Meet The Beatles: The Road To Sgt. Pepper (Part Two)

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Prior to the formation of The Beatles, The Quarry Men struggled through the remaining years of the '50s as they continually pushed for gigs.

The group itself went through a changing line-up, most notably in terms of the addition of George Harrison as guitarist. Only 14 at the time to John's 17, George, a friend of Paul's, nearly didn't make it into the band, though John ultimately elected to let him in, recognizing that his talent would make them stronger in the end. In terms of gigs, things were not very hopeful early on, and they pretty much stayed local to Liverpool.

By May 1960, the group called itself The Silver Beetles (sometimes shortened to Silver Beats) before eventually evolving into The Beatles. After some local dates, they managed to score gigs at Allan Williams' Jacaranda coffee bar, which resulted in Williams becoming their booking agent on occasion between May 1960 and April 1961. In August 1960, Williams informed The Beatles that he could get them booked in Hamburg—which was turning out to be a booming location for rock and roll acts—if they could secure a drummer in time, as the group had been without one for a while.

They turned to Pete Best, who had already established himself and, more importantly, had a brand new drum set.

Traveling to Germany, they played the Indra Club for forty-eight nights beginning on August 17 and concluding October 3rd. The following day they shifted over to The Kaiserkeller for fifty-eight nights—where they shared the bill with Rory Storm And The Hurricanes, the drummer for which was Ringo Starr (who would eventually replace Best as group drummer). The experience performing live in Germany helped the group to hone their skills like nothing else had.

The group quickly realized that the type of performance they gave in Liverpool was not the kind of performance German audiences would accept. Writes Johnny Black in the pages of Mojo, "Within days, The Beatles found that the set they'd played in Liverpool would not be enough to satisfy Hamburg's red light district audiences. Before long, ballads were being ousted from the running order in favor of cranked-up rock tunes."

Remembered George, "We had to learn millions of songs… We'd get a Chuck Berry record and learn it all, same with Little Richard, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino—everything. But we'd also do things like 'Moonglow,' which we used to play as an instrumental. Anything, because we'd be on for hours — we'd make stuff up. Hamburg was really like our apprenticeship, learning how to play in front of people.”

Notes Allan Williams in the pages of The Beatles In Hamburg, "It was not Liverpool that made The Beatles, but Hamburg. The Beatles were a bum group before they went. They had only done a few gigs in Liverpool, and they hadn't got their act together, and that is where they learnt their trade."

Shortly after their return to Liverpool, The Beatles were given a gig at the Litherland Town Hall on December 27, 1960, and Williams said the difference in the band was immediately evident.

"The moment they went on stage," he offered, "all the bouncers thought there was a fight, because all the girls went screaming to the stage. You have never seen anything as electrifying as those Beatles as they exploded into action. The promoter put the bouncers on the door to stop other promoters getting to the band because he wanted to book them. And that's how Beatlemania in Liverpool first hit the town."

While the general perception, and one The Beatles themselves have shared, is the feeling that Hamburg made the band what it was, there are others who feel that it was actually Liverpool after they returned from Germany.

"I called Hamburg their baptism by fire," opines Mersey Beat editor Bill Harry, "because that really gave them impetus, but they could never have developed and gotten even better if it wasn't for Liverpool and the arrival of the other groups. Consider this: They go over to Hamburg, first at the Indra where nobody ever saw them. Then they go to the Kaiserkeller and they play these long hours. One or two gigs at the Top Ten Club, and then they're kicked out of the country and they're back in Liverpool. In Hamburg you just had two clubs on the first trip. So they go back to Hamburg and they appear at the Top Ten. The Kaiserkellar closes down and when they go the next time, there's just the Star Club and the Top Ten. That's two basic clubs. In Liverpool, there were about 300 venues and they'd do gig after gig after gig."

Spencer Leigh, author of, among other books, The Beatles In Hamburg and The Beatles In Liverpool, offers, "I think Hamburg formed their work ethic, but in Liverpool there was an awful lot of competition and they wanted to be better than the other bands that were around, and the other bands wanted to be better than them. There was a tremendous competition to get the new American songs and learn them to make it their own."

Says Harry, "It was a fantastic scene in Liverpool for The Beatles to develop with them sometimes playing three different clubs in one night. Liverpool was the city that really forged them."

