Like any decent band, The Beatles started as a live act. Before the matching suits and bushy mop-tops, they cut their teeth as greasy haired young men in biker jackets, playing pawn shop instruments during sets between stripper segments at the infamous Cavern Club.
However, sometime during ‘Beatlemania’ and their final performance on a rooftop in early 1969, The Beatles picked up a stigma of being a terrible live band.
When compared to contemporaries like The Rolling Stones, it usually winds up along the lines of “The Beatles were a better studio band, but The Stones were better live .”
While it’s fair assessment of Mick and co.’s strengths, it undersells what The Beatles were capable of. Of course they were an extraordinary studio band – their albums are the very definition of pop perfection and still influence musicians – but on what grounds can they be called a terrible live band?
Indeed, back in their Cavern Club days they were famous for ferocious musicianship and electrifying in-band synergy. At one point, producer George Martin considered recording their debut album in the club with minimal overdubs (the club’s horrible acoustics ruined that plan). Martin was a visionary, but recording a major label debut live off the floor isn’t common with terrible live bands.
More likely, the reputation comes from the few live Beatles recordings fans have been accustomed to.
Unlike television or BBC performances, their live recordings feature the band trying their best to be heard over legions of thousands of screaming kids, much less their very best as musicians. In 1964 Capitol Records professionally recorded a performance at Hollywood Bowl, but the band voted against it. The label tried again the next year, taping two other concerts in the same venue, but it yielded the same response.
Fans wouldn’t hear those performances until over a decade later. In the late 70s, Martin cherry picked thirteen performances of what he felt were the best of the three concerts for an album released as The Beatles At The Hollywood Bowl. Plagued by poor sound quality, it received mixed reviews. But for decades, it was the only officially released live album from The Beatles.
Fast forward to 2016. Apple Corps. Ltd and Universal Music Group handed the live tapes to George Martin’s son and successor Giles Martin to compile a live album. The new LP, Live at the Hollywood Bowl is primarily a companion piece to Ron Howard’s theatrical documentary The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years.
With both advancements in audio technology and recently discovered recording sources, Giles Martin tweaked the tapes. He raised the levels of individual instruments but more importantly, also lowered the thousands of audience screams with a mix of digital compression and noise reduction effects. Thanks to this technology and Giles’ masterful ear.
Listeners can hear The Beatles perform over the crowd, revealing them as a live band that’s actually good!
Nowadays, in-ear and on-stage monitors are a staple of live shows, but in the 1960s they were unheard of. When The Beatles took to the stage, they simply plugged their instruments into their amps and played. Multiple mics up against those amps ran into the venue’s speaker system, piping the sounds into the ears of the audience. The same sound systems were intended for PA announcements, not rock concerts (let alone a phenomenon like The Beatles) so it’s no surprise everyone could barely make out a single note from all the screaming.
I’m a somewhat accomplished musician, but I still can’t fathom how McCartney can play such a complex bass line without missing a note in the vocal melody of “All My Loving.”
The Beatles: Live at the Hollywood Bowl keeps the 1977 tracks and adds four new ones.
It’s an encore of sorts, something the band never did back then. Their set features mainly numbers from early in their career as well as a few tracks from A Hard Day’s Night and Help! performed at a chaotic pace. It gives the release a very upbeat, danceable vibe that comes off as pre-punk at times. The collection’s sole ballad “Things We Said Today” even tears into a rock flavored bridge that’s not on the album version. Needless to say, it’s exciting to hear standards played with such fury.
But from a musician’s standpoint, the new mix means we’re finally able to hear how good The Beatles were live.
Lennon’s otherworldly distorted rhythm guitar drives alongside Starr’s percussion. Elsewhere, McCartney’s thunderous lead guitar-esque bass playing steals the show on just about every track. I’m a somewhat accomplished musician, but I still can’t fathom how McCartney can play such a complex bass line without missing a note in the vocal melody of “All My Loving.” The man’s a beast!
However, George Harrison benefits the most in this collection. In the early days, most thought Harrison’s spotlight was the 15 second guitar solo in each song. But with this new mix, you can now hear how intricate his lead guitar bits are throughout even the simplest of songs. On the collection’s closer “Baby’s In Black” Harrison emulates a country flavored pedal steel throughout the entire song. It sounds just as interesting in 2016 as it did in 1965. If you could even hear them over the screaming back then. Even by today’s standards. he’s truly an underrated guitarist.
My only complaint with Live at the Hollywood Bowl is it’s still not a proper live album, but a live compilation.
Since Ron Howard’s movie chronicles The Beatles’ touring years, this album has seventeen tracks from three separate concerts. Is it too much to ask for a proper start-to-finish live album? With advancements in technology and Giles Martin at the helm, why not go for a set of complete concerts?
Overall, The Beatles: Live at the Hollywood Bowl is a technological breakthrough in terms of remastering a fifty year old live recording. But it’s also a killer collection of extremely entertaining rock songs in a live setting. Despite a prehistoric sound system and thousands of screaming fans, the fab four rarely miss a beat. This collection single-handedly puts a nail in the coffin of one of history’s most unfair assessments. Not only The Beatles were above and beyond the audio limitations they were presented with, they were a great live band, too.