60s Today contributor Ian Mole recalls the experience of seeing the Beatles live as a child.
Back in 1962, my big brother Graham and I shared a downstairs bedroom in our Sunderland home. Among the other ways he found to torment me, such as farting in my face when I was asleep and lifting up his mattress to gob on me from the top bunk, was to play his newly acquired transistor radio when I was trying to nod off.
The volume was low enough to evade the passing ears of my parents but it was loud enough to prevent me from getting to sleep on many occasions. However, some good did come out of this as in October of that year, the sound of the Beatles first reached me via the faltering waves of Radio Luxembourg. In fact, Graham had already mentioned them to me, and I remember that my first mental image of them was as a group of eight or so men wearing checky jackets and playing instruments like the double bass and the clarinet. Successful four piece pop rock bands were thin on the ground in those days of crooners such as Frank Ifield and Bobby Vee. Graham would feed me the odd morsel of information he’d managed to find about the Beatles, as he was already a very big fan. “I think one of them’s called John McCarthy,” he imparted to me one day. We were closing in on them.
The rock history books tend to say that the Beatlemania began in summer 1963, but as far as most kids I knew were concerned, it was well underway by February 1963 when ‘Please Please Me’ was released. On a Saturday tea time early that year, I became aware that Graham wasn’t around and was a bit piqued to discover that he was actually at the local Empire Theatre seeing the Beatles. Mam worked there as the director’s secretary and had got him a ticket for the first show. Even though ‘Please Please Me’ was about to top the charts, the band were second bottom of a bill that was topped by teenage prodigy Helen Shapiro and was compered by the then little known Dave Allen. Graham always claimed that after the show he was leaving the theatre and literally bumped into a leather-jacketed John Lennon who was emerging from the backstage bar.
The group’s phenomenal rise during that year really caught up my friends and I, and the fact that they were from the North helped usidentify with them. It gave us a feeling that ordinary people like us could rise to the top and it wasn’t strictly a province of glitzy Americans or even Londoners, who seemed a very distant tribe at that time. Gradually one wall of our bedroom was submerged beneath a collage of photos and clippings of the band, though in those pre-Blu Tac days Graham just glued them onto the wallpaper.
November 1963 came around and the second Beatles album ‘With The Beatles’ was released on 22nd, with the single ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ following on 29th. But more importantly for us, the band was booked into the Empire again for two shows on Saturday November 30th. There was great excitement about the two shows and tickets were very hard to find, but through my Mam we got tickets in the upper circle for the 6.30 show for me, Graham, my sister Linda and for Mam herself.
As I was counting down the days to the show, President Kennedy was assassinated on Friday 22nd November. I was watching TV with my parents when the programme was interrupted by Kennedy’s picture and the announcement that he’d been shot in Dallas. When the picture reappeared a few minutes later ,Mam said, correctly, that he must be dead. The President’s death and the tremendous impact that the Beatles had on the people of the US a few months later have often been linked, and I think it’s correct to say that they filled an emotional gap.
Finally the big night came and even the stodgy Sunderland Echo got into the spirit, devoting a couple of pages to the band under the headline “The Beatles Come To Town!”. When we arrived at the theatre ,it was already dark and the lights above the foyer beamed out the Beatles. The upper circle was accessed by a side door and the stairs seemed endless to my nine-year-old legs as we spiralled our way up. There was an electric buzz in the air as we took our seats while Mam took up a position at the back somewhere. A few rows away, Graham spotted a schoolmate of his who was brandishing a packet of Jelly Babies. Strange though it may sound, it was common for fans to hurl these sweets towards the stage while the band was playing, merely because George had happened to mention in an interview that he liked them.
The lights went down and the slick young American compere at once launched into his basic tactic of the evening, which was to tease the audience as much as possible about the impending arrival of the stars of the show. Every time he did this, a torrent of screams would pour from the audience. I’d never heard anyone scream like this before, except when someone had thumped them.
In those days they certainly packed a lot of different acts into a show and the first two of these were the Vernons Girls, a typical girly vocal trio of that age, and the Brooks Brothers, a vocal duo in snappy suits. These were okay, but they were merely padding, and I much preferred the next act, Peter Jay and the Jaywalkers. They were a rocking band, and the climax of the show was when the lights went very low and the drummer’s two bass drums were alternately illuminated from within as he gave the kit a good thrashing. At the interval, I raved about this to our Graham but he was very blasé about it. He was 14, after all.
There was probably another act after the interval, but I can’t remember them at all. Then, after a final orgy of teasing from the compere, the curtains parted and there they were: in their Beatle suits and standing in their classic stage positions, as we’d seen them many times before on TV. John stood with his legs slightly apart at stage right with George and Paul sharing a mike on the left as Ringo thrashed away and smiled on the drum podium centre stage behind them.
The noise from the moment those curtains parted was like nothing I’d heard before. The music itself was loud but it was almost drowned out by the constant screaming and shouting, while Jelly Babies, identity-bracelets, sealed notes and God knows what was hurled towards the stage, which incidentally was well cordoned off. They played ‘Love Me Do’, ‘Please, Please Me’, ‘From Me to You’, ‘She Loves You’, ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’, ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, ‘All My Loving’, ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ and ‘Twist and Shout’. The climax of the show was undoubtedly ‘Twist and Shout’, with John and the audience screaming their guts out as the song built up and up till it seemed that something had to give. ‘She Loves You’ is probably the definitive anthem of Beatlemania with its “yeah, yeah, yeahs” and Paul and George combining to hit those “Whoooos!” as they shook their mopheads. ‘All My Loving’ was also a great song live, as there was a slight pause before each chorus began, filled by the screams of the audience. Paul regularly waved up to fans like us in the cheaper seats and no doubt we weren’t the only ones to insist afterwards that “he was definitely waving at us.” He was!
For the last couple of songs, a backdrop of the cover of ‘With The Beatles’ appeared behind them, and all too soon our 30 minutes was up; the grinning foursome had disappeared behind the lowering curtains with many a bow. Even after all the noise had stopped, I still couldn’t hear what the others were saying to me as we surged down the stairs. We floated home on a wave of excitement, but the Beatles still had their 8.30 show to do. I couldn’t wait to tell them about it at school on Monday morning.
Ian Mole is a teacher of English to overseas students and a walking tour guide in London, specializing in music-related tours.