankhamun's tomb," he explains. "So I replied that the material was very exciting and that I therefore suppose you could use that analogy if you want to. That was a mistake, because the reporter then quoted me as asserting, 'it was like discovering Tutankhamun's tomb!' I should have been wise to his little ploy, because in truth I feel that the material is much more like a time capsule that enables you to travel back and rediscover where BBC Radio was at in the mid '60s."
Such is the case for Howlett himself, whose own time at the BBC commenced quite a few years later. "I was just a child listening at home to this stuff — a Beatle baby," he admits. Nevertheless, while researching the sessions he did talk to numerous people who had worked on them, and from what they said he deduced that, during the early to mid '60s, there had actually been a conscious decision among the BBC hierarchy to dispose of all the material.
"I spoke to Jeff Griffin, who was at the BBC then, and he recalled a particular Head of Department saying, 'This material is taking up too much room. We've got to get rid of it!' Today that may seem ludicrous, especially as Radio 1 now has its own archive and we hang onto all of our sessions. In fairness, there was so much live recording done in those days — because there weren't all that many records being played — that if they had kept absolutely everything, it would have got completely out of control. I mean, you didn't really need to keep the Northern Dance Orchestra performing 'Singing The Blues' for the fifteenth time...
...the most recent and valuable discovery has been a recording that a member of the public made off his radio way back on January 26, 1963.
"On the other hand, The Beatles had certainly become a phenomenon within a very short space of time, and so you would have thought that somebody would have considered the recordings worth hanging onto for posterity. There again, I've also heard that the contracts made with performing artists back then contained a clause stating that session tapes should be destroyed after three months; possibly a Musicians Union rule to ensure that its members would then be required to return and make further recordings."
Nevertheless, in spite of all the rules and regulations, some employees fortunately did have the foresight to disregard them. However, the task of tracking down and collating these remnants was anything but straightforward for Howlett and his colleagues. The Beeb, you see, is a large corporate body with numerous arms that reach out to both the domestic and overseas markets, and as a result, it has several different archives in a variety of locations.
"More and more stuff has come to light over the years, so it's been a process of putting the Beatles archive back together really," says Howlett. "For the series, The Beeb's Lost Beatles Tapes, which included a lot of speech interviews from the time as well as the tracks, we turned up quite a few things. One of the most exciting finds came from the BBC Transcription Department, which was originally set up to distribute programmes to far flung corners of the British Empire."
During the 1960s, there was a radio show called Top Of The Pops (not to be confused with the television programme of the same name) hosted by Brian Matthew. This fitted onto two sides of a long playing disc and it featured Matthew presenting session tracks that had been recorded for various BBC programmes by groups such as The Hollies, The Swinging Blue Jeans, and The Beatles.
"The transcription discs were utilised as the source for some of the 1964 material on the Live At The BBC album," explains Howlett. "On 'Things We Said Today', for instance, you can hear Brian Matthew voicing‑over some sort of introduction, and that's actually taken from a Top Of The Pops disc, because the original version without the voice‑over doesn't exist.
"There can be no doubt that the shows were well recorded at the time. So it's just a question of how well the material has lasted over the years and in what form. I can remember George Martin [the album's Executive Producer] saying to me that a disc is quite a good storage medium and that he was quite happy to master from it. In fact, when I was working on a series called Paul Simon's Songbook a few years ago, I talked to [producer] Roy Halee about his re‑mastering of the Simon and Garfunkel material and how the original master tapes were in a bad condition, having been played over and over again and not looked after. He was appalled at the state they were in and said, 'if only they could find me a decent mint copy of 'Bridge Over Troubled Water', at least I would be able to master from that!'"
So much for disc storage, yet within the BBC Transcription Department there is also a tape library, and it is here that the most exciting find was made for the 1988 series, The Beeb's Lost Beatles Tapes. "We came across two 10‑inch reels with 'The Beatles' written along the spine," recalls Kevin Howlett. "One of these was a half‑hour reel featuring the band larking around for the Christmas '65 show [an edition of Saturday Club on which the group did not perform any songs]. They were being interviewed by Brian Matthew and doing a send‑up of [the then influential TV pop show] Juke Box Jury, and obviously another version was eventually edited down from this.
