WHEN I HEARD THE Beatles’ Love Me Do on the radio for the first time I thought, assumed, the group were American. They must be. Usually I couldn’t stand the sound of British singers. Of course, I realized very soon that the group singing weren’t American, but Love Me Do, back in the winter landscape of 1962, had something very different about it. The lyrics were as undemanding as any in the Top 20 of the day, yet the vocal arrangement, the solid playing and that punchy sound were, well, ‘unBritish’.
The impact The Beatles would make in re-shaping the British pop landscape became apparent as they began to perform live on BBC Radio’s Light Programme, as it was then known. Six years earlier, hearing Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti on the radio had turned my young head inside out – “What is this?? This is it!!” – and here was another step-change.
Richard and, soon after, Fats Domino and Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and The Drifters, had opened Britain up to a world of black American music. By contrast, about the only British music worth listening to was the occasional Lonnie Donegan 78, the UK’s first Americana act almost 60 years ago, and, later, instrumental groups, because most British singers… well, you just couldn’t believe them. Not after hearing Howlin’ Wolf or Jackie Wilson. The rockers didn’t roll, the crooners were for mum.
But then came The Beatles, voices on the radio you could believe. Their earliest broadcasts, recorded live in Manchester in March and June 1962 and still featuring Pete Best on drums, featured proficient enough US-derived covers, with pop (Roy Orbison’s Dream Baby, The Marvelettes’ Please Mr. Postman) better suited to them than R&B (Chuck Berry’s Memphis Tennessee).
“They were so real, like your mates, with accents, not Beebed and Oxbridged.”
Down the years I have enjoyed many discussions with fellow soul fans, whose astringent opinions about the impurity of beat-group cover versions have been utterly unyielding. However, it’s inarguable that by covering Motown’s first Number 1 US pop hit (Please Mr. Postman) The Beatles formed a beachhead for the Detroit label, cemented by their subsequent berserk reading of Barrett Strong’s Money (That’s What I Want) – first broadcast on Saturday Club, May 25, 1963 – and a more modulated take on The Miracles’ You Really Got A Hold On Me (Pop Go The Beatles, June 4).
Such was the mounting hysteria, by the late spring of 1963, around anything to do with the Fabs that their thumbs-up provided the exposure Radio Luxembourg and AFN American Forces Network (hard-to-find on an old radiogram) could not match, which all translated into word-of-mouth recommendations and real UK sales for black American music. In fact, the emerging soul genre accounted for a small percentage of the songs The Beatles covered back then; rock’n’roll and rhythm and blues was far more popular with them. But certainly it was where I first heard an Arthur Alexander song, Anna (Go To Him), of which more later.
The group’s radio offensive consolidated via the BBC’s Saturday Club, aired between 10am and 12 noon. Hosted by Brian Matthew, affable and not sounding too much like the establishment BBC man, it seemed timed not to interfere with football or girlfriend commitments. Although not as useful as actually watching live bands to get tips for playing (I’d started thwacking the drums by then) or hints on what songs worked well on stage, tuning in to The Beatles on Saturday Club, Easy Beat (also Brian Matthew) and, later, their own Pop Go The Beatles radio shows was mandatory for self-tuition.
Importantly, The Beatles sounded as if they knew what they were about, were playing songs they chose rather than some seedy Svengali of a manager, and were having a lot of fun doing it. And later, when they were interviewed, they were so real, like your mates, with accents, not Beebed and Oxbridged, making jokes at the interviewer’s expense. Put them on the level of The Goons and Tony Hancock, because only comedians like Al Read and Chic Murray had accents.
The heft in sound that the band acquired after just a few George Martin recording sessions translated to the live sound – listening to the new On Air – Live At The BBC Vol 2 you can hear a growing authority and confidence about their playing and singing not apparent in the earlier days. Compare Lennon’s early vocal on Memphis Tennessee with the later, crazed Money and Twist And Shout (McCartney was always a terrific rock’n’roll screamer). Also contrast their later playing with the comparatively watery backing behind Tony Sheridan on My Bonnie. Harrison is clearly a good, clean picker immersed in Chet Atkins, James Burton et al. McCartney’s bass, as I recall it, flowed and floated, but maybe that’s because I was concentrating on Ringo’s timekeeping: solid and unfussy, just like a beat group drummer’s should be.
There were, for sure, cheesy interludes – Besame Mucho was always time for a toilet break – but hearing this music was opening a door to the post-war world’s optimistic possibilities, an energised riposte to the pessimistic probabilities of Britain’s ’50s. Quite a lot of these responses had to do with personal circumstances, no doubt. The Browns moved out of three rooms upstairs from Nan and Gran’s, cold water only, no bath, and an outside loo in Bow in London’s East End – records bought at Roman Road market and Brick Lane; football in the streets and Victoria Park; plentiful bomb sites as adventure playgrounds – to a new house, inside loo, hot-and-cold running, a bath, central heating radiators (!) on the very edge of a new town, Stevenage to be precise.
Pretty soon, with some new friends at a new school, a band was formed – as was happening at thousands of schools up and down the land. Not an outstanding group by any stretch of the imagination, but who cares about that when you’re suddenly supporting Little Richard, the guy who’d started you off on the route, at the Stevenage Locarno?
I never got to see The Beatles live, but the songs they beamed through the airwaves – the aforementioned performance of Anna (Go To Him) was transmitted on June 25, 1963 – had redirected me back to where my heart lay. And a couple of years later our changed band would be playing Anna, You Better Move On and other Southern soul treasures with, much to my surprise and delight, their creator Arthur Alexander at the microphone at, among other UK venues, the Scotch Of St James in London’s West End.
John Lennon, a big fan of Arthur’s, and George Harrison were in the audience, our manager at the time told us. Well, if they were indeed there they will have cringed when they recognised the feel of the drummer’s performance of Anna – I think it must have owed a lot more to Abbey Road, or Saturday Club’s Playhouse Theatre home, than Alabama.
PHOTO: © Apple Corps Ltd