The Beatles were back in the studio today, though they didn’t actually get to work until almost 7 P.M., the lazy bastards.

The first thing they did was to record a Christmas message in support of the “pirate radio” stations Radio London and Radio Caroline, which operated from ships anchored offshore to circumvent the British government’s monopoly on broadcasting. Before Radio Caroline went on the air in March 1964, the government’s cozy relationship with the major record companies had severely limited what British listeners got to hear. But an unlicensed station could play whatever the hell they wanted.

Wikipedia says that Radio Caroline “was a pirate radio station that never actually became illegal, although after the Marine Offences Act (1967) it became illegal for a British subject to associate with it.” Radio London came along later in the year, and radio was probably never as glamorous as it was at this time, beaming contraband rock’n’roll to a grateful nation. And they even got a shout-out from The Beatles — how cool is that?

I haven’t been able to find a recording of these messages, but apparently The Beatles couldn’t resist adding mellotron and tape echo to what could have been a straightforward announcement. With that out of the way they proceeded to get to work on “When I’m 64,” of which Mark Lewisohn says:

This was not a new song, the Beatles having performed a variation of it back in their pre-fame Cavern Club days whenever the amplifiers broke down. One plausible reason for the song’s revival was that Paul’s father, James, had turned 64 years of age in July 1966.

The contrast between John’s most recent composition — the psychedelic, futuristic “Strawberry Fields Forever” — and the bouncy music-hall sentimentalism of “When I’m 64” could not be more stark. It feels like a historical accident that “64” ended up on Sgt. Pepper and “Strawberry Fields” didn’t; the latter would have made a lot more sense. But in those days EMI’s policy was that anything released as a single wasn’t duplicated on the subsequent album.

This may have been a surprisingly consumer-friendly concept for a record company, but it resulted in some of The Beatles’ best songs not being on any of their albums. On my personal version of Sgt. Pepper, “When I’m 64” is deleted in favor of “Strawberry Fields.” “She’s Leaving Home” can go too — but that’s a subject for another time.

 

 

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