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The Boston Phoenix Auntie's Basement Tapes

Bopping with the BBC

By Linda Laban

MARCH 13, 2000:  Affectionately known to listeners as the Beeb, and dubbed Auntie by its employees, the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) is a national institution often ridiculed for its staid and stuffy approach to pop culture. Radio 1, the BBC's national pop station, maintains a much derided Top-20-singles-dominated playlist for its daytime shows. But the nighttime and often the weekend programming are a different story -- especially late at night, when parents are in bed and the good stuff comes on.

After drive time's bland endorsement of popular music, the subversive elements creep into Broadcasting House off Regent Street in the West End, with their own records and CDs under their arms, to take up their places behind the microphone in the windowless building's studios. That's when anyone who reads New Musical Express or the Face or the Independent will be able to listen to the radio without hearing the same handful of songs every hour and retching at every repeated piece of pop fluff.

Now, Auntie, whose revenue comes from government arts grants and from yearly renewable license fees that each household in the British Isles has to pay to watch BBC TV (the license costs around $100 if you own a color TV but it also covers radio; huge fines and even a five-year prison sentence are threatened for those who view BBC programs without a license), has recently been realizing some of its assets. That is, the many, many recordings over the years of interviews, concerts, and live studio sets from bands that, like the BBC, have stood the test of time. Although some have been dusted off and released on CD, tapes of everyone from the Beatles to the Undertones to Spizzoil to Madness and many more remain in some grimy basement in one of the Beeb's many locations throughout London.

The late '80s and the '90s saw more than 30 BBC recordings released on various labels via licensing deals. (Since it's a nationally owned corporation, you have to wonder whether it's the citizens of the UK who actually own these recordings.) Most interesting to fans and collectors will likely be the discs that include performances spliced with interviews. One that perfectly juxtaposes relevant and eloquent chit-chat from the band with riveting music is the Who's BBC Sessions (MCA), which captures their work before the more verbose rock operas in the mid '70s. This is the searing mod-rock R&B the band played when they first broke out of West London's blues-rock club circuit. The disc offers an incredible array of previously unreleased performances recorded live between 1965 and 1973 for radio, with two tracks, "Relay" and "Long Live Rock," taken from the Beeb's early-'70s TV rock show, The Old Grey Whistle Test. Along with band interviews from the recording sessions and covers that range from stellar ("Shakin' All Over") to work-a-day ("Dancing in the Street") you get instantly recognizable hits ("Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere," "Substitute," et al.) in some of the best versions ever. There's even the odd surprise as "My Generation" is redone as an ode to the BBC, and the words changed to "My Favorite Radio Station -- Radio 1." There's nothing like sucking up!

The Who are older than Radio 1 even, so the early material is culled from the BBC Light Program (the easy-listening format, as opposed to news) and its affable pop show, The Saturday Club. You'll hear Pete Townshend stating that "Happy Jack" was written deliberately to break the band on the charts, but you'll also hear and appreciate just how tight the Who were: wound, coiled, incredible.

Unlike the Who's set, the Small Faces' BBC Sessions (Fuel 2000) separates out the related interviews from the music and tacks them on at the end, one after another. That's a shame -- the anecdotes would have been better served introducing or appending the music, which was culled from appearances in the mid to late '60s, before the rhythm section and keyboard player hooked up with Rod Stewart and changed their name to the Faces.

Comprising the late Ronnie Lane on bass, the late Steve Marriott on guitar and vocals, drummer Kenney Jones, and original keyboard player Johnny Winston (for three tracks), who was replaced by Ian McLagan (last seen on these shores in Billy Bragg's touring band in 1999), the Small Faces were a London-based mod band whose powerhouse version of rhythm and blues produced such spirited (but rough in parts here) songs as their debut hit "Watcha Gonna Do About It" and "Sha La La La Lee." Marriott overplays the cockney image on the already vaudevillean "Lazy Afternoon," but it's still fun. Better is the lusty blues belter "You Need Loving," which is credited to Marriott and Lane but seems more reminiscent of Willie Dixon's "You Need Love." Every bit as stunning as their near-Dixon cover, and dutifully credited to Tim Hardin, is a sublime run-through of "If I Were a Carpenter," which though doleful oozes the kind of deep passion that can get lost on the album's more ramshackle rock moments.

