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.
Yet although these sessions (including some from ’62 and ’64, and one from ’65, but mostly from ’63) would fill about 10 CDs, only a double-disc set has been commercially released. Live at the BBC—as Capitol Records titled that package back in 1994—is fine; you can’t go especially wrong with it. But its songs are plucked from their context, and context is the best reason to listen to the Beatles’ BBC shows. This is not music meant to be heard in piecemeal fashion, with a few cuts cherry-picked from one session here, another there. Each of the 40 BBC sessions from ’63 has a specific, homegrown feel, like it’s a mini-album unto itself, and the sequence of sessions as a whole shows the band’s startlingly rapid evolution.
No official archive of the BBC sessions exists, and the original tapes appear to be long gone. But over time—and particularly as the Internet has gained reach and speed—partial, homemade recordings from the original broadcasts have surfaced, and been stitched together into increasingly complete compilations. Earnest seekers can find the most complete version of the sessions, courtesy of a bootleg label called Purple Chick, on the Web; from start to finish, it is an absolute wonder.
If you ever asked yourself whether the Beatles, as people, were as funny as their biographies make them out to be, here is your proof. They ride each other hard, in between playing and reading out mailed-in song requests from former band rivals, kids in the hospital, “Jeff the greengrocer.” One schoolgirl, standing in as the spokesperson for her gaggle, begins her request with “Dear Messrs. Beatles,” prompting a short, knowing laugh from Paul McCartney. It’s a confident laugh, appreciative that the band’s audience was beginning to pick up on the band’s humor—riffing off it, in a way, just as the Beatles were riffing off the music that had come before them and, increasingly, finding ways to transcend it.
At one of the key sessions, on July 16, the band recorded 17 tracks, and we find the quartet adroitly working its way through covers with the same bucolic grace—and hard-won realism—that would later flower into the songwriting on the band’s mid-career masterpieces. From another blue-collar Merseyside act, a cover of “To Know Him Is to Love Him” might sound fey. The number was written by Phil Spector (the title comes from his father’s headstone) and was a hit for his Teddy Bears. John Lennon changes Him to Her, and his vocal unfurls over a lush patch of backing harmonies, his whoa-hoas linking one line to the next. A nakedness is at play here, as the macho Lennon musically denudes himself with each plush declaration of love, the minor key couching his voice in something somber, autumnal. This is utter vulnerability, an invocation of feelings not normally spoken (and altogether absent from the Teddy Bears’ original version), now shared with anyone who happens to listen. Casual listeners might think it’s a long way from the Lennon of this session to the Lennon of Rubber Soul—a high point of his songwriting career—but the sensibility of this performance is the same sensibility we find in “Girl” and “In My Life.” Rubber Soul may have been released in December 1965, but it was taking some kind of form in July 1963.
The same session featured the band’s attempt at Ann-Margret’s “I Just Don’t Understand.” Here, Lennon’s vocal possesses an R&B swing, but the ensemble-playing is in a country-western mode, albeit one that comes off as dark, like an outtake from a John Ford Western. This is the Beatles, as Dylan would say, mixing up the medicine. At their compositional zenith—which is to say, during their mid-career run of Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper—the Beatles were master collagists. You listen to “I Just Don’t Understand,” and in Lennon’s vocal you hear the same ragged howl from the abyss that dominates “Tomorrow Never Knows,” from 1966’s Revolver; the countrified electric strut of “What Goes On,” from Rubber Soul; the blanched, plain-sung blues of “She’s Leaving Home,” from Sgt. Pepper.
The quick session from July 2 is a tour de force of range, with the Beatles pulling from the past and again experimenting with different elements from different genres—the band a veritable musical Cuisinart. A take on Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right” gets us started, with McCartney bucking against the traditions set down by his hero. The song is given a pronounced Liverpudlian inflection, as though the Beatles are claiming it for the north of England, George Harrison’s licks providing tart commentary. A stomp through their own “There’s a Place”—their most mature composition to date—follows, and rock and roll is fleshed out with introspection, the foundation for most of the band’s best work going forward. A lithe rendition of Chuck Berry’s “Carol” is next, before the group gets into what may be the best BBC cut of all. Arthur Alexander sang rhythm and blues harder than anyone in the States. For a group of early 20‑something white kids to think they could lay claim to his best number, “Soldier of Love,” was either hubristic folly or burgeoning self-awareness; for the Beatles, on this date, it was the latter. For the first time, we hear that full, almost violent Beatles swing, a propulsive, churning attack that was reimagined the following year in “A Hard Day’s Night.” By then, the Beatles had upped the tempo, but this has that same rhythmic chassis. Covers of Carl Perkins’s “Lend Me Your Comb” and the Jodimars’ super-obscure R&B number “Clarabella” follow, and you get the sense that there wasn’t anything they couldn’t take on and improve. But improvement was clearly no longer the point. The Beatles were getting on with the creation of something else altogether.
To be a good songwriter, you need to be a good listener. And what you really hear in the ’63 BBC sessions is the Beatles listening to themselves, beginning a dialogue and moving toward a future that was less and less inchoate as that year, and the BBC sessions, wore on. It’s almost as if the version of the band that we all got to know owed this earlier iteration a “Dear Messrs. Beatles” note of gratitude.