New dawn down under

A crowd gathers at Momona Airport as the Beatles arrive in Dunedin. Below from left: A police...
A crowd gathers at Momona Airport as the Beatles arrive in Dunedin. Below from left: A police officer stands between excited fans and the stage at the Dunedin Town Hall; the Beatles perform on stage, separated from the town hall crowd by a thin line of blue; crowds mob the Beatles’ car outside the City Hotel. Photos: When We Was Fab, ODT and Evening Star archives
The Beatles didn’t just tour New Zealand, they changed it, Andy Neill, one of the authors of a new book, tells Tom McKinlay.

A battered and bruised John Lennon barely made it inside Dunedin’s City Hotel, when the Beatles visited 60 years ago, such was the crush in Princes St outside.

"By the time he arrived inside, John was being lifted over the top of the mob, who had surged into the lobby, and virtually dumped into the concertina lift, which had an inside metal door," a new book records — quoting the late Neil Collins, then early in his radio career.

In protest, or simply out of a need to recuperate, Lennon was a no show at the scheduled Dunedin press conference — out of character for the relentlessly accommodating band, but understandable.

Thousands had gathered outside the Dunedin hotel that day to get a look at the four young musicians, whose trajectory towards unrivalled fame had taken off in earnest in the previous 12 months.

Asked later that year, during an American tour, whether the band had ever feared for its safety, Lennon recalled the incident.

"Once in New Zealand, it was a bit rough. I thought, definitely. A big clump of my hair had gone, I don’t mean just a bit. I was halfway on the ground. I thought ‘hello’. Because they’d put about three policemen on about three or four thousand kids, and they refused to put any more on. ‘We’ve had all sorts over here,’ you know, ‘we’ve seen ’em all’, and they had seen ’em all as we crashed to the ground ..."

George Harrison, when asked a similar question at the Dunedin press conference, said they’d told the police they’d need to control the crowd, but was informed "You don’t need to tell us about crowd control, we’ve had Vera Lynn through here!".

From the distance of hindsight, it’s easy to wonder at the naivete of the city’s police force.

But the book’s authors make a compelling case in their defence, capturing the unprecedented heat and pace of the Beatles phenomenon. No-one could have anticipated it.

Indeed, it wasn’t just the police who were made to look a little flat-footed.

When We Was Fab: Inside The Beatles Australasian Tour 1964, by Andy Neill and Greg Armstrong, does what it says on the box, providing a forensically detailed examination of a cultural detonation. The tour was a remarkable event, squeezed in between television appearances and venue-filling shows in London, and the band’s conquest of the United States. The following month, A Hard Day’s Night hit cinemas and the Beatles’ legend was assured.

"This tour happened in the middle of this amazing cultural bulldozer that was going through everything," Neill says.

That the tour down under happened at all was at least as much a result of good luck as it was good management, his book makes clear. It is being published to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the tour, this month, after earlier plans to mark the 50th fell through.

However, Neill, an ex-pat Kiwi now based in the UK, says that turned out to be a blessing when an important archive was made available in 2014.

It hadn’t been their intention to spend another 10 years on it, he says down the phone line.

"But I’m glad we did because we got the chance to tell it as it really was."

It’s interesting to flick through the photos in the richly illustrated volume, in which the eager young faces of the post-war generation are turned so hopefully towards this harbinger of a brighter, more upbeat future.

They are photos from another time, without a doubt, many still monochrome, but it’s clear that then as now, young people were curious followers of fashion and hungry for the new — as embodied in the Mersey sound.

Haircuts and clothing in the photos reflect the influence of the rock’n’roll of the previous decade — the trends that had already lit a fuse.

It’s arguable, again in hindsight, that there was a clue there for the authorities, that the young people of New Zealand were primed and ready for the invasion.

Indeed, Neill says, they would have seen, by June 1964, the newsreels and newspaper reports from the northern hemisphere of the ecstatic reception the Beatles were receiving — the mobbing, screaming near-hysteria.

Paul McCartney and George Harrison during one of the two Dunedin concerts.
Paul McCartney and George Harrison during one of the two Dunedin concerts.
"I think that it was not so much the kids, but the authorities that were the problem. Because the authorities were, I guess, patronising about the whole thing. They just thought, ‘oh, you know, they’re just kids ... They’re much more excitable overseas. It won’t happened here’. Of course, it will happen here."

And this is why this tour is so important, he says, because of when it happened and the nature of the receiving environment.

"It was the Holyoake years, the Keith Holyoake years, you know. New Zealand had the best — as I talk about early in the Wellington chapter — had the best standards of living and the best cost of living in the world.

"People had a good standard of living and respected their elders and all that sort of stuff. But the

’60s were coming."

Nineteen sixty-four was a new dawn.

"The Beatles arrived with all the attendant publicity about the clothes and the scandalously long hair — which is crazy when you think about it."

The tour was such a defining moment, you could almost talk of BB and AB, Neill says.

"Before Beatles and after Beatles."

Certainly in terms of the music charts it was pivotal, as they were almost completely dominated by the US before the tour, despite New Zealand and Australia’s historical ties to the UK.

"And literally within days, if not weeks, it all turns full circle. And it becomes the British Invasion, the Beatles as a spearhead."

The mismatch between the enthusiasm of a younger generation for change and the ossified outlook of the establishment is further underlined in the book in the correspondence between tour promoters in New Zealand and their agents in the UK the previous year.

