Archival rock ’n’ roll releases tend to bring out the cynics in listeners, especially if we’re talking yet another re-release of a hoary classic that you’ve probably already owned two or three times, or a companion volume to some live set. In the former category, we have yet another airing of the Who’s “Tommy,” this time souped up with Pete Townshend demos and a live rendering of the most famous — but far from first — rock opera. And in the what-the-hey-let’s-issue-a-follow-up-live set, we have the Beatles’ “On Air — Live at the BBC Volume 2,” following a mere 19 years after the original came out. Both offerings will be released Monday.
Bootleg collectors will already own the Townshend demos that are part of this whopper of a “Tommy” package. But if you’ve not heard these pre-productions, get ready to be fascinated by the degree to which Townshend had already worked out the Who’s sound well before drummer Keith Moon, vocalist Roger Daltrey, and bassist John Entwistle were pressed into service.
This new remastering of the 1969 album has more ambiance, more of a feel of the room in which it was recorded than ever before. Earlier iterations could be boxy, and even lacking in vigor, but what we hear now — crisply — is one doozy of a sonic idea brought off large: Townshend’s audacity and marketing savvy was such that he had the Who play his opus at a reduced speed in the studio. It’s a nuanced, often quiet masterpiece, and Townshend’s epic guitar moments tend to be acoustic, and flamenco-based, with deftly woven arpeggios forming interlocking leitmotifs.
Cut, then, to the live set, full of bracing bombast and punch-the-air affirmation. This is as close as rock ever got to Handel’s Messiah, and if ever there was live popular music meant to be turned up to 11, well, here you go.
But aside from Townshend’s ideas, the real star of the live material and “Tommy” proper is Moon. And whether one wishes to stump for Jimi Hendrix and his guitar on “Are You Experienced,” Paul McCartney and his bass on “Sgt. Pepper,” or Little Walter and his harmonica on “The Complete Chess Masters,” Moon may have them all beat with his full-on orchestral approach to drumming on “Tommy.”
His accents resonate with deeper bottom in this new mastering, and you can’t help but marvel at an approach to percussion that no one had ever brought off before. The drums are the lead instrument throughout; they cue and shape the action of our pinball-savant, producing sounds that seemingly have corporal form. The “Overture” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It” are veritable master classes in the art of the almighty fill, and you come away thinking that “Tommy” was essentially a drum concerto with a pop opera draped over it.
And just as there are new ways of looking at an old warhorse like “Tommy,” fresh considerations are to be found in Beatles matters as well. Chances are if you are a Beatles devotee, it is exclusively because of their studio work. Until 1994’s “Live at the BBC,” only one Beatles live recording had ever hit the shelves, the long out-of-print “The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl,” in 1977. But while the Who have long been considered rock’s top in-concert act, the early Beatles — provided they were kept far from screaming teenyboppers — could give the London lads more of a push than you might have thought.
The BBC material exists, in large part, because of forward-thinking British teens who recorded the material off of their radio sets. The Beatles would turn up at the Beeb, play “live” in the studio, going through a host of covers in their earliest sessions and formulating what was like a living record of rock ’n’ roll’s past, while mixing in their own material as well. If you wish to best understand the Beatles’ singular ethos of wit, musicianship, camaraderie, and songwriting chops in one place, this is the place you need to come to.
The problem with these official sets, though, is the sound. Capitol has cleaned up the original recordings — of which the two official BBC volumes represent but a fraction — so that a kind of sterility prevails, especially in George Harrison’s now-too-clean guitar lines, and in John Lennon’s rhythm guitar, which is stripped of its trademark raunch. At times, you’d think you were listening to the Hollies.
Still, we are treated to one of the best live versions of “Twist and Shout,” which features each Beatle dedicating the performance to his three mates. An unhinged version of “Money” finds Lennon frothing at the mouth to the point that he’s barely able to check an expletive from tumbling out.
The Beatles hobnob with the hosts, their version of cracking wise having a rhythm unto itself. A rare live version of “And I Love Her” (the band never took it on the road) has an arresting electric guitar solo that makes for quite a contrast with its “A Hard Day’s Night” counterpart, but the set-topper, as far as music-making goes, is a cover of Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer.” This was one of the more lo-fi bootleg offerings, so it’s nice to get the sanitized sound in this instance. McCartney uncorks screams we wouldn’t hear the likes of until “Hey Jude” five years later, but that’s the real trick of an archival release, isn’t it? Making it sound as though the past, the present, and the future all come out to play on one package. And while a lot of popular music’s future was set in motion by the Who’s “Tommy” and the Beatles’ BBC appearances, looking back, in the case of these two releases, lines up an awful lot of future listening sessions on the old iPod.
Colin Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.