"At the same time, the other half‑hour reel was similar in that it had been left running while the session was in progress, but it also included them performing 'I Feel Fine' and 'She's A Woman'. It had false starts, takes which broke down halfway through, and talkback between the group and the control room. It was fascinating and that was quite a find, because it's a sort of pre‑master really. From it, a master would have been made — a track would have been dubbed down, edited or whatever."
Meanwhile, with regard to The Beatles' radio performances, contact with the original session producers yielded some more tapes, but there were still quite a few gaps to be filled. It was for this reason that contact also had to be made with some... ahem, 'alternative sources'. Indeed, since the transmission of the 1988 series, the most recent and valuable discovery has been a recording that a member of the public made off his radio way back on January 26, 1963. Now it should be pointed out that this kind of practice was, of course, highly illegal, but in the case of The Beatles' sessions, the BBC have had to behave in a manner which could more aptly be described as bloody grateful rather than terribly annoyed, for it is thanks to some eager listeners — and not the hallowed vaults — that certain lost gems have been retrieved.
We came across two 10‑inch reels with 'The Beatles' written along the spine. One of these included them performing 'I Feel Fine' and 'She's A Woman'. It had false starts, takes which broke down halfway through, and talkback between the group and the control room. It was fascinating...
"The 1988 radio series was virtually completed just before it went out on the air," says Howlett, "but when it did go out, some people phoned up and said that they had more tapes. Out of all of them, one appeared to actually have some stuff that we didn't have, recorded all those years ago on his little Grundig. While it was too late for the series, I nevertheless kept his letter on file and I got back in touch with him when this album project was imminent. He journeyed down to London with his five‑inch reels, we went through them, and that's how 'Keep Your Hands Off My Baby' appeared on this album."
Undoubtedly, the greatest attraction of the 56 song Live At The BBC album is the 30 numbers which the band never otherwise recorded; mostly old rock'n'roll covers from their Hamburg and Cavern Club days, plus a few contemporary hits and even one of their own compositions, 'I'll Be On My Way' (which was a hit for Billy J. Kramer And The Dakotas). Again, as with Little Eva's 'Keep Your Hands Off My Baby', several of these performances returned the BBC's way courtesy of private recordings, yet in a good number of cases they also came not from the Transcription Library at Kensington House but from Bush House, where the World Service programmes are broadcast.
"The show, Pop Go The Beatles, was broadcast in the summer of 1963 on the domestic service," explains BBC producer Kevin Howlett. "It featured a guest group, a presenter, and The Beatles reading requests, but it was then re‑made for the BBC World Service and put out in 1964, featuring just the songs and an announcer, and so that material went over to Bush House. Somebody over there at the time made a tape of the more unusual songs, and so I was able to get hold of some of the most interesting tracks."
"The Rolling Stones only recorded about 12 [BBC radio] sessions, and so the fact that The Beatles did 52 is absolutely phenomenal," says Kevin Howlett. "They really worked at it, and of course they were playing live in the studio, although by 1964 they did get a bit more sophisticated. They certainly didn't have multitrack tape machines at their disposal. The first multitrack to come into the BBC was an 8‑track, and that was a very long time after The Beatles had stopped doing sessions here. So the only way that they could overdub was to put down a backing track and then play the tape back through the mixing desk and perform over the top of it. You can occasionally hear examples of this on some of their 1964 sessions."
Thirty years later, one of the problems which Abbey Road engineer Peter Mew had to deal with, especially when working on some of the rarer recordings, was that of audio dropouts. For, whilst he was able to repair most of them using his Sonic Solutions audio enhancement system [see box], a close listen to the album indicates that there were still a few instances where this was just not possible.
"The art, if you like, of using computer editing systems these days is that they allow you to take very small slivers of sound from elsewhere and patch them in, much like you would with a painting," Mew explains. "But, if you can't find a matching piece of sound from somewhere else in the song, then you just can't do it, because you obviously don't want to apply any new paint!
