In 1963, the Beatles rocked the U.K. and soon the rest of the world would follow suit
Sunday, Oct. 13, 1963. For most Britons, the prospect of another grim, listless week lay just ahead. Their economy, mired in inefficiencies and a pervasive state of desuetude, was a sobering reminder of how exhausted their phantom empire had become. The air, gun-metal gray and sooty, was still redolent of the Profumo scandal, which broke that summer.
But there were other currents of disruption afoot, and not even the machinations of Downing Street could hope to compete with this tidal force, which would surge across television sets at 8:25 that early-fall evening. The Beatles were appearing on “Sunday Night at the London Palladium.” And no one saw it coming.
Although they were topping the charts, the Beatles were still considered provincial, faddish and well below the radar of unforgivingly hip London. Appearing on the “Palladium” broadcast was daunting. As early as June, they were offered a spot but turned it down. Said John Lennon at the time: “There have been offers but we don’t feel that we are ready. We have seen others go on and be torn to pieces.”
Being “torn to pieces” might have become a regular part of the Fab Four’s repertoire, but it was more the frenzy of adulation than lambs to the slaughter. At a show in Bedford, Andrew Loog Oldham, in his ’60s memoir “Stoned,” remembers the pandemonium. “Onstage, you could not hear the Beatles for the roar of the crowd and the roar I heard was the roar of the whole world. The audience that evening expressed something beyond repressed adolescent sexuality. The noise they made was the sound of the future. I didn’t see it — I heard and felt it. When I looked at (Beatles manager) Brian (Epstein), he had the same lump in his throat and tear in his eye as I.”
The Palladium Theater is situated on Argyll Street in London’s West End. Thousands of fans, mostly girls, poured out of the Oxford Circus tube station, gathering up steam and screams. The security staff was woefully unprepared, hopelessly outnumbered. Inside the hall, one could hear the muffled roar from outside, like the echo of a portentous thunderclap. Host Bruce Forsyth teased the crowd early on with a brief cameo from the lads; but their set was saved until the end. Four songs, “From Me to You,” “I’ll Get You,” “She Loves You” and “Twist and Shout,” brought the proceedings to a properly pitched frenzy.
Ringo: “There was nothing bigger in the world than making it to the Palladium.”
John: “It was the greatest experience we have had so far — as soon as we were clear of the theater, we all agreed on that.”
George: “We were told all the time, ‘You’ll never do anything, you Northern bastards.’ And we walked right through London, the Palladium, and kept on going through Ed Sullivan and on to the world.”
Monday morning’s tabloids and broadsheets fought it out for the most hyperbolic coverage. The Daily Mirror nailed it in one word: “Beatlemania!” Like Dorothy in Oz, the skies suddenly shifted from monochrome to kaleidoscope.
On Nov. 4, they played before the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret at the prestigious Royal Variety Command Performance. Lennon, ever cheeky, uttered his immortal piss take: “For those in the cheaper seats, clap your hands. The rest of you, rattle your jewelry.” Even the Royals had to laugh. The Beatles had charmed the pants off the toffs and the knickers off the rest of England. America now beckoned.
On April 14, 1964, Billboard Magazine reported the Beatles at Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 31, 41, 46, 58, 65, 68 and 79. Res ipsa loquitur.
The sea change that the Beatles created is all the more dramatic when one examines what came before.
Ready Teddy Go
During the Eisenhower ’50s, American teenagers swooned and swayed to the first blasts of rock ‘n’ roll. Adolescence clashed with authority to the beat of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” in the bigscreen hit “Blackboard Jungle.” The sullen, smoldering intensity of Elvis, with his corrupt, curling lip, elicited desire that bordered on blood lust. And it was all packaged, commodified and sold — next to Howdy Doody and Davy Crockett’s coonskin cap — to a burgeoning society of consumers whose appetites rivaled those of biblical locusts.
