Brian Sommerville is a balding 32-year-old Londoner whose jaw juts out like the southeast corner of England when he thinks he is about to say something important.
At Kennedy International Airport in New York on February 7, 1964, Sommerville’s jaw was projecting so far he was almost unable to open his mouth to speak. A thousand screaming teenagers were trying to wriggle toward a thin white line of nylon rope that had been stretched across the terminal building lobby. Three thousand more were screaming from behind bulging metal railings atop the roof, where they were the guests of New York disc jockeys, who had invited them to take the day off from school.
Next to Sommerville a New York Journal-American photographer was tugging angrily at his arm, shouting, "We bought an exclusive story, and we can’t even get a picture of them looking at us – what did we pay you money for?" At Sommerville’s other arm a phalanx of British correspondents was complaining that the police wouldn’t let them into the pressroom.
There wasn’t space left in the pressroom anyway, and one of the cops tried to throw out a Capitol Records executive who had arrived without an identification badge. Disc jockeys equipped with tape recorders were pointing cylindrical microphones at the mob. Flashbulbs exploded. From the back of the lobby came word that two girls had fainted. Hemmed in and harassed, Sommerville’s jaw signalled a pronouncement. "This," he said in the intonations of a nation that has been accustomed to ruling the world, "has gotten entirely out of control." Sommerville is press officer of a rock’n’roll group known as the Beatles. Their plane had just landed.
Reading on mobile? Click here to watch
Amid a fanfare of screeches, there emerged four young Britons in Edwardian four-button suits. One was short and thick-lipped. Another was handsome and peach-fuzzed. A third had a heavy face and the hint of buckteeth. On the fourth, the remnants of adolescent pimples were noticeable. Their names were Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison, but they were otherwise indistinguishable beneath their manes of moplike hair.
After they were ushered into the floodlit uproar of the pressroom, Brian Sommerville, acting as master of ceremonies, stepped to a microphone, again thrust out his jaw, and addressed the reporters. "Gentlemen, gentlemen, gentlemen," he said, "will you please shut up!"
The first question from the American press was, "Do you believe in lunacy?" "Yeah," answered one of the Beatles, "it’s healthy." Another reporter asked, "Would you please sing something?" "No," replied another Beatle, "we need money first."
Still another reporter asked, "Do you hope to take anything home with you?" "Yeah," a Beatle replied, "Rockefeller Center."
At first, few of the reporters could remember which Beatle was which. But by the end of their two-week visit to America, each of them had become a distinct personality. Each of them, in fact, had become a star.
Ringo is the one that some observers have compared to Harpo Marx. He has bright-blue eyes that remind one of a child looking through a window, although he sometimes deliberately crosses them as he sits dumbly at the drums, playing his corny four-four beat.
"I hate phonies," he says with the absolutism of somebody who thinks he can spot one a mile away. "I can’t stand them." The most popular of the Beatles in America, he evokes paroxysms of teen-age shrieks everywhere by a mere turn of his head, a motion which sends his brown spaniel hair flying. When he flips his wig, the kids flip theirs. "Riiinngo! Riinngo!" the kids call out. He acquired the nickname because he wears two rings on each hand. He wears different rings at different times, changing them like cuff links.
"I like the gold ones," he says. "The fans send a lot of silver ones too, but I send them back." Then he adds, "Do you know I have 2,761 rings?" His fame has brought Ringo other treasures, but he seems not to have forgotten what it was like to grow up amid the grimy row-house streets of Liverpool.
He was born Richard Starkey, the only son of a father who was a house painter and a mother who was a barmaid. He never finished school. He was kept out by pleurisy and more than a dozen stomach operations. Also, it seems, he never started growing. Asked how tall he is, he snaps back, "Two feet, nine inches!" actually he is five feet seven. "When I feel my head starting to swell," says John Lennon, "I just look at Ringo and I know perfectly well we’re not supermen." Without proper schooling, Ringo worked as an electrician’s apprentice and at various odd jobs before turning to drumming.
7 February 1964: fans are held back by the police as the Beatles arrive at Kennedy airport. Photograph: Hal Mathewson/Getty Images
"When I was sixteen, you know," he says, "I used to walk on the road with the rest of the lot and we’d have all out drape coats on and we’d have a few laughs with the rival gangs, and then I got the drums and the bloke next door and I got a job and we started playing together, and another bloke and me made a bass out of an old tea chest and this was about 1958, mind you, and we played together and then we started playing on dances and things, you know, and we took an interest in it and we stopped going out and hanging around corners every night."
