Amidst a flurry of Beatles and Beatles-related activity this autumn, Kevin Howlett's new book, "The Beatles: BBC Archives" is due to be released at the end of October.
Kevin Howlett is the world's foremost authority on the Beatles' appearances on the BBC, both on radio and TV. Think of him as the Mark Lewisohn of their BBC appearances. He's spent over 30 years researching and writing about them, as well as presenting a radio show several years ago spotlighting their BBC radio appearances. In this new book, he ties together all of their radio and TV appearances on the Beeb in a beautifully presented volume.
The book is laid out with a chapter dedicated to each year of the Beatles' career, starting in 1962 and ending in 1970. Each chapter begins with a two-page introduction detailing what was going on in the UK, US, and the rest of the world that year, and touches on everything from music, TV, and film to politics, current events, and that year's fads. It really paints a nice picture setting the reader up for the particular "mood" of that year and as a whole, once you're finished with the book, really hammers home how much change there was over the course of the decade overall, and the breakneck speed at which it occurred. Personally, I'm someone that has always been interested in history, and as a child of parents who grew up during the 1960s, have taken an interest in the decade beyond just the music (although that certainly is the bulk, by far, of my interest in that decade). As an individual, I've never bought into the myth of the 60s that's been peddled by society since January 1, 1970, and neither have my parents. They've been honest with me about what it was like growing up then and about what really happened, and I've always tried to seek out the truth when learning about those years. That being said, it's undeniable that some truly magical things did happen back then, and at the forefront was the great music created by all of those legendary bands and musicians, none more so than The Beatles. What this book does is transport you back to those times, and these chapter introductions do a great job setting the stage as each year progresses to the next.
After the introductions, the chapters begin at the start of each year by giving snapshot histories of the Beatles during the year of interest and how and why they appeared on the BBC radio and TV programs over the course of the year. This is done chronologically such that the appearances that finish a year lead seamlessly into the following year. Throughout, Howlett intersperses the narrative with transcripts of interviews that the band (either collectively, or separately) gave during specific programs of interest. Naturally, the early years (1962-1965) are taken up almost exclusively with their legendary radio appearances. As such, these years, while fascinating, did not teach me much of anything new since I've not only owned and listened to the "Live at the BBC" album incessantly since its release in 1993, but for the last several years I've owned the 10-CD bootleg set comprising all of their BBC sessions. Thus, I was already more than well acquainted with the various songs and between-song banter from all of these shows. That doesn't mean that it wasn't enjoyable for me to read and that it won't be enjoyable for anyone reading who is less familiar with their BBC sessions, it's just a personal thought.
That being said, where I really started to learn a lot that I hadn't known before was when I reached 1966 and beyond. Since their appearances performing on the radio and TV all but ended in 1965, the remaining years in the decade were all interviews or special programs focusing on their music, both on BBC radio and TV. The transcripts from many of these interviews were fascinating, with most of them new to me (and not to be arrogant in any way, but as someone who has been an obsessive fan of the band for basically my entire life, I was *very* impressed that there was a lot of new information for me to discover in the latter half of this book). For instance, (***SPOILER ALERT***) there were definitive declarations from John and Paul in late 1966/early 1967 that there would be no more live performances, period. Also, something I never knew was that they had planned to play three successive nights at the London Roundhouse in December 1968, and this was even confirmed in a letter by Neil Aspinall. I can only imagine how amazing that would've been to hear them playing tracks from the just-completed White Album (my favorite album!) live onstage in 1968 with superior amplification (***END SPOILER ALERT***). There were many more revelations throughout these later years, but I will leave those to be surprises. Most revealing were the interviews with John, George, and Ringo from late 1969 into 1970, where they all seemed very positive about the Beatles carrying on after the initial solo projects were released. Since it's been well known that Paul was the one who desperately wanted to keep the band together during that period (before he finally threw in the towel in mid-1970), it's surprising to read how positive the other three seemed, especially John and George, the two who seemed to like being Beatles least by that point.
One other point I want to stress that Howlett does a good job with is his presentation of the contemporary attitudes to the Beatles, especially their music. For instance, Abbey Road is almost universally hailed as one of their finest albums, and rightfully so. But at the time of its release, opinion was more divided, with many fans and critics considering it mediocre. Howlett makes a point of pointing this out when presenting transcripts of the Beatles discussing the album and defending it from critical attacks. By doing this, it puts the interviews and their content in proper historical context and again places the reader directly in that time period very effectively.
Beyond the written content, the numerous documents, photographs, video stills, and scraps of memorabilia interspersed throughout the book really bring the entire experience of the BBC appearances to life. It's fascinating to read internal memos and letters amongst BBC staff and their attitudes about the Beatles, both good and bad. It's also really interesting to read letters and telegrams communicating between the BBC and Brian Epstein, Neil Aspinall, and others regarding arrangements to get the Beatles onto BBC programming, especially post-1965 when this dried up (as far as performances go). As for the photographs, many I had seen numerous times over the years, but many were completely new to me and a real pleasure to see for the first time. Unfortunately, since the book has not been released yet, I've been asked not to post any so as to not violate any copyrights, but as soon as the book is released, I hope to be able to post some.
At the end of the book, there is a nice section detailing all of the contemporary records that influenced the Beatles, from Elvis and Chuck Berry, to Carl Perkins, various Motown singers, and more. Finally, a section on the technological limitations of recording live for the BBC (which was very informative) and a chronology of every Beatles song performed on BBC radio and TV close out the book.
This is a reference book of the highest order; think of it as the equivalent to Mark Lewisohn's "Complete Beatles Recording Sessions" book, but as applied to the BBC. Perhaps it's a bit more niche in that it's essential for the more hardcore fan and not for the serious but not "too serious" Beatles fan, but since I fall into the former category, and since I've long been a fan of their BBC radio sessions, this is a fine and essential book to add to my Beatles library.
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