Sunday 29 July 2012

The BEATLES: The Beatles At The Hollywood Bowl

(#183: 18 June 1977, 1 week)

Track listing: Twist And Shout/She’s A Woman/Dizzy Miss Lizzy/Ticket To Ride/Can’t Buy Me Love/Things We Said Today/Roll Over Beethoven/Boys/A Hard Day’s Night/Help/All My Loving/She Loves You/Long Tall Sally

“My youngest daughter, Lucy, now nine years old, once asked me about them, “You used to record them, didn’t you, daddy?” She asked, “Were they as great as the Bay City Rollers?” “Probably not,” I replied. Some day she will find out.”
(George Martin, from his sleevenote to The Beatles At The Hollywood Bowl)

“See me, climbing through the clouds,
The world is changing, colours clash.”
(“Clair” by My Bloody Valentine)

The song “Clair” appears on My Bloody Valentine’s 1987 mini-LP Ecstasy. More of documentary than aesthetic interest, the record still serves as a useful staging point; you can clearly hear where the band have been and where they intend to go next. “Clair” itself – not to be confused with another similarly-named song written by an Irishman – is musically pretty straightforward (all the more to mask some lyrics vicious enough to have been written by the 1965 John Lennon), a bright mid-sixties jangle skip which could almost be the Stone Roses, except when Kevin Shields’ voice bends (awkwardly) low and reminds us of the group’s more immediate (Jesus and Mary Chain) antecedents. But the song is disturbed throughout by a grinding loop of what sounds like unfathomable feedback, frequently threatening to submerge the song. In fact the loop was sampled from what George Martin calls “the eternal shriek from 17,000 healthy, young lungs” with the capacity to make “even a jet plane inaudible”; the screaming audience (or audiences) from The Beatles At The Hollywood Bowl. Nothing comes from nowhere.

The thirty-three minutes and fifteen seconds of what was then the only known usable recorded material of the Beatles on stage still present a picture of an audio riot which sounded extremely prescient in the summer of 1977. The main aim of the release was, as with previous similar number ones, to beat the bootleggers (low quality editions of their Carnegie Hall and Shea Stadium performances long having been available on the black market), but I wonder whether a subtle point wasn’t being proven. The complete and more than welcome antidote to the two hours plus of Portrait Of Sinatra, Hollywood Bowl zips along like a barely controllable jet stream of life and colour; it is as though somebody finally decided to fling the stolid windows open, with its thirteen tracks in a little over half an hour, culled from three concerts “the boys” gave there; six tracks from 23 August 1964 (there would have been more had the microphones not been working for the first five songs or so), two whole tracks from 29 August 1965 (“Ticket To Ride” and “Help!”), a composite mix of 29 and 30 August 1965 performances (“Dizzy Miss Lizzy”) and the balance from 30 August 1965. Listening again, it is easy to remember where (and from whom) the Ramones got their name.

There had been demand for a live Beatles album for some time, but as the Hollywood Bowl performances contained no otherwise unavailable material, the group decided against releasing them; Spector had a go at mixing them in 1971, without success; and it finally fell to Martin and Geoff Emerick to salvage the tapes in early 1977 (Polydor having released a lo-fi double album of their 1962 Hamburg Star Club performances a few months earlier. In addition, the highly successful musical Beatlemania had premiered in the States in May 1977; so a major revival of interest in the group was certainly in the air). This process was not without its difficulties; as the original performances had been recorded on three-track tape, Martin and Emerick had to set about finding a three-track tape recorder to listen to them again. One was eventually found but was prone to overheating; to solve the problem, Martin attached the tube of a vacuum cleaner to the machine in order to enable a flow of cold air. Having listened to the tapes, Martin and Emerick set about cleaning them up, remixing, re-balancing and generally making them listenable. Even so, they found that a few songs were completely unusable as they were almost totally obscured by the endless screaming (I think I would still have liked to have heard those, though, and not solely on a Metal Machine Music basis either).

The main thing about the Bowl performances is the screaming; from start to finish – the album is mixed and sequenced so as to mimic a standard Beatles set of the period – the girls never let up. The high-pitched drone is constant, and there are times – most evident on “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” and “Long Tall Sally” – where the scream effectively becomes a fifth instrument. While inevitably lacking the polish and artfulness of their studio work, the Beatles do a more than fair job of reproducing their magic live, a feat all the more remarkable when you consider that, due to the lack of “foldback” speakers, they couldn’t actually hear themselves onstage.

Lena in particular was keen to hear this record since the concerts – the 1965 ones at any rate – were promoted by KRLA, the station she listened to growing up in Hollywood, and its DJ Bob Eubanks, and she found listening to it a complete ball; as Martin is careful to emphasise in his sleevenote, the music was only a part of the total mid-sixties Beatles live experience – more than anything, it was about the moment, the here and now, and it is a tribute to Martin and Emerick’s skills that a dozen years on (and indeed now nearly half a century down the line), the music still sounded current.

I believe it is Mr Eubanks who introduces the group at the beginning of the record, and they and their screamers waste no time, launching immediately into a quickfire (80 seconds!) “Twist And Shout” before moving on to “She’s A Woman.” McCartney comes close to busting his lungs, or at the very least his throat, on this performance (“She’s a woman RIGHT now!”), and the careful fusion of ska and nascent New Pop found in the studio recording reveals more of a country undertow here. Lennon then addresses the audience with deliberate hesitation, musing over the difference between an “LP” and an “album,” before striking into a frenzied “Dizzy Miss Lizzy.” Roughshod with plenty of mistakes, it is nevertheless a powerful performance, and overall the effect is quite electrifying, the band at some stages struggling to become audible above the sine waves of screams, as if their music is being consciously subverted from outside, an outside only they could have created.

