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'Hollywood Bowl' reissue shows the Beatles were more punk than we realized

In 1977, a few weeks prior to my 10th birthday, my mother took me to the Montgomery Ward store in Pittsfield, Mass., so that I could purchase the newly-released “The Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl” LP.

I had saved my allowance for a few weeks to come up with my half of the then-daunting $7.99 plus tax required for another in a long line of Beatles fixes. (My brother coughed up the other half, a practice we’d become accustomed to by then, having been music freaks pretty much from birth. Interestingly, he always claimed the albums were his afterwards. We still bicker about this. You know how big brothers can be.)

The other day I checked EBay to see what a mint copy of this long out-of-print original vinyl was going for. I found one for $500. That would be $250 for me and $250 for my big brother.

But we’re not selling.

We were absolutely nuts about this album, the only authorized document of the Fabs in concert, pre-YouTube, if you don’t count the bits from the Rooftop Concert that ended up on “Let It Be.” It’s a stretch to call what we could hear “music”; all you could really hear was the insistent and consistent white noise generated by a screaming throng of hormonal female teens – 17,000 of ’em.

We didn’t care, so smitten were we with our heroes.

As the years went by, however, I did start to care. Paul McCartney was a hero to me as a bassist, and on this original recording – compiled from three summer shows at the fabled venue in 1964 and 1965 – you could barely make out his bass lines, to say nothing of Ringo’s bass drum, which was all but nonexistent in the mix.

As a listener, the screaming got old. I can only imagine what it must have been like for the guys themselves.

Little wonder, then, that less than a year on from the 1965 Hollywood Bowl shows, the Beatles would call it a day as a touring band, retiring to the recording studio, where they would set about creating albums that would change both popular music and the world. Ask any musician – not being able to hear yourself on stage is an absolute drag. The adoration of thousands of female fans on a night by night basis only goes so far. (So I hear.)

I always figured “5th Beatle” George Martin did the best he could when he recorded these 3 Hollywood Bowl concerts onto three tracks – that’s right, three whole tracks! -  and that the album was really more of a historical document than a portal to a pleasant listening experience. So I filed “At the Hollywood Bowl” away, and that was that.

(No, you can’t borrow it.)

Happily, concomitant with the making of Ron Howard’s excellent Beatles documentary “Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years,” the Beatle powers that be commissioned Martin’s son, Giles, to clean up his late father’s original masters, recently rediscovered in the Capitol Records vault, to create a version of the Hollywood Bowl concerts that is actually listenable.

Mission accomplished. This new, expanded, and slightly de-shriekified version of the album is a mandatory addition to the collection of any true Beatles fan.

What’s instantly striking when you crank up the newly minted collection – which begins with a collective female yelp that sounds like a jet taking off, followed by Los Angeles DJ and Beatle fanatic Bob Eubanks welcoming the lads with an exuberant “And now, here they are… the Beatles!” – is the fact that Giles Martin has unearthed the rhythm section. There’s McCartney’s bass thumping along with Ringo’s bass drum, lending real muscle to the John Lennon-led “Twist and Shout,” and whoa, wait a minute – the Beatles sound like a punk band! And all this time, we’ve been told that they were the nice, polite boys, the Rolling Stones being the more authentic flip side of the rough rock ’n’ roll coin! These recordings suggest otherwise. Sure, they were cute and all, but here, they sound like a band of pilled-up, leather-clad toughs cranking out six sets a night in the strip clubs of Hamburg, Germany, as they’d been doing a mere few years previous.

Lennon’s vocal cord-shredding performance here is absolutely riveting, but the healthy competition that existed between himself and songwriting partner McCartney is apparent during the second song, McCartney’s “She’s A Woman,” a Ray Charles-influenced chugger that reveals Paul to be an incredibly soulful and on-point singer, even when there’s absolutely zero chance that he could actually hear himself. (It wasn’t just the shrieking girls – sound systems were pathetically primitive at the time, and vocal monitors were not offered as an option.)

Interestingly, this new version of the Hollywood Bowl concerts presents the Beatles as no one actually has heard them before – not the audience, treated to genuinely horrible and primitive sound during the events themselves; not the Beatles, who were basically flying blind; and not fans who purchased the original release, which featured a choir of 17,000 screamers, most of whom were probably convinced that they were going to marry a Beatle. Listen to this new one on headphones, and it’s like the Fabs are in the room with you.

And guess what? They were a helluva live band.

By the way, you can purchase a brand new vinyl version of the “Hollywood Bowl” deluxe remaster, should you be so inclined. It’ll cost you around $30. Or $15 each, if you’ve got a big brother to split it with.


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