[This is a genuine I-was-there piece written by Kevin McLoughlin, someone, who, 50 years ago today (August 18) was witness to what apparently was the very first gig featuring Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and their brand new permanent drummer, Ringo Starr. Enjoy - AC]
What teenager would have thought that a dance at a village flower show would showcase a band on the brink of a worldwide music revolution? On August 18th, 1962 the Port Sunlight Horticultural Society show closed with a dance featuring ‘The Fabulous Beatles Band’. The Beatles had just fired their drummer, Pete Best, and replaced him with Ringo Starr to complete the ‘Fab Four’ that would soon storm the music world. The flower show dance was the first public performance of the Fab Four.
I was eighteen. I was there. It was my first rock concert.
I had been visiting grandparents near Liverpool. I went to a pub and met two young men who were going to a dance. They invited me along. I was dubious. I knew Port Sunlight as a model village built before the First World War by a paternalistic family of multimillionaires for their soap factory workers. Its placid streets of arts-and-crafts inspired houses and well-groomed flowerbeds did not promise good rock music as the gritty streets of Liverpool already did. The cost of six shillings (about 85 US cents then) was steep too; but, as the alternative was my Grandma’s telly, I decided to tag along.
We arrived at Hulme Hall around 10:00 as the Beatles opened their set. The energetic music erupting from the hall contrasted with the subdued mood at the entrance. As we bought our tickets, some people were leaving. Others were talking and laughing in the foyer. The hall was about the size of my school assembly hall. The lights were dimmed, but I could see to the end of the hall.
The scene was astonishingly different from the frenzied Beatles’ performances soon to come. At a bar some drinkers chatted or watched a few couples dancing. The Beatles played on a low, temporary stage at the far end. About one hundred fans, mostly male, pressed against the front of the stage. No-one was much more than seven metres from a Beatle. This stage-front crowd was definitely more interested in listening to the music and watching the band than dancing.
I found a place near centre a few rows back with John Lennon (obviously the leader) to my right and Ringo in front of me. The band already displayed their FabFour look with Beatles haircuts and dark suits. Ringo had shaved off his beard and cut his hair Beatles’ style. He sat high over his sparse drum kit that still lacked the Beatles’ logo. The band’s equipment was minimal. The complex paraphernalia of a modern band was absent. The Beatles, their assistant, and all their equipment came in one small van.
But this was my first live rock performance and I was stunned at how the loud, rich sound of the band shamed the jukeboxes, radiograms, and tinny radios that had played my rock music before.
The audience listened intently to each song; then cheered, whistled, clapped, and shouted out requests. There was no kerfuffle like that at the Cavern Club the next night when Pete Best fans heckled the band and blacked George Harrison’s eye with a head-butt…or three nights later when the Beatles were first filmed for television and someone shouted for Pete Best. In Port Sunlight no-one screamed.
No-one stormed the stage. Beatlemania had yet to arrive.
This show was about the music. I had never heard music as fresh and dynamic as this. I was spellbound from the start. They were not alienated, leather-clad rockers with just three chords. The Beatles had beat; but they also had melody and harmony which they wove into familiar covers to make them sound original. They played with ease and confidence concentrating on performance yet having fun. There was little banter, except for an occasional foray by John. They agreed on the next song with a nod and introduced it to the audience, sometimes with a wry comment.
Once Ringo’s cymbal slipped from horizontal to vertical--a crisis that would have stymied many drummers; but Ringo played on. He leaned across his drums and pushed the cymbal with top of his head pretending to right it. The other Beatles grinned at Ringo’s antics, but did not falter.
In March 2012 I returned to Port Sunlight to see if I could find memorabilia from the 1962 dance, such as photographs or a play list. The only significant find was an article from the Liverpool Echo newspaper of July 31, 1987 reporting the discovery of a letter from Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, to R.E. Smith, President of the Horticultural Society, confirming the terms of the Beatles engagement. This letter, and research that arose from it, showed why The Beatles had seemed so professional at the flower show. Epstein’s letter confirmed that The Beatles would play “…a minimum of 60 minutes and a maximum of 80 minutes at a fee of £30” (about US$85 then).
I made a quick estimate. If we deducted Epstein’s fee, the road manager’s fee, and the expenses of getting to and from Port Sunlight, the Beatles probably cleared close to $5 each for the night. As an 18-year-old seasonal waiter at a decent restaurant I had been making about £6 a week that summer.
If The Beatles did five such gigs a week I would have been making about twenty percent of a Beatle’s income. But The Beatles did not do five gigs a week. In June 1962 they made twenty-five appearances and a radio broadcast. In July they made thirty-seven appearances and in August, thirty-four appearances while preparing for their first recording session with EMI’s Parlophone label.
According to Spencer Leigh, author of The Beatles in Hamburg: ‘From August 1960 to August 1962 the Beatles spent more than 250 nights playing in the Hamburg clubs and made 430 appearances elsewhere, sometimes playing three Merseyside clubs in a day.’ In 1961 at the Top Ten Club in Hamburg they played 45 minute sets totalling 5 ½ hours each weeknight and 6 ½ hours on Saturdays and Sundays. They were allowed 15 minute breaks between each set. By August 1962 each Beatle must have been rapidly approaching the 10,000 hours of musical practice that many suggest as a rule of acquiring expertise—and they were still in their early twenties.
I knew within minutes that the Beatles were special. The energy and drive of the show thrilled me. They were a ‘tight’ band that combined straightforward lyrics with driving beats and startlingly fresh harmonies. These were professionals committed to their music, yet in touch with their audience. I doubt that anyone at Hulme Hall that night could have predicted how far the Beatles’ obvious talents would take them and how suddenly that success would come. Seeing the Beatles was like seeing my first computer: I understood it was radical and powerful, but the full potential was too great to grasp immediately.
Songs did not exceed three minutes then, so I probably heard nearly twenty songs. Most were covers and I remember some clearly: ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’, ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ and ‘Please Mr Postman’. Two covers were sentimental surprises: ‘Bésame Mucho’, a #1 hit in 1944, and ‘A Taste of Honey’, a 1961 film theme. The Beatles’ repertoire reflected a wide range of musical interests and proved that the Beatles could play many musical styles for varied audiences.
The Beatles’ also played some of their own songs like ‘Love Me Do’, ‘Please Please Me’, and ‘She Loves You’ all of which would be recorded before year-end. The one that stuck in my head was “She Loves You”.
I had never heard anything like it.
In August 1962 the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West raged at its frostiest. By October, the Cuban Missile Crisis had escalated uncontrollably so that nuclear Armageddon seemed inevitable. The Vietnam War was metastasizing. Racial conflict in the United States and South Africa raged. The future, if there was to be one, looked dire.
That gloomy background gave the Beatles another dimension. Their songs portrayed ordinary concerns of ordinary people living in ordinary places. The simple lyrics of ‘She Loves You’ have universal appeal with their enthusiasm for resilience of love. The music was a perfect match for the enthusiasm of the words. The Beatles were affirming that ordinary life would go on despite war and disaster. They loved life…Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!
© Kevin McLoughlin 2012.