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The Beatles at the BBC

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The Beatles at the BBC
Live at the BBC | On Air - Live at the BBC Volume 2
The Beatles pictured in 1965

In 1963, the Beatles' second single, 'Please Please Me' became their first number one hit1. From then on, the Beatles became first a national and later international success. This was the point that they transformed from being a group that daily played a hard day's night eight-hour gig in small venues in Hamburg and Liverpool to touring the country eight days a week, playing 20-minute concerts singing the same six songs day in, day out.

Yet the Beatles' biggest audiences did not come from their concert appearances. A large part of their earliest success came from their live appearances on the BBC radio. Just as the Beatles transformed British music, they left a lasting legacy on British radio also.

The Beatles BBC Song Selection

Beatles experts, especially Mark Lewisohn2 and BBC producer Kevin Howlett, have catalogued the band's radio career in depth. Between March 1962 - before the release of 'Please Please Me' - and June 1965, the Beatles appeared on 76 BBC radio broadcasts. Of these, 23 consisted of interviews, but on 53 they performed live. In these 53 radio sessions they sang 275 times. There were 88 different songs sung, and 36 of these were songs that the Beatles never recorded or released as a single or album. The song they sang the most was From Me To You, with 16 radio performances between April and November 1963.

These 36 songs were ones that they knew extremely well, most having been played as part of their routine in Hamburg and Liverpool since the early 1960s and in some cases, the late 1950s. In 1988, George Harrison described this by saying:

What we used to do on stage because, whenever you're doing tons of material, you need to sing other people's songs as well. And we started out doing Hamburg where, as the old story goes, we used to play eight hours a night for tuppence a month and when we got home, Brian Epstein would slash us to death with a carving-knife – if we were lucky!3 So we used to have to sing all kinds of tunes... consequently, as we were doing loads of these BBC shows, a lot of the material was just stuff we'd been singing round the clubs.

Many of the songs that the Beatles sang were ones by their favourite artists. These included Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly4, Little Richard5 and Elvis Presley6. Another key influence were the song-writing duos Goffin-King and Leiber-Stoller; the Lennon-McCartney song-writing team had been formed to follow in their footsteps.

In 1988 George described how they were keen to appear on the BBC and the whole experience, as he put it:

Everything was done instantly. We probably had a quick set-up of the amplifiers and drums, plugged in, ran through the songs once while the engineer got a rough balance and then we did them. But before that, we used to drive 200 miles in an old van down the M1, come into London, try to find the BBC and then set up and do the programme. Then we'd probably drive back to Newcastle for a gig in the evening.

Radio in the 1960s

In the early 1960s, British radio was still old fashioned and dictated by changes introduced following the end of the Second World War. There were three national stations, all of which were controlled by the BBC. These were:

  • The BBC Home Service
    This was considered to be the BBC's flagship station and broadcast news and drama after the Second World War. In 1967 this became BBC Radio 4.
  • The Light Programme
    This played light entertainment and had evolved out of the BBC Forces Programme in 1945. In 1967 this became BBC Radio 2.
  • The Third Programme
    Introduced in 1946, this was dedicated to the arts and education, including some classical music but not so much as today. This became BBC Radio 3, with some programmes moved to Radio 4.

Some listeners in the north of England were able to receive Radio Luxembourg, a commercial radio station broadcast from Luxembourg that only some parts of the country could receive at all due to interference, and even then the sound quality was abysmal by today's standards.

The BBC had not really changed what it broadcast since the Second World War. For instance, one daily programme was its Music While You Work slot which had been originally introduced to play tunes that would increase wartime productivity. Similarly loud drums were discouraged as it was feared that it would encourage workers to start dancing and production would suffer. Strict Music Union restrictions also meant that needletime, radio time dedicated to broadcasting a record rather than hiring musicians for a live performance, was limited. As Elvis rarely popped into the BBC studios to record a live performance, often his hits would be played by a BBC approved light orchestra which would filter out anything that made his songs worth listening to in the first place. As far as the BBC was concerned, rock music would almost certainly prove a passing phase.

Similarly the studios that the BBC had available for music were theatres designed for orchestras. Large, vast spaces, they were entirely unsuitable for a band consisting of three guitars and a drum set. When the Beatles played, curtains were carefully positioned around them to contain the sound and prevent the vast space from echoing.

Radio schedules were full of serials, sport, dance band tunes, classical music and for those who did not like that variety, there was variety. During the week only a daily half-hour show, Teenagers Turn, for teenagers and younger listeners from 5-5:30pm might possibly include something more modern. Saturdays, however, were a different story, with Saturday Club, a two-hour show that was the UK's popular premier pop programme and out of the Beatles' reach.