Across the pond, English teens still dealt with war rationing. Prospects were nil. Politicians were patronizing and dismissive of young people’s concerns, the long leash of class status continuing to throttle hope and ambition. In the north, a provincial city like Liverpool was rocked hard by the new sounds, the new fashions, the confrontational attitude. A young Lennon embraced the “Teddy Boy” look: the duck’s arse (DA) haircut; drainpipe trousers; winklepicker shoes; the long, Edwardian frock coats (Eddy = Teddy).
“Teds were magnificent specimens with an attitude way out above any station,” wrote Oldham. “They were the first teenagers to stand up, let it rip and be counted. I loved the sight of a Ted on the high street a whole lot better than the first American rock ‘n’ roller I got to see live.”
In short order, England began to market its own brand of pop culture. By January 1957, there were two television shows devoted to “the new thing” with plenty more to follow: “Cool for Cats,” “Oh, Boy!,” “Six-Five Special,” “Dig This” and “Drumbeat” competed for the attention of a deficit-disordered teenage audience. A phalanx of pop stars was waiting in the wings: Cliff Richard and the Drifters, Tommy Steele and Billy Fury all hit the charts with their frenetic pastiche of American rhythm and blues, rockabilly, folk and country.
Back in Liverpool, Lennon began his musical apprenticeship by embracing the skiffle movement led by Lonnie Donegan. It required only the most rudimentary skills (a washboard!), but it nurtured winning melodies and infectious rhythms. He soon teamed with local mates Paul McCartney and George Harrison, playing and rehearsing with a fervor that was surely absent from his “studies” at the Liverpool College of Art. Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers became their teachers, the craft of songwriting the sole curriculum. They needed a name — the Beetles ala Buddy’s Crickets, became the Beatles because it was “les beat” when you turned it around. Tres cool!
Liverpool, being a port city, was a crossroads not only for products but people, particularly American soldiers and sailors. Chocolate bars and nylons were replaced by vinyl albums as door-openers. And the most coveted currency was that of black recording artists. It was through this sea train that Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry made their English debuts. They were rapturously received by a subculture untainted by racial prejudice.
The English had no indigenous black population, no burdensome history of segregation to surmount. The music spoke directly to their own sense of alienation and disenfranchisement. Most important, it was a joyful noise, a celebration over adversity. It provided a jolt that jumpstarted a thousand bands, put the Teddys to rest and replaced their gear with leather jackets and mouthfuls of leapers. The music became hard, tough, furious. To make it you had to be ruthless like a gangster; instead of a gun, you pointed a guitar.
Years later, Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan’s manager, would observe that the Beatles’ greatest accomplishment was making it “OK to be white.” But in August 1960, the Beatles were less concerned about shedding their influences than in finding their own sound. A six-week residency in Hamburg loomed dead ahead. It was the end of pretending and the beginning of believing. It was time to hustle.
The ‘pluperfect storm’
When Brian Epstein clambered down those sweaty steps into the Cavern to hear what all the fuss was about, Liverpool was bursting at its musical seams.
“There were at least 300 bands going,” reckons Martin Lewis, the Denis Diderot of Beatle encyclopedists, “and the Beatles weren’t even at the top. Maybe amongst the best four or five.”
But Epstein immediately recognized that they were special — an animating spirit coursed through all of them, magnetic, endearing, enduring.
He took the Hoover to them: out with the scruff, in with the Dougie Millings suits; out with the moody Pete Best, in with the radiant charm of Ringo Starr. No, said Decca Records; yes, said EMI and Abbey Road Studios.
Mark Lewisohn, author of numerous Beatle books, offers this rigorous assessment: Epstein “was a perfect blend of style, vision, naivete and devotion”; producer George Martin was “creative, keen to experiment, willing to listen, an expert about music but nicely inexperienced in pop and rock”; and Dick James, their music publisher, “an avuncular and protective man hungry for success.”
This unprecedented conflation of talent, ambition and opportunity, a “pluperfect storm,” in Lewis’ words, gathered around England and crashed ashore that Sunday night at the London Palladium in 1963.
It was the Beatles year of wonders. They transformed themselves and, by extension, all of us in ways that continue to resonate to this day. Even the misanthropic English poet, Philip Larkin, was abashed, offering this memorable tribute:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) —
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first L.P.
It’s called “Please Please Me.” Check it out.