Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Beatles in Paris

by Billy Shepherd

Paris fell! Collapsed! Capitulated! Waved the white flag of surrender after only a few blasts of opening fire--fire that sounded very much like "She Loves You". The fabulous, international Beatles had struck again and "infected" a whole country with Beatlemania.

They took little time to settle in. But I was there to watch the excitement grow and grow among the fanatical French fans, until the Beatles finally left Paris, after three weeks, to a riot of hysteria.

But it was pretty chaotic early on. In fact, they nearly didn't make it on time--Tuesday, January 14. Ringo Starr was unable to meet the others in London, having been fog-bound in Liverpool. "I'll make my own way...see you all in Paris," he wired.

And at London airport, thick mist swirled around the buildings and the planes. "We've had it, too", said Paul, looking anxiously at the sky. But the misty-fog lifted...lifted just enough to get planes in and out of the airport.

One plane, Comet 4B, was extra-special. It had three-quarters of the Beatles aboard. John, Paul, George, plus Brian Epstein, and Mal Evans, Press representative Brian Summerville, sundry others, me . . . and a load of photographers and reporters.

The Beatles posed for a few pictures, waved to the fans who yelled "Good Luck" and ran up the stairs into the front of the plane. A few minutes later Captain A. J. Holderness eased the massive aircraft off the strip.

The time: 5.15 p.m. Thirty-five minutes later, we coasted into Le Bourget airport, a few miles outside Paris. And coasted into a mad rush that threatened to engulf the Beatles. Yelling photographers, questioning reports . . . gabbing in French. Flashlights exploding all the way through the Customs with the Beatles trying to maintain a trio of resolute grins.

Fans scream. Quite a solid batch of them. Including eight-year-old Anne Maskell, of Tooting, South London, on her way through to Austria with her parents. "It IS the Beatles, it IS", she yelled excitedly. Paul flashed her a quick smile.

The boys were half frog-marched through Customs. Officials had time only to glance at the proffered passports. Then the Beatles were hidden in a mass of newspapermen. And me!

Into the car--the Beatles' Austin Princess, driven by chauffeur Bill. More flashlights pop. And off into the heart of Paris. To the fabulously lush George V Hotel, close to the Champs Elysees. A mass, a maze, of people waiting. The swing doors revolve fast, pushed by a head doorman wearing a "chain of office".

Inside--more pandemonium. Everybody craning to get a look at the Liverpool lads. Voices of English fans rise above the French fast-talk. More flash-bulbs erupt. The management of this dignified, super-fab hotel look disturbed.

Eventually, the Beatles get through to the comparative peace and quiet of their suites. John eyes the tapestries, the Louis Fourteenth furniture. Says: "Looks something like a museum". The others laugh. They laugh easily . . . for a moment the tension is over.

There should have been a rehearsal that evening. But without Ringo, there was no point. Said George: "It's odd without Ringo. We sort of feel we've lost a limb". The "limb" was in Liverpool, making final preparations to catch a plane to London and then straight across the following day.

John and Paul took that first night easily. Just relaxed in their suite, calling for "ciggies" and for Cokes. George wandered off with a newspaperman, ending up in the expensive Eve club, watching a high-charged (in both ways) cabaret. "It's a smart place", said George. "But the music was pretty standard . . . sort of swing. Nice as background to a chat, though."

And John and Paul thought back to the time they'd been in Paris before. Flat-broke, unable to afford a taxi, without funds for a decent meal. "Maybe we'll buy the Eiffel Tower this time", said John with a grin.

The boys made friends easily. Bruno Coquatrix, guv'nor of the Olympia, called round to see his latest signings. And a representative of Odeon Records, who release the boys' discs through France.

When the room was finally cleared--and with George still out on the Town--the McCartney-Lennon partnership talked songs. Recording manager George martin was coming to Paris and wanted to hear some brand-new material. John and Paul were committed to writing six songs for the upcoming film, one for Billy J. Kramer and one for Tommy Quickly. And they hoped to get the next single from that half-dozen for the movie. Time was against them.

"We'll get a piano moved into the suite", said Paul. "That'll help speed things up." Normally the boys work just with guitars.

Those suites were fantastic.

John and Paul shared because they had to cope with their song-writing chores. George and Ringo were together--though all four had communicating doors and were on the same landing. It was as though the Beatles' entourage had taken over the bulk of the hotel.

Top stars of all walks of life stay at the George V Hotel. For the first few days, film star Burt Lancaster was there. And, yes! he HAD heard of the Beatles--and he only wished there was more time available to meet them and get to know more about the British music scene.