1962 - Here We Go

Teenagers Turn was incredibly popular, and the Thursday edition was known as Here We Go. One of Brian Epstein's first acts before even being appointed the Beatles' manager on 24 January, 1962, was to secure them a BBC audition for this slot, having completed an Application for an Audition by Variety Department form. Their audition took place on 12 February with producer Peter Pilbeam. These auditions were notoriously difficult to pass, with other popular Mersey Beat acts Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J Kramer and The Big Three all having failed.

Following their audition, Pilbeam recorded his verdict:

An unusual group, not as 'Rocky' as most, more C&W (Country & Western) with a tendency to play music. John Lennon – Yes. Paul McCartney – No.

They had passed. This verdict meant that Pilbeam approved John to sing for the broadcast, and that his verdict was that the band produced 'music', rather than 'noise'.

On Monday 7 March, 1962, the Beatles, still John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and drummer Pete Best, recorded their very first radio show in the Playhouse Theatre in Manchester, which was taped in front of an audience, along with performances by other artists Brad Newman, the Trad Lads and the Northern Dance Orchestra. For the first time ever they wore suits rather than tight jeans and leather jackets, which had been their previous look. John sang two songs, covers of 'Memphis, Tennessee' and 'Please Mister Postman', Paul sang 'Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream?)'. Of these three songs, only 'Please Mister Postman' was later recorded by the Beatles. This performance was broadcast the following day.

Pilbeam was impressed enough to rebook them to appear again on the programme in June. Again they sang three songs, but this time included 'Ask Me Why', a Lennon-McCartney original. The song was heard on 15 June, 1962, – long before it was released on the Please Please Me album the following March. For the second and last time, their radio performance included Pete Best. By their third appearance for Here We Go on 26 October, 1962, Ringo Starr had replaced Pete on the drums. As they had released their very first single at the start of the month, two of the three songs played were 'Love Me Do' and its B-Side 'PS I Love You'. Two months later they finished 1962 with an appearance on The Talent Spot, recorded in London, in which they again played both sides of their first single plus their incomparable cover version of 'Twist and Shout' – an indication of what was to come.

1963 – Pop Go The Beatles

Raised on the BBC radio programmes, one of the big things in our week was 'Saturday Club'. We would wake up to this great show playing the kind of music we loved. That was something we really aspired to. Eventually we got to go to that show and be a part of it.
- Paul McCartney

In January 1963 the Beatles not only returned to Here We Go but more importantly were invited to appear on Saturday Club. Broadcast 10am to midday every Saturday and hosted by Brian Matthew7, it regularly attracted audiences up to ten million on the Light Programme and half an hour's worth was broadcast worldwide on the General Overseas Section to another 15 million listeners. Saturday Club boasted of discovering Cliff Richard. What would it make of the Beatles?

Pleased with 'Please Please Me'

The Beatles first appeared on the programme on 26 January, 1963, shortly after the release of their second single 'Please Please Me'. Despite being bottom of the bill they played five songs including a cover version of 'Beautiful Dreamer', a song they never recorded themselves. Brian Matthew was impressed enough to predict that the Beatles' popularity would soon spread. This appearance had been recorded on 22 January, on a day in which they were also interviewed live for lunchtime show Pop In along with Jon Pertwee. This was as well as appearing on an issue of The Talent Spot, broadcast three days after their Saturday Club appearance, again playing 'Please Please Me'. Soon after their appearance on Saturday Club, this song became the Beatles' first number one.

A Day in the Live Broadcast

The importance that they attached to their appearances on BBC radio can be seen by their actions on Wednesday, 20 February. On Tuesday, 19 February, they had played a late-night session at the Cavern Club in Liverpool8. After this they drove through Wednesday's early hours to arrive in London's Playhouse Theatre by 11am to appear for four minutes on Parade of the Pops and perform 'Love Me Do' and 'Please Please Me' live. That done, they then turned round to drive back 160 miles north to appear in the St James Street Swimming Baths in Doncaster, South Yorkshire.

The Beatles' second Saturday Club appearance took place the week before the release of the Please Please Me album, named after their successful second single. It became the number one album in May and stayed top of the album chart for 30 straight weeks until the release of With The Beatles. Ten of the 14 tracks on Please Please Me had been rush-recorded over 585 minutes on Monday, 11 February. That was a day on which John's voice was suffering from a heavy cold and he was relying on soothing throat lozenges to help him through. Many of the performances of these BBC broadcasts of these songs were therefore vocally superior to the versions included on their debut album.

