On 28 October 1964, following two performance at the ABC Cinema, Exeter, The Beatles spoke to Playboy journalist Jean Shepherd.
The interview took place in a Torquay hotel room, and was first published in the February 1965 edition of Playboy. It begins with an introduction by Shepherd, after which comes the interview itself. Particularly revealing are The Beatles’ comments on race, religion, politics and sex. Very little is said about music.
Our interviewer this month is the inimitable Jean Shepard, whose nostalgically comic boyhood reminiscences and acerbic social commentary have earned him not only the applause of Playboy’s readers, but also a loyal audience of three-million for the free-form one-man radio talkathon which he wings weekly over New York’s WOR from the stage of the Limelight in Greenwich Village. A nimble-witted and resourceful broadcast reporter who’s tilted verbal lances with such formidable subjects as Malcolm X and Harry S. Truman, he débuts herein as an interviewer for the printed page. Shepherd writes of his subjects:
“I joined the Beatles in Edinburgh in the midst of a wild, swinging personal-appearance tour they were making throughout the British Isles. The first glimpse I had of them was in a tiny, overheated, totally disorganized dressing room backstage between their first and second shows. I had taken the night flight up from London and suddenly found myself face to face with one, or rather four, of the 20th century’s major living legends. All of them looked up suspiciously as I walked in, then went back to eating, drinking, and tuning guitars as though I didn’t exist. Legends have a way of ignoring mere mortals. I looked hard at them through the cigarette smoke, and they began to come into focus, sprawling half-dressed and self-involved amid the continuous uproar that surrounds their lives.
“They had been playing one-night stands in Glasgow and Dundee, and I went along with them from Edinburgh to Plymouth, Bournemouth and half a dozen other towns. They were all the same: wild, ravening multitudes, hundreds of policemen, mad rushes through the night in a black Austin Princess to a carefully guarded inn or chalet for a few fitful hours of sleep. And then the cycle started all over again.
“It became impossible to tell one town from another, since to us they were just a succession of dressing rooms and hotel suites. The screams were the same. The music was the same. It all assumed the ritual quality of a fertility rite. Latter-day Druids, the Beatles sat in their dressing room – a plywood Stonehenge – surrounded by sweaty T-shirts, trays of French fries, steak, pots of tea, and the inevitable TV set; while from somewhere off beyond the walls of the theatre came the faint, eerie wailing of their worshippers, like the sea or the wind. But the Beatles no more heard it than a New York cop hears traffic. Totally oblivious to the mob – and to the honks and plunks of other Liverpudlian rock ‘n’ rollers warming up down the hall – they sat sipping scotch from paper cups and watching Dr Kildare on the telly.
“I, meanwhile, sat and watched them – and wondered why, in two years they had become a phenomenon that had somehow transcended stardom – or even showbiz. They were mythical beings, inspiring a fanaticism bordering on religious ecstasy among millions all over the world. I began to have the uncomfortable feeling that all this fervor had nothing whatsoever to do with entertainment, or with talent, or even with the Beatles themselves. I began to feel that they were the catalyst of a sudden world madness that would have burst upon us whether they had come on the scene or not. If the Beatles had never existed, we would have had to invent them. They are not prodigious talents by any yardstick, but like hula hoops and yo-yos, they are at the right place at the right time, and whatever it is that triggers the mass hysteria of fads has made them walking myths.
“Everywhere we went, people stared in openmouthed astonishment that there were actually flesh-and-boned human beings who looked just like the Beatle dolls they had at home. It was as though Santa Claus had suddenly shown up at a Christmas party, Night after night, phalanxes of journalists would stand grinning, grovelling, obsequious, jotting down the Beatles’ every word. In city after city the local mayor, countess, duke, earl and prelate would be led in, bowing and scraping, to bask for a few fleeting moments in their ineffable aura. They don’t give interviews; they grant audiences, which is the way the world wants its legends to behave.
“All around them, wherever they go, shimmers a strange, filmy, translucent pall of palpable unreality, so thick that you can almost taste it. And at the very center of this vast cloud of fantasy are the four young men themselves, by far the most real and least enchanted of them all. They have managed somehow to remain remarkably human, totally unlike the kewpies created by fandom and the press. In real life, the Beatles don’t make Beatle noises. Nor are they the precocious teenagers. They are grown-up, scotch-drinking men who know what the world expects of them – which is to be Beatles and to wear long hair, funny clothes and be cute. But all that stops when the curtain falls and the high-heeled shoes come off and the drums are put away.
“Their unimaginable success – which has made them world figures important enough for the Prime Minister and the Queen’s consort to discuss in news conferences, and has made them without a doubt the most successful money machine in recent times – has left them faintly bemused, but also extremely guarded in their day-to-day life, almost as though they’re afraid that an extra loud sneeze will burst the bubble and they’ll be back in reality like the rest of us.
“Of the four, George Harrison seems to be the one most amused and least unsettled by it all. The truest swinger among them, he is also the most sarcastic, and unquestionably the most egotistical; he fingers his hair a lot, and has a marked tendency to pause meaningfully and frequently before mirrors. Even so, he’s a very likeable chap – if he happens to like you. John Lennon, on the other hand, is a rather cool customer, and far less hip than he’s made out to be. He does radiate a kind of on-the-top-of-it kind of confidence, however, and is the unacknowledged leader of the group. Equally poised, but far more articulate and outgoing, Paul McCartney (sometimes known as ‘the cute Beatle’) reminded me of Ned, the fun-loving Rover Boy: He’s bright, open-faced and friendly – the friendliest of the lot; but unlike Ned, he also has a keen eye for a well-turned figure, and he worries a lot about the future. Ringo, the smallest Beatle – even smaller in person than he appears to be on the screen – is a curious contrast with the others. Taciturn, even a bit sullen, he spends a good deal of his time sitting in corners staring moodily at the Venetian blinds. Perhaps because he wasn’t their original drummer, he seems slightly apart from the rest, a loner. Still, he has a way of growing on you – if he doesn’t grow away from you.
“But they all find it difficult to make any real contact with anybody outside of their immediate circle. And vice versa. As they appear unreal to their maniacal fans, so their fans appear to them, And an incessant infestation of interviewers has erected a wall of hackneyed wisecracks and ghostwritten ripostes between them and the press. So getting to know the Beatles, and to draw them out, was a discouraging task at first. I traveled and lived with them for three days before the first crack appeared in the invisible shield that surrounds them. Paul suddenly asked me about my cold – which I had been nursing since my arrival – and I knew that real life had reared its unexpected head.
“We began to become friends. And a week or so and what felt like 10,000 miles and 10,000,000 screams later, we found ourselves ensconced in a hotel room in Torquay in southwest England, on the gray shores of the English Channel. They had just played two shows before a raging throng of subteen girls in nearby Exeter. Within seconds after the final curtain, like a gang of convicts executing a well-rehearsed and perfectly synchronized prison break, they had eluded a gimlet-eyed army of idolaters outside the stage door and careened off in anonymous vehicles, with coat collars up and hats pulled low – four hunted fugitives and one terrified hostage (me) – into the wintry night. Pseudonymously registered and safely padlocked in their suite at the hotel – the identity and whereabouts of which were a more closely guarded secret than SAC’s fail-safe recall code – they slipped out of their Beatle suits and into some comfortable sportswear, ordered up a goodly supply of Coke, tea and booze, and began to unwind. We found ourselves talking quietly – and all of a sudden, almost communicating. Somewhere along the line I turned on my tape machine. Here’s what it recorded.”