These days still lie close behind him. When an American reporter asked him if he liked fish and chips, he answered, "Yes, I like fish and chips, but I like steak and chips better." One of his greatest moments was when Beatles played before Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother at the Royal Command Performance in London last November. "It was the first time I ever felt British," he says. "You know, you never think about royalty. But the Queen Mother, she was a nice lady."
He sits with his drums behind the group as the other three perform, and he rarely sings, although that is what he would most like to do. At twenty-five he is the oldest of the Beatles, but he is at the bottom of what sociologists would call their pecking order. When he joined the group it already had a record contract, and the unspoken feeling in the quartet is that Ringo was hired by the other three. When they disagree on anything, Ringo is the last to get his way. "You’d be nowhere," Paul McCartney says to him in the ultimate squelch, "if it weren’t for the rest of us."
The fans call Paul the handsome one, and he knows it. The others in the group call Paul "The Star." He does most of the singing and most of the wiggling, trying to swing his hips after the fashion of Elvis Presley, one of his boyhood idols. In the British equivalent of high school, Paul was mostly in the upper ranks scholastically, unlike the other Beatles. "He was like, you know, a goody-goody in school," remembers one of Paul’s boyhood friends. He also, as another former classmate remembers him, was a "tubby little kid" who avoided girlish rejections by avoiding girls.
Paul, who plays bass guitar, wears the same tight pants that are part of the uniform of the Beatles, although he often distinguishes himself by a vest. "Paul," says one member of the troupe, "is the only one of the boys who’s had it go to his head." Sometimes, talking with the other Beatles, he finds himself using accents much more high-toned than the working-class slang of Liverpool, where he grew up. When he does, John Lennon mockingly mimics him.
Paul and John have collaborated in writing more than a hundred songs, including such hits as I Want To Hold Your Hand and She Loves You. "None of us really knows how to read or write music," says Paul. "The way we work it is like: just whistling. John will whistle at me, and I’ll whistle back at him."
John doesn’t smile when he sings. "That’s because," says Neil Aspinall, the twenty-two-year-old road manager who grew up in Liverpool with the Beatles, "he’s giving you his soul." He likes to wear sunglasses both indoors and out, as a sort of declaration of privacy. "John," says Brian Epstein, the twenty-nine-year-old personal manager who discovered the Beatles, "is the most intellectual of the boys." Though he has a habit of falling asleep at odd moments, he is also the most intense and has a temper that reddens his face at the slightest rub. At a cocktail party in the British embassy after the Beatles’ Washington concert, John found himself besieged by dignitaries, their wives and girlfriends, all of whom were thrusting autograph books at him with such official commands as, "Look, sign this for my daughter! Can’t think why she likes you! Must be out of her mind." Finally John pushed away the pens. Forcing his way to the bar, he ordered a drink and said, "These people are worse than the fans. These people have no bloody manners. Now, the Ambassador, I liked him; we talk the same language. But I wouldn’t give a thank you for his friends."
At that moment a young embassy official approached John and said, "Come now and do your stuff." John glared back. "I’m not going back through that crowd – I want a drink," he said. "Oh yes you are," the official said imperiously. Livid, John turned to Ringo and said, "I’m getting out of here!" With a smile, Ringo put an arm on John’s shoulder and said calmly, "Oh come on, let’s get it over with." The "stuff" consisted of drawing names out of a box in a charity raffle.
John began with ideas of becoming a painter, spending two years at the Liverpool Art Institute. He also writes short stories and poems, a collection of which, combined with his sketches, is being published in London. He has since written two books, In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works. One editor calls Lennon’s literary efforts "British hip, a sort of conglomeration of funny Lewis Carroll jabberwocky and an almost Joycean word play."
When John first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, a subtitle identifying him carried the parenthetical message, "Sorry, girls, he’s married." His wife Cynthia is a quietly beautiful twenty-one-year-old blonde whom he met at the Liverpool Art Institute and whom the newspapers now call, to the Lennons’ disgust, "Mrs. Beatle." When the Beatles travelled from New York to Washington, she wore a black wig so she could get through the crowd. In Washington, she remained alone in her hotel room. In Miami Beach, she sunbathed by herself. "Ever since the boys became famous," says Cynthia, "it’s become more and more difficult for me to see John." They have an infant son, John, whom the newspapers call, again to their disgust, "Baby Beatle." When the Lennons have business visitors, Cynthia serves tea and recedes into the background.
