When the Beatles Had Their Own BBC Show, a Lot of People Hated It

Slate's Culture Blog
May 10 2013 9:02 AM

The Beatles Get Their Own Show

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Brow Beat is following the Beatles in “real time,” 50 years later, from their first chart-topper to their final rooftop concert. 50 years ago this month, the Beatles recorded the first episode of their own radio show, Pop Go the Beatles.

In May 1963, the Beatles were in the midst of their most grueling year of touring: They were playing a concert, TV, or radio appearance almost every day, and often they were doing two or three. Though the band gave well over 200 performances, and had been accustomed to playing several hours of material from their days in Hamburg, these shows only made use of a small portion of their material, usually the same 20 to 25 minutes. They were promoting their debut album, after all, along with its one or two hit singles, so each set, whether on stage or on air, focused night in, night out, on those same songs. “The Beatles’ music died then, as musicians,” John Lennon later said, of this stifling setup. “That’s why we never improved as musicians; we killed ourselves then to make it. And that was the end of it.”

Lennon’s assessment is harsh, of course, and it ignores the big exception to this dulling routine: The Beatles’ performances on their own radio show, Pop Go the Beatles, which they started recording in May 1963. Because the show was weekly, and because the Beatles were required to play six or seven songs for each episode, Pop Go the Beatles compelled the band to dig deep into its repertoire. Over the show’s 15 episodes, they played scores of different songs, including many that they never recorded for EMI.

One of the first was the show’s rather silly theme song, a riff on the nursery rhyme “Pop Goes the Weasel.” The original proposed title was Beatle Time, but when the BBC’s Vernon Lawrence first suggested the show, a BBC manager replied, “I’m not sure about the title, but I like almost everything else about this.” He added, “Young Lawrence certainly has good judgment of contemporary values.”

Young Lawrence certainly did have good judgment, when it came to signing up the Beatles. Each episode had three main components. There would be a guest band (often another Mersey Sound group, such as the Searchers or the Hollies). The Beatles would banter semi-mischievously, with host Lee Peters (behind his back, they called him “Pee Litres”). And they would play a few songs.

Many of these were covers, which showcased the Beatles’ influences, not to mention the live act that drove audiences wild at the Cavern Club and the Hamburg Star-Club. Some of their favorite acts to cover were Chuck Berry (they performed “Too Much Monkey Business,” “I Got to Find My Baby,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Memphis, Tennessee,” and “Carol”), rockabilly star Carl Perkins (they played “Sure to Fall,” “Glad All Over,” and “Lend Me Your Comb”), and Arthur Alexander (they played “Soldier of Love,” “A Shot of Rhythm and Blues,” “Anna (Go to Him)”. And they covered some of their favorite songwriting duos, Leiber and Stoller (“Kansas City,” “Young Blood”) and Goffin and King (“Chains”). Other times they went a little further afield, covering pop star Ann-Margret (“I Just Don’t Understand”) or Ray Charles (they played “I Got a Woman,” a song also covered by Elvis and later transformed into “Gold Digger,” by Kanye West).

For their first episode, they played Perkins’ “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby,” their own “Do You Want to Know a Secret,” Smokey Robinson’s “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” Chan Romero’s “Hippy Hippy Shake,” and their own “Misery”:

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Not everyone liked the show. As Mark Lewisohn notes in his Complete Beatles Chronicle, a BBC report estimated that 5.3 percent of Britain listened in, or around 2.8 million people, which was typical for the timeslot—but the audience didn’t like it as much as most shows: It scored a below average 52 out of 100 on the appreciation index. One angry respondee complained, “They make an obnoxious noise.” (For a little context, the BBC declined to feature the Rolling Stones that same month, telling the band that Mick Jagger sounded “too black.”) Despite its detractors, though, the show quickly caught on with a certain crowd. Eric Clapton later remembered being alarmed by the show’s spread, calling the craze “despicable.” The show ran for 15 weeks, ending in September 1963. By December, the Beatles had their own show all over again, this time called “From Us To You.”

Read more recent posts from Blogging the Beatles
Did John Lennon Have a Secret Affair With Brian Epstein?
The Songs the Beatles Gave Away
The Beatles Meet the Stones
John Lennon Has a Secret Wife and Son
The Beatles Rock a Boarding School
The Beatles Lead a Movement
The Beatles Become the Headliners

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

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