Join Date: Feb 05, 2001
Was Beatlemania a media-hype?
Mark Lewinsohn investigates for MOJO:
I wanna be your FAN!
Even when it came to their fans The Beatles proved to be something new. Mark Lewinsohn charts the amazing rise of Beatlemania.
The images persist: four guys in suits or smart raincoats being chased by hundreds of fans, girls frenzied at their merest glimpse, sloping Bobbies – arms-linked, teeth-gritted, straining to hold back the throng, heels dug as deep as the grins on their faces; John with a black comb for Hitler`s moustache, siegheiling to the massed crowds.
Beatlemania is a collective global warming 40 years and counting. Social commentators were baffled and psychologists waffled out half-baked rationale: “The girls are subconsciously preparing for motherhood; their frenzied screams are a rehearsal for that moment,” one analyst helpfully informed the News Of The World. To this day, Beatlemania remains a slippery subject, hard to pin down and not much easier to explain. But its history, at least, is clearer, and no less exciting.
Beatlemania – the word – was the invention of the (then Fleet Street-based) national press, and they certainly found the subject an inexhaustible source of fun and good humour. Yet Beatlemania itself was no media gadget, no record company hype, no Popstars. British teenagers were not stirred to fever pitch by hyperbole. This was a natural phenomenon, an all too rare – unique apart from Elvis – coincidence of a particular talent striking the people in its purest form. While the press revelled in rather than reviled it, the public also wanted Beatlemania.
There were lots of groups around in 1963 and yet it wasn`t Brian Poole And The Tremeloesmania. The Beatles had the complete package: a kaleidoscope of attraction that included good looks, uplifting songs, a great “sound” (to use the vernacular of the day), inquisitive, intelligent and unfettered minds, wit, impudence, arrogance, indomitable personalities and an extraordinary, innate ability to play the media. And on top of this heady brew was the miracle that one – scarcely the fans yet and certainly not Fleet Street – could foresee: The Beatles has a genius for timing and an instinctive ability to surprise and be ruthlessly original.
Mass adulation wasn`t new. A once popular British humorist, Gale Pedrick, wrote in 1957, “Fan-worship in its nastier form – hysteria, mob frenzy and utter lack of good taste – is completely foreign to Britain`s traditional sang-froid, and it is all the more remarkable that we started it.”
The romantic actor-manager Lewis Waller had a fan club in the early 1900s, after which film stars Rudolf Valentino, Ramon Novarro and Carl Brisson had invoked screams in the 1920s and singers Johnnie Ray and Frank Sinatra likewise in the 1950s. After 1957 came rock`n`roll, which rejuvenated idolising – many girls had screamed at Cliff Richard since “Move It” and some even screamed quite a bit at Jess Conrad, whose attributes may well have been extensive but they ran some way short of spot-on tuneful singing. Such idols were marketed as movie stars by the ageing Variety/showbiz establishment, which ran the British music business until late into the 1960s.
For The Beatles, a form of genuine mania was present long before the nation knew them. Some (though, not all) of those who witnessed their December 27, 1960 performance at Litherland Town Hall, claim that Beatlemania was born that night, when this band of unknown locals mostly from the south of the city – John, Paul, George, Pete and the temporary and much overlooked Chas (Newby) – unleashed their Hamburg know-how on an unsuspecting crowd of drainpiped and creped North Liverpool jivers. It is said there was a sudden, mad rush to the front of the hall, with screaming.
Over the next two years The Beatles continued to attract a local reception which was certainly an embryonic Beatlemania. As early as August 1961 the sagely and articulate Bob Wooler – DJ at The Cavern and several other venues – wrote an article in Mersey Beat expressing his gratitude at “the opportunities of presenting them to fever-pitch audiences”. The Beatles were “the stuff that screams are made of,” Wooler declared.
In 1963, with interest in The Beatles spread by the rather curious, ear-grabbing Love Me Do and by hundreds of gigs planned by Brian Epstein in an ever-wider sweep beyond Lancashire, the same picture emerged on the national canvas. Fleet Street editors didn`t cotton on until the autumn – they were actually well late – yet some perceptive individuals were quick off the mark. The first important piece of journalism about The Beatles was an article by Maureen Cleave published in the London Evening Standard. Based on an interview conducted on January 10 and 11 (Please Please Me was released on the 11th) it was titled “Why The Beatles create all that frenzy”. Just under two weeks later, on January 22, The Beatles hosted a press round-robin in between and after recording lunchtime, afternoon and evening BBC radio shows in London. Writing in the Peter Cook-funded arts magazine Scene, Gordon Williams remarked on how “The little girls cheer The Beatles in a frantic way,” and added, “outside, a hundred or so of the same infants try to tear the door off the taxi in which the four boys are going to travel to a West End hotel to have some more interviews.”