On the Wednesday morning, the Beatles were late getting out of bed. Nothing unusual! In a sense, they are NIGHT people, rarely properly waking up during the day-time. "Brekkie" was arranged. Not the standard French one of rolls, butter and coffee. They went for orange juice, cornflakes, pot of tea, a little cooked-up mixture of scrambled egg and accessories. Said George: "I think we're gonna like Paris. I only hope the French people like us."

They did. But the boys delayed showing themselves. They'd said they'd be up at twelve noon. Instead it was around three o'clock in the afternoon when they finally made an appearance. Out along the Champs Elysees, with photographers following their every move. Cries of "It's the Beatles", in German, French, English, followed the boys. There were traffic jams. Scots teenager, Inez Uffington, was heard to say: "It's marvellous. I'd not seen the boys before. Now I feel weak at the knees . . . "

The crowds grew and grew. But before they got out of hand, the Beatles were driven back to the Hotel George V to wait for Ringo.

He arrived at Le Bourget at five o'clock, was picked up by a British car entered in the Monte Carlo Rally driven by Stuart Turner and rushed to join the rest at the hotel. Lucky he did too, because the Austin Princess broke down coming back from the Airport. Brian Summerville along with the Beatles Monthly Book photographer, transferred to a taxi and left the Princess to be repaired.

Many fans from Liverpool had heard that Ringo was driving all the way to Paris in one of the competition cars. And they flooded the switchboards, wondering about his route. . .

They also flooded the switchboard at the George V Hotel. "Please, please, let me talk to a Beatle" came the calls. "We want to wish them luck . . . "

All four Beatles eventually made their way to the Cyrano Theatre in Versailles, some ten miles from the centre of Paris. This was try-out night. The show started at nine o'clock and went on until well after midnight.

The boys went the proverbial bomb. Numbers like "Roll Over Beethoven", "This Boy", "She Loves You"--the last-named the audience knew well. The Beatles had a high-rated disc on this in France. A young audience. Gendarmes held them back as they tried to swarm backstage. Fans danced in the aisles and chanted "Les Beatles".

One aged about 17, dressed in a red sweater, shimmied his way to the front of the stalls. Rocking in time with the solid Beatle beat, he couldn't restrain himself any longer. He jumped up on the stage and started trying a dance routine with John Lennon. John went on blasting away at a set of lyrics but couldn't help a quick grin. And on came the massive Mal Evans, Road Manager Number Two, to clutch the "offender" in his mighty arms and cart him off into the wings.

But it was noticeable that the audience actually let the Beatles be heard. You could pick up the words of songs. And there were more boys than girls in the audience. But everybody joined in the clapping, during songs--one girl cried out in plaintive French "I just can't any more, my hands are hurting me."

A riot, in fact. Something not exactly expected in the rather staid centre of Versailles.

The boys made a hectic get-away . . . just in front of a mob of fans. And Ringo barely had time to observe: "The audience was so different to those in England. They don't seem to squeal . . . it's more that the boys set up a roar. Marvellous. And I think they liked us."

They did.

But the newspapers the following morning contented themselves with stories about how the Beatles had looked round Paris. They were surprised at John's garb. Dark glasses, a leather hat in a sombre black from Mary Quant, an alligator-type coat. Their every move was reported. This side of the trip was stressed at this time because the big testing-time was yet to come. The grand gala opening at the Olympia, Paris, on Thursday evening . . .

The Beatles had another huge surprise yet to come though! They made their way back by fast car to the George V Hotel and up to the suite. Two of the boys took a quick bath in the marble-walled bathrooms. Then they sat talking.

And the news arrived. Direct from London came the message: "The Beatles are top of the American Hit Parade." The boys went mad. Said Mal Evans, who happened to come into the suite immediately afterwards: "They always act this way when anything big happens--just like a bunch of kids. Jumping up and down with sheer delight. Paul climbed onto my back demanding a piggy-back. They felt that this was the biggest thing that had ever happened . . . and who could blame them? Gradually they quietened down, ordered some more drinks, specially Cokes, and sat down to appreciate fully what happened. It was a wonderful, marvellous night for all of them. I was knocked out . . . "

Celebrations went on until five o'clock in the morning. Somebody else rang through to say it was the fastest-rising disc ever by any British artiste in the States. That Capitol Records had never known anything like it--three weeks to hit the top spot. British OR American! The boys had plenty to talk about . . . about their own trip to America, about the thrill of audience reaction that night in Versailles.

And on to the next morning. Morning, for the Beatles, starts sometimes after two-o'clock in the afternoon!

Olympia. The top music-hall in France. Where every season starts with a "stuffed-shirt" audience on the opening evening; where minks and diamonds fill every other seat; and where dinner-jackets fill the rest.

A small-fronted theatre. It looks singularly unprepossessive from the front, but once inside it's beautifully decorated. Inside is a little bar, with pictures decorating it of old variety acts. Some of them were British. Modern, yes . . . but literally breathing atmosphere of the past show business idols who'd topped the Olympia bill.