Unlike many other groups, the Beatles were happy to perform live on air, which they did for their second Saturday Club appearance, rather than pre-record all their performances. Brian Matthew has said:

I don't think there was another beat group who would have dared to attempt that particular feat. The Beatles did it and took it in their stride. This was the first time I saw them perform in one of our studios and I was completely overwhelmed – they were clearly streets ahead of their contemporaries.

Producer Bernie Andrews described when this happened on Saturday Club by saying:

The studio in Broadcasting House was actually a talks and small drama studio – not really a music studio at all. So we got a few extra mikes in, started rehearsing about eight o'clock and went on the air live at ten o'clock.

On this occasion they only had to rush 158 miles north immediately after their live broadcast from Broadcasting House in London, which finished at 12noon, in order to appear in City Hall in Sheffield at 6.10pm. They were booked there as the support act to Chris Montez and Tommy Roe.

Of course the Beatles also appeared on Radio Luxembourg, as The Friday Spectacular was sponsored by EMI, the parent organisation that then owned Parlophone, the record company the Beatles had signed with. This usually involved them being interviewed and occasionally claiming to be playing when in fact a recording was played instead. Throughout their career, the Beatles would only appear on Radio Luxembourg a total of 12 times, including both group and individual appearances. Of these, eight would be merely interviews.

In early 1963 they began appearing more often on BBC radio. They appeared on Easy Beat, a Sunday morning show again hosted by Brian Matthew that attracted on average nine million listeners. They recorded three episodes for a series hosted by John Dunn called Side By Side. On 18 April, 1963, a week after the release of their second number one 'From Me To You', they appeared on Swinging Sound '63, a live broadcast from the Royal Albert Hall. It was here that Paul met Jane Asher; the two would later become engaged until their relationship ended in 19689. The Beatles also appeared on a Whit Monday Bank Holiday special entitled Steppin' Out, on which they were announced as the headline act for the first time. On this show Brian Matthew stated that he was getting 'as many requests for the Beatles as everyone else combined'. It was time for them to get their own show.

Showing the Way

Vernon Lawrence was a young studio manager who sent a memo to Donald MacLean, whose job title was Music Organiser – Light Entertainment (Sound), proposing a radio series in which the Beatles appeared along with guest vocalists that the BBC approved. Three weeks later it was announced that four shows, to be broadcast on Tuesday evenings, would be made, under the title Pop Go The Beatles, a title suggested by Frances Line, then a secretary in the production department10. The four shows were broadcast throughout June and hosted by Lee Peters, whom the lads affectionately renamed Pee Litres. Their shows featured established, approved Light Programme acts, as producer Terry Henebery explained:

Bearing in mind that the Beatles were new, one wanted to put some solid guest acts in; a mixture of the attractive [acts] appearing on other shows... They were very much younger and they'd come to the studio and horse about. You had to crack the whip and get on the loudspeaker talk-back jet quite a lot and say 'Come on, chaps!'... but you were, at the end of the day, getting some nice material out of them.

At a time when all BBC disc jockeys had to submit their planned dialogue in advance for the Head of Gramophone Department's approval before it could be uttered, the Beatles' casual, anarchic improvisational introductions that reflected their personalities were a blast of fresh air. According to the Radio Times:

Two days after the first broadcast in the 'Pop Go The Beatles' series, the producer Terry Henebery received over 100 cards from listeners all over the country expressing their delight that this remarkable group now have their own programme.

Realising that they had a hit, the BBC commissioned another 11 episodes, these to be hosted by Rodney Burke. Broadcast between July and September, the Beatles were asked to record six songs for them each week. They performed 56 different songs for Pop Go The Beatles. 33 of these songs had not yet been released by them on single or album, including six cover songs that they would later record for their second album With the Beatles, showing how the BBC was ahead of its time. 26 of the songs that they sang for their show remained unreleased on record while the group remained together.

While the Beatles were recording their live shows they continued on their fourth UK tour of the year and released their next hit. 'She Loves You' was the biggest-selling record of the decade that would stay at the top of the chart from September to December, no doubt aided by the ten different live performances that they did of this song on radio in the same period.

They made occasional appearances on other BBC radio shows, such as the 5th Birthday Edition of Saturday Club, broadcast 5 October, 1963, the 35th musical session they'd recorded for the BBC in 32 weeks. Yet their BBC appearance days began to be numbered on 16 October, when they recorded an issue of Easy Beat. Like many BBC shows, this was recorded in front of an audience, whose front row were six feet from the band. However the young, female audience would not stop screaming, even though this was for the BBC. According to assistant studio manager John Andrews:

The [screaming] noise was totally unbelievable... even now I can remember thinking, 'God, this hurts!' As soon as the lads came on, it was just solid screams – you could hear a little guitar. Bev [Phillips, studio manager and sound balancer] was looking anxiously at me and I just turned around, shrugged my shoulders and put my hands in the air! There was just nothing you could do with our 75 watts of PA.

