Friday, August 01, 2008

Behind the Spotlight

by Billy Shepherd and Johnny Dean

As January, 1965, came in, the Beatles were in their old familiar positions . . . top of the charts ("I Feel Fine") and the key talking point of the nation via their jam-packed "Christmas Show", which ran for three weeks at the Odeon Cinema, Hammersmith. Pictures of the lads, dressed in Eskimo gear for one sketch in which they met Abominable Snowman Jimmy Savile, flashed through the pages of even the most august newspapers in the land.

Sell Out

What a show that was at Hammersmith. It was a sell-out success right from the moment the box-office opened. It had some of the spirit of pantomime but any friend of the Beatles knew that they would never stick to anything remotely traditional.

They threatened the safety of the theatre roof by causing ear-piercing cheers every time a Beatle arm or leg or head appeared in one of the sketches. And what's more the supporting bill was exceptionally strong . . . Freddie and the Dreamers, the Mike Cotton Sound, Sounds Incorporated, Brian Epstein's then new balladeer Mike Haslam, the Yardbirds and Elkie Brooks who was in such devastating form that if the Beatles hadn't been in top nick she would have landed the honours. Poor Elkie, who fast became a favourite with the Beatles, has, incidentally had a lot of throat trouble in recent months--otherwise we're sure she'd be right up there in the popularity polls.

The Beatles' act? Well, for collectors of Beatle lore, they did "I'm a Loser", which John tackled on a Bob Dylan kick; "Baby's In Black"; "Everybody's Tryin' To Be My Baby"; Ringo stepped vocally forward for "Honey Don't"; "I Feel Fine"; "She's A Woman"; "A Hard Day's Night"--and elsewhere in the show the inevitable "Twist and Shout" and "Long Tall Sally".

If the Beatles did well, the ticket touts did better. They were flogging ten shilling seats for four times that amount. Hammersmith has never since seen so much action over such a long time.

It was the Beatles' second dabble at a lengthy Christmas show. And as we now hear about the criticised "shortage" of Beatle live shows, we also think on what would have happened at Hammersmith had that show gone on, like a West End production, for as long as there was an audience willing to pay to go in. That Christmas show of 1964 would probably have run right through the year until Brian Epstein was forced to change the title to "Beatle Christmas Show 1965".


Actually though, the Beatle supremacy was better underlined in this way. During 1964, they'd been top of the charts for a total of fourteen weeks through the year. They couldn't help laughing at the fact that second best in this particular list was their old mate from the days of the Cavern, Cilla Black.

Backstage at the Hammersmith Odeon was, as they say, somethin' else. Never, said the management, have there been so many potential gate-crashers. Old friends of the Beatles managed to get through . . . but the stage-door screening was done with the same ruthlessness as if organised by M.I.5. John established a new criterion for party acceptances: "How many people are going to be there that we haven't met before?" he asked. He was in very much a festive meeting-new-people mood.

We remember Ringo engulfed in an enormous woollen sweater with head- and arm-holes for two persons, and four giant initials "P, R, J, G" all over the massive chest. A fan sent it to the boys from Sweden. True to form, the boys wore it in an ad-libbed routine on stage that very night. Cynthia Lennon was in much demand, being pumped about how she's spent Christmas with John. "Very quietly," said she. "We just exchanged a few novelty presents and John had a good rest."

They're Unique

Brian Epstein was often there, still looking very pleased at the tremendous audience reaction to his "boys". A few journalists asked him, formally, how long he felt the Beatles could go on at this level of popularity. He shrugged, stretched his arms open wide, said: "They are unique. They have such distinctive personalities that I can't see any individual Beatle ever losing his appeal. But as a group? Well, I'd say at least two or three years right at the very top. After that, I'm convinced they each have magnificent careers in films."

Towards the end of the Hammersmith show, the boys were out at parties most evenings after the programme. Often Brian Epstein drove them himself in his new Bentley Continental. Ringo was the keenest dancer at all parties, showing astonishing agility in the latest crazes, despite admitting himself to be "dead knocked out with tiredness".

But as January, 1965, came slowly to a halt, there was a lot of urgency for John and Paul, who had to complete the songs for the upcoming film. John actually afterwards nipped off for a ski-ing holiday in the Alps with Cynthia and recording manager George Martin. Paul stayed in London to complete HIS side of the song-writing. George also took a holiday, but Ringo decided that he'd spend a lot of time house-hunting. He said: "I've been spending a ruddy fortune on maintaining a flat in London and now I think I should find a proper pad of my own." Needless to say, estate agents fell over themselves once this little bit of information was printed in a London evening paper!

At this stage, John and George were the house-owners. Paul had bought property for his father and new stepmother, and furnished it too, but he also had thoughts of a complete new home for himself. A sartorial note from Paul at this time: "I've just bought a dead old-fashioned jacket, with wild lapels and it's black with very wide chalk pin-stripes." No need to stress, we suppose, that this sort of styling has been followed by umpteen people, including stars, throughout the land!

What everyone even remotely interested in the Beatles wanted to know was what plans they had for 1965 . . . and "remotely" interested included even the people who sold hot-dogs outside Beatle-concert theatres. And there were, even then, problems, for the boys had to go to America, had to make a film (possibly at this time even a third movie in the autumn) and they had to undertake a short European tour. They were genuinely perturbed that they might not get out round the country on a massive one-nighter scene, but as ever they had total confidence in Brian Epstein.

One surprise single out in Britain was "If I Fell" and "Tell Me Why" . . . a surprise because it comprised two L.P. tracks previously issued as a single only for overseas markets. But dealers had specially imported it for British fans . . . so EMI capitulated and it picked up substantial fan-following even among those who'd got it on the album.

But the boys enjoyed their short individual breaks from the business. We'll tell you why next month. . . .

No comments: