The live recording, an intersection between studio work and live performances, is a precious yet difficult to appreciate commodity. The most iconic live albums often come from bands known for particularly intense live performances (The Who’s Live at Leeds, James Brown’s Live at the Apollo) or great live performers who stopped performing or passed on (Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, Nirvana’s Live at Reading). Other times, they simply show an artist at the top of their game (Van Morrison’s It’s Too Late to Stop Now, Bruce Springsteen’s Live 1975-85). But all too often, live albums fail to adequately defend their necessity.
The most necessary live album of all time is likely 1977’s The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl. The album wasn’t released on CD for nearly 40 years and has been out of print until this week, when a reissue retitled Live at the Hollywood Bowl was released to coincide with the Ron Howard film The Beatles: Eight Days a Week. Along with introducing new listeners to the album, and giving people who already love it a chance to own it on CD, the reissue adds four new recordings from the band’s legendary 1964 and 1965 performances at the Hollywood Bowl.
At the same time, the new songs are somewhat pointless, since the songs are mostly irrelevant anyway. The appeal of The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl wasn’t the songs—you can hear the songs in their studio versions on numerous albums. No, the reason that this album ranks among both the best live albums and the best Beatles albums ever released isn’t because of the men on stage, but because of the women in the crowd. Other Beatles live records have been released—Live at the BBC, some tracks on the Anthology series—but they’re mostly worthless, because the main appeal of a Beatles live record is to hear the audience. A better showcase for what the band meant as a cultural force than any of their actual studio work.
That’s not to say that the album and the crowd noises are merely worthwhile as documentation. The album opens with a performance of “Twist and Shout” that manages to live up to the studio cut. That shouldn’t be possible, considering the power of the studio version was largely the result of John Lennon being sick when they recorded it. But with the crowd screaming, and all but drowning out the music, this version manages to be just as intense.
That’s how it goes throughout The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl. The band plays some classic songs incredibly well as the screams around them create a wall of noise, almost predicting shoegaze along the way. Some of the weaker songs that were included—particularly their cover of Larry Williams’ “Dizzy, Miss Lizzy,” the worst track on Help!—manage to top the originals just through the energy given off by the audience.
And that’s why the bonus tracks, while solid, are unnecessary. They’re great, but again the songs were never the main appeal of the album. The original’s 33-minute length was a major source of its strength as well, making it one of the most intense albums released in the year where punk rock hit its peak. The live versions of “You Can’t Do That” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” sound wonderful, but the extra time can’t help but be a drawback. “Baby’s in Black” is a much more underwhelming closer than “Long Tally Sally” was.
Despite the reissue’s flaws, however, it is good to finally have Live at the Hollywood Bowl on CD. If you have any love for (or interest in) The Beatles as a band or cultural phenomenon, it’s a must own.