Williams also noted that Brian Epstein, “hears the screaming of the assembled infantitude and agrees that owning The Beatles does, indeed, feel something like sitting on a bomb which will soon go off in a mushroom of money.”
The adulation gathered pace solidly through the spring of 1963. Please Please Me hit Number 2 and in April they had their first Number 1 with From Me To You. The Beatles did a score of press interviews and photo-shoots when they had a spare couple of hours, which wasn`t often: from January to April they appeared in 12 TV shows, 16 live and recorded radio sessions, cut their debut album and second Number 1 single, and performed 95 gigs; on the few dates in between the nationwide, nightly package tours with Helen Shapiro, Tommy Roe/Chris Montez and Roy Orbison, Brian Epstein had them booked into ballrooms from Southsea to Sunderland.
”Fantastic. I`ve never known anything like it.” That was the verdict of Ron Stoten, harassed manager of the State ballroom, Kilburn, on Tuesday evening. He had spent an exhausting evening trying to hold back hundreds of hysterical teenagers who had flocked to see (and hear) the fabulous Beatles.
Kilburn Times (headline: Screaming Teenagers Flock To Heart The Beatles), April 1963
Beatlemania was underway. Ironically, after the twist boom had peaked and Chubby Checker lay panting in the wings, The Beatles had wondered what the next pop fad would be. Latin-beat, perhaps? Calypso-rock? They hadn`t imagined that they would be it, let alone that in their wake a shipload of their Liverpool mates would suddenly be dominating the charts. On the BBC Top 20, unveiled to an eager teen nation from four until five o`clock every Sunday afternoon in Pick Of The Pops, British acts accounted for the Number 1 spot in all 52 weeks in 1963. In the second half of the year, Liverpool groups spent five months at the top. The Beatles own tally for 1963 was 18 weeks at Number 1, more than a third of the year.
If Beatlemania surprised The Beatles, and they often said it did, they took it fully in their stride. As George revealed in the Anthology book, sex was at least one of the bonuses. “We would pull up at the gig and run through them [the girls] to the stage door. And if you could quickly suss out the ones who looked half decent you could push them in through the door with you, slam it behind, and then they`d come up to the room”.
”Around 50 hysterical girls were carried backstage, where they lay dazed after fainting. The girls, many of whom were shaking from head to toe and crying, were laid on the floor. It looked like a battlefield. It is a sight I never want to see again.”
Nelson Leader (headline: Beatles On The Battlefield), May 1963
It wasn`t too long before the mania began to infringe The Beatles` personal freedom. For ever-dependable aide and roadie Neil Aspinall, Beatlemania was certainly a right pain in the backside. Hassled to hell a she laboured to offload equipment out of the van and into the halls, then hassled to hell again afterwards and thwarted in his speedy getaway attempts by deflated tyres (one up for the girls) and souvenir-hunted windscreen wipers that would anyway have merely smeared the tableau of lipsticked love messages.
Rock Boys Flee Screaming Mob As Teenagers Go Wild
Romford Times headline, June 1963
Girl Bites Stewart At Leeds Dance
Yorkshire Evening News headline, June 1963
Beatlemania got The Beatles into some very unusual scrapes, and they enjoyed quite an interest surveying the madness around them (“You could make a film, just showing how idiotic everybody else was whenever The Beatles came town – George in Anthology again) yet they were also maddened when the sound of screaming began to obscure the sound of music. Coinciding as this did with a sudden slashing of their stage time – from what had been, at one extreme, six hours a night in Hamburg, to 10 or 15 or 20 minutes twice-nightly on the package tours, “s snack instead of a meal,” John once described it – dissatisfaction with live performances quickly set in. Ballrooms were the last place where punters would have seen The Beatles play for anything like a decent amount of time, usually two half-hour sets in an evening, but with the riotous scenes at such gigs Epstein quickly realised The Beatles` lives were in danger and no longer booked ballrooms. From autumn 1963 until their last tour date in December 1965, The Beatles only played in Britain in theatres or cinemas with stages.