The Birth Of Beatlemania

By 1963, a lot had changed. Best was out and Ringo was in, Brian Epstein had become their manager and successfully cleaned up their image and they’d signed a recording contract with EMI (Capitol in the US).

"The Beatles had worked hard for this situation," offers biographer Mark Lewisohn, "driven relentlessly with style by Brian Epstein. In the 12 months of 1963 the group slogged their way through the most uncompromising schedule of concert tours, one-night ballroom appearances, EMI recording sessions, BBC radio sessions, television appearances, photographic sessions and press interviews. They dodged no one and no assignment. Never before, it seems, had any pop group exerted themselves quite so much."

And it was all paying off. By the time September arrived, The Beatles had worked a trifecta in Britain: No. 1 Single (“She Loves You”), No. 1 EP (“Twist And Shout”) and No. 1 Album (Please Please Me). From that point, things continued to build until October 13, 1963 when the group performed live on Val Parnell’s Sunday Night At The London Palladium, the enormously popular variety show. Actually, as described by biographer Bob Spitz in The Beatles, it started to happen just before they appeared.

During the afternoon of their scheduled appearance, The Beatles went to the London Palladium to rehearse. While they were inside, a couple of hundred fans began gathering outside, and by the time they took a break to get something to eat and were making their way to a waiting car, all hell broke loose.

“An incredible roar went up, and not merely any roar but an ear-splitting blast of exultation, mixed with surprise, rapture, awe and abandon,” writes Spitz. “It was pandemonium on the sidewalk. Pushing and shoving broke out as the crowd moved en masse toward the agile, galloping quarter. The Beatles ran headlong through the gauntlet of grabby hands, diving for cover through the hastily opened car doors, as security guards moved quickly to hold back the crowd. The scene on the street caught the press napping, but in ten minutes every city desk in London went on alert, cranking up the machinery to cover a story that would take on a life of its own.”

 

When it was all over, things outside the Palladium had truly descended into madness. Offers Spitz, “Where earlier there had been two hundred girls outside the Palladium, by show’s end they were two thousand strong, all of them overcome with frenetic Beatles rapture. Like the reporters among them, they had heard about the earlier frenzy and used it as a model to express their emotional release, so by nightfall the screaming and sobbing seemed like the accepted way to react.”

In the end, their experience was actually shared with a then-astounding 15 million viewers, leading biographer Julius Fast to observe, “This, in everyone’s opinion, was the real moment of their arrival at the top. Only a year before they had cut their first commercial disk. It had taken just one year to springboard them to the top of England’s entertainment world, with reverberations that were felt in far-off, unsuspecting America.”

The Beatles' American success story actually had its beginnings in England. At Heathrow Airport, specifically, on October 31, 1963 when Ed Sullivan — host of the highly successful CBS variety series carrying his name — and his wife were in London, and were exposed to pandemonium at the airport. When it was pointed out the fans had gathered for a group called The Beatles, he made arrangements for the group to appear on his show on February 9, 1964. Coincidentally, that same week The Beatles had been scheduled to perform at two shows at Carnegie Hall, with a concert at the Washington Coliseum.

The stars had aligned perfectly.

 

As for the appearance of The Beatles themselves, Mojo magazine proclaimed, "On The Ed Sullivan Show, the country saw Beatlemania, live, up close and uncompromised, for the first time... The cameras' repeated cutaways to the screaming teenage girls in the studio audience, leaping in their seats and crying in ecstasy, made sure no one at home missed the physical and sexual energy flying between band and fans." Those people at home, incidentally, numbered about 74 million—a record at the time.

Mused Paul, "We came out of nowhere with funny hair, looking like marionettes or something. That was very influential. I think that was really one of the big things that broke us—the hairdo more than the music, originally. A lot of people's fathers had wanted to turn us off. They told their kids, 'Don't be fooled, they're wearing wigs.' A lot of fathers did turn it off, but a lot of mothers and children made them keep it on. All these kids are now grown-up and telling us they remember it. It's like, 'Where were you when Kennedy was shot?' Up until then [on Ed Sullivan] there were jugglers and comedians like Jerry Lewis and then, suddenly, The Beatles!"

Look for part three of “The Road To Sgt. Pepper” on Monday May 1st

MORE: 'The Beatles' Road To Sgt Pepper: John Lennon Meets Paul McCartney'

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