The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl is the black sheep of the Fab Four recordings.
The new, expanded reissue announced this week marks not just its first time as a digital album, but also its first release on CD. It’s been out of print for decades and, even when it was available, it was the only Beatles album that wasn’t kept at a premium price point – in 1984, seven years after its first release, EMI sent it to its budget Music for Pleasure imprint, the traditional home of the baffling album by a major artist that it couldn’t justify charging an arm and a leg for. It was deleted the following year.
The new release, which adds four tracks not released first time round, is being billed as “an entirely new release”. Capitol Studios had apparently discovered some three-track tapes in its US archive that were better than the versions in London, and Giles Martin, son of George, who has overseen the album, said: “Technology has moved on since my father worked on the material all those years ago. Now there’s improved clarity, and so the immediacy and visceral excitement can be heard like never before.”
But let’s not split hairs. The Beatles organisation can call this an entirely new album all they want. But it’s not. Otherwise it wouldn’t duplicate the original album right up to the four unreleased recordings at the end. Just adding a word to the title – the new one is called The Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl – and having better sound doesn’t make it a new album. So why would they pretend it is?
It’s hard not to think it’s about money. The Beatles catalogue remains one of the most lucrative in pop. Every time it is reissued or remastered – thankfully infrequently, compared to some artists who seem happy to squeeze their fans dry every other year – the Beatles’ albums rise up the charts yet again.
It’s not as if the Beatles have been set on concentrating attention on the core canon, ruthlessly excising anything peripheral. The last set of remasters in 2009 even included a repackaging for the Past Masters compilations, presumably because of the incredible demand for Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand and Sie Liebt Dich. The three Anthology albums were of interest for a little while, but were packed with things no one in their right mind needed to hear more than once. The band’s BBC sessions were mined for two albums, the first of which was markedly better than the second.
Yet still the Hollywood Bowl album remained mothballed. It’s plain that all concerned thought the album was not good enough to sit alongside the rest of the catalogue – otherwise why keep it away from the public for so long? But with the public appetite for official Beatles products seemingly insatiable, here was an album that was sitting around, earning nothing.
Certainly, anyone hearing the original Hollywood Bowl album for the first time is liable to be taken aback. I first heard it in 1985, and was struck by how closely it resembled that year’s musical cause celebre, the Jesus and Mary Chain. That’s not because of the band, but because the dominant sound of the album wasn’t the Beatles, but the screams of thousands and thousands of teenagers, screams that blanket the music in sheets of white noise, for all the world like William Reid’s feedback on Psychocandy.
The story of the album’s making is a bit of a dog’s dinner. Capitol recorded the show at the Hollywood Bowl on 23 August 1964, but the tapes were deemed too poor for release. They had another stab when the band returned on 29 and 30 August 1965, with the same disappointing results. Phil Spector had an unsuccessful bash at knocking them into shape in 1971, but it wasn’t until 1977, when a German label put out an album of the Beatles live at the Star Club in Hamburg in 1962 that Capitol sprang in to action. After all, why let someone else make money from Beatles live recordings, when something deemed inadequate more than a decade before was available? The tapes were given to George Martin, who did what he could, and the resulting album topped the charts in both the US and the UK.
Actually, The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl isn’t a bad album. It’s more revelatory hearing the Beatles as a live rock’n’roll band than it is hearing most of the studio sketches on the Anthologies. They are hard and tough, but the harmonies are sweet. Both Lennon and McCartney sound a little fatigued by the whole circus, but you certainly wouldn’t have noticed that if you’d been in the crowd. In fact, at times their voices sound better for the material than on the studio versions – McCartney’s tired rasp on She’s a Woman is especially fabulous.
Still, it’s no one’s idea of what you’d want a Beatles live album to be. Of the original’s 13 tracks, five are covers, and while that might accurately reflect the group’s set (as late as their final shows in summer 1966, they were opening with Rock and Roll Music and finishing with Long Tall Sally, and playing only nine originals in between), it seems to rather undersell having the two most famous songwriters in rock history in the same the band.
But even if Capitol had set the tapes rolling every night for years, they probably wouldn’t have got the perfect Beatles live album. The group played short sets, they played covers, and their song selection – by modern standards, especially – looks erratic. On stage, as opposed to in the studio, they were very much of the bash-it-out-and-get-out-of-here school.
I think, on balance, it’s probably right that the Hollywood Bowl recordings are being rereleased. They’re part of Beatles history. Whether they should have been released in the first place is another matter; and the fact that they were withdrawn suggests plenty of people who mattered thought they shouldn’t have been.
But if the Beatles are to be considered a cash cow, with any music considered worth repackaging for a new audience, why not give official releases to some of the beloved staples of the bootleg market – the complete acoustic demos for The White Album, recorded at George Harrison’s bungalow in Esher, for example? Or the complete rooftop concert, from January 1969? Or, if we are to have a live album, how about cherrypicking the best of the radio concert broadcasts from 1963-65 to create a double album that brings together the very best of their early songs, rather than a load of covers mixed in with originals?
The way Live at the Hollywood Bowl is creeping out – years after the rest of the catalogue was remastered, and as an accompaniment to a documentary – doesn’t rehabilitate it. It only serves to further its position as the unwanted child, the disowned foundling, highlighting not the brilliance of the Beatles but the needless rapaciousness of Apple Corps.
This article was written by Michael Hann, for theguardian.com on Friday 22nd July 2016 10.02 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010