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Monday, July 15, 2024
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1964: Birth of a Beatlemaniac

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SIXTY years ago today, on July 10, 1964, I was one of 200,000 swaying, shouting Beatles fans who crammed the streets of Liverpool to welcome the group back to their home city.

As skinny, energetic 13-year-olds, my pal Phil and I weaved and dodged our way through the surging crowds that Friday evening and managed to get right up to the car carrying John, Paul, George and Ringo to a civic reception at the town hall.

George and Ringo were sitting in the rear seats of the black limousine as it moved slowly down Bold Street, and we knocked excitedly on the windows to attract their attention – to be rewarded with waves and grins from our idols. Later the Beatles would be driven to Liverpool’s Odeon cinema for the Northern premiere of their first film, A Hard Day’s Night.

It was a never to be forgotten moment at what was to prove a pivotal cultural juncture of the Sixties. For, having conquered America – starting with a TV appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964 – then embarking on a world tour, the Beatles had firmly established themselves as major players on the international showbusiness stage.

Their global success ensured they were here to stay, confounding some critics who thought they would be a flash in the pan. The tsunami they generated would surge across the rest of the decade and beyond, with millions of us kids joyfully riding it.

It might seem fanciful to say the rise of the Beatles and the accompanying pop music explosion was a game-changer in many young lives, but it undoubtedly was. Although their popularity was very much based on their catchy songs, mop-top haircuts and playful personalities, they also brought for their fans a feeling of novelty, excitement, freedom, fun and optimism into a Britain that was still emerging from the long shadow of the post-war years.

This sense of a seismic change was perfectly summed up by guitarist Steve Lukather of the rock group Toto, after witnessing the Beatles’ Ed Sullivan Show triumph. He said: ‘There was life pre-Beatles and life post-Beatles, and nothing was ever the same. Before the Beatles, life was black and white. After the Beatles, life was in colour.’

By 1964, of course, the group – skilfully managed by Brian Epstein – already dominated the British pop scene. On October 13, 1963, their appearance on ITV’s variety show Sunday Night at the London Palladium had cemented their popularity with a nationwide audience. Some see this as the start of so-called Beatlemania.

Yet for all the sparkling promise these newcomers brought, Britain in the early Sixties was still in many respects as it had been for decades – socially staid and stratified. Much is written about how we so-called baby boomers enjoyed the fruits of the future our parents had fought for. And it’s true that things generally got better for most of us.

However, it happened only slowly. In 1963, Labour leader and future Prime Minister Harold Wilson had famously expounded a vision of a new Britain being forged in the ‘white heat’ of the ‘scientific revolution’.  Yet it was an age when milk, bread and coal were still delivered in many places by horse and cart. An age when, like millions of others, we had no bathroom, inside toilet, or hot water in our house.  When a car, a washing machine, a fridge and a holiday were unattainable luxuries for many families. When some struggled even to put food on the table.

It was also an age when churches were packed on Sundays. An age when beer was cheap, but pub opening severely restricted. When men and boys gave up their seats to women on buses and trains. When children lived in fear of their teachers, priests and policemen, while adults held them in high regard. When those screaming crowds of Beatles fans were overwhelmingly white.

And it was an age when the law was still something to be shuddered at. Even as the Beatles arrived in central Liverpool that summer evening in 1964, four miles across the city in Walton Prison, a man was awaiting execution for murder. Peter Allen, 21, would be hanged there the following month, while his accomplice Gwynne Evans, 24, was simultaneously hanged in Strangeways Prison, Manchester. They were the last to suffer the death penalty before it was in effect abolished in 1965, but many did not want to see it go. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_John_Alan_West

The older generation were understandably reluctant to relinquish the certainties that had seen them through the deprivation of the Thirties and the war-scarred nightmare of the Forties. For my parents, popular music meant Music While You Work and Sing Something Simple on the BBC Light Programme. So when the thump-thump of the Sixties beat started reverberating, it was met with suspicion and disapproval in some families, with puzzled tolerance (as in our house) by others.

By 1964, the broadcast media was tuned into the pop phenomenon, although in a rather piecemeal way. Radio Luxembourg had been broadcasting its weekly Top 20 since 1948 and Pick of the Pops had been on the BBC Light Programme since 1955. On television, Oh Boy! started on ITV in 1958, followed by Boy Meets Girls, while the BBC’s Juke Box Jury launched in 1959. In August 1963, ITV’s Ready, Steady Go was an instant hit and in January 1964 the BBC struck back with Top of the Pops. Until BBC Radio 1 launched in September 1967, regular pop music on the wireless was dominated by the two offshore pirate stations of Radio Caroline, which started in 1964.

The British pop scene had long had its home-grown idols. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, I remember Marty Wilde, Billy Fury, Cliff Richard, Tommy Steele and Lonnie Donegan, among others. Then there were foreign stars, including Elvis Presley, Little Richard, the Everly Brothers, etc. But it was the advent of the Beatles that took everything to a whole new level of fan frenzy, of mass adulation. Other excellent groups emerged, of course, but the Fab Four simply swept all before them.

I knew they had triggered a cultural earthquake when, in the run-up to Christmas 1964, our ultra-strict headmaster – who had only a tentative relationship with the modern world – sensationally allowed a beat group to appear in the school’s Yuletide concert amid the carols and cantatas. The group were four sixth-formers with guitars and drums who played cover versions of current hit songs loudly if not skilfully. We youngsters in the audience were thrilled.  

That winter’s day, I walked the two miles home from school on Cloud Nine. This felt like a brave new world. Passing a clothes shop, my eyes lit upon a pair of ice-blue jeans – the must-have gear of the moment. Then, in a nearby music store, I saw on display in the window the Fab Four’s latest LP Beatles for Sale. I longed to own both jeans and album, but could afford neither. Yet somehow it didn’t matter. I felt an inner glow of – I don’t know – good fortune, to be there in that exciting era and to be young at such a time. Okay, I was just a naïve 13-year-old, but that didn’t make it any less real.

In the ensuing 60 years, the hard grind of life replaced that Sixties dreamtime, of course. However, as a white-haired codger in 2024, I now have a Beatles for Sale LP – and until recently I even owned a pair of ice-blue jeans. Mercifully, to save me from public ridicule, my wife consigned them to the charity shop. Happily though, that glow of 1964 has never died within me.

In 1974, long after the Beatles had gone their separate ways, a sculpture tribute to the group by Arthur Dooley was unveiled in Mathew Street, Liverpool, across from the Cavern Club. It consisted of a Madonna – representing Liverpool as the mother city of the Beatles – holding four babies. But it was the caption below the sculpture which was most striking. It read: Four Lads Who Shook the World. As a Beatlemaniac, I couldn’t have put it better.

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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