Sunday, June 01, 2008

Behind the Spotlight

by Billy Shepherd and Johnny Dean

Individuality: that's the key word that really sums up the career of the Beatles . . . and the point where we left, last month, our behind-the-scenes story of the triumphs of the epoch-making foursome. We were explaining how Brian Epstein, then a newcomer to group management, decided to "give the boys complete freedom".

So each Beatle pursued an individual course. Ringo, of course, tended to be the "odd man out" as the boys returned from their highly successful tour of Scotland with Helen Shapiro. He still felt he was a new boy. We remember asking him about his early school days and he said: "Come off it, nobody's interested in all that. It's the other three who matter, not me."

That was soon to change. But the others dominated the Beatles determination to be different from the other artistes on the scene. After all, there WAS a pattern. New stars all conformed, in that they immediately ordered shiny mohair suits and turned up on stage looking as if they all came out of the same grooming-school. The Beatles rejected this image . . . not as a result of long discussion, but because they didn't think for a moment of following the rest of the herd.


It wasn't so much a matter of gimmicks. Their hair? Not really a gimmick, not at this time. They wore black suits, leather gear. They looked sombre in appearance--it was their personalities which made all the difference.

Dignity really didn't matter much to the Beatles. Where other fast-rising pop artistes put on the stuck-up, big-star, routines, the Beatles just didn't mind. If photographers wanted crazy and way-out pictures, the boys did their best to oblige. They'd pull any sort of mad-style faces. Recalls Johnny Dean: "They didn't, at any time, compose their minds . . . or their faces! They were just themselves."

No Formula On Stage

It was much the same on their stage appearances. Again, there was a formula for most groups. "Two steps to the right, one forward, make announcement, step back, smile, nod head in tempo, start playing." All that sort of rigid performance routine. The Beatles had nothing to do with such regimentation.

Paul explains: "The thing was that we were really pulling in the screams and it was impossible to adopt a set pattern of performance. Things happened in the audience that made us react according to the mood of the moment. On announcement, most of the words couldn't be heard, so John found himself just getting a word in edgeways wherever he could. There was no point in sticking to a script."

Most of the stage announcements came from the simple process of one or other Beatle simply pointing at the one who was next to do something! Nothing was completely fixed. They'd even confer on stage and alter the numbers they were doing. "Sometimes an audience needed building up; sometimes quietened down. So we ring the changes," explained John at one backstage session. "We find it impossible to keep exactly to a set routine."

Best Sound Possible

And George chipped in with: "What we don't like are those groups who stick on fixed, mechanical grins when they're doing something happy--and turn on the sad-faced frowns when they're doing the old sincerity bit. We just like to get the best sound going that's possible under the conditions on stage and fill in the personality side in the way we feel at a particular moment."

Certainly no other group worked up such a sweat as the Beatles did on stage. Night after night, they came off, shirts literally sticking to Beatle bodies. Even if they'd had a bit of a party the night before, they never gave less than maximum. We remember various Beatles slumping in chairs in dressing rooms and looking at just about knock-out point. But happy, too. Beatles are always happy when they've had a taste of uninhibited applause.

They didn't mind being photographed with glasses containing a mixture of whisky and Coke. Or being "caught" by cameramen with cigarettes clearly on view. "Ciggies" is a word devised by the Beatles.

Their philosophy was simply that they did like the odd drink, did smoke . . . and it would be less than honest to try to hide the fact. Though Beatle pay-packets were fast getting bulkier, they'd often forget to carry cigarettes or loose change. That was true even when "Please Please Me" hit the top of the charts--surefire proof that the Beatles, and Liverpool, had hit the top of the pop world.

Even then, John and the others hit back in the face of usual "star behaviour". The Liverpool Sound was headlined all over the world. But the boys didn't think there even was such a thing! Said George, in what seemed like a million interviews: "When you think about it sensibly, our sound really stems from Germany. That's where we learned to work for hours and hours on end, and keep on working at full peak even though we reckoned our legs and arms were about ready to drop off."

Hamburg Stamp

"Sure WE come from Liverpool. There are hundreds of groups there, many on an R and B kick. But you won't hear us shouting around about a Liverpool Sound, or Merseybeat, simply because it's been dreamed up as an easy way to describe what's going on with our music. 'Hamburg Stamp and Yell' music might be more accurate. It was all that work on various club stages in Germany that built up our beat."

While the Shadows worked in mohair suits and performed steps in time with their music, the Beatles developed a frenetic form of head-shaking, hair flopping interminably round Beatle heads. Again, it was something that stemmed from their own individuality. Not from a set plan.

Ever try shaking your head in that crazy way? For most people it leads to a fast and splitting headache. How the Beatles, specially Paul, managed to keep it up for so long in those early days of stardom is another point that fascinates us. Paul said once: "I don't even know I'm shaking my head most of the time. It's just something that comes up from the music . . ."

No Lapels

Those early Cardin-designed suits worn by the Beatles . . . light grey, with no lapels. They contrasted with the black "gear" worn off-stage and came about because of a holiday John and Paul had in Paris. From being very disinterested (mostly because they didn't have the cash to become well-dressed young men), the Beatles were guided by Brian Epstein into taking a great interest in picking and choosing their own wardrobes.

The stage suits looked good on the one-nighter tours. But the actual SOUND of the Beatles was more important. Just by way of a change, audiences were getting the same sound on stage from a group as was on the record. In fact, the Beatles reckoned that they sounded even better on stage, most of the time, simply because they had the roar of an appreciative audience to urge them on.

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