The Beatles – Live at the Hollywood Bowl

As with most right-thinking individuals, I love the Beatles.  I’ve been listening to them since I was a small child, sitting in the living room with my father, reverentially placing the vinyl records on the turntable and dropping the needle.  I remember that the copy my dad owned of the Hey Jude collection had a skip in “Old Brown Shoe” after second verse, where the record would get stuck in an infinite loop and you had to gently nudge the needle to continue the song.

I never really thought much about their live work.  I mean, they stopped touring in, like, ’65, focusing all their time and energy on creating some of the most revolutionary studio albums of the decade.  And yeah, audiences cheered like mad when the Lads from Liverpool took the stage, but that in and of itself was a problem: there’s the old story that they couldn’t even hear themselves playing on stage at the height of Beatlemania, and there was even a legend that they sometimes didn’t actually bother even playing, since no one could hear.  You could shake your head for the “ooooh” at the right time and drive everyone nuts.

And then this album appeared.  I have a vague awareness that it’s related to a Ron Howard film, Eight Days a Week, about the Beatles during their touring years, and I was at first a bit hesitant to grab it.  I’m a little leery of releases like this; they whiff of cash grab.  But I picked it up anyway, and I’m pretty damn glad I did.

See, the thing I forgot – the thing I’m sure a lot of people forget in the wake of the years the Beatles spent not touring and performing shows – is that these guys could tear it up.  They cut their teeth playing dive bars in Hamburg; if you think they couldn’t still cut loose and barnstorm through a set just because they got matching suits and new haircuts, you don’t know these four musicians.

What strikes me the most about this particular set – aside from the fact that the Beatles still sound like they’re just having a helluva lot of fun playing music – is how breathless it all feels.  The album is 17 tracks long, and very few of them (only four) break the three-minute mark.  The rest are all considerably shorter.  They play these familiar songs, songs we’ve heard hundreds or even thousands of times, at a breakneck pace, as if they’re trying to reach the end of the song ahead of everyone else.  And there’s not much banter or piddling around between songs: someone (usually John or Paul) introduces the next song, usually saying what album it came off of, and then it’s off to the races.  They rip through “Things We Said Today” in 2:18, the Ringo-led “Boys” in a mere 2:08.  On several occasions, John and Paul actually sound literally out of breath at the end of the song, or maybe it’s a sprint.

The song selection is about what you’d expect from 1964-era Beatles: a mix of covers (such as “Dizzy Miss Lizzie,” “Long Tall Sally,” or “Roll Over Beethoven”) and well-known singles (“A Hard Day’s Night,” “Help,” “Twist and Shout,” and “Ticket to Ride”) and a few less-obvious choices (the aforementioned “Things We Said Today” or the actually slowed-down “Baby’s In Black”).  The band themselves are in fine form: everyone’s voices sound good, though John sounds like he’s holding in a laugh for most of “Help.”  Paul’s bass is a deep, melodic rumble, Ringo is clearly pounding the hell out of those drums, and the guitar interplay between John and George feels both well-practiced and loose.  This is music that’s vital and fun, and you just can’t help but sing along.  By the end of the 17-track collection’s 40-odd minutes, you’re as breathless and exhilarated as the band.

Is Live at the Hollywood Bowl a necessary Beatles album?  No, not really.  The studio versions of all these songs are almost uniformly superior in terms of quality of recording and performance.  It’s not a bad introduction, though it’s not going to do much to explain to a neophyte or an unbeliever why the Beatles were such a thing or why Beatlemania was happening.  It is a good time, though, a fun record that creates a snapshot of the Beatles as they strained against the earlier constraints of their sound and the limitations of trying to reproduce it on the stage in a live setting.  If you have any love or appreciation for the Beatles, you’ll definitely find something here worthwhile.

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