Tuesday, October 21, 2014

My night with the Beatles

I found this story about the Beatles Glasgow concert in October 1964 and the riot that happened in the Scottish Review. 

My night with the Beatles
By Michael Elcock

Renfield Street is packed solid with people. I fight through the crowd to the stage door and bang on it with my fist. Jimmy Murray is already inside. Jimmy is training in Aberdeen along with me. We're both still in our teens.

'They can only get three thousand people in here,' Jimmy explains when I'm safely inside the theatre. 'All these punters outside want in, but they haven't got tickets.' 'They seem to be getting quite wound up about it,' I tell him. The crowd stretches for blocks, filling the surrounding streets, stopping the traffic.

The theatre manager explains what he wants us to do. A security man stands at his side. About 30 of us trainee managers have been drafted in from all over Scotland and the north of England to help run the evening's event, a gala live show with the Beatles – as it turns out, one of the last live shows they'll ever do indoors in Britain.

'You've got tae keep the wimmen off them,' explains the security man when the manager has finished. 'Stop them frae stormin' the stage.' Both Jimmy and I are over six feet tall, and so we're directed to stand right in front of the stage, facing the audience, with our backs to the performance.

'We've got time to nip across the road for a pint before the show,' says Jimmy, checking his watch. 'There's a good hour yet.' We check with the bruiser at the stage door so that he'll recognise us when we return, then let ourselves out into the crowd, and force our way across the street. The crowd is thicker than ever, but the bar opposite is surprisingly empty. We sit up at the counter and order beer. A young woman slides into a seat next to us at the bar, a dark-eyed, brown-skinned girl. She glances at us.

'You with the show?' she asks, eyeing the tuxedos that all Rank's management people have to wear. Her voice is cool, her accent unmistakeably American. She's barely in her 20s. 'Yes.' We introduce ourselves. She tells us her name is Mary Wells, and we realise that she's one of the stars in the show – she'll be singing on stage just before the Beatles. She's just had a big hit in Britain and the United States called 'My Guy', and she is quite lovely, with a level of assurance and sophistication we're not used to finding in a woman who's virtually the same age as we are.

We don't know what to say to her at first; don't know how to speak with someone like this from another world, sitting with us in a Glasgow bar. Our beer arrives and Mary says, 'I'll get them. I'd like to buy the drinks. Everyone's been very kind to me since I came here'.

Neither of us realise then just how big a star Mary is in the United States. She was one of the first singers to bring an evocative mix of folk and gospel and blues to popular attention, and many consider her the true founder of the famous Motown sound. She's a close collaborator of the legendary Smokey Robinson, and the Beatles have specifically invited her to tour with them. But Mary doesn't say anything about these things; she doesn't speak about herself at all. Her gentle humility and interest in her surroundings opens us up and we pass half an hour with her, talking about the United States, about Detroit where she's from, about ourselves.

She's unusually unassuming for someone in the theatre business, but when Jimmy and I compare notes later, we both find that we're left with a small, almost imperceptible impression of sadness about her, an air of loneliness. We put it down to homesickness.

When it's time to go back to the theatre we push our way to the stage door, shielding Mary from the crowd. There's a smell of burning in the air, and the crowd is crammed across the street, from one side to the other. We hear the sound of breaking glass from somewhere nearby. A parked car has been rolled on its side and set on fire. Police and fire bells fill the air, and the Glasgow polis move in on horseback to patrol the street and push the people back.

It's just as wild inside the theatre. The stalls and the dress circle are overflowing with young girls. There's hardly a man in the place. Jim and I move out and take up our stations in front of the stage, to the right of centre, at the foot of one of the main aisles.

Sounds Incorporated are the lead-off group. They come on stage, and they're good. Not every group plays well live; some of them are simply products of the recording studio. Sounds Inc are better than most, but not quite as good as their records. Mary comes on when they're finished, and sings with a voice full of character and soul. She is lovely and talented, but somehow out of place in this setting, with an audience of crazy girls who only want to hear the Beatles.