Following this, Brian Epstein cancelled the Beatles' appearances on Easy Beat. Never again would they appear on a BBC radio show recorded in front of a live studio audience.

'All I Want for Christmas is a Beatle'

Yet the Beatles still returned to radio. They appeared in 1963's Saturday Club Christmas Special, singing six songs as well as a unique Christmas medley. A live version of Dora Bryan's novelty top-20 record 'All I Want for Christmas is a Beatle' sung by Susan Maughan was also on the show, although the boys themselves claimed they thought the song was 'All I Want for Christmas is a Bottle'.

Dora Bryan was not the only one to have such desires. The Beatles' latest record, 'I Want to Hold Your Hand', was their first of three consecutive Christmas number ones out of four in the 1960s.

For Boxing Day 1963, they had recorded a two-hour special entitled The Beatles Say From Us To You, hosted by Rolf Harris. Harris asked them to provide backing for a version of his song 'Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport', to which he sang newly customised lyrics, including verses such as:

  • Cut your hair once a year, boys
  • Keep the hits coming on, John
  • Don't ill-treat me pet dingo, Ringo

11 million listeners heard this special and 11 songs, including 'Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport', were performed. This was the last of 40 live radio sessions that they gave in 1963 for the BBC, which Brian Epstein had nicknamed the 'Beatles Broadcasting Corporation'. It also set the tone for their main radio live performances for 1964. These would utilise a theme tune recorded for this special, a version of 'From Me To You' with the word 'Me' replaced with 'Us'.

1964 - From Us to You and to the US

In early 1964 they had their next target in sight – succeeding in America. Before 1964 only three songs by British artists had ever been a US number one: 'Auf Wiedersehen, Sweetheart' by Vera Lynn in 1952, 'Stranger on the Shore' by Acker Bilk (May 1962) and 'Telstar' by The Tornadoes (December 1962). Within the close of six years, the Beatles would have 22 number ones in that country11. Naturally their old mate Brian Matthew representing the BBC was with them in spirit when they embarked on their US tour, contacting them and recording their impressions of their tour and America for their British fans listening to Saturday Club. The tour was an unprecedented success; on 4 April, the Beatles held all top five spots in the US singles chart12 as well as albums at one and two in the album chart. It has even been claimed that no crimes were committed in the whole of America when the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show as everyone was watching their performance.

The Beatles vs the Pirates

Although it had long had a monopoly of Britain's airwaves except for the few regions that could occasionally tune into Radio Luxembourg, the BBC now faced a real radio rival. In March 1964 the first pirate radio station, Radio Caroline, began broadcasting from just outside British territorial waters and was soon joined by many more. Unlike the BBC, pirate radios ignored Musicians Union needletime restrictions and so were able to play popular records.

The BBC now needed to respond to this increasing threat. When the Beatles returned to the UK, the BBC requested another Bank Holiday special, to be broadcast on Easter Monday. Again titled From Us To You, this was hosted by Alan 'Fluff' Freeman. Ten songs were recorded, and, for the only time, the BBC kept official copies of five of their recordings in the official BBC sound archive. At the end of that week the group appeared on Saturday Club. They then returned to record a third Bank Holiday From Us To You for Whit Monday (18 May), again hosted by Alan Freeman. This was recorded on 1 May in London, even though they had played two performances in Glasgow the day before. Their broadcast was advertised on the front cover of the Radio Times with the words 'Pop for a Holiday in the Light Programme'.

The BBC even allowed a new pop programme, to be hosted by Brian Matthew13. Entitled Top Gear, this was dedicated entirely to pop music and for the first ever programme the Beatles performed six songs and one of their recordings was played. Carl Perkins and Dusty Springfield also appeared on this episode, broadcast in July. A fourth From Us To You was recorded for August Bank Holiday Monday, this time hosted by Don Wardell. They performed a selection of songs from their recent album A Hard Day's Night.

They would not return to perform live on air until Top Gear in November as they had been recording Beatles For Sale, released at the beginning of December. They next recorded for the Boxing Day Special edition of Saturday Club, their tenth, and last, appearance for that show. It was broadcast when 'I Feel Fine' was Christmas no 1.

In 1964, the Beatles had given eight live performances for the BBC radio.