”I suddenly realised why pop records sell so well. The fans buy them so they can listen to the words at home, then they know where to scream when they see their idols on the stage,”
Bournemouth Evening Echo, August 1963
If Beatlemania was cooking in the summer of 1963, then She Loves You brought it to the boil. The Beatles had introduced the Little Richard-inspired “Oooooh” into From Me To You, then noticed that when they sang it and shook their heads the girls went absolutely wild; repeating the phrase in She Loves You provided a sense of continuity even though the song dispensed with the harmonica sound that had hallmarked Love Me Do, Please Please Me and From Me To You. Morevoer, they “yeah yeah yeah” lyric – an inspired blend of postwar urban British chic and glamorously appealing Americana – immediately became a catchphrase for the young, every bit as much as their elders had their music hall, radio and TV heroes` catchprase.
Released two weeks before schools went back, the summer holidays over, She Loves You thumped straight into the BBC chart at Number 7 and then leapt to Number 1 a week later. As sales proceeded to go through the roof the British music business was agog. Record companies, record distributors, record shops, music publishers and their army of pluggers, sheet music salesmen, club owners, managers, agents, promoters – everyone was suddenly winning; pop music had come alive.
British popular culture, groundbreaking (and no longer necessarily so good-natured) satire, a thriving pop art movement, and a cultural drift northwards with Look Back In Anger, A Taste Of Honey and Coronation Street, now let loose. A generation of postwar children, raised on rationing, kept healthy by free school milk and the socialist National Health Service, educated at state-funded schools and colleges of art and liberated by the abolition of national service, had money to splash and a strong (albeit still mostly unspoken) desire to live life more fully than their parents. Record sales had already been steadily increasing, from a spend of 15m pounds in 1960 to 17.4m in 1962: the people wanted to buy. And it all took off with She Loves You. Stuck in the 1930s for 30 years, Britain came roaring up to speed in the few seconds John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison to harmonise “yeah yeah yeah”.
Such was the timing, and the dynamic impact, The Beatles quickly began to permeate even establishment bastions, whose then-sniffy attitude to pop had always been in absolute contrast to their complete embracing of it today. On September 12, the BBC`s still rather august listings journal Radio Times printed an exclusive full-page photo of The Beatles in its weekly series Portrait Gallery. Readers were invited to send a two-shilling-postal-order in return for which they would receive a glossy print. The usual take-uo was around 10,000; more than 250,000 applications deluged the magazine`s office.
The mayhem at the gigs, the fantastic record sales, the surge in all-round interest – the head of steam was ever building and it was at this point that Fleet Street jumped on board. Newspapermen too loved the ride – it did wonders for circulation – and the immortal word Beatlemania was born. Suddenly, a trendy vicar of the kind spoofed in Beyond The Fringe wanted them to sing Oh Come All Ye Faithful Yeah Yeah Yeah as a Christmas carol; parents – suddenly definable as old fogies or trendy – were either pleased or furious that headmasters were sending boys home for sporting “long Beatles hair”; there were questions in Parliaments about the cost of the Beatles` police protection; they were the subject of TV, radio and night club comedy sketches and songs; a Beatles ballet was announced for the West End; their first feature-film contract was sealed, as was the BBC`s plan to devote an hour of prime-time television to them in December; and Conservative MP Anthony Barber – later the Chancellor of the Exchequer – became the first politician of the modern era to shove his progeny (his Beatles-mad daughter Josephine) into the limelight in order to court publicity. Newspapers ran all these and more daily good-time stories. Screaming girls, struggling policemen, a constable`s helmet rolling on the floor: “It`s those Beatles again!” When they returned to London from a week`s tour of Sweden and faced their first “airport reception” the BBC Home Service sent along a news journalist to report on the cheerful mayhem, Reg Abbiss shouting in stentorian tones; “What confusion here!”.
Hindsight has revealed that Fleet Street was not going to spoil the fun- Although continuously hungry for Beatles stories – they quickly found and splashed the Beatle Wide, the Beatle Child, the arty Dead Beatles and the Dumped Ex-Beatles Drummer – they unanimously failed to remind readers that, as recently as June, John had beaten up Bob Wooler at Paul`s 21st birthday party. The story had made the Daily Mirror at the time but this was before the press`s Beatlemania bandwagon had begun to roll. The Mirror`s piece would have been topmost in any Beatles cutting file in Fleet Street and beyond; a Beatle had commited grievous bodily harm to a long-time acquaintance and supporter – a headline of this nature could have damaged The Beatles severely. But the papers held off; they would only begin to get nasty when The Beatles began transgressing their unwritten laws. And still Beatlemania escalated. Sunday Night At The London Palladium gave The Beatles blanket headlines for days, the Royal Variety Show even more. These and the daily scream stories from around the country then combined to produce the single most phenomenal moment in the rise of the British music industry: She Loves You shot back to Number 1 at the end of November. It had spent five weeks at the summit in September and then held firm at 3, 3, 2, 2 and 2. Now it returned to the top. The Beatles were still adding scores of thousands of new fans every week – She Loves You had already sold an industry-boggling three-quarters of a million before these fresh converts were pushing it into seven figures. And at this very moment, just four weeks before Christmas, with everyone connected to the music and relevant retail industries already lying prone in paroxysms of unimaginable delight, EMI pulled the trigger and released I Want To Hold Your Hand to over a million advance orders.