Then the Beatles come on, the four of them bouncing onto the stage, with John Lennon in the lead. They pick up their instruments, and the place erupts. Young women flood into the aisles and surge in a wave towards the stage. The Beatles begin to play. The screaming starts and we're right in the middle of it; a thin, black line in our monkey suits, standing in no man's land between the stage and 3,000 frenzied women.

The Beatles launch right in to 'Twist and Shout'. And the songs come belting out without a break. 'Can't Buy Me Love', 'If I Fell In Love With You', 'A Hard Day's Night', and the others. The sound man cranks up the volume to combat the noise of the screaming, and the women charge down on the stage like a manic tide, and fling themselves, weeping and crying and screaming, at our thin wall of defenders. The Edinburgh Academy never prepared me for this.

The Beatles are good – very good – much better live than they are on record. The sound they make is extraordinary. It blasts out of massive speaker stacks that reach up to the proscenium, and I find myself staggering under the onslaught, temporarily unbalanced
by it.
I catch one girl and try to push her back up the aisle, and four more launch themselves at me. They climb over the seats, and throw themselves over the top of the other patrons like a medieval horde, while the Beatles play on, moving seamlessly from one song into another, each one sending the audience into fresh paroxysms of ecstasy and hysteria. Girls further back who can't reach the stage begin to throw things; combs, lipstick, and pieces of underwear sail over our heads, onto the stage. Lennon kicks a brassiere back into the audience, laughs, and plays on.

We try linking arms for a few minutes, but it's hopeless. The women burrow under us, try to climb over us, dart between our legs, threaten to overwhelm us with a crush of massed bodies. I catch two more of them, one on each arm, and struggle to hold station. The music powers on, louder and louder, the volume so high that I'm starting to feel dizzy, the heat excruciating under the lights. But I know that if I fall down I'll be trampled.

The Beatles change to a softer instrumental piece from 'A Hard Day's Night'. Another girl flings herself at me in an effort to reach the stage. She is utterly distraught, weeping uncontrollably, her face and hair wet with tears. She falls against me, too exhausted now to scream. I hold on like death, and suddenly she relaxes. 'Oh, this is nice,' she says.

Her eyes close and she holds my arms about her and rocks backwards and forwards. I catch a glimpse of Jimmy beside me, his bow tie askew, one sleeve of his jacket torn off. Two girls are beating at his chest and face with clenched fists, trying to climb over him onto the stage. He looks as though he's been in a Glasgow brawl. Except that there is lipstick on his cheek, and a huge grin on his face.
It goes on like this for an hour, and then the show is over. I feel like a piece of blotting paper, saturated and then wrung out. But we'd all been invited at the briefing for post-show drinks upstairs in the theatre restaurant, and now we're just about ready for it. After the curtain comes down we wait until the theatre is empty and nothing is left onstage except for the speaker stacks and Ringo's drum kit.

We find that the madness has shifted backstage; it's pandemonium, as if half the fans from the front of the house have somehow found their way to the back of the theatre.

Paul, Ringo, George and then John push their way through the crowd, and sweep two steps at a time up the wide staircase, Lennon making faces and tossing out quips. Girls grab at the Beatles’ clothes, trying to tear off souvenirs. Jimmy and I muscle our way through the crush, and climb the stairs. Everyone is packed like pilchards into a huge room. The Beatles are at the front, guzzling cakes and hors d'oeuvres, but we find ourselves stuck at the back behind a sea of heads. We each grab a bottle of Carlsberg and look around for Mary Wells, but we can't see her in the crush. So we hang around for as long as it takes us to drink the beer, and then we head off in search of a pub.

It's the night before my 20th birthday, the night I take a drink with the Beatles; sort of. It seems like a long time ago.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, another great account....and contrast it with the last one!

    So vivid!!! It's like I just lived it!!

    "She falls against me, too exhausted now to scream. I hold on like death, and suddenly she relaxes. 'Oh, this is nice,' she says."