When the Small Faces and Marriott went their separate ways after Marriott walked off stage during a show at Alexandria Palace on New Year's Day 1969, Marriott formed another band: Humble Pie, with ex-Herd guitarist Peter Frampton. Natural Born Boogie (Fuel 2000) is the place to go for inspired Marriott vocals, albeit in a form that is more roots blues and gospel and less amphetamine pop. Recorded between August 1969 and October 1973, this set includes appearances on The Old Grey Whistle Test and Radio 1. The Dixie rock vibe of "Sad Bag of Shaky Jake" is a departure in sound and style for Marriott; the gorgeous white soul of "Desperation" attests to his heavenly, raw voice; and tacked onto this diverse array of songs is a rough recording of "I Don't Need No Doctor" that, thanks to Marriott's inspired voice, still proves worthwhile.

BBC Radio 1's weekly In Concert series, which peaked in popularity in the mid '70s before punk wiped out its jam-like sensibility and hippie credentials, was where the rock cognoscenti and the stoners went to listen to music. Badfinger (protégés of the Beatles' Apple label) recorded two shows in London for the series, one in 1972, the other a year later, and much of this pair is captured on BBC in Concert 1972-3 (Fuel 2000). Gone from either set is the polished melodicism that had put Badfinger at the top of the singles chart with "No Matter What" (the first set is particularly loose and dusty and recorded after the group's heavy touring in the US). This is a rangy rock band at work, with a honky-tonk-blues version of "Better Days," from their debut album, and thin, more acoustic songs like "We're for the Dark" sounding hollow. On the earlier recording, singer/guitarist Pete Hamm's vocals are too often low in the mix. Of the songs recorded a year later, there are engaging moments of '70s blues-rock boogie, but nothing sparkles like their studio material. Perhaps that's why Badfinger's coy run through another of their pop chart hits, the Paul McCartney-penned "Come and Get It," which is taken from BBC TV's weekly chart show Top of the Pops, is tacked on at the end. Hamm committed suicide in 1975, and in 1983 bassist Tom Evans also took his own life. The two incongruous sides of Badfinger are presented here: the cute melodic pop band and the dusty blues rock outfit.

Even one of Massachusetts's favorite sons, the generation-defining Dinosaur Jr, is captured by the Beeb. Their In Session (Fuel 2000) was recorded over four stints in 1988, 1989, and 1992, which means that the band's two latter-day line-ups are featured. The initial three sessions have Lou Barlow on bass and drummer Murph, but Barlow left Dino Jr acrimoniously in 1989 (he's now in Sebadoh and Folk Implosion), and by 1992 bassist Mike Johnson had taken over. Along for the ride, -- nay, directing the journey all the way -- is guitarist/vocalist J Mascis.

Although Dinosaur Jr's sound was somewhat tighter by this time, In Session is raw and careering, tuneful but unwieldy -- punk-germinated rock that would soon after these sessions become known as alternative rock. And it's Mascis's guitar playing that drills these songs with importance. It's not just the feedback and distortion thrill ride he's often on but what he's playing that makes the difference -- not noise and angst for its own sake but formed and pointed music, and a sign of his songcraft to come.

Although important as history, these releases of archival material do best when they reveal why a band went down in the annals of rock-and-roll history books -- that is, when the music speaks for itself. As with the bands that survive the ephemeral world of pop, not to mention life's little twists, there's something stirring about the longevity of the BBC, and something wondrous about its legacy in the arts. Dear old Auntie, stout, stubborn, stoic old matriarch that she is, long may she rock.

Best of the Beeb's Basement Tapes

The Only Ones, Peel Sessions (1989, Strange Fruit)

Led Zeppelin, BBC Sessions (1997, Atlantic)

Cocteau Twins, BBC Sessions (1999, Rykodisc)

Rory Gallagher, BBC Sessions (1999, Buddha)

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, BBC Radio 1 Live in Concert (1995, Griffin)

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