In 1977, the last Beatles album to be released during John Lennon’s lifetime was released. Until today, it had never been legally issued on CD.
There’s a relatively good reason for that. In its original incarnation, at least, Live at the Hollywood Bowl was the kind of album it’s very difficult to love. Three shows — one in 1964 and two in 1965 — by the Beatles had been recorded at the venue, on three-track tape. At the time they’d been considered unusable, but when the Star Club recordings were about to be issued against the band’s will, Capitol decided to put out a spoiler release of the best tracks from the recordings — and as the first “new” Beatles music for seven years at that point, it went to number one on both sides of the Atlantic.
That album has had a bad reputation, and it’s not entirely undeserved. The performances (chosen and mixed by George Martin) were, for the most part, very good — rough around the edges, but in an exciting, punkish, way, rather than the bad kind of sloppiness — but the performances were rather drowned out by the sound of seventeen thousand teenagers screaming. Given the inadequate amplifiers the Beatles were using at the time (about as powerful as the one I used to use when playing club gigs to fifty people — and that was mocked by other musicians with better gear playing the same venues), it was a miracle anything was audible at all.
The album was never released on CD or download, and the vinyl and cassette versions have been out of print for decades (I got my vinyl copy when I was eleven — it had already been out of print a while at that point, but copies could still be found on the shelves). While there’s been a small amount of demand by fans for it to be released, it’s clearly an album everyone involved regretted ever releasing.
However, Giles Martin (George Martin’s son, who’s been involved in the audio work on Beatles releases for the last decade or so, originally assisting his father, whose ears were failing in his later years) has done something quite remarkable (with the help of a four-person team). Taking the same master recordings that were used for the 1977 release (along with four further performances, added as bonus tracks), he has “demixed” them — used audio extraction software to extract the different instrumental and vocal parts to create a pseudo-multitrack, which he then remixed into something that is *significantly* more listenable than the original album.
Where the original recording sounded like seventeen thousand people screaming while the Beatles played through a tin can, this sounds like the Beatles playing while seventeen thousand people scream. The screaming can’t be removed from the recordings (and probably shouldn’t — it adds to the atmosphere) here it’s the background, rather than the foreground, and that makes a tremendous difference.
I’m no audiophile — I have neither the equipment nor the ears for that kind of thing — but as soon as Ed Sullivan’s “and now… here they are… THE BEATLES!” ends and the first notes of “Twist and Shout” start up, there’s a profound, instantly-noticeable, difference.
A recent Guardian article compared the original release of this material to Psychocandy by the Jesus & Mary Chain, and I can see why — the album was, basically, a blast of high-frequency white noise. The screams merged with the guitars, which in turn merged with the frantic hi-hat thrashing that was all that was audible from Ringo’s drumming. The bass — well, what bass? Whether because of the quality of the original tapes, or because it was mastered for post-OPEC vinyl (and remind me some day to write my blog post about how the OPEC crisis actually spurred the adoption of CDs a decade later…) you couldn’t hear the bass at all on half the tracks. The other half, the bass was almost all you could hear, but not as a melody, just as an overpowering buzzing hum. The stereo imaging was weird, as well, but the main problem was simply that it was a wall of trebly hiss.
Here, from the first notes of “Twist and Shout”, you can hear both guitars — one (I think John’s) is very slightly out of tune. You can hear the bass. *YOU CAN HEAR WHAT’S BEING PLAYED*.
Sometimes this is utterly revelatory — “Ticket to Ride” in particular sounds like a totally different recording. You can hear the reverb on John’s voice from playing in such a cavernous venue, you can hear Ringo’s toms throbbing away, and best of all that one-note bass drone, now placed properly in its context in the mix rather than overwhelming everything except the screaming.
Even on lesser tracks, like “Boys”, you can hear Ringo’s drumsticks clicking (I think against the rim of his snare). But throughout it all, the important thing is you can hear the performance, properly. All four people on the stage, singing and playing.
I don’t want to overemphasise the quality here — Martin and team have worked miracles in some senses, but they’re still working with the same inadequate recordings, and you can’t put something on the CD that isn’t on the tape. The screaming is still louder than one would want, and this is still four people playing who could barely hear what they were doing. George’s backing vocals are still often adenoidal and off-key, and it’s still never going to be the album one would point to to show why Ringo was a great drummer — he keeps time throughout, of course, and has impeccable rhythm, but for most of it it’s all he can do to thrash at the hi-hat and keep the kick drum going, in a vain hope of keeping the band together; there’s no room for subtlety or musicianship there, and it’s easy to see why he in particular didn’t want to carry on touring.
So Giles Martin and his team haven’t managed to make a silk purse out of this particular sow’s ear, but they have possibly at least managed to make a serviceable handbag. It’s still an album that has to be explained and contextualised — these are rough-and-ready performances with a lot of screams from the audience — but what it isn’t is an album that has to be *excused*. Once you have the context of Beatlemania, it’s a record that can be listened to with genuine pleasure, rather than frustration.
Unfortunately, the packaging lets the whole thing down badly. While the sound quality has been improved enormously, the cover and booklet are essentially a commercial for Ron Howard’s new documentary about the band — “Eight Days A Week: The Touring Years” appears in bigger letters on the cover than the album’s title does, and roughly every third sentence in the booklet is about how you really need to see that film — only in cinemas, September 15! — a film which had already annoyed me a little with its promotional material by its ahistorical revisionism having the Beatles’ success only start when they hit the US. (I’ll still be going to see the film in the cinema, but not to see the film itself, which I suspect will have nothing we haven’t seen a million times before — rather I’ll be going because they’ll also be showing the Beatles’ full Shea Stadium performance on the big screen, which will be worth seeing). I understand that the documentary is the principal reason the album has been reissued, but there’s no need to turn the packaging into a crass commercial.
So it’s a flawed package, in more ways than one (and really, from an historical perspective, it’d be nice if they released the complete Hollywood Bowl recordings rather than a 17-track selection), but it’s one that at least does justice to the Beatles as a live act at the height of their success.
Twist and Shout (short version)
She’s A Woman
Dizzy Miss Lizzy
Ticket To Ride
Can’t Buy Me Love
Things We Said Today
Roll Over Beethoven
A Hard Day’s Night
All My Loving
She Loves You
Long Tall Sally
You Can’t Do That (bonus)
I Want To Hold Your Hand (bonus)
Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby (bonus)
Baby’s In Black (bonus)
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