The recordings that make up Live at the Hollywood Bowl represent the Beatles at their touring peak.
For all the myriad studio recordings, alternate takes and demos available to Beatles fans over the years, there have been few truly representative live recordings. To be sure, there was and is an active bootleg market for any and all Beatles recordings, live or otherwise. But short of the BBC Sessions, there have been few live recordings available in the modern era. It’s not for lack of recorded performances, either. The trouble with these performances, especially at the height of the rabid fanaticism that was Beatlemania, was that the screams so overpowered the band that they rendered the music itself nearly inaudible.
Seeing a market for a Beatles live album in period, Capitol set about attempting to capture the group performing at the Hollywood Bowl in August of 1964. And while they did manage to obtain a live recording of the group, label executives deemed the finished product unusable. It would be another full year before they attempted another live recording. This, too, would end up spending more than a decade on the shelf before finally seeing an official release nearly a decade after the group disbanded.
Originally released in 1977 after some gentle studio massaging from longtime Beatles’ producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick, the recordings that make up Live at the Hollywood Bowl represent the Beatles at their touring peak. Recorded over two nights in August of 1965 at the Hollywood Bowl, these performances serve as a bridge between the Cavern Club and Berlin-era group who would play for hours a day, becoming an incredibly tight live act, and the innovative studio band they would soon become.
What’s most startling initially is not hearing the group within a truly live context – the songs themselves stick fairly close to the studio arrangements – but rather the sheer volume of the screams emanating from the audience. It’s a sound unlike any other, massive and unearthly, an explosive surge that threatens to overtake the band. Indeed, you can hear the strain in McCartney’s voice as he struggles to make himself heard above the sea of shrieking teenyboppers. Were it to be isolated, the music stripped from each track, the remaining sound would be not unlike early Prurient or Wolf Eyes, each at their most abrasively abstract in terms of white noise.
Listening now, it’s easy to see how both Marin and Emerick would have found themselves faced with a seemingly insurmountable task in attempting to cobble together a listenable, recognizable program. With the remastered version augmented by four additional tracks – produced here by Martin’s son Giles and released in conjunction with Ron Howard’s Eight Days a Week documentary, modern listeners are afforded a fully immersive experience. Not only are we given rare access into the pre-Rubber Soul touring version of the group, but we also get to hear them in some of their final live performances. Given the sheer volume of the crowd, it’s no wonder no one in the band could hear one another.
With the primitive live sound-systems of the mid-‘60s proving ill-adept at compensating for the wall of noise coming towards the stage, the mere fact they are all able to remain tight and together is a testament to the level their live show had reached. Somewhat miraculously, the harmonies remain largely intact while the music itself never once falters. Even “Ticket to Ride,” with its odd verse harmonies and unison chorus, remains largely true to the album version, if perhaps slightly slower than its studio counterpart.
Long known for the witty banter in interviews, it’s refreshing to hear Lennon and company not taking themselves or the situation all that seriously, instead reveling in the moment. There’s an audible catch in Lennon’s voice as he stifles a laugh as the screams surge towards him mid-verse on “Help!” There’s a certain thrill in hearing him announce the song as a “new single,” placing the moment firmly within a fascinating historical context, hindsight affording us the knowledge of what was yet to come as the band continued their ascension to pop immortality. These little bits of dialogue and stage banter help make this an essential release for any Beatles fan as it provides modern listeners with a chance to hear what it was like, feel the electricity as it surges through the crowd and hear the band in a slightly different context.
While the performances themselves remain largely true to the studio versions of each, there are small moments here and there that help differentiate them. And it’s not just the crowd noise. As on the aforementioned “Help!” the shear enormity of the moment can be heard in the various band members’ voices and performances as they revel in the spectacle unfolding before them. McCartney’s cheeky addressing of the crowd as the performance draws to a close is especially affecting, hearing the humility in his voice, the crowd’s frantic screams of adoration and his pure glee at the effect a few words from his mouth can have on the writhing masses.
Here, too, is one of the few moments during the whole of the performance when the cracks begin to show. As the band tears into Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally,” there’s a push-pull to the rhythm. Errant guitar notes creep into the unison stops, George Harrison’s guitar solo is virtually inaudible and McCartney flubs the majority of the second verse, screaming gibberish for a few breathtaking seconds as the whole of the performance threatens to unravel. Being the professionals they were, however, the band never once betrays anything as being wrong. Not that anyone in attendance would’ve been able to tell otherwise, but it still speaks to their overall level of professionalism.
There’s nothing here that long-time fans and Beatles aficionados won’t have heard before, but the clarity with which it is presented is a vast improvement on the 1977 release of the same name. Curiously, that particular release was ignored both times the band’s catalog received a digital overhaul. Live at the Hollywood Bowl rights this wrong and brings the sound of Beatlemania into the 21st century. And what a sound it was.