Beatlefan Executive Editor Al Sussman offers some random observations on the early days of Sirius/XM’s channel devoted to The Beatles.
By now, you probably know the trivia. “All You Need Is Love” was the first song played on The Beatles Channel, Channel 18 on Sirius/XM, following an introductory sound collage at about 9:09 a.m. ET on May 18, which climaxed a couple of days of sound collage teasers. Next came “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “With A Little Help From My Friends” from the newly remixed “Sgt. Pepper,” the chief vehicle behind the timing of the channel’s launch. And the first solo track, George Harrison’s “What Is Life,” aired at about 9:50 a.m., by my watch.
The channel’s programming is heavily weighted toward the group’s catalog — after all, it is called the Beatles Channel — but work from the solo years gradually became more of a presence over the first couple of days. And virtually anything from the solo catalog seems to be fair game. Early on, I heard Ringo Starr’s “Y Not,” the title song from his 2010 album and a track that, let’s face it, rarely is heard on any Beatles radio show, terrestrial or Internet. However, there’s essentially nothing here by any wives, relatives, offspring, or from the Apple or Dark Horse records catalogs.
Now, to be fair, Internet radio outlets like Fab4Radio and Pat Matthews’ Beatles-A-Rama have been playing largely this same format for a number of years and, of course, “Joe Johnson’s Beatle Brunch” and the various “Breakfast With The Beatles” shows around the U.S. have been tilling this soil for decades.
But, with the growing popularity and portability of Sirius/XM, thanks in no small part to the presence of dedicated channels for Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Presley, The Grateful Dead, Pearl Jam, Jimmy Buffet, etc., a Beatles channel has long seemed a natural. Still, it required the “okey-dokey” from Apple and a waiver from the dreaded Digital Music Copyright Act, which restricts the number of songs that can be played by any one act in a given hour, on any form of radio. This has been a headache for programming Beatles shows on both terrestrial and Internet radio, but Sirius/XM obviously got the Apple endorsement that those other outlets don’t have.
Of course, a steady diet of even the Rolls-Royce of pop music catalogs and selections from the solo works can take on the feel of a jukebox or an iPod on shuffle (already a quaint reference), especially since there were no air personalities for the first few days and still are none for most of the day as this is written. So, there are little between-songs sound bites — reminiscences by fans or Paul and Ringo, factoids by Chris Carter called “Every Little Thing,” standard radio segues, etc.
And, as on the Internet Beatles formats, there are songs by artists who influenced The Beatles (“they were listening to this before they were Beatles”), the first of which was the recently departed Chuck Berry, and covers of Beatles songs, some old (Emmylou Harris), some new (The Beat Bugs).
In my listening, which was not a steady diet, I didn’t hear anything that appeared to come from bootlegs and I’ve been told on good authority that everything heard is from an official source. There are (Yay!) plenty of BBC recordings, but those come from either the two official 2-disc sets or from the iTunes package of 1963 recordings from a few years back. The only non-BBC live recordings are from the Hollywood Bowl, and those seem to pop up very occasionally or in the channel’s “Magical Mini Concerts.”
Of course, no launch of a new radio station or format would be complete without some bloopers, and I heard at least two. One of those sound-bite segues on the first day had Ringo Starr talking about how, during a series of Beatles recording sessions, time would be set aside for Starr’s customary vocal spot. That segued into … a live All Starr Band version of “No No Song.” Oops. That same day, one of the “The Beatles were listening to this before they were Beatles” tracks featured was Mary Wells’ “My Guy,” which was a hit single in the months after The Beatles’ initial conquest of America in early 1964. Of course, to be fair, only music nerds like me would even notice hiccups like these.
Featured programs began on Monday morning, May 22, with the debut of a weekday version of Chris Carter’s “Breakfast With The Beatles,” which runs 8-11 a.m. ET. If you’re familiar with Carter’s long-running Sunday morning show on KLOS in Los Angeles, you know what the weekday show is like. Indeed, during that first week, Carter played a long set of the opening song from each original EMI/Apple Beatles album, a programming vehicle he uses every so often on the Sunday show.
Wednesday night brought the debut of “The Fab Fourum,” basically a live two-hour talk show with some music elements (on the debut, that included some session material from the about-to-be-released “Sgt. Pepper” album) and phone calls, always a crapshoot (“Longtime listener, first time caller. … I think they should fire Jeff Jones…”). The show is hosted by longtime New York FM personality Dennis Elsas, a consummate pro, and writer Bill Flanagan, who’s not as smooth on the air and doesn’t have the greatest command of facts. Fortunately, they were joined in the second hour by Beatlefan’s Tom Frangione, who was so impressive that he was asked back for the second show. A live first show is always problematic, and the first-show jitters hopefully will be smoothed out in the weeks to come.
On Thursday night, a one-hour show hosted by Peter Asher called “From Me to You” debuted. Those who have seen Asher’s in-person multimedia shows knows his Zelig-like role in the pop/rock world of the ’60s and beyond, and the debut installment, with Asher obviously showing some first-show nerves, really just hinted at the treasure trove of stories and music (and not just Beatles and Peter & Gordon) that Asher hopefully will be sharing as this series develops.
Other specialty shows on the schedule include “Get Back: The Beatles in Britain,” hosted by Geoff Lloyd; the Flanagan-hosted “Northern Songs,” a “themed playlist of hits and rarities”; a one-hour “Guest DJ” show; the half-hour “Magical Mini Concert”; and a daily “My Fab Four,” programmed by a fan or a celebrity.
And, of course, what Beatles-connected event in the 21st century would be complete without the Greek chorus of comments from the wonderful world of social media? While many were looking forward to the channel with nearly as much anticipation as for the “Sgt. Pepper” 50th anniversary splash, carping began almost immediately. Some of that, naturally, came from supporters of already-existing Beatles programming, both on terrestrial and Internet radio. There were comments questioning why solo material was being played (“Isn’t it supposed to be a Beatles channel?”) or why so little solo music was being played. Some alert listeners picked up on the fact that selections from “Sgt. Pepper” were bouncing between the 2009 stereo and mono remasters and Giles Martin’s 2017 remix.
Others, clearly people who don’t listen to much radio, complained about the repetition of certain popular tracks. This is, after all, radio — even on the satellite — not a jukebox or an iPod. All radio stations are programmed so that what’s popular is going to be heard more often than the rest, and that’s been the case with all forms of Beatles programming over the years.
Yes, one is going to hear “Hey Jude” or “Ticket to Ride” or “My Sweet Lord” more often than “Not a Second Time” or “Tell Me What You See” or “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Since the Beatles Channel is competing with Sirius/XM’s other music channels, and since it’s a fact of life that most people listen to radio of any kind for only a finite amount of time each day, the hits and most popular album tracks are going to get the most exposure. That’s Programming 101.
Overall, though, the reaction to Sirius/XM’s Beatles Channel has been quite positive. The rollout has taken place during a free listening period that ends with the beginning of June. The big test then will be to see how many people decide to pay for, as critics put it, music that one easily can get for free elsewhere.
— Al Sussman