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Not a Second Time

When I was very young, five, six, maybe, my parents had an old record player that they consigned to the basement for my brother and I to use; it was portable, though it probably weighed about ten pounds, made of grey metal, the speaker covered with cloth. But it was my first exposure to music, even before radio, and I distinctly recall the four records initially donated (given how roughly I manhandled them, sacrificed might be more accurate) from my parents collection: The Greatest Hits of Henry Mancini (principally for Baby Elephant Walk, I suspect); the original Broadway cast recording of West Side Story; Simon and Garfunkels Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme; and a 45 of the Beatles, Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields. This goes a long way toward explaining my musical tastes to this day. My mother explained once that she allowed me to watch the Warner Bros. cartoons because they often featured classical music in the background and she hoped I might glean some cultural knowledge through osmosis; maybe, but I chiefly recall being entranced by Bugs Bunnys smart-ass attitude and quick one-liners. Now of course I realize the initial musical offerings afforded me were another avenue for my mom to try to shape my cultural yearnings, a sort of health food for the mind (or at least the soul). Since it largely worked, I remain grateful; in a time where the primary artists aimed at my age group were the Partridge Family (whom, at seven, I quite liked) and The Jackson Five and the white Jackson Five, the Osmonds, I was frankly fortunate to have the likes of the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel and (via Msr. Fudd) Beethoven and Bach foisted upon me. I never thanked my mom (and my brother, whose musical influence upon me was incalculable and lasts to this day) enough for this gift. I spent the last week listening to The Beatles at the BBC: The Complete Sessions, and the title is not misleading; this is everything they ever did at the BBC from 1962 through 1965, including jingles, theme songs, requests, and so on. Much of the sound quality is poor, though some is surprisingly good for half-century old broadcasts, and theres a lot of repetition, as the vast bulk of the nine discs are requests sent in to the BBC, and teens then as now tended to like to listen to their favorite songs ad infinitum; so youll hear Twist and Shout about ten times over nine discs, of varying quality (in recording only; the Beatles performing live sounded almost exactly like the recoded versions, so much so that, in one broadcast, they actually play with the fade at the ending and explain that it was done so that listeners would know the BBC was not playing the record). The real treasure in this set is not the music (although thats terrifically enjoyable, natura lly), but all the quips and goofing off with the announcers. The Beatles were funny, and, for a rising band dominating the charts, especially in England, tended not to take themselves too seriously. It amazed me that every Tuesday at five for almost an entire year they would show up to the studio and play requests sent in on postcards from all over England (they werent known in America too much, and anyway we didnt get the Beeb back then); granted, the kids would mostly ask for their hits, but it impressed me that they didnt have a set list (which would never happen today), they just showed up and played, live, flawlessly, whatever they were asked. Paul remarked later that the Beatles were a great little band, and he was right;

not only were they tight, but every performance of each song in this set is approached with the same level of energy and enthusiasm as if it were the first time they played it (I got kind of tired of hearing Little Richards Lucille, a song I dont care for, but McCartney tears into it every single time). It also struck me, as the week went on, that I was listening to radio broadcasts that were a half-century old, a feat unthinkable (and pretty much impossible) when I was a youth (and, granted, there probably werent a lot of people clamoring for music from the Twenties in the 1970s); and that got me to thinking of the continuing cultural relevance (at least for my greying generation) of the Beatles. One of my co-workers, who has a few years on me, said he loved the Beatles because they just make you feel good listening to them. I would try to put it more profoundly, but hes hit the nail on the head. And listening to them cutting up in the BBC studios and enjoying themselves was an extra treat. None of my friends share my abiding devotion to the Fab Four (I hope my brother still does; he bequeathed it to me), who, four decades later for me, yet remain the pinnacle of musical craftsmanship (you can even break them into periods, like most great artists; I like all their periods, but I lean toward the middle, from Hard Days Night through Rubber Soul); and I wonder if folks ten years younger than I approach, say, The Cure with the same sort of scholarly nerdiness (I suspect not, but I have no way of knowing). My late Uncle Ed gave me an eight track (yeah, it was that long ago) of Please Please Me, their first album, for a birthday (I think) and told me, This is what I grew up on, now its your turn, which served as my introduction to their early(est) period, so perhaps theres a fair dose of personal nostalgia listening to these particular songs from fifty years ago. That many of my generation, the one before, and the one after respond to the Beatles in largely the same way as I do comforts me; they will remain relevant as long as I m alive, which is all I care about (what people choose to listen to when Im dead is quite literally the least of my concerns). The BBC set is solely meant for obsessives like me; all but the most ardent would get bored somewhere around disc four, as there is such a high degree of repetition (and the BBC realized this, issuing a pared-down four disc set with re-mastered sound quality and a few interviews thrown in); but for a Beatlemaniac, these discs are akin to the Dead Sea Scrolls, archival material long thought lost that provide an engaging look into the early development of a movement that would influence millions of people (they also help to explain why the Beatles retreated from the public spotlight after 1965, but thats another story), and made me grateful all over again to those who steered me toward an appreciation of great music when I was a tot, a gift they gave selflessly that I still reap the benefits of decades later. November 16, 2013