And then it was bloody pandemonium. People said they`d “never seen the like” and they hadn`t. In Britain, The Beatles, if not yet bigger than Jesus, were already bigger than Elvis.
The Beatles` Autumn Tour – 68 shows at 34 nationwide venues in November and December, their fee 300 pounds a night – was the pinnacle of British Beatlemania. The screaming, the fainting, the drama, the disguises, the getaways – here was a media orgy for all-comers.
The Beatles Come To Town, the eight-minute Pathé colour newsreel shot at the ABC Cinema in Ardwick, Manchester on November 20, is the primary relic of the period. Although garish and oddly and poorly shot, with some very close close-ups, the excitement remains almost touchable.
The year ended with, as the London Evening Standard reported in a special supplement, the word Beatles “engraved upon the heart of the nation”, and The Times breaking ground with its first serious journalistic take on pop music, a critic`s article praising the freshness and excellence of songwriters Lennon-McCartney – a piece that the pair loved to send up. In 1963, The Beatles had gone from a beat-up van to an Austin Princess, and revolutionised British popular culture in the space of three singles. The cinema venues (and undeveloped British music industry) prevented them from being a stadium act in their home country but The Beatles Christmas Show – at the Finsbury Park Astoria from December 24 to January 11, 1964 – was an equivalent: The Beatles played to 70,000, but it took 30 performances over 16 nights to do it.
Had The Beatles story ended here they may still be in the history books, though only the British ones. But Beatlemania went on to become a worldwide love affair. In January 1964, while – pfouf! – the French held out against embracing Les Beatles, and Fleet Street temporarily and unintelligently picked at the fabric by suggesting that The Dave Clark Five had stolen their mantle (“the Tottenham sound crushes the Liverpool sound”), America capitulated in about four weeks. This was the clincher.
It is often said that The Beatles were the first British act to break into America. This is factually wrong (Vera Lynn, Eddie Calvert, Lonnie Donegan, Laurie London, The Tornados) but actually right. These people had enjoyed freak hits; Cliff Richard, meanwhile, had the humbling American experience of being booked a long way down the bill on a January/February 1960 Frankie Avalon and Freddie Cannon tour, the quaint “British rock´n´roll star.”
Paul McCartney says The Beatles informed Brian Epstein they wouldn`t subject themselves to such ignominy. But such resolve never had to be tested: I Want To Hold Your Hand flew virtually straight to Number 1 on all the US charts – Billboard, Cash Box and Record World – and was in every sense to America in 1964 what She Loves You had been to Britain in 1963.
The arrival of Beatlemania US-style had been assisted by a tremendous run of coincidences. I Want To Hold Your Hand was still selling dynamically when the group arrived in New York to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, booked long before the record`s release. The band were backed by a Capitol Records publicity blitz, a campaign that saw The Beatles truly hyped for the first time. And the breakthrough was perhaps assisted by the nation`s quest for good cheer in the aftermath of Kennedy`s assassination only two months earlier. (Some say this is psychobabble but it does make sense).
All the same, it was The Beatles everyone wanted, and they did not flinch. Their handling of their first American press conference was consummate: articulate and witty Beatles in best switched-on bright and breezy mode. So the American press went along with the fun just as Fleet Street had done.
After this, Beatlemania is more or less down to statistics. The biggest gigs were in America, Shea Stadium setting a world record, the most rigorous policing was in Japan, the biggest trouble in the Philippines and the biggest crowds outside hotels were in Australia, where George asked Derek Taylor to wave his hand through a curtain because he was too spent by the experience to do it himself. Ringo mostly enjoyed it, it seems; Paul has said that he loved most of it most of the time; John in 1970, angry after primal therapy, would remember “the most humiliating experiences”.
And all this time on, all these decades later, Beatlemania endures, the soundtrack to the first half of seven whirlwind, world-altering years…still vigorating, still bringing a smile to the face.