“Can you hear me?” asks an anxious McCartney to an enormous roar of approval, before going into “their last but one single.” This “Ticket To Ride” stays remarkably close to the original, and since Martin confirms that no overdubs or redos were applied to the tapes, it adds to a possibly surprising picture of how good a working group the Beatles were at the time – despite Lennon’s subsequent scepticism about their later live work, this is a band fully sure of and confident in themselves, and if anything the latent, proto-drone/metal power of this “Ticket” beats the original, being necessarily more tactile.

They get on a roll. “Can’t Buy Me Love” works here as a jazzier, twelve-bar blues variant on the original, and its natural swing is not compromised by Harrison’s slightly out-of-tune guitar solo. Back then to the equivalent point in 1964, McCartney attempting to calm the audience down with a relatively low-key tune, but this “Things We Said Today” only serves to increase their intensity, after making the harmonic debt to the Everly Brothers more apparent in the verses, the middle-eight rocks out with quite unexpected ferocity and provokes an immediate, deafening reaction; the overall feeling of added feedback sounds as though the future has nudged its way in, twenty years early. Side one ends with mild-mannered George serrating his throat on “Roll Over Beethoven,” a song they must have been playing since they were schoolboys, and the thunder generated by both group and screamers here does not undersell the concept of Britons selling American music back to an America which had forgotten it, or been too young to hear it, or had never heard it in the first place.

Side two is essentially more of the same. “To sing a song called ‘Boys’ – RINGO!” it begins, and a warped Pistols/MBV thrash unexpectedly makes its way in before Ringo regains control, his vocal here a lot more febrile than on the original, his “Come on, GEORGE!” more urgent. The momentum is growing – this is a 1964 “now” and what is happening is, on at least one level, beyond exciting.

Then back to 1965, and a sardonic, sing-song announcement from Lennon – sounding not unlike somebody else of Irish descent named John – about songs from their movies. “One was black and white…and one was coloured!...This is from the black and white one,” leading to an apocalyptic bash through “A Hard Day’s Night” (although Harrison ends the number on a standard, straight G major root chord). Lennon proceeds to announce a song from “our second movie…the one in colour…a different film…we’ve made two…our latest record over here…which means this is our new single.” You get the feeling that he’s about ready to strangle this audience, but after a brief, sarcastic exchange of thank-yous between John and Paul leads to “Help!,” suddenly we get a glimpse of the “John Lennon” most people will choose to remember; troubled, yearning – and yet they continue to scream, paying not a nanosecond of attention to what he’s saying. You wonder if he hated them for it.

Back once more to 1964 for the closing sequence, and there’s no stopping them: “We’d like to carry on with a song,” says McCartney, as though addressing a scout hut meeting, “from our last Capitol album (you note the slight discomfort they have remembering that, in the States, their records are different from the ones in Britain); we hope you like this song,” again to be answered by a wall of hysteria. “All My Loving” does its rollercoaster thing, and then, again, it’s Lennon: “An oldie that some of you older people might remember – from last year” (by no means overdoing the accusatory subtext). “She Loves You,” a song that doesn’t quite have the same resonance in the States as it does here - “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” not included here, was the big nation-reunifying breakthrough there - is sung in a rather lower key than in the original, but, as with any time there’s an instrumental break, all they have to do is shake their heads and croon “Wooo!” and the crowd goes incandescent. Finally, after another Rotary Club round of thank-yous (“Have you enjoyed the show?” asks Paul rhetorically, and also, were he to know it, already looking forward to the title song of Sgt Pepper; he also apologises for what is essentially a half-hour set – “Our last one...oh yes, oh YES…you know?...sorry!”), the band finish off with a tumultuous “Long Tall Sally” and here band and audience become one and you hear exactly what the Mary Chain got out of this (and therefore also what MBV got out of the Mary Chain’s discoveries), an absolutely harmonious noise-surf leading up to an explosion of NOW, and exit stage left to the screams, which continue, undiminished, as the record fades.

This was, like its EMTV Golden Greats predecessors (UK catalogue number: EMTV 4), advertised on television, yet I don’t think its success – it reached number one here in the week of McCartney’s thirty-fifth birthday, and just one week after that Silver Jubilee singles chart – can be purely ascribed to simple craving for nostalgia; if anything, The Beatles At The Hollywood Bowl is more like a genie in a bottle; rub it the right (or wrong) way and so many things, ideas and futures flood out of it. As with the Ramones, one feels that half an hour is just right, just enough for this music’s power to take root. And one also feels that, in view of the surrounding, encroaching, suffocating nostalgia of the time, and the palpable inability of established “present tense” rock music to deal with its time, this record points to an escape route, a way out towards a better future. It has never been reissued on CD – except in Japan – and perhaps Martin and the surviving Beatles feel that there isn’t enough material here to warrant a full CD release, even in the subsequent light of the Anthology series. But, as I am sure everyone from Kevin Shields to Marshall Crenshaw (whose first big break was playing Lennon in Beatlemania) would concur, this is a more significant record than it pretends to be, and an extremely welcome head and mind cleaner, water after the desert of ancient “respect” surrounding it. Moreover, in a year which more than one over-excitable claimant deemed "Year Zero," the record quietly (or, perhaps, loudly) demonstrates that in pop there is not really any such thing, especially if the lesson comes in the form of a gift from one "Year Zero" (1964) to another.