SHOW BUSINESS: Becoming the Beatles

A new two-CD set of live British radio performances displays pop's premier group growing from imitators to assured artists

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At that time, the British airwaves were calcified in good taste. The only rock 'n' roll reached England from the piratic Radio Luxembourg. But BBC welcomed the occasional pop group, and the Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein, knew it could make them. The band auditioned for producer Peter Pilbeam, who reported with guarded enthusiasm: "an unusual group ... with a tendency to play music." Rating the Beatles' singers, Pilbeam wrote, "John Lennon: yes; Paul McCartney: no." Anyway, they got the job.

Most of the renditions have an engagingly primitive sound; it's as if the boys told themselves, "Let's get on the radio, pretend it's John's basement and have some fun." Sometimes they fiddle with (or bollix up) the chord structure of the original tune. On a few songs they finesse the lyrics (George's vocal on Roll Over Beethoven alters "Dig these rhythm and blues" to "Dig these heathen blues") or finically polish the grammar (John's "You've really got a hold on me"). Some of their covers (Young Blood, Johnny B. Goode) sound sluggish, anemic next to the originals. But Paul's raveups -- his countertenor superscreaming on Long Tall Sally or the understandably obscure 1956 rocker Clarabella -- still have a clear pulse. John leads a happy assault on Sweet Little Sixteen. And George is the musical star; he lays down plenty of inventive improvs on his lead guitar.

As was evident by 1963, the Beatles' genius was best exhibited not in their glosses on archival rock but in Lennon's and especially McCartney's gifts for melody and harmony. In short order the Beatles' own compositions became more elaborate, and so did their studio technology, which the resources of the bbc could not meet. But the early songs still sound great. The full-note, three- part harmony ("Iiiiii'm sooooo glaaaad") in the bridge of I Feel Fine still seduces the listener into singing along. It's the expression of a pop- musical spirit eons removed from the rage and anxiety that replaced it -- a spirit that found, in simple romantic joy, a reason for singing. "I'm in love with her and I feel fine."

Rock hasn't felt fine -- not in that zesty, presexual way -- for a generation, ever since the Beatles got off the radio.

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