Although the dates and venues of The Beatles’ tours of the United Kingdom are well known, detailed information on the chaos and confusion which took place in each town or city has, before now, never been fully documented.
In this book, Martin Creasy brings to life those early days on the road: the fans’ reactions, the attitudes and fates of the support acts, and the myriad ways to get four superstars past rabidly determined fans and into fairly modest venues.
Creasy has done a first-class research job, combing through newspaper and magazine reports, delving into audio and video archives, and interviewing dozens of people – from support acts, reporters and ticket-holding fans to promoters, stage hands and local authority figures.
In early 1963 The Beatles were becoming the hot new thing, but knew they could so easily become a fleeting footnote in showbusiness. Beatlemania! begins with their first UK tour in February and March that year, at a time when they were still delighted with the screams and frenzied attention of their growing fanbase as their popularity grew beyond Liverpool. It ends with them jaded and bored, dissatisfied with being unable to hear themselves onstage, and longing to escape from the public eye.
The Beatles undertook six UK tours between 1963 and 1965. For the first they were fourth on a bill headlined by Helen Shapiro; during that first year they also played second fiddle to US singers Chris Montez, Tommy Roe and Roy Orbison, before promoters inevitably acquiesced to fans’ demands and made them the main draw.
The other tour acts, mostly now forgotten, are far from bit-part players. Amid the dawning realisation that their innocent brands of entertainment were about to be blown away by something fresh and new, these dinosaurs awaiting extinction are presented variously as enthusiastic, resigned, magnanimous, embittered or saddened by their slipping grasp on fame.
Spare a thought for Chris Montez and Tommy Roe, the American co-headliners for The Beatles’ first tour, who swiftly found their places at the top of the bill usurped by the young Liverpudlian upstarts.
Montez, in particular, emerges as an increasingly desperate figure, taken to shedding his jacket and shirt in an attempt to whip up frenzy among the audience – a ploy which backfired in Newcastle when the retrieval of his shirt found him engulfed by screaming girls; he emerged, battered and bruised, without his prized St Christopher medallion.
Helen Shapiro, whose star was waning at just 16, and subject to a barrage of negative headlines in the press. She and the other acts on the first tour are bemused by the crowd reactions to The Beatles, but were nonetheless honoured to have ring-side seats as those early hits were written in the back of the tour bus.
One figure who emerges with universal respect is the late Roy Orbison, who began The Beatles’ third UK tour as headliner before agreeing to take second place. Orbison is unanimously depicted as a dignified and honorable man, for whom even the screams of Beatlemaniacs subsided when he was singing.
It’s well known that The Beatles’ touring conditions were high-pressure affairs that they quickly grew to detest: a room and a car and a stage and a car and a room, with increasingly elaborate entrance and exit strategies in order to protect their safety and sanity. What’s mentioned less often is the historical context, of those monochrome days before the Sixties exploded in technicolour.
These were days of passionate children and teenagers pitted against the nonplussed older generation; of acts travelling on basic tour buses without the comforts of today; theatres and cinemas struggling to cope with frenzied pop fans; tour buses criss-crossing the nation on package tours with half a dozen eclectic acts; each show closing with the national anthem, repectfully observed by fans but providing The Beatles with an opportunity to escape to the next hotel.
Inevitably there’s some repetition in the accounts of chaos in every venue over these 126 nights. The moments where the routine breaks or crisis occurs stand out: stolen instruments, injury and illness, broken down vehicles, or – most poignantly – breaking news of the assassination of President Kennedy.
We had a job to do. People were there… and we had to carry on. And we did. I honestly don’t think the audience reaction to that second house was any different to any other night of the tour. It might seem strange but this was an audience of young people who loved The Beatles, and they had come along for a good time. They were too young to have understood the implications of what happened. They didn’t understand about politics. We had to carry on. It was no good going out half-hearted – we still had a job to do.
It was only afterwards that you had time to reflect on what happened. We were all staying in the same hotel that night – The Beatles included – and that was very unusual. We all gathered around the television and watched it together and we were all stunned into silence. Kennedy was such a young man and he was very much liked, as was his wife. It was unbelievable that the President of the United States could get shot, with all that security around him. It was so poignant when John Lennon got shot because of course we were with them with it happened to JFK.
Unlike modern touring, there was little luxury. The Beatles were often trapped inside cramped dressing rooms, with little comfort beyond a television, Scalextric set and plates of steak and chips. Here’s Roger Greenaway of The Kestrels describing the modest conditions endured by all the acts on that first tour.
We slept on the coach. We couldn’t afford digs. We’d sleep on the coach – about half a dozen of you at the back. The coach was always parked in the local bus station – if they could find a local bus station – and you’d have to get up at 5am because everything started going out. And you’d have to find a tap wherever you could just to throw some water on your face – it was that bad. Every now and then, once a week, you’d find somewhere to have a proper wash because cinemas didn’t have the greatest dressing rooms in the world in those days and we were in communal dressing rooms lots of the time.
A picture is painted of truancy and ‘sickies’ in the pursuit of tickets, fans camped outside venues in the hope of a glimpse of The Beatles or their entourage, bribes for tickets, and gifts and other projectiles hurled onto the stage: jelly sweets, entire boxes of chocolates, cigarette lighters, autograph books, shoes and umbrellas. The Beatles remained mostly unscathed, but suffered the odd direct hit.
My pal and I fought our way through to the queue for entry, grasping our tickets. I was in shock, and trying to act cool as a defence mechanism… When The Beatles finally came on, most of the audience downstairs began screaming, abandoned all reserve, and charged down to the front – jelly babies being hurled at the stage – and general pandemonium ensued.
The Beatles were clad in their stock silver grey suits. I remember seeing them in colour, especially hair colour, because the TV and press were black and white of course.
All this activity would be exhausting for most, but The Beatles managed various additional one-off concerts, several non-UK tours, meetings with dignitaries and record company officials, and television and radio appearances. It eventually took its toll: illness struck at various times, and Lennon missed the Christening of his first son Julian while the group was on the road.
In documenting each UK tour date, Martin Creasy has provided a valuable resource for Beatles scholars, a marvellous piece of nostalgia for those who were there, and an fascinating window into the past for those who weren’t. These were scenes unforgettable to those who lived them, but which will eventually pass from living memory. That they are preserved in this often marvellous account is to everyone’s benefit.