John is the leader of the Beatles. "We have no leader," he might argue with some annoyance. "We’re a team, y’ know, pull together and all that." As a matter of fact, each Beatle has a veto on what the four of them do together. "But it’s John who usually wins out," says one of their friends. "John is the hippest and the sharpest of the lot. They’ve all learned from him. Even their humour, the way they’re always sending people up, they got that from John."
Just 23, George Harrison is the youngest of the Beatles. "He doesn’t have the maturity of the others, so he tends to play it a little safe," says a member of the troupe. "It’s as if he is the baby of the family." Being the baby of the family is a role to which George is accustomed. The son of a bus driver, he is the youngest of four children. "George was always the one who tried to please," says his sister, Mrs. Louise Caldwell, the pretty platinum-blond wife of an engineer who lives in the Midwest. "When the fire needed more coal, he would always say, ‘Mummy, I’ll do it. Let me get the shovel.’ Or, when we’d be going to church, George would polish everyone’s boots."
George plays lead guitar for the Beatles, often with a look of unconcern that seems to reflect a desire to be strumming elsewhere. "Well," he says, "the songs that Paul and John write, they’re all right, but they’re not the greatest."
His boyhood idols were guitarists Chet Atkins and Duane Eddy, although he recently discovered Andres Segovia. He listens on the radio to other pop artists from the start of his day, which often begins when road manager Aspinall drags the boys out of bed at 10:30 to keep some 10 A.M. date. He keeps a transistor radio in his hand, even during conversations. He adjusts the volume according to his interest in what is being said.
"You have to be very careful of what you say to George," says disc jockey Murray (the K) Kaufman of New York’s WINS, who glad-handed the Beatles when they stepped off the plane in New York and who was George’s roommate when the Beatles travelled to Miami Beach. "You have to be sure that every word means what you want it to mean. He takes what you say very literally."
Paul McCartney and George Harrison on tour in the US in 1964. Photograph: Dr Robert Beck/Omega Auctions/PA
"George, as a matter of fact," says manager Brian Epstein, "is the only one who asks questions. He’s the only one who takes an active interest in the business aspect of the Beatles. He wants to know how I book them, how the discs are distributed, and everything that has to do with the financial working."
George’s ambition, he says, is to retire with "a whacking great pile of money." He recalls that in the early days of the group in Liverpool, "we got what would work out to two dollars a night apiece – and all the soda we could drink. We drank until that stuff came out of our ears, to make sure we got our money’s worth."
Although by no means the quietest of the Beatles, because none of them really is quiet, George remains the least prominent. At a press conference for fan magazines in New York’s Plaza Hotel, a young woman asked, "Mr. Starr is known for his rings, Mr. McCartney obviously for his looks, and Mr. Lennon for his wife. What about you, Mr. Harrison?" George swallowed a bite of chicken sandwich, fluttered his long eyelashes in the same manner that Paul often does, and answered, "As long as I get an equal share of the money, I’m willing to stay anonymous."
These are the Beatles – the four young men who brought with them to America a phenomenon known as Beatlemania. So far, Beatlemania has traveled over two continents. In Stockholm, the arrival of the Beatles was greeted with teenage riots. In Paris another congregation held screeching services at the airport and the Beatles’ performances at the Olympia Theater were sold out for three weeks. In the Beatles’ native Liverpool, sixty youngsters collapsed from exposure after standing all night in a mile-long line of 12,000 waiting to buy tickets to the Beatles’ performance. When a foreman shut off the radio in the middle of a Beatles record at a textile mill in Lancashire, 200 girls went out on strike.
While the Beatles toured the United States, three of their singles were in the top six and their albums ranked one and two in the record-popularity charts. Beatle wigs were selling at three dollars apiece, high-school boys were combing their forelocks forward, and hairdressers were advertising Beatle cuts for women. Beatle hats, t-shirts, cookies, egg cups, ice cream, dolls, beach shirts, turtleneck pullovers, nighties, socks and iridescent blue-and-green collarless suits were on the market, and a Beatle motor scooter for children and a Beatlemobile for adults were being readied for production. "I think everyone has gone daft," says John. Adds Ringo, "Anytime you spell ‘beetle’ with an ‘a’ in it, we get the money." In 1964, Beatle-licensed products grossed $50,000,000 in America alone. As for the Beatles, their total income that year reached $14,000,000.
It all began in Liverpool, a smog-aired, dock-front city that overlooks the Mersey River. When the Beatles first put their brows together eight years ago, there were an estimated 100 rock-‘n’-roll groups in the city. Today Liverpool is the pop-music capital of the British Isles, and what newspapers have come to call "the Mersey sound" dominates the English hit parade. "Do you want to know what the Mersey sound is?" says one American critic. "It’s 1956 American rock bouncing back at us."
