Having spent entirely too much of my life studying all matters Beatles-related, I sometimes like to play a parlor game with other fans. I ask them which year was the band’s best, before offering an answer of my own. Many people stump for 1967, when Sgt. Pepper came out, recasting the pop-culture zeitgeist. Others opt for 1964, the first year of stateside Beatlemania. A dark horse sometimes gets a vote, like 1965, the year the Beatles produced their first mature masterwork in Rubber Soul. But when I provide my answer—1963, all the way—I’m usually met with puzzled looks. It’s no wonder. Fifty years have passed since that magical and formative year for the band, yet most of the music the Beatles recorded throughout it remains commercially unavailable. But 1963 is the band’s annus mirabilis.
In 1963, the Beatles were exploding in England. Their debut LP, Please Please Me, came out in March, followed by their megahit single “She Loves You” in August. Their second album, With the Beatles, and another hit single, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” followed in the fall. Screaming girls, throngs of fans, bushels of albums being sold—this was when it all started. But the Beatles were also a veritable human jukebox that year. One of their many commitments was to turn up semi-regularly at the BBC, horse around on air, read requests, make fun of each other, make fun of the presenter, and play live versions of whatever people wanted to hear, whether that was their own material or a vast range of covers: Elvis Presley numbers; obscure rhythm-and-blues songs by lost-to-time bands like the Jodimars; Broadway show tunes; Americana; vamps on Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry; rearrangements of girl-group cuts; torch songs. If you wanted to hear what made the Beatles the Beatles, here is where you would want to start.