The stage door is in a little side street. The Beatles arrived in the Princess, leapt out and hustled to the dressing-rooms. A tiny room for the four boys, with barely room to swing a guitar. At their hotel, they'd been used to a bigger bathroom EACH than the dressing-room they had to share.

On the bill: Trini Lopez. Also French songstress Sylvie Vartan, plus a full variety programme, including the inevitable juggler. Trini closed the first half. Sylvie preceded the bill-topping Beatles.

Prices were high--a 15 shilling minimum. In the afternoon, the fans were in. They loved the boys. Later, sophisticated Parisiennes filled the seats. Again the boys did well, despite three failures in amplification--with Mal Evans leaping on to repair the damage. An expensive theatre . . . yet the electricity went wrong!

No squealing, no screaming. But audiences which clapped in time, appreciating every number. "Merci beaucoup", said Paul, the only French they attempted.

The camera-men, who were everywhere, attempted slices of English. They mobbed the stage, firing off at every movement the boys made. But the real drama was going on backstage. Fists flew, in that confined space.

Malcolm Evans said the trouble started when a French photographer was not allowed in to take exclusive pictures. But there were other outbreaks of trouble. Paul called out for order. Nobody listened. George had to protect his guitar from swinging fists. The gendarmes arrived on the scene to try and sort things out. They only added to the chaos.

On later evenings, the back-stage area was declared "no-man's land". The police positively refused to let anybody through. But the initial damage was done. In the rush of Beatlemania, many people who held genuine tickets were kept out of the theatre. Some who did manage to get through found their seats had been taken . . . and they had to watch the show from standing at the back of the stalls.

Some of the audience left before the end, but this is standard practice in Paris--people want to avoid the crush. And outside stood crush barriers, manned by truncheon-carrying policemen, to curb the enthusiasm of the fans shouting "Beatles, Beatles, Beatles", outside.

Brian Epstein, guiding light of the Beatles, and George Martin were in the audience and heard the applause and the wave of enthusiasm. One felt sorry for Sylvie Vartan, blonde and shapely, who had her act interrupted by cries of "We want Les Beatles."

And an ironic note was struck when part of the interval music at the theatre was . . . a gramophone record of the Shadows!

The evening performance was an even bigger test for the boys. They did well. Though the French were not particularly kind, the audience liked them and so did the fans waiting outside the theatre.

French stars were there to cheer . . . like Francoise Hardy, Johnny Hallday, Richard Anthony. And Britain's Pet Clark.

The Beatles' exit was hectic. A few more punches among photographers were slung. But the exit WAS made. Back to the hotel for a few hours "kip" before the papers came out. The Press was frankly mixed. One (Parisien Libere) said it "was daddy's rock 'n' roll stuff. Nothing very new". Another (Aurore) suggested it was Trini Lopez who had triumphed. But one influential voice (France Soir) said the Beatles must have caused jealousy among the French pop idols, because never before had hands beaten in time so loudly at an Olympia opening.

But the fans are the ones who matter. And the Beatles were besieged at their hotel by French boys and girls who wanted an autograph, by English girls who just wanted to speak to them. The disc shops made big displays of Beatle records. The posters on huge hoardings proclaimed their presence in Paris.

Life for the Beatles went on from one rush to another. The first Sunday, had them doing three shows at the Olympia. They had to sleep. They had to keep dates with French photographers and journalists. Brian Summerville was the most harassed man in Paris.

A typical day settled into: sleep until mid-afternoon. Get up and meet important people. Go to theatre and do two shows. Pop off and eat somewhere. Get back to hotel and talk, about anything and everything, until around five o'clock, or even later.

The critics had been unkind, in the main. Some of the older folk had dismissed the Beatles with a curt "non". But the young fans were growing day by day. As the stay in Paris developed, the police had bigger and bigger crowds to deal with outside the theatre. The boys became BIG idols--and not merely on the strength of a hit record. They were part of the bustling French scene.

Whenever they could, they went out and viewed the sights. They took their £250 cameras with them and shot anything of interest. And still the fans from England took time out, and spared no expense in ringing the George V Hotel in the hope of getting a few words with the boys.

I watched the hysteria grow. And I felt proud for the boys.

World interest in the Beatles had gone a stage further forward. By the end of the run, they were undisputed guv'nors of Paris. They'd captured all sections of the community.

It was tough just watching them leading such hectic lives. I felt worn out.

But the year was only just starting for the Beatles. They had before them America and their first big film production. There were a million more photographs to pose for, a thousand interviews to give, more vitally important shows to perform.

They're great and wonderful ambassadors for Britain in any part of the world where pop music is important. Which is most of the world.

And yet it's only the beginning. It's a fantastic thought, isn't it!

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