In the beginning, the group was called the Quarrymen Skiffle Group, then the Moondogs, and then the Moonshiners. John, Paul, and George were in the original group; Ringo Starr joined in 1962. Hired in 1959 for a job in Hamburg, Germany, the Beatles worked their way up to a wage of $25 a week, and became one of the main attractions along the Reeperbahn.
"When they got back to Liverpool, that’s when they really started to swing," says Neil Aspinall. It was then that Brian Epstein discovered them. A delicately mannered young man who once wanted to be a dress designer, Epstein at the time was in charge of the television-radio-records department of his father’s department-store chain. When several customers began demanding Beatle records, Epstein signed them up, got them a test with Decca Records (they flunked), then brought them to Electric and Musical Industries Ltd.
"They were impressive – it was like striking oil," recalls an E.M.I official. "I remember I gave them back their first tape and told them, ‘If there’s anything you don’t like, let me know.’ And George came right back and said, ‘Well, I don’t like your tie for a start.’"
In short order the Beatles had four hits, and teenage mobs began following the Beatles throughout England. But it wasn’t until they played London’s Palladium and several thousand fans mobbed them that all Beatles became national heroes. They had to be rescued by police. "Well, there were no assassinations that day," recalls Brian Sommerville. "There were no wars, no invasions, no great crises of state, and the Beatles were the only good story the London dailies had, so they gave it a big display."
In the United States, Capitol Records, which has first rights to any E.M.I release, originally turned down the Beatles’ records. As the craze grew, it not only issued them but poured $50,000 into a promotion campaign. "Sure there was a lot of hype," says Capitol vice-president Voyle Gilmore. "But all the hype in the world isn’t going to sell a bad product."
Nevertheless, that hype helped stir the interest of thousands of fans who greeted the Beatles at Kennedy Airport. Many thousands more waited for them at New York’s Plaza Hotel. Outside the hotel, stacked up against barricades, the mob chanted, "We want the Beatles! We want the Beatles!" According to one maid, the Beatles found three girls hiding in their bathtub. Dozens of others climbed the fire exit to the twelfth-floor wing in which the Beatle entourage had been ensconced. Still others, with the names and pocketbooks of prominent families, checked in at the hotel and tried to get the Beatles via the elevators.
On the twelfth floor the Beatles rested in their suite, while the phones rang with requests for interviews and autographs. One call was from a man who wanted to produce Beatle ashtrays. Another was from a promoter in Hawaii who wanted to book the Beatles.
Telegrams came in by the handful, and boxes loaded with fan mail. "We get 12,000 letters a day," Ringo later said. "Yeah," added John. "We are going to answer every one of them." The road managers, meanwhile, were busy signing the Beatles’ autographs for them, and the room-service waiters kept bringing up tables loaded all sorts of drinks. Murray the K also came in, bringing with him the Ronettes, an American recording group of three exotic-looking girls. "We met the Beatles in Europe," one of them said, as if she were singing it.
As the Beatles’ stay at the Plaza extended, so did the throngs. Each time the Beatles left the hotel, the mobs would break through police lines in a jumble of lost shoes, falling girls, and Beatle sweat shirts. A deputy chief inspector of police accused the Beatles’ press agents of bringing in teenagers by the busload. The Beatles, meanwhile, spent their time watching TV, dining at the 21 Club, sightseeing from their car, twisting at the Peppermint Lounge, and flirting with waitresses.
The remainder of the Beatles’ tour of America was more of the same. In Washington, to which the Beatles traveled aboard a private railroad car called the "King George," 2,000 teenage fans mobbed the locked metal gates of Union Station. At their concert in the Coliseum that night the Beatles were showered with flashbulbs, hair rollers, caramels, and jelly beans, in some instances a bagful at a time. "They hurt," Ringo said afterward. "They felt just like hailstones."
When they flew to Miami, they were greeted at the airport by a chimpanzee, four bathing beauties, a four-mile long traffic jam, and 7,000 teenagers, who shattered twenty-three windows and a plate-glass door. The flight engineer of the plane wore a Beatle wig. As they were getting off, the wife of the president of National Airlines came aboard with two teenage girls, but was blocked by Sommerville, who stormed, "No, no, madam! We cannot spend time giving autographs to employees’ families."
After their American tour, the Beatles flew back to England to make their first movie. When they stopped off at Kennedy Airport to change planes for London, they again found several thousand teenage fans screaming from the observation roof, after waiting there for hours. Four girls collapsed. When it was all over, America relaxed again.
© Al Aronowitz, 1964