Thursday, 3 January 2013

From Matthew Street to Abbey Road (Beatles radio documentary)

 No time to trick this out with lots of pics and clips but I want to alert readers, before it's too late, to Spencer Leigh's very enjoyable three part radio documentary From Matthew Street to Abbey Road, chronicling the Fabs' gravitation from Liverpool to London via Hamburg in 1962. Sadly, the first programme, recently repeated on BBC Radio Merseyside, has already outlived its one week span on BBC iplayer, but you can catch the remaining two programmes for the next four and five days respectively by going here (part two) and here (three). Don't bother clicking the image above as it's only a screengrab.

The story will be known, at least in outline, to most people reading this, but the beauty of this series is that with a narrowness of focus and three whole hours to play with Leigh can dig a little deeper than other docs and uncover all manner of fascinating details, many of which will be unknown even to the most ardent of Beatle People.

For example you may well know, as I did, that at George Martin's insistence the Beatles recorded Mitch Murray's How Do You Do It? And you may have heard it: not unpleasant, a competent job even though their hearts clearly weren't in it. Ah, but have you also heard the demo which Martin gave them to work from? And have you heard Murray's thoughts on the job the Beatles did on what he considered to be his finest song to date?

I was also intrigued to hear the other Murray song which was hotly tipped to be the hit at the time: a truly groanworthy assortment of vegetable-based puns entitled I'll Beetroot to You. Still, I suppose that in the era of Bernard Cribbins and Myles and Rudge's "larky" songs a novelty number must have seemed a safer bet.

I was also amused to hear of the snooty reaction of one of the Vernons Girls to these upstarts, as the group initially seemed. When John Lennon made a beeline for leader Maureen Kennedy at a party to say how much he liked their record You Know What I Mean (sung in a Scouse accent), she was distinctly frostyn and walked off after he announced he had a song for them. (When, sometime later, a sheepish Kennedy sought to enquire again about that song, Lennon's reaction can be imagined.) Similarly, Johnny Gentle, who toured with the Beatles, thought Lennon was being presumptuous in offering to help with the middle eight of one of his unfinished songs - and we even get to hear the record, the first instance of a Lennon (or Lennon-assisted) composition making it to vinyl.

I suppose the real appeal of this documentary is that, as in the examples above, we're hearing from the people who were around the Beatles before they became demigods, and the Beatles seem more human as a result. And there are all sorts of details which fill in gaps in my knowledge. For example, I remember first reading about the Hamburg tapes in Melody Maker and the detail I still recall is that Kingsize Taylor grinned as the journalist listened to the tapes, knowing that they were at least listenable and that this newest listener would find them so.

Obviously they were never great sonically, and Spencer Leigh tells us why: they were recorded at the slowest, most economical speed. But when they were finally issued on record a few years later it was difficult to see why Taylor had grinned. In the documentary he tells us that after the tapes were "broken up" (I think that's the phrase he used - surely not literally?) for the 24 track remastering process and they were never the same again. (More about the Hamburg tapes in an earlier post here.)

Much more could be picked out: the programmes are a rich plum pudding of fax'n'info, ideal for this time of year. Or anytime, really. And with the generous running time we are able to hear records in full or substantial extracts, including all the versions of Love Me Do (and Andy White gets to speak), as well as the EMI version of Besame Mucho and - yes, that Mitch Murray "Beetroot" song, which was later sung by Bernard Cribbins, so at least it got the best possible chance. (It featured in the film . I suppose if you're not a confirmed Beatle person it may seem excessive, but who isn't, and anyway it was broadcast on Radio Merseyside.

As well as the bizarre (Murray) there are also small, touching details: Craig Douglas (I think) talks of rehearsing with the Beatles, who were to be backing him, then walking past their dressing room later and hearing them run through the songs again. Moments like this (and I seem to remember reading of their playing through a lunch break when recording the Please Please Me album) hint at why they ultimately became so big, and deepen our knowledge of this oft-told tale.

I can't end without mentioning one Hamburg incident which made me laugh out loud. If I remember it correctly, the Beatles and possibly some other groups were stranded over Christmas and some kindly souls at the local Seaman's Mission took it upon themselves to prepare a meal. A priest was in attendance and all was jolly and festive until George Harrison was asked to say grace. The pre-Krishna George's blessing took the following form:
Thank Christ for all this soup!

These fragments don't do justice to the series as a whole but I hope they are enough to encourage you to listen. There is more analysis and sobriety than this whirlwind tour suggests.

And still on the subject of Spencer Leigh, I was very pleased to hear him say at the end of the most recent episode of On the Beat that although there will be some changes to the Radio Merseyside schedule in the new year, thanks to listeners' expressions of support On the Beat will remain in its Saturday slot, a safe haven (I trust) for the forseeable future - what you might call a Leigh bower, in fact. Alright, I'm going.

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