1965 - Ticket To Ride

By 1965 the BBC found it increasingly difficult to contact Brian Epstein to request that the Beatles appear on their shows. The band found the BBC's recording facilities – mono equipment, inadequate recording areas, no multi-track recording to separate vocals and instruments, and primitive overdub methods – to be frustrating. For their BBC appearance on Whit Monday 1965, they had requested that they be allowed to record the show at EMI's Abbey Road Studios, which they would later make famous with their Abbey Road album. This request was turned down so they reluctantly agreed to use the BBC's Piccadilly Studio.

This, their 53rd BBC radio musical performance, was to be their last. Entitled The Beatles Invite You To Take A Ticket To Ride, for this the band played eight songs including some from their latest album, Help!.

The End

The Beatles would not take a return ticket. After embarking on Rubber Soul, the group was determined to push the boundaries of what they could achieve musically; the BBC recording sessions now felt like a backwards step and they no longer needed the publicity. The band would continue to appear on BBC radio, both individually and as a group, but this would be for interviews rather than live performances.

In 1994 Paul McCartney looked back at his BBC days with fondness:

I like the BBC, I always imagine Britain without the Beeb would be a very different place. Sometimes that kind of stuff's central to your civilisation. Iraq hasn't got a Beeb, has it? For all its... terrible cobwebbiness, there is an amazing machine in there. I value that kind of stuff. We used the Beeb like a giant loudspeaker, loudhailer. We were there often and they would put our music to all the country, then often it would get on the World Service, so you knew you were getting round the world with it. So it was a great machine to plug into. One of the original clean machines.

Many of the Beatles' performances on BBC radio were recorded off air and since the 1970s have been among the most sought-after Beatles bootlegs. After all, the recording sessions do not have screaming fans drowning out their performances. They also performed 36 songs that they did not release on record during their career.

In 1994 a double-album, Live at the BBC, was released containing 30 of these missing 36 songs as well as alternate takes of other songs they covered. Other recordings appeared on the Anthology album in 1995 and in 2013 a second double-album, On Air – Live at the BBC Volume 2, containing more songs was released. This proves that the Beatles' performances for the BBC remain popular into the 21st Century.

1On five of the six national singles charts of the time; the sixth, Record Retailer, is now the accepted chart and listed the song at number two.2Author of several Beatles' books including the scarily definitive work The Complete Beatles Chronicle.3Of course, Brain Epstein did not really attack them. George, a man so fond of Monty Python that he mortgaged his house in order to fund Life of Brian, was merely paraphrasing the famous 'Four Yorkshiremen' sketch made famous by Monty Python but created for At Last the 1948 Show. They were paid 30DM (£2.50) each per day and did indeed play eight-hour nights.4The name 'Beatles' had been partly inspired by Holly's backing group, the Crickets. Paul purchased Buddy Holly's song catalogue in 1971.5The Beatles had first met Little Richard in Hamburg in April 1962 and were his support act in New Brighton's Tower Ballroom in October that year.6Although he had been an early influence, the Beatles never covered one of his songs on their released records, and John in particular felt disenchanted by the post-army Elvis.7'Old Mate' Brian Matthew began his BBC career in 1954 and is still broadcasting his weekly Sounds of the Sixties on Radio 2 today (2016).8The admission queue to see the Beatles in the Cavern for this, their first appearance for over a fortnight, had begun on Sunday 17 February. After almost 300 appearances there, the Beatles would play the Cavern only twice more, on 12 April and 3 August.9Trace their relationship through the songs she inspired Paul to write: 'And I Love Her', 'Every Little Thing', 'Here, There and Everywhere', 'We Can Work It Out', 'You Won't See Me' and 'I'm Looking Through You'.10Frances became Controller of Radio 2 1986-1996.11'Love Me Do', 'She Loves You', 'I Want To Hold Your Hand', 'Can't Buy Me Love', 'A Hard Day's Night', 'I Feel Fine', 'Eight Days A Week', 'Ticket To Ride', 'Help!', 'Yesterday', 'We Can Work It Out', 'Paperback Writer', 'Yellow Submarine', 'Penny Lane', 'All You Need Is Love', 'Hello, Goodbye', 'Hey Jude', 'Get Back', 'Something', 'Come Together', 'Let It Be' and 'The Long And Winding Road'.12The same week, the Beatles held the top six spots in the Australian singles chart.13It was around this time that Brian Matthew formed a partnership with Brian Epstein to open a new theatre in Kent that would host Brian Epstein's acts among others, although this was abandoned when Bromley Borough Council declined to grant planning permission.

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