At the time, Sir Robert Kerridge’s theatre chain, Kerridge Odeon, were the pre-eminent importers and promoters of touring acts. But the tastes of those in the company were conservative. Opera and light entertainment were more their thing, Neill says.

In mid-1963, when the Beatles had yet to make much of an impact in New Zealand — despite Please, Please Me charting — Kerridge, the company, was asked if it was interested in booking the band. Norman Glover, its associate general manager, thought not.

However, over the following months, Kerridge’s agents in the UK were witnessing the unstoppable momentum of the mop tops.

The near comical correspondence between the two hemispheres is recorded in the book, as the UK connections urged the New Zealand and Australian theatre companies to sit up and smell the coffee.

All the while, the money the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, was expecting for his act was creeping skywards.

By September 1963, the penny was beginning to drop for Glover, a chartered accountant by trade.

In July, he’d written: "I do not feel that they would have sufficient appeal to justify our importing them at this juncture". In September, it was "during the past couple of months their record sales have increased substantially ... would you be good enough to let me know when the Beatles could consider a tour of New Zealand."

In October, the Beatles appeared on the UK variety show Sunday Night at the London Palladium and the following day Fleet Street coined the phrase "Beatlemania".

Kerridge’s man in London, Cyril Berlin, dashed off a note saying they were "the most exciting and interesting group this country has ever had and will undoubtedly become internationally famous".

By November, the band’s fee had jumped from £1000 to £2500, the entourage was expanding as were their demands that expenses be met, but Kerridge was now desperate for the band’s signature as I Want to Hold Your Hand stormed the charts.

Epstein provided verbal assurances that, yes, the Beatles would tour down under, but it wasn’t until January of 1964 that documents were finally inked.

"By the time the deal was actually agreed, in December ’63, the Beatles were literally on the cusp of having their first record. They’re about to release I Want To Hold Your Hand in America and it’s all about to just go completely berserk, you know, no-one could have predicted it. So luckily, just the way the stars were aligned, they managed to get the deal done just before. Brian Epstein could have been asking for £50,000 a show. It was just madness. I mean, that first chapter is literally like a game of Russian chess," Neill says.

Once the tour was under way, the Beatles proved to be not only the game-changing musicians promised but almost indefatigably amenable.

The book recounts their arrival in Sydney, where they exited the plane to a tropical storm, battling both their umbrellas and trademark capes as they were ushered on to a truck-borne float for a lap around the tarmac. It was the sort of comedy that could hardly be scripted — and would later be mined by the likes of The Monkees.

"Apparently, Paul McCartney jumped into the back of the car [after the float ride] drenched as a rat, and said, ‘are we still doing this for the old money?’. And the promotor said, ‘yes, yes, we got you for the old money’. He said, ‘oh well, good on you’."

There was no suggestion that, once on the ground, they would short-change the colonies, Neill says.

"And I think if you look at the Beatles history, if they committed themselves to something, they did it, you know."

Australia also provided an argument that all the sceptics and doubters could cling to, because the band members themselves could hardly believe the reception in Adelaide, where 300,000 turned out to greet them off the plane.

The book records one of the people accompanying the band, saying the Beatles themselves were gobsmacked.

"I could see them looking at one another. They knew it was for them but they were thinking ‘What?’, ‘How?’, ‘Why?’."

For all that the folks from Kerridge Odeon had finally managed to scramble over the hurdle of propriety and the book the band, the shows they staged still look dated to contemporary eyes.

The Beatles were expected to play twice nightly, as they roared up and down the motu in a week.

"It wasn’t just the pop group, you know, you had the old school compere announcing the band," Neill says.

And support acts for the tour included some by then already passe rock’n’rollers.

That said, it was also true that tickets for the Beatles’ Dunedin shows didn’t all go like hot cakes.

Early postal bookings sold just 1000 of the 6000 seats available, across the two Dunedin Town Hall shows — 6pm and 8.30pm. And tickets were still being advertised the day before. Dunedin had been lucky twice that the Beatles were coming to town, as its date on the tour was originally scheduled for a second Christchurch show.

The promoters gamble paid off though, as the town hall was a sea of faces by the time the June 26 show began. Furthermore, the authorities had learned their lesson.

Just before the Beatles took to the stage, a side door to the auditorium opened and a thin blue line of 20 policeman filed in to stand shoulder to shoulder in front of the stage.

It was just as well. At the start of the night’s second show — the Beatles having been smuggled out a side door at their hotel to make the venue — several hundred rushed the stage as the band sang I Saw Her Standing There.

The crowd quickly realised the police, while forming an impenetrable barrier, were otherwise helpless, as they’d locked arms, and several were soon losing their helmets to the concert goers.

The rest, as far as the Beatles go, is history. As it turned out, they were the real deal.

"Absolutely, because they were true to themselves, you know, they weren’t manufactured in any way," Neill says.

"Elvis was an incredible force, if you like. But, when you look at Elvis, he didn’t write much of his music, and he was very much driven by what his manager wanted, and all that stuff. Whereas the Beatles, I think, were always true to themselves. You know, they made great leaps, not knowing whether people would accept it or not, but they were prepared to do it. So, people liked, for example, Rubber Soul but they didn’t like Sergeant Pepper. They lost a whole bunch of fans, but they gained a whole new bunch, and it just carried on. And in one of those serendipitous things, they broke up at the right time and we’re still talking about them, 60 years on."