How I made a Beatles album (with a little help from my friends)

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ON the last page of the booklet within the 1994 Beatles double CD, Live at the BBC, in the smallest possible print, is this:

I’ve just done a quick Google search and I see that once or twice over the years Beatles enthusiasts have wondered who this Margaret Ashworth is. Now it can be told – it’s me.

In the early 60s my friend Helen and I were great pop fans. We used to walk to and from school in Beckenham, Kent, singing the current hits in two-part harmony. We listened to Radio Luxembourg under the bedcovers, re-tuning every few minutes as the signal faded (and wondering why, if Horace Batchelor’s Infra-Draw pools method was so good, he didn’t just use it himself and retire). The first pop concert (the word ‘gig’ had not been invented) we went to was Cliff Richard and the Shadows in Purley, around March 1962. In late 1962, when we were both 13, we discovered the Beatles, who had just released their first single, Love Me Do. We became besotted, utterly and completely. My favourite was George, Helen’s was Paul. We watched every TV appearance and listened to every radio broadcast, but there were very few programmes and it was all so frustratingly brief. You couldn’t replay anything. You just had to wait for the next time the number you wanted to hear was played, whenever that might be.

Around this time my father bought a VHF radio, then a very new-fangled device indeed. I am embarrassed to admit this, and anyone of my age group will understand, but he adored a ghastly weekly BBC programme called Sing Something Simple in which the Cliff Adams Singers rendered standards into a uniform aural mush. Dad loved it so much that he took the radio into the Daily Express where he worked (no mean feat: it was the size of a small suitcase) and got someone clever to fix a socket in the back so that it could be connected by a lead straight to a reel-to-reel tape recorder. This gave excellent quality recorded sound, as good as the broadcast, instead of the tinny effect you got when you used the little microphone that came with the recorder. Thus he was able to listen to the wretched Sing Something Simple all week. Here is a programme from 1968 so that you can hear what I mean. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CcgEWhdsKlc

In the summer of 1963 the BBC began a radio series called Pop Go The Beatles which went out at 5pm on Tuesdays on the Light Programme. Each featured the Beatles performing six or seven songs, recorded in advance but as live, in other words with no or minimal post-production, banter with the programme presenter and a guest group contributing a few tracks. The first was broadcast on June 4. It took a couple of weeks before the brilliant idea struck me that I could record them. The first I taped was on June 17. I would speak the date into the microphone then hastily switch over to recording direct from the radio. In the end I had 11 of the 15 programmes on two tapes, a 5in and a 7in. (The great thing about the material was that it was almost all covers of other artists, mainly the old rock ’n’ roll numbers that audiences in Hamburg and Liverpool had loved. As they became more successful the Beatles dropped most of these great old tunes from their repertoire and concentrated on their own compositions.) I recorded some other Beatles songs as well from other programmes. The tapes were played over and over again, showing great resilience, but eventually my interest waned and they spent years in a drawer in my bedroom, then when I left home they were put in a box in the loft.

Nearly 30 years later, in 1992, when I was a sub-editor at the Daily Mail, a story came up about the Beatles and I casually mentioned the tapes to a colleague. He in turn told his partner, who was editor of Radio Times. One of her columnists was the eminent Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn, and as he was delivering a copy of his monumental compendium The Complete Beatles Chronicle to her she remarked, ‘My friend used to record the Beatles off the radio’ and told him about my tapes. Days later Mark rang me and introduced himself. ‘I may not sound excited,’ he said, ‘but I am.’ He told me that the Beatles’ label, EMI, had been working for a decade or more on a proposed album of material performed for the BBC by the Beatles in their early days, including songs from Pop Go The Beatles. The BBC had not thought to keep the tapes of the shows, so EMI was having to rely on other sources, namely home recordings such as mine. They had most of the tracks they needed (some had come via a BBC producer called Kevin Howlett, also listed in the acknowledgments) but some were poor quality, recorded using the tinny microphones. Despite EMI’s state-of-the-art equipment which was capable of vastly improving the sound quality, they were still not happy enough to release the album. Mark thought EMI might be interested in hearing my tapes.

Now I had to find them, decades after I had last seen them, and I hoped they were still in the loft at my family home. There was a snag. My parents were both terribly untidy (which is where I get it from) and every time they wanted to clear up the house for visitors they would sweep everything from every flat surface wholesale into cardboard boxes and shove them in the loft, never to be seen again. The loft was a nightmare of unmarked, semi-collapsed, dusty boxes reaching to the rafters. It was reached by a rickety wooden ladder (not the fixed kind) which terrified me, and you had to be careful to balance on the joists or your foot would go through the ceiling below. I was lucky and I found the tapes reasonably quickly.

