Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl (1964-65)

(Parlophone/Capitol 1977)


This, along with its 2016 variant, is the only "official" Beatles live album ever released as of 2018. Professionally recorded by Capitol Records straight to three-track during the band's three Hollywood Bowl performances (one in 1964, two in 1965) and cleaned up for release by George Martin in 1977, this truly is a snapshot of Beatlemania at its absolute height. What that means is that your ears are pretty much bombarded by the sound of teenage screams for the duration, but that shouldn't detract from your enjoyment of the record, particularly given that the hysteria in response to the band is a big part of the story you're signing up to be told here.

The Beatles' own performances are tight and boisterous, even surrounded by chaos and with the absence of decent sound equipment. (Monitors wouldn't become standard for several more years.) The concentration of course is on the early rock & roll material, which is all the better for this as a document of the group as ragged performers of frenzied, relentless pop music. The weak point is the vocals, but even they don't often falter from respectability (John probably puts in the worst of the lot, on "Help!", but that can't possibly have been an easy song to put across live). The 1964 performances tend to be the standout delights, including an impressively complex presentation of the sophisticated "Things We Said Today," plus winning renditions of "She Loves You," "Long Tall Sally," "Roll Over Beethoven" and -- in what may, improbably enough, be the highlight of the album -- "Boys" (starring Ringo). George Harrison and John Lennon's guitars run appealing, adroit circles around each other and are soulfully played with the same sort of economy and precision as on the studio records, without coming off as a stilted duplication. Only "All My Loving" among the 1964 tracks is slightly underwhelming, mostly because the band seems to be rushing through it. (Virtually all of the songs are faster than their Abbey Road counterparts.)

1965's entries, taken from two shows on consecutive nights despite an error on the sleeve claiming otherwise, are only marginally worse for wear. The weariness slips in most obviously on the inane between-song banter, which at one point has John waxing with hilariously evident apathy on the fact that the band had made two films, one in color and one in black & white, and the song they're about to sing is from the black & white one. It desperately needs pointing out, though, that both '65 shows at the Bowl are unmistakably superior to any Beatles live material that's slipped out from the year that followed, and indeed that even in the case of the 1964 concert, while stronger performances exist from that year, none are quite so sonically appealing. (Capitol had declined to release the proposed live album at the time due to fears that buyers wouldn't tolerate the incessant screaming, though this didn't stop them from putting out the only slightly quieter and far more annoying Beach Boys Concert that same year, and netting a #1 record in the process.) I would even argue that both "She's a Woman" and "Dizzy Miss Lizzy," both bluesier, fresher and more powerful here, are superior to their studio counterparts; "Can't Buy Me Love" has a pretty strong case as well, attaining a spontaneity and rawness absent from the single. This really is the audio presentation of the Beatlemania-era stage show at its best.

If it wasn't strange enough that the Beatles never had a live record on the marketplace in the '60s, once this one finally saw release near the end of the following decade (rushed along by Lingasong's gray-market emission of Live! At the Star Club), it proved highly popular, hitting #2 in Billboard and achieving Platinum status... then failed to make the transition to compact disc and was off the market for three decades, even as the Beatles' popularity remained consistently strong. Perhaps it slipped through the cracks because Capitol and not Apple, nor the disbanded and moving on Beatles, had initiated the project. Either way it was inexplicably difficult to hear except via used bins and in unauthorized digital formats for the majority of the CD era before it was finally reissued in tandem with Ron Howard's Eight Days a Week film; that newly remixed version of the record is reviewed elsewhere in this discography. The original 1977 vinyl struggles with a mildly insubstantial nature (33 minutes, which admittedly is pretty much in line with the length of a usual Beatles LP or a usual Beatles concert), competently expanded over the years by bootleg versions; but it stands as a splendid souvenir of a singular period of enthusiasm and insanity in rock & roll history -- and it's a lot more attractive, aesthetically, than the 2016 rereleased version. All live Beatles material is at an automatic disadvantage because of the volume and behavior of their fans, and because of the obstacles the band encountered to putting on a proper performance as their popularity grew, but their story isn't complete without a good aural examination of what happened -- to them, and to the world -- whenever they stepped on a stage in the mid-1960s.

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