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Excerpt from Beatles feature on the July 16, 1963 eight-hour BBC session

Wednesday 7/12/23

It’s the first song we get, and we know immediately that the Beatles are bang-on and smoking hot. They’re not just here to fulfill obligations. This was a day all about showing off their considerable stuff and delighting in inarguable legitimacy.

These Beatles were into being these Beatles, one might say, on July 16, 1963, fully aware of their evolution as a band since Starr’s arrival the August before and their developed capabilities. Sometimes you play for other people. Sometimes you play for yourself. And sometimes you play for both.

The period from summer 1963 through to the end of that year, is the foremost for in-concert Beatles music. We hear it here, at the Swedish shows in October, and the Christmastime Liverpool homecoming gig. The sound quality for the BBC airshots could vary, but this was the best the fidelity ever got. Were one to make a list of albums that didn’t exist but should have, then this mega-session could have slotted betwixt Please Please Me and With the Beatles, and the official canon would have been that much richer.

The range stuns because there is no drop off in quality, regardless of material or type of material. Paul McCartney sings “The Honeymoon Song”—a number from a 1959 Michael Powell film based on the ballet El Amor Brujo–with axiomatic conviction helped along in a light-footed way by George Harrison’s colorful fills. His guitar tone throughout this day alternately chimes and stings, and the brightness of his playing on “The Honeymoon Song” presages the dipped-in-gold plucked notes of the “Nowhere Man” solo two-and-half years later.

You have the impression that Lennon—who generally tolerated rather than welcomed such McCartney forays—would have honestly dug this interpretation. Simultaneously, it’s as if the Beatles are so locked in in this moment, that they’re also leaving bread crumbs for their future selves, being that aware of the scope of their talents. Today is never just about today, but also tomorrow, and so forth.

McCartney’s singing deploys that same scrubbed and well-washed tone marking the start of “Hey Jude.” One is hooked instantly by that vocal purity of expression. No one else in rock history has had it to a comparable degree.

Then again, arguably no one has topped John Lennon as a singer of rock and roll in various forms of the medium, including as a soulful balladeer, like with the cover of the Teddy Bears’ “To Know Her is to Love Her,” a number that’s not hard for a lesser singer and band to turn into treacle.

This is the classic Lennon voice in its prime. When a fan of the band writes in to the BBC asking for a song from “leather lung Lennon,” they meant this John Lennon, the quintessential rock and roll singer in the vocal embodiment of the rock and roll sound. There are times when one thinks that all Lennon had to do was open his mouth and allow anything to come out and it would be rock straight from the spigot of the music’s ideological pump. Lennon could make Larry Williams’ “Bad Boy” sound urgent, important, vital, when it really isn’t, or at least not anywhere else or on its own.

But this version of “To Know Her” is shot through with a similar strain of eulogistic devotion as Lennon’s portions of “A Day in the Life.” A listener wonders if he had his mother Julia in mind in delivering this performance, as the song’s author, Phil Spector, was thinking about his father. A committed Lennon was an unbeatable vocalist. The overall effect of the song borders on the hymnic, but as though that liturgical offering had been sourced from a missal itself dipped in the waters of rhythm and blues.

The Beatles fostered community in the works that we might say most made them them, and the backing vocals of McCartney and Harrison suggest friends turning up at the house of another friend to give him whatever he needs to get through what he’s experiencing. This is the sound of both the process and that outcome. And it’s also one of their choicest covers, which is saying something, given that the Beatles, for all of their vaunted originals, were rock and roll’s cover kings.

*from "Session Kings"/Just Like Them: A Piece by Piece Guide to Becoming the Ultimate Thinking Person's Beatles Fan


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