There always comes a time when the learner tries to compete with, and become, the master. It happened with Van Gogh and Millet, Beethoven and Mozart, Kobe and MJ, Darth Vader and Obi-Wan.
It happened with the Beatles on July 2nd, 1963, at London’s Maida Vale Studio, where the band were taping their fifth installment for the BBC of their Pop Goes the Beatles radio series. The Beatles were deep into their tenure as BBC regulars at this point. They would field requests mailed in from fans, blast through a raft of covers, some of which they’d never return to again, work in originals from their own burgeoning catalogue, and joke with the presenter, and, of course, themselves. It was a band as human jukebox, capable of excelling in all styles, while also dishing out that particular brand of Beatle-y jocosity.
Between March of 1962 and May of 1965, the Beatles cut 52 BBC sessions, with the vast majority occurring during 1963, the year of their ascent, when their first two LPs, and a brace of early career-defining singles – “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” chief among them – marked the band as entrants in a contest that had dated back to 1954, when Elvis released his first Sun sides, to determine the reigning gods of rock & roll.
But the session they taped on July 2nd, subsequently broadcast on the BBC’s Light Programme two weeks later, is unlike any other BBC session, the Beatles in their Janus moment of greatest potency. This was when the Beatles pulled even with their heroes, and then surpassed them.
The band started rehearing at 6:30 at night, recording commencing shortly thereafter, the session wrapping at half past nine. The broadcast begins with a cover of Elvis’ “That’s All Right (Mama),” with Paul McCartney on lead vocals. It’s difficult now to overstate how risky a venture this could be, an English band taking on the King. And not just the King, but the King at his apogee.
McCartney’s confident bass kicks off the number, followed by a surge of John Lennon’s rhythm guitar, Ringo Starr’s propulsive beat and George Harrison’s chiming lead-guitar lines. Within the space of a bar, it is evident that the Beatles, who have absorbed Presley’s art of rocking up country music, are here to rock up Elvis himself. In the Liverpudlian argot, this is “bolshie” – cheeky, daring, a form of “right, we’ll take you on,” underpinned by good nature, but competitive as all get-out all the same.
Starr’s fills are akin to quick fillips pleasurably thwacking your chest, and Harrison solos like he’s been waiting all his young life to show off his Sun-based chops. It is a performance of stunning confidence. But the Beatles are just getting started. McCartney’s feral “Whoooooooaaaaaa” before Harrison’s second solo has the raw power of his bravura yelps on the second Abbey Road medley, and here we are, half a dozen years before the fact.
Normally, Lee Peters – dubbed Pee Litres by the band – served as host for the Pop Goes the Beatles segments, but on this date, the band are teamed with Rodney Burke. They always worked well with Burke, who comes across as a mostly respected neighbor child who has been invited, for a spell, into the Beatles’ normally private treehouse. “That’s all right, mama, and that’s all right with me, great,” Burke says, as the song comes to its close, sounding ever-so-slightly incredulous that, yeah, the Beatles did just go there, thank you very much.
Immediately, sans a pause, the group launches into its own “There’s a Place,” in a rare live performance, with a beat similar to the one of “That’s All Right (Mama),” but even more rocked up, more buoyant, more effervescent. The tempo is faster than on the Please Please Me version, with Lennon not dogged by the cold that found him straining to hit the high notes back on February 11th, during the marathon 585-minute recording session for the album. He and McCartney are doing that beautiful Beatle bit of theirs where they are half-dueting, half-harmonizing, though you never really can tell who is handling the harmony portion of the vocal. It is their unique alchemy as singers, when paired together.
Having high-noon-ed it up with Elvis in the streets, the band then turn their focus to Chuck Berry, Elvis’ right hand rock god. John Lennon handles the vocal chores for a sashaying, quasi-calypso version of “Carol.” The swirling Latin beat – thanks to Starr’s virtuosic turn at his kit – would be reprised on “I Feel Fine” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” and Harrison is note-perfect, blending Berry-isms – bent notes and quick glissandos – with a little Northern English scuzz, by way of Hamburg’s Reeperbahn.
