The ubiquitous and ridiculously coiffed Malcolm Gladwell let himself in for some ribbing when he posited, in his 2008 book “Outliers,” that the Beatles edged out their competitors early in their career simply because they had gigged 10,000 hours playing dives in Hamburg before their breakout success in 1963.
Practice, of course, is a great thing; as James Carville said about getting Bill Clinton elected the first time, “The harder you work, the luckier you are.” But, by Gladwell’s logic (which he tried, in one-size-fits-all fashion to extend to Bill Gates, Robert Oppenheimer and a host of other perspiration-over-inspiration success stories), any number of cover bands should be making gold records by now. To say nothing of the Dave Clark Five, who played continuously from 1957 to 1964 when they scored their first number-one hit, “Glad All Over.”
There is a reason you will find three generations singing along to the Beatles’ oeuvre (as I did while Christmas shopping at a Barnes & Noble store) and not, say, “Catch Us If You Can.” Their best songs transcended what was then known as rock and have endured countless changes in musical fashion since. The chemistry between John Lennon and Paul McCartney was one of those lightning-in-the-bottle things and arguably, it was given more room to expand the less they gigged and toured. (When John came to Paul in 1967 to play the chorus and verse of “A Day In the Life,” Paul responded with a piano bridge he’d been working on: “Woke up/Fell out of bed/Dragged a comb across my head …” Find another meeting of the minds like that in music history.)
The second volume of Capitol’s “On Air – Live at the BBC” catches the boys working away, performing countless gigs at BBC Radio studios before they conquered America in 1964. For the hardcore Beatles’ fan there are few surprises here but countless pleasures. Chuck Berry was the gift that kept on giving, as it was for the band’s rivals (much to Berry’s eternal resentment) and we hear John singing “Memphis” and “I’m Talking About You” with the boys raving in the background as they must have when playing for the whores and sailors at places like the Kaiserkeller. And there are early nods to country, like their cover of Carl Perkins’ “Sure to Fall (In Love with You)” an influence that informed later compositions such as “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party.”
But in between all the dues-paying (Gladwell’s theory aside, George still sounds like he is learning some chords) and doing what they’re told (reading dedications handed to them by different BBC hosts; singing “Happy Birthday” to the “Saturday Club”) there are sublime moments: a propulsive version of the great “There’s a Place” (with its Zen bridge: “In my mind there’s no sorrow/Don’t you know that it’s so/There’ll be no sad tomorrows/Don’t you know that it’s so”) and the sort of smart-ass repartee we loved. Before a studio outtake of “I Feel Fine,” we hear a producer tell the band, “We’re trying to get it good” to which John cavalierly replies, “We’ll try and get it good, too.”
It took them a few tries but they stuck the landing.