Bigger than Jesus

Sixty years ago, four young men with strange haircuts arrived in Australia. The country – as Anastasia Safioleas explores – would never be the same again.

The rain falls sideways onto the crowd gathered on the tarmac at Sydney’s Mascot Airport. Girls shrink deeper into their coats in an attempt to buffer the wind. Young boys daringly dangle cigarettes from between wet fingers. A gaggle of policemen look like they’d rather be someplace else. Suddenly, screaming girls begin to push against the flimsy barrier. The policemen spring into action, but they end up doing a terrible job of containing the surge. A few kids break free and attempt a mad dash towards a plane, only to be dragged back into the crowd.

The soundless black-and-white clip from that day is grainy, but it’s not hard to make out the four figures. John, Paul, George and ring-in Jimmie Nicol (Ringo won’t rejoin the group until Melbourne), disembark from their jet and climb aboard an open-top truck that will take them past their fans, many of whom have camped overnight in the rain to catch a glimpse of them. They’re wearing their trademark black capes and clutching umbrellas. One of them (maybe Paul) loses his umbrella in the wind. They skylark about, barely hanging onto the truck’s railings as they laugh and wave at the crowd. John seems intent on keeping his floppy fringe in place with his free hand, but then gives up. Jimmie looks like he can hardly believe his luck. The crowd screams for more. The year is 1964. Beatlemania has arrived in Australia.

In America just a few months earlier, sporting matching black suits and pudding-bowl haircuts, The Beatles tapped their feet and wiggled their heads through a performance of ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ on The Ed Sullivan Show. The audience went nuts. It was watched by a staggering 73 million people looking for a distraction from the gloom that descended following the assassination of JFK only months earlier.

Meanwhile, in Australia, Robert Menzies is prime minister and the Vietnam War is in full swing. A loaf of bread costs 18 pence. Further afield, the Tokyo Olympics are about to begin, Muhammad Ali is crowned world heavyweight champion and From Russia With Love screens to packed cinemas. The Cold War is well and truly underway, but Australia feels like nothing more than a conservative colonial outpost. But on a cold and rainy day at Sydney’s airport, the arrival of four young men from Liverpool will usher in a mood that will soon change this.

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week, a new documentary directed by Ron Howard (The Da Vinci Code; A Beautiful Mind), uses Super 8 footage and newly digitised sound to provide an immersive look at the band’s touring years, from 1962 to 1966 – when they quit touring altogether. It was a period that encompassed 166 shows in 90 cities and 156 countries, including Australia. The Fab Four, as they became know, had been booked to perform in Australia well before their explosive Ed Sullivan Show appearance. But they honoured their contract (despite the ridiculously low sum of money they were to be paid) and flew in to play shows in Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne.

Nearly 300,000 fans line the streets of Adelaide to greet them. The hysterical scenes are now becoming commonplace, this time as they drive towards the city’s town hall in individual open-top convertibles. And it happens again in Melbourne a few days later. Their appearance on the balcony of the Southern Cross Hotel generates such levels of hysteria, footage shows St Johns Ambulance volunteers rescuing a quick succession of fainting girls from the crowd, before carting them away on stretchers.

In a documentary screened on the 30th anniversary of their visit, former Oz magazine editor Richard Neville refers to this time as being about a generation yearning to be united against old age. That Beatlemania was “a kind of attack on the gerontocracy ruling Australia”. Menzies, serving for a second time and into his 15th year as prime minister, had just refused to ratify the International Labour Organisation’s convention on equal pay for women. Meanwhile, the newly introduced contraceptive pill had only limited availability. Robert Happell, a fan who attended one of the Festival Hall shows in Melbourne, recalls that at the time it was mostly religious programs on the radio.

But there was a sense of possibility in the air, and a devil-may-care attitude that had become contagious. Kids skipped school in the hopes of spotting the Beatles in town. Fans camped overnight to secure tickets to the shows. The Beatles had tapped into something that was only just beginning to take shape, and the anticipation of something big about to happen was tangible. It’s a feeling 60s pop idol Ronnie Burns can clearly recall.

“We were kids at the time – perhaps 16 or 17 years old – and The Beatles were hugely influential on the music I was making at the time. When they arrived in Melbourne they were taken straight to the Southern Cross. So Molly [Meldrum] and I went. So there we were, in a sea of human bodies when Molly all of a sudden disappears. People are getting crushed, and the footage from that day shows him down the front helping the police with crowd control. But the crowd surges forward and pushes him under the balcony where The Beatles were, and through the window of the florist shop. He’s lucky he wasn’t seriously hurt.”

In his biography – The Never, Um, Ever Ending Story – Molly recalls the mood of the time following that day at the Southern Cross Hotel. “I later saw the Channel 9 news, with reporter Michael Charlton saying, ‘Mothers, if your child is out there, you should be ashamed. You should take a very good lesson from this. The stupidity of letting their children come to something like this.’” Such was the moral outrage.

The shows themselves were more scenes of mass hysteria. Christine Joske, 14 at the time, went to the show with her best friend Rosemary. “Her Mum drove us, and we were seated right up the back in the uncomfortable stalls. We didn’t hear any of the music because the screaming was too loud. The girl seated behind me was so overexcited, she threw up all over Rosemary and myself. Somehow it was still a great experience!”

Jill Stansfield, also 14 at the time, remembers being “gobsmacked” by all the screaming. “I hadn’t seen people scream at a concert before. It was a shock.” Sue Macgregor got a ticket to the show for her eighth birthday. “We were all sitting in the front row of