It figures that after the 63 songs and interview fragments (nearly 2¼ hours of predominantly unreleased material) that make up the new archive Beatles release On Air: Live at the BBC, Volume 2, the last word would go to Ringo Starr.
Far and away the most unassuming of the Fab Four, the drummer was asked in a 1966 interview conducted during a break from the Revolver sessions about the Beatles’ ascent to stardom.
“I wouldn’t change any of it” Starr said with deadpan candor. “Even the bit before. This bit’s much better.”
What has been excavated from the seemingly bottomless archive of the BBC vaults comes mostly from “the bit before” – specifically, radio broadcasts from 1963 and 1964 via the programs Pop Go the Beatles and Saturday Club. Like the 1994 set Live at the BBC (which is being reissued this fall in conjunction with On Air), the resulting music here is a treasure trove of aural snapshots that capture the band at the most crucial of its many transitional moments. This was the era where Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Starr were evolving from a band bred on American pop, rock and soul into the kind of craftsmen whose original music was already changing the face of pop forever.
As such, On Air is split between covers that touch upon mainstream pop (Till There Was You), Motown (Please Mr. Postman) and especially Chuck Berry (via one of On Air’s biggest discoveries, the first officially released Beatles version of I’m Talking About You).
Most of the BBC performances, like the jangly album-opening take on Buddy Holly’s Words of Love, are patterned closely after the original versions. But since no audiences are present, we get at least a modest feel how exact the Beatles could sound as stage performers after years of woodshedding in London and Hamburg clubs.
Similarly, the originals – I’ll Follow the Sun, You Can’t Do That and I Saw Her Standing There are near replicas of the band’s own hit recordings. Improvisation was never exactly called upon by the BBC, except for the spoken word and interview excerpts interspersed throughout the album. Those moments reflect, perhaps even more than the music, the innocence that still pervaded the daily doings what was already a pop juggernaut.