Sowing the Seeds of Beatlemania
Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry. In the post below he looks at Beatlemania.
Not far from the bustle of London’s Oxford Circus, in the two short blocks of Argyll Street (and especially outside the colonnaded façade of the London Palladium), anticipation rose from the sidewalks like steam escaping a pent-up subterranean boiler. In the cool evening air of 13 October 1963 at the Palladium’s stage door, even nearby Great Marlborough Street grew misty with the exhalations of stalking teenage mobs. Ultimately, their quarry would thwart them by escaping out the Palladium’s front door and into a miraculously undistinguished and suburban version of an Austin Princess, leaving the stage and the stage door behind them.
Forty-five years later, the images of British teens jumping, crying, grinning, and screaming as the Beatles smilingly tolerate the frenzy can still amaze us and leave us wondering “Why?” We cannot see the estimated fifteen million British viewers who electronically tasted the elixir in the comfort of their homes, but our voyeuristic glimpse of these adolescent exhortations can stir some of the same reactions. Many authors have placed the mass psychosis in the contexts of the Berlin wall, the Cuban missile crisis, the Profumo scandal, the continual threat of nuclear annihilation, and the Kennedy assassination. Others point to the demographic “bulge”: the postwar babies who had entered puberty and found the Beatles to be a happy excuse to express their independence. We might even consider the early sixties infatuation with electronic media: James Bond’s paraphernalia twisted into guitars, amplifiers, microphones, and cameras. (From Russia with Love premiered on 10 November 1963.) No single event or factor can explain the throngs that stood for hours waiting for concerts, and all of the factors together still leave us to ponder the exponential growth of adulation.
In the weeks that followed the Palladium concert, fans flocked to see the Beatles off on their first Scandinavian tour (closing down Heathrow when they returned). And they crowded outside the venerable Prince of Wales Theatre for the annual Royal Variety Performance on Monday 4 November 1963 where John Lennon uttered his infamous “rattle your jewelry” comment. The broadcast of this event the following Sunday on 10 November drew an eager audience of teens to watch the telly in family homes where innumerable conversations began on the subject of decorum and music.
But perhaps one of the most important events in the ascent of Beatlemania had taken place the previous year on a Friday in an improvised studio. EMI had invited teens into their Manchester Square corporate offices to function as an audience for a Radio Luxembourg taping on 16 November 1962 promoting the Beatles first single, “Love Me Do.” (Radio Luxembourg broadcast the program the next Friday.) For EMI, the introduction of pimply-faced hormone-addled adolescents into their sanctuary of accounting must have seemed a necessary inconvenience. But in the heart of that modern edifice, a pulse began that would shake the building, the nation, and the world. When host Muriel Young began introducing the band, the audience squealed and crowded the stage area, cowering close to the musicians, basking in the energy, and radiating the primordial impulse to bond. In that moment, the Beatles themselves sowed the seeds of insanity, magical beans that would grow and carry them into the land of pop giants.