There are certain live recordings whose existence often strikes me as too good to be true, no matter how many times I’ve heard them. Part of the reason for this feeling is that not many people know of these documents. It’s as if one is in on a secret that also isn’t somehow quite real or hearable. If it were, there’d be much hullabaloo, and others rejoicing in a form of legend to which one can listen.
For instance, were I to say that there are pristine-sounding tapes of the Velvet Underground in a small club in front of less than fifty people, a person might dismiss the notion, foggy or otherwise, with a wave of the hand, though we have those Matrix tapes.
Or were I to say that the Sex Pistols, Clash, and Buzzcocks once shared a bill, with that date representing the first gig of the Clash, and it was all available to be heard, the same incredulity might rear up again. How about the painfully reserved Nick Drake cutting a Peel session for his one and only live recording? It’s all part of that same idea of the secret that goes unheard because it would just be too good to make an official dent in the air around us all.
Even the Beatles fall into this group, which you wouldn’t think would be possible for the Beatles. They were too big, and their fan base as well. Yet I’ve found that there are as many—more—soft spots ripe for digging and discoveries in the Beatles’ output as in anyone’s.
You have to know where to look, and a sizable part of knowing where to look—in anything, be it Beatles troves or life—is going where the crowd doesn’t take you. Count on a crowd, and you won’t get very far, purveyance-wise.
People who love music most often know this best. They’re likelier to be on the search for discoveries. The Beatles were themselves this way. They first loved the people that everyone was loving—Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and of course, Elvis Presley—but then they began to range. They found the Chantels, the Cookies, Little Willie John, and the mighty Arthur Alexander.
The latter was as rich and real as American rhythm and blues ever got and the Beatles looked up to him as the would-be mountain summiteer does the Himalayan peak. To go where Arthur Alexander was already bivouacked in 1962 was to go very far indeed.
That same year that marked the end of the Beatles’ tenure as a Hamburg bar band was also the one which defines Alexander’s career. His influence was such that he made rhythm and blues merchants out of young, white English rockers, and it was English rhythm and blues that spring-boarded the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Yardbirds, and the Beatles to forms of musical expression and songwriting they might not have otherwise reached.
People who love the Beatles are often fond of producing sub-lists of assorted Beatles favorites. Favorite albums, songs, guitar solos, vocals, concerts, covers. I’d say covers is a big category for picking over, simply because the Beatles were so good at them. And Beatles covers give us insight into who the Beatles were, what the Beatles wanted to be, where the Beatles had come from, and where the Beatles might be going. It also doesn’t hurt that for all of their songwriting brilliance, some of their most exciting work was done with songs composed by other people.
The most obvious example is “Twist and Shout” and its key place and reputation in Beatles lore, capping their first LP, Please Please Me, with a blast of John Lennon’s vocal heroism. Requiring a final song to complete this wow-inducing broadside of a freshman effort, Lennon, despite his audibly-evident ragged throat throughout the extended session, essentially said “I got this, fellows,” and willed and inspired himself to a level I think he would have been unlikely to reach under normal circumstances, outstanding though I would have also expected that vocal to be. Context and opportunity have a way of joining forces to bring out the best in our best.
Then we have “Money (That’s What I Want)” to wrap up With the Beatles, a similar explosion of vocal energy. What else should we include for best Beatles covers? Paul McCartney’s wailing—though impeccably-controlled—take on Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally,” with it’s back-to-back Lennon and George Harrison guitar solos, has to be in there, ditto the cover of Richard’s “Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey!” captured like Lennon’s “Twist and Shout” in a turbo-charged first take. Recognizing the value of creating in the moment, Lennon advised his partner to “knock the shit” out of “Kansas City,” counsel that McCartney clearly took to heart, if he even needed to be told.
I’m going to do something different and suggest that the Beatles’ cover of Alexander’s “Soldier of Love (Lay Down Your Arms)” live on BBC radio in July 1963 isn’t only their best cover, it’s one of the half dozen best things they ever did.
If you were around at the time and watched and listened to them closely, it would have been the release of “She Loves You” that made it plain that the Beatles could write a song at the level of anyone, ever, and that performance of “Soldier of Love” which attested that the Beatles could soar past the places where their heroes had gotten and could make someone else’s mountain entirely their own.
Lennon loved Alexander. He loved the authenticity of his sound, with its lived-in quality; even when Lennon went through the looking glass—as on “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “A Day in the Life”—he retained the realism of a bluesman or, better yet, a rhythm and blues man, because the primary form of contact and connection was a human one.
“Strawberry Fields Forever” is very hand to hand, skin to skin; fundamentally the song seeks to connect, for all of the splash and spice of the attendant imagery. Lennon was never an absurdist and always a humanist. The authenticity of Alexander’s rhythm and blues is proximate to anything Lennon did at his best, whether that’s “I Am the Walrus” or “Across the Universe.”
The Beatles viewed that last Hamburg residency as an act of killing time before the real business of their career ascent resumed, but if you take people who might as well have been born to do what they do and have them do it, noting else will matter. There will be no distractions, no lessened effect. The Beatles couldn’t help but be the Beatles, at full-gale force, when they found their way to, or were installed in, their natural environment.