"On 'A Taste Of Honey', for instance, there's an analogue dropout that has bugged me almost from the word go, but I couldn't do anything about it, because that piece of sound wasn't repeated anywhere else in the song. I also couldn't boost it, because it's not a particular level that drops for a particular length of time, and it's too long to restore using the click removal devices, which only work on several milliseconds of sound. This dropout lasts for perhaps half a second and so you can't use the Sonic computer.
"So, at the end of the day, contrary to what some people think, the Sonic Solutions system is not a magic wand. It's a piece of technology, and if you've got absolute garbage going in, then you'll have something better than absolute garbage coming out — but it ain't going to be perfect."
Anyway, in the case of The Beatles, Live At The BBC album, who really cares? This is vintage stuff and it serves to remind one that, in the final analysis, musical content is of far more importance to the average listener than sheer sonic quality.
Brian Willey produced the December 4, 1962 and January 29, 1963 editions of The Talent Spot on which The Beatles performed before a live audience. The first of these, recorded on November 27, 1962 at the BBC's Paris Theatre in Central London, featured the soon‑to‑be Fab Four at the bottom of a star‑spangled bill. Full‑scale Beatlemania was looming just ahead and the band's phenomenal rise to superstardom was underway. Yet it is only with the benefit of hindsight that those who were involved in this story can fully appreciate the significance of what they took part in all those years ago.
"Looking back, they were great days," says Brian Willey, "but at the time, I was just doing a job, and I'm sure that none of us ever thought we were making a mark in history."
A good number of the radio shows were originally broadcast by the BBC in what was then known as VHF, and so, if someone had a half‑decent domestic tape recorder and took a direct feed from the radio, the result of his or her endeavours could well be usable, especially with the digital technology that is now available to clean up such recordings. Peter Mew has been utilising the Sonic Solutions computer‑based audio enhancement system for the past five years at Abbey Road. He first became involved with the Beatles project when work on the album started in earnest around the middle of 1992.
"After George Martin had chosen the tracks that were to go on the record, they were then passed over to me for de‑noising, equalising, and all the rest of it," he explains. "Over the period of two and a half years, the album went through various changes — running order changes, title changes, and things like that. At each stage I had to re‑edit and make adjustments, so that it still sounded OK. In fact, overall it must have gone through seven different versions — so I can now sing almost every song off by heart!
"The masters that the BBC had were in pretty reasonable shape, and they therefore needed much the same kind of treatment that old studio tapes would need. From there, however, things went down the scale in terms of sound quality and some items required a lot more work. Coming from so many different sources, each track had its own problems, and so it wasn't like a normal job where you have a number of studio recordings which basically require hiss reduction. Everything had to be approached as a separate entity. Having done that, it was a matter of trying to achieve some continuity of sound, and that worked in some cases and possibly not in others!"
There are still half a dozen Beatles performances of 'unreleased' numbers which George Martin deemed unsuitable for the Live At The BBC album:
- Roy Orbison's 'Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream?)', from their very first radio broadcast on March 8, 1962 (featuring Pete Best on drums)
- The Coasters' arrangement of 'Besame Mucho', from June 15, 1962 (with Best on drums)
- Joe Brown's 'A Picture Of You', from June 15, 1962 (with Best on drums)
- Slim Whitman's 'Beautiful Dreamer', from January 26, 1963
- Chuck Berry's 'I'm Talking About You', from March 16, 1963
- Carl Perkins' 'Lend Me Your Comb', from the broadcast of July 16, 1963.
Of these, the first five are audibly much too poor to bring up to scratch for the album, being listeners' recordings that evidently were not made via direct feed into a good quality Grundig, but rather with a cheap microphone placed next to the radio speaker while Mum was told to keep quiet! In other words, items of historic importance that are not quite fit for general public consumption. However, the reason for omitting 'Lend Me Your Comb', which derives from the BBC's own Bush House archive, is altogether less obvious.
Officially, being that George Martin's selection criteria for the material was both technical quality and the standard of performance, on the latter count this number just missed the mark. Unofficially, the powers‑that‑be probably wish to keep something in reserve to use as a 'bonus track' enticement for some future release along with all of the alternative takes.