Monday, June 02, 2008

Behind the Spotlight

by Billy Shepherd and Johnny Dean

Spring was in the air, turning fast towards summer. The year: 1963. And those star-shooting Beatles were getting a real taste of the hectic world of one-nighters, scurrying between dates, learning all the joys and worries of "taking on" different audiences night after night in different parts of the country.

The tour, principally, featured American artists Chris Montez and Tommy Roe. Chris, with his wild on-stage presentations and his hit record "Let's Dance"; Tommy Roe with his more dignified song-selling almost in the Buddy Holly style. In most parts of the country, it was the Beatles who were regarded as being the unknown quantity.

We'd talked to Chris Montez just before the tour started. He said: "For an American, any trip to Britain is important. But the first time here . . . well, it's wildly exciting. But tell me, who are these guys the Beatles? I try to keep up to date with the British scene, but I don't know their work. I dig guys like Cliff Richard and Adam Faith and the others, but first thing I heard at the airport was that I should watch out for the Beatles . . . that they were gonna be real big."

Chris, and Tommy, were soon to find out just HOW big. In fact, on the opening night of the tour. The Beatles, with not-too-much in the way of hits behind them, were definitely there in a supporting role. As had been general practice, the Americans ruled the roost; got all the billing space; were treated as the big stars.

It came to the first house. Audience reaction welled up tremendously as soon as the curtains parted to show the Beatles on stage. There were screams--and not merely for patriotic reasons. Paul blinked in the glare of the arc-lights, turned and grinned happily at the others. They launched into a couple of numbers . . . and the atmosphere became real wild. It was immediate communication. The audience loved them. Arms waved, feet stomped, hands clapped. And that wail of appreciative yells and shouts hit ear-bursting frequencies.

The American visitors did the best they could. But even the status of their hit discs, some of Tommy's having been truly international "biggies", didn't make the right sort of impression. And so the Beatles were changed round in the second show . . . and became stars of the show.

History Making

Though audiences in that provincial theatre didn't realise it, this was really a slice of pop-music history. It was the first thin wedge of British stars against the accepted American domination. We weren't to get the full impact of this for . . . oh, the best part of a year! . . . but it was a step in the right direction.

The Beatles, backstage, were modest about their improved position on the bill. But they couldn't hide their elation. Those nail-biting worries about whether fans outside the Liverpool arena would appreciate their style of music . . . those moments were apparently over. "Hey, we're stars now", said John Lennon. "We've got to start behaving ourselves." Of course, nothing REALLY changed.

And so the tour ploughed on. The receptions, if anything, got bigger and better for the Beatles. Chris Montez and Tommy Roe put in early publicity plugs for the Liverpudlians--mainly through their letters back to the States. And Chris, to his credit, joined Roy Orbison in being thoroughly convinced that the Beatles were sufficiently different from the run-of-the-mill U.S. outfits to make a name for themselves 'cross the Atlantic.

Appearances on radio shows like the mass-audience "Saturday Club" did the Beatles plenty of favours, too. Brian Matthew, one-time producer and host of the show, told us: "We were getting just about everybody in the business on this Saturday slab of pop music . . . all the biggest names in the industry. But I think everybody was impressed with the Beatles on these early dates for the simple reason that they weren't afraid of being individualistic. If they were ever nervous, they certainly didn't let it show. There was a sort of basic good humour coming through in everything they did."

Created Atmosphere

"You could easily be fooled into thinking they were a bit slap-dash and unconcerned about their performance. Maybe that stemmed from the way they looked--though their hair wasn't half as long two years ago as the cartoonists were drawing. But once those boys started in on a number, they gave it one hundred per cent concentration. Even without an audience to perform to, they had this knack of complete communication. In the case of 'Saturday Club', it was communication to members of other groups and other singers. They created an atmosphere. Not always easy, that, in a B.B.C. studio."

And the boys were just as popular whenever they visited the E.M.I. recording studios in Abbey Road, St. John's Wood, North London. Beatlemania struck early on these premises where many top stars had been recorded. The ladies who served cups of tea in the canteen simply adored John, Paul, Ringo, George. The lads went out of their way to be helpful, friendly, and always found time to share a quick gag.

Little gifts from the fans were appearing at the studios. Paul's birthday brought a deluge of postcards and birthday cards and little presents. We remember Paul, in the midst of hectic activity, sitting over a fast-cooling plate of sausages and chips and determinedly ploughing through a pile of mail. He said he couldn't believe so many people even knew the date of his birthday. He also gagged that some of his nearest relatives had difficulty in remembering the date.

The doorman, the head commissionaire, at the E.M.I. studios was also clearly impressed with the fast-talking, Northern-accented lads. He said: "Almost from the start, we could tell something special was happening. Recording sessions weren't exactly shouted about . . . we did our best to keep fans away if possible. You couldn't keep secrets from the Cliff Richard fans, of course . . . but the Beatles were drawing great crowds of fans just waiting for a glimpse of the boys. Must say the Beatles were tremendously polite and thoughtful, though they used to take the mickey out of each other in such a straight-faced way that I sometimes wondered if they were actually being serious."

Separate Characters

We've hinted at the emergence of British domination--at least, on the Beatle touring dates. There was something else. In double-quick time, the Beatles were being established as four separate characters. This was definitely a new trend. Fans of the Shadows, for instance, tended to support the whole group.

Same with the Tornados who had a number one with "Telstar". The individual names weren't important. It was the sound--with actual presentation only being important on stage. But the Beatles were pulling in their individual support. Extraordinarily, it seemed each Beatle had moments of being thought "most popular" in different parts of the country. Ringo, true, lagged behind the others at this time . . . but then he was the newest Beatle and he was also rather in the background on stage. "But there'll never be any jealousy inside the group", vowed Paul.

Continued next month when we find out what the boys were like backstage in those early days.

No comments: