‘I’m John, and I play the fool’

John Lennon died 30 years ago this month, and would have been 70 this  summer. One likes to think that the older Lennon would have been more like Neil Young and less like, say, Mick Jagger, still more interested in music than in celebrity.  Watching Nowhere Boy earlier this year, the story of Lennon’s loss-drenched adolescence, sent me the other way, back to The Beatles’ early songs on The Beatles at the BBC compilation. It combines interviews and promotional material with live performances, recorded between 1962 and 1965.

Of course, it’s a cliché now to say that before The Beatles were a great rock band, they were a great rock ‘n’ roll band, their sound honed by a thousand sweaty nights in Hamburg. But the other half of the musical equation is also true; that like Elvis, they also brought the same vigour to the ballads that had been the staple of ’50s crooners such as Matt Monro and Pat Boone. On Beatles at The BBC, this is exemplified for me by the June/moon couplet in the chorus of ‘I’ll Be On My Way’, a song they gave to the Merseyside band Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas:

As the June light
Turns to moonlight
I’ll be on my way.

The other thing which the ‘Live’ CDs show is how cannily their manager, Brian Epstein, played the media in the last great days of radio, just before television came a truly mass medium. In the UK, before the advent of commercial radio, local radio, and music stations, they were on the BBC Light Programme (Radio 2’s predecessor) being interviewed, reading out dedications in the studio, being personalities. And they were on a lot; 52 performances in three years, and most of these in 1963 and 1964. For a while in 1963, they even had their own show, Pop Go The Beatles, for which they had to record five songs a week.

They’d auditioned for the first slots in early 1962, still all but unknown, and with Pete Best still on drums. The producer’s report noted, “An unusual group, not as “rocky” as most, more country and western with a tendency to play music.” Their first radio show was seven months before they released their first single, Love Me Do.

The ratings were terrific; typically ten million for Saturday Club, for example. And much of that is down to Lennon, whose radio personality prefigures the authorial voice he showed slightly later in In His Own Write and A Spaniard In The Works; understated, deprecating, with an ear for the absurd. On an early recording, they’re asked to introduce themselves; the others give their names and instruments, before John says, ‘I’m John, and I play the fool’, though he adds after a pause, ‘and sometimes the guitar’.  On another, later programme, he introduces a song with a Goon-ish flourish: “This is a Dorsey-Burnett number, recorded on their very first LP – in 1822”.  Maybe you had to be there, but given the astonishing stuffiness of early 1960s radio, it would have been a breath of energy.

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