The next hurdle was to play them. The reel-to-reel recorder had long since gone to the tip and such things were no longer made. However my husband Alan spotted a small scruffy machine in a junk shop in Penge, near our home. We didn’t know if there would still be any sound on the tapes or if the ancient machine would tear them to bits, so after we had threaded the 5in tape through the heads (the 7in one was too big for the machine) it was a tense moment as I pressed ‘play’. Joy! The sound was just as good as ever. I reported back to Mark, who telephoned an EMI executive called David Hughes to tell him about the find. Hughes asked him to put it in writing so that he could advance it up the chain of command. This is part of Mark’s letter, dated December 9, 1992:

As a result of the publication of The Complete Beatles Chronicle I have recently been contacted by one Margaret Ashworth, who, back in 1963/64, regularly made tape recordings of the Beatles’ appearances on BBC radio.  A list is attached.

Owing to my involvement in the BBC radio series The Beeb’s Lost Beatles Tapes

I would consider myself familiar with the BBC material currently at the disposal of Apple/EMI, some of it being of excellent quality, some not, so I am absolutely delighted to report that Margaret Ashworth’s tapes in many cases exceed the best copies presently available.  All of her recordings were made at 3_ips from a good quality Philips reel-to-reel tape recorder directly connected by a lead to a VHF receiver with a fixed aerial.  Hence they are virtually as broadcast – excellent mono. 

Furthermore, most of her recordings are exactly as broadcast – that is, each of her 11 editions of Pop Go The Beatles comprises the complete 29-minute show, with all announcements and the guest group intact as well as the Beatles’ own sections.  It means, to quote just one quick example, that her tape of the Beatles performing “Ooh! My Soul” contains the full song, whereas the best quality recording available until now misses the opening few seconds.

                                                                    MARGARET ASHWORTH’S TAPES

Pop Go The Beatles  [full 29-minute broadcasts]

4.  Recorded 17/6/63; Broadcast 25/6/63  (guests the Bachelors)

6.  Recorded 10/7/63; Broadcast 23/7/63  (guests Carter-Lewis & the Southerners)

7.  Recorded 10/7/63; Broadcast 30/7/63  (guests the Searchers)

8.  Recorded 16/7/63; Broadcast 6/8/63   (guests the Swinging Blue Jeans)

9.  Recorded 16/7/63; Broadcast 13/8/63  (guests the Hollies)

10. Recorded 16/7/63; Broadcast 20/8/63  (guests Russ Sainty and the Nu-Notes)

11. Recorded 1/8/63;  Broadcast 27/8/63  (guests Cyril Davies/R&B All-Stars)

12. Recorded 1/8/63;  Broadcast 3/9/63   (guests Brian Poole and the Tremeloes)

13. Recorded 3/9/63;  Broadcast 10/9/63  (guests Johnny Kidd and the Pirates)

14. Recorded 3/9/63;  Broadcast 17/9/63  (guests the Marauders)

15. Recorded 3/9/63;  Broadcast 24/9/63  (guests Tony Rivers and the Castaways)

Saturday Club

Recorded 30/7/63;  Broadcast 24/8/63.  [The Beatles’ sections only, not the full two hours.]

From Us To You

Recorded 18/12/63;  Broadcast 26/12/63.  [The Beatles’ sections only, not the full two hours.  This was the edition hosted by Rolf Harris.]

Non Stop Pop

Recorded 30/7/63;  Broadcast 30/8/63.  [Only the Beatles’ interview, which occurred in the ‘Pop Chat’ section.]

The Public Ear

Two editions, yet to be specified.  [The Beatles appeared in this series on three occasions, recorded 3/10/63, 5/1/64 (George and Ringo only) and 18/3/64.]

Of lesser quality, there are also audio recordings of some 1963/64 Beatles TV appearances [further information to be ascertained, although one is a Juke Box Jury recording].

There are also two prime-quality editions of the BBC radio series Side By Side, featuring Gerry and the Pacemakers and the Lorne Gibson Trio, but not the Beatles.

Some months later Alan and I were invited to take the tapes to the legendary Abbey Road Studios in St John’s Wood. EMI sent a chauffeur-driven car for us. At the studios we were led along corridors, passing ‘the room no one sees’, where all the original Beatles material was stored securely. In Room 22 we met sound engineer Allan Rouse, the keeper of the sacrament, through whom all potential Beatles material was channelled for his verdict, and several others including EMI executives and engineers. Mark Lewisohn was there too, and the small room was crowded. We all chatted for a few minutes, with someone asking us if we had seen the Beatles live. I answered ‘Yes, five times’ while Alan said he had seen them once, when he was seven, at the Imperial Ballroom in Nelson, Lancashire. At least four Beatlesologists chorused: ‘May the 11th, 1963!’

