How Wales helped The Beatles make it big
His recently announced concert at the Millennium Stadium this summer will mark the first time Sir Paul McCartney has played in Wales for more than 30 years. Here, Nathan Bevan looks back on The Beatles legend’s time in the country, from his early days rehearsing in the basement of a Harlech barber shop to the Fab Four’s final UK gig in 1965.
THEY called it the Magical Mystery Tour and for The Beatles in 1967 it was as much an apt description of their new-found love of transcendental meditation and spiritual enlightenment as the title for their new album.
In fact, the Fab Four had famously travelled to the foothills of the Himalayas to find inner peace and boost creativity from the teachings of Indian guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
However, less well known – and substantially less exotic – was the time the band adopted the lotus position and chanted their mantras in Bangor after the Maharishi came to town that year for a seminar.
But, far from balancing their chakras, the planned 10-day-course at the Gwynedd seaside town became the location where the band received the terrible news that would kick-start the eventual break-up of their career.
“It was while they were there that they heard about their manager Brian Epstein’s death,” said Beatles tour guide and long-term fan of the band Philip Coppell.
The 32-year-old music entrepreneur, described by McCartney as “the real fifth Beatle”, had died from an overdose of sleeping tablets.
“That saw a big change in them, the beginning of the end very much,” said Mr Coppell, echoing Lennon’s words in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1970.
“I knew that we were in trouble right then. I thought ‘We’ve flamin’ had it now’,” said the singer as infighting and disillusionment with fame began to grind them down.
But Wales would also play an important role in other, happier periods of the group’s career – from early teenage visits to McCartney’s aunt at Horseshoe Pass near Llangollen to the time he and George Harrison rehearsed with a local band called The Vikings in the basement of a barber shop in Harlech.
Gerry Brookes, owner of the Seasons & Reasons general store which now occupies the musically historic site, remembered a lot of young men from Liverpool coming to the town to get casual work and play in the local pubs.
“We’ve a lady that still comes in here for her shopping now and again who claims to remember listening to them jamming as she tried to relax in her bath in the flat upstairs,” he said.
It was also in North Wales that they would acquire themselves a drummer by the name of Ringo.
“Starr was an apprentice joiner who played in a very popular live band at the time called Rory Storm & The Hurricanes,” said Coppell.
“They had been offered the summer season at Butlins in Pwllheli, and had to decide between joinery and showbiz.
“I guess he pictured all the girls in Pwllheli and that made his mind made up for him.
“But while he was there, John and Paul rang him up and asked if he wanted to drum for them, offering him £25 a week.
“Sure enough, he packed his bags and did a runner that very night.”
The hysteria that followed The Beatles around was felt in such places as the Ritz Ballroom on Rhyl promenade and at Abergavenny Town Hall Ballroom, which local promoter Eddie Tattersall had secured for the tiny fee of £250, having luckily booked them just before they hit the big time.
However, in the run up to the show, John Lennon had been double-booked with an appearance on the BBC’s Jukebox Jury, leaving Epstein to arrange a helicopter, at a cost of more than £100, to take him from Battersea Heliport in London to Penypound Football Ground in order to make it in time.
But it was at a later two-night stint the Odeon Cinema in Llandudno that the full weight of Beatlemania really became apparent.
Billed as “Britain’s fabulous disc stars”, the scenes at the shows drew in furious letters of complaints to the local newspapers, one disgruntled reader commenting: “While having a more than mild interest in the popular music of today, I was appalled and disgusted at the unbelievable display of mass hysteria which took place at the theatre.
“The audience, it seemed to me, had gathered without any intentions of listening to the artistes but merely to enact a hysterical ritual of audience participation.”
By the time the band played Cardiff’s Capitol Cinema in December 1965 – another momentous date as it would prove to be their last paying UK performance – the fans’ reaction had reached fever pitch.
“When they played there, their 120 volt amps could barely compete with all the screaming,” laughed Coppell
“There’s a classic story about Ringo turning to the others afterwards and saying ‘I thought Hard Day’s Night went well’, and John replying ‘We didn’t do Hard Day’s Night’.
“And then Ringo goes ‘Well, I did.’
“They simply couldn’t hear each other out there you see.”
The Beatles’ influence still proliferates through the Welsh music scene today, said The Storys’ Steve Balsamo.
“We’re all massive, massive fans and Andy our bass player has based his entire style on McCartney’s – he’s his hero,” said the Swansea singer and one-time West End star.
“For me, Paul is one of the best pop singers who’s ever lived, never mind his song-writing which, of course, is genius.
“He’s often overlooked in the that field, but he’s such a fearless performer and that type of person comes around very seldom.
“If I could attain just half of that quality in what I do I’d die happy.”
Balsamo said echoes of Liverpool’s finest can be heard in other homegrown artists’ work.
“Without a doubt it’s there in albums by bands like Super Furry Animals – their singer Gruff [Rhys] is clearly an absolute Beatles nut. You can smell it a mile off,” he said.
“And, as far as I’m concerned, modern music is all the better for that.”
Tickets go on sale at 9am on Monday. Call 0844 847 2450 or 0871 297 0066