Next, it’s joke time, courtesy of George, who reads a postcard from a fan wondering why her mate visited the Isle of Wight, but she hasn’t. “Because I haven’t got a passport,” Harrison intones, before adding a droll, slightly dissatisfied “ha,” à la his scene with the would-be fashion maven in the next year’s A Hard Day’s Night film. Then it’s time to get down to business. “We’d like to feature John shouting ‘Solider of Love.’” You can hear his three bandmates laughing in the background. Rodney Burke clearly does not know what to think, uttering a hesitant, “all right …,” probably because he doesn’t know the song.
“Soldier of Love (Lay Down Your Arms)” was a 1962 single for Sheffield, Alabama–born rhythm & blues giant Arthur Alexander. Though Alexander was roughly the same age as the Beatles, they looked up to him as an example of an authentic American musician. Speaking later to Mark Lewisohn, McCartney said, “If the Beatles ever wanted a sound it was R&B. That’s what we used to listen to, what we used to like and what we wanted to be like. Black, that was basically it. Arthur Alexander.”
There may be no finer Beatles cover than this version of “Soldier of Love.” The song starts with a counterpoint of lead guitar and hi-hat, and Lennon soon enters with a vocal to match that of “Twist and Shout” and “Money (That’s What I Want).” The Beatles have that Latin groove going again, crossed with stomping, down-home grandeur.
Less than a minute in, they hit the ultimate Beatles groove, with everything coalescing: backbeat, lead vocal, swing, multi-part vocal harmonies straight from the Shirelles songbook. On the coda, Lennon really opens up his vocal cords. “Baby, lay down your arms!” he bellows, and if you fancied yourself a contender/competitor for the rock & roll throne, you would likely do just that.
A bad joke about Beatle haircuts follows, and then it’s on to Carl Perkins’ “Lend Me Your Comb” from 1957. Again, Starr plays that Latin beat, straight out of Ray Charles’ “What I Say.” His playing is astoundingly fluid, never locked into one gear, more jazzy, even, than rocky.
Perkins had more of a hail-fellow-well-met vibe to him than Presley and Berry, his music seemingly easier to approach for the would-be cover artist, and the Beatles have no problem assimilating his rockified country-blues as their own, portending some of the cuts on Beatles for Sale.
For the last number, Lennon reads a card from some students, banging on about how super cool the Beatles are, deploying the voice he’d sometimes use to recite lines from In His Own Write. Poem concluded, he signs off for the band with, “So here’s Paul whistling ‘Clarabella,’” his voice catching on a laugh, because as he knows, and as we now know, there is no way that Paul is about to merely whistle anything.
Once more we’re in deep R&B territory. “Clarabella” was a 1956 song by the Jodimars, a white unit from Pennsylvania who grew out of a group that worked for Bill Haley, Mr. “Rock Around the Clock.” You wouldn’t think, perhaps, that such an ensemble could manage such a wild R&B sound, but the Jodimars did, which is why, as Paul McCartney went on to say, the Beatles labored to have George Martin let them record an album version of “Clarabella.”
For this track, McCartney is in absolute raver mode, backed, for the first time on the session, by Lennon on harmonica. Usually, Lennon would use the harmonica for melodic purposes, but here it is more like a grungy tenor sax tone during some late-night, alcohol-fueled jam session. The stop-and-start form of the song makes for a heightened intensity, a variant on talking blues with more than a tease of proto-metal. They’ve barely started before Lennon needs to take a harmonica solo, McCartney vocal ad-libbing, like he would later with “Hey Jude.” Ain’t no stopping this train, having started.
Not to be outdone in the solo department, Harrison cuts loose with a jagged, angular barrage, with more McCartney bleatings to urge him on, Starr a dervish, Lennon blowing away. It is a glorious, glowering – but somehow still happy – and mighty maelstrom. “Good luck matching us,” the Beatles seem to be saying. And whether you were a past-master rock god, or any band with the balls to try and follow, it’s good luck you’d be needing.