Down to business and the EMI people had a song they had been working on, Ooh! My Soul (an old Little Richard rocker), on a mini-disc cued up on one machine, and they lined up the same song from my tapes on another. They started their version. It was tinny, obviously recorded via the microphone. Then they phased in the version from my tape. It was crystal clear. After a few seconds, someone said: ‘Gentlemen, I think we have heard enough.’ We were sent on a tour of the studios while the others talked. The highlight was Studio 2 where the Beatles recorded so much of their material (and which was used by Cliff Richard) plus the control room and mixing console, very rarely seen by members of the public. We also went into the larger Studio 1, where the Beatles sang All You Need is Love as Britain’s contribution to the first live global TV link, Our World, on June 25, 1967 (from about 1’ 18”). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s3LmQFt4pQc

EMI decided that with my tapes they would have enough good material to release the album, and made me an offer for them. (I took pictures of them before handing them over, but after two house moves I cannot find them. If they turn up I will add them to the site.) They made seven sets of CDs of the full Pop Go The Beatles programmes with the Abbey Road logo and I received one set.

The album was released on November 30, 1994, and I can easily tell which tracks are from my tapes. Here is the track used as a test at the EMI studios, Ooh! My Soul, with John Lennon on vocals:

As far as I know the full programmes have never been heard in Britain since they were broadcast (without repeats) in 1963. Alan and I having started this site to share our musical tastes, I thought it would be fun to put out the programmes at 5pm on Tuesdays through the summer to re-create the tension of having to wait a week for the next one.

I therefore contacted the BBC for permission to air the programmes. In my naivety I thought this would be a formality since it is 59 years since the programmes were made and I was not seeking to profit from the broadcast. However I was informed by a BBC person via email:

‘For the 11 items listed . . . we appear to have copies of these programmes in the BBC archive and it doesn’t look like you have anything that we are missing . . . we wouldn’t be able to approve the upload of your versions to any site and there are quite complex issues with the use of Beatles materials across BBC, or external, sites.’

I have no way of knowing whether the BBC versions are as good as mine. They may have come from one of the other six sets of CDs made at Abbey Road. However after all these years, with the Beatles still extremely popular, it seems mean-spirited of the BBC not to allow these little time capsules to be broadcast, either by me or by the corporation. I cannot believe there are copyright issues that cannot be solved. So come on, Auntie, give us a break and let us hear these fantastic shows again.

A version of this article appeared in the Mail on Sunday on May 15, 2022. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-10816621/Beatles-superfan-bedroom-recordings-bands-hits-thanked-album-32-years-later.html

Comment

7 Replies to “How I made a Beatles album (with a little help from my friends)”

  1. I just read this article in the Daily Mail.

    Great idea to get the full shows released.

    Thank you so much for recording and preserving the shows.

  2. Absolutely Fabulous Work! Thanks.

    Do you reckon that whoever at the BBC replied to your request to air the recordings realised that if it had not been for YOUR work, the BBC would not even have had the 11 shows that they do have!

    Ask Sir Paul if they can be released… If he agrees it would be a brave pen pusher in the BBC who objected!

  3. Could we see the backs of the four cds on the left please? 🙂

  4. Dear Margaret,

    I’m Javi, from Madrid (Spain). I was born in 1975, and became a Beatles fan in the early 90s, especially thanks to a local radio station who broadcast a Beatles special in October ’92 to commemorate the 30th anniversary release of Love Me Do. That radio special ran for 24 hours and included, besides their official discography, plenty of bootleg material, among which were quite a few BBC performances. I managed to record a few tapes off that radio special and it was the BBC tracks that solidified my initial fandom and hooked me for good. I played them every day imagining how amazing it had to have been for British fans when they first heard those performances on the radio back in the early 60s.

    I was given the official “Live At The BBC” for Christmas 1994, and I was elated. That double CD set became my addiction, it had so much material in such great quality, and in my imagination it allowed me to vicariously live the experience of listening to those exciting, fun broadcasts.

    Having come across this article and blog today, and reading how it was because of you and your taping efforts that we fans got to hear so much BBC Beatles material in such good quality, I felt compelled to send you this message to thank you and tell you that your recordings have given me so much happiness and enjoyment through the years and will continue to do so for as long as I live (or for as long as my CDs live!).

    Thank you thank you thank you!

    (… and special thanks to your dad for buying that magnificent machine!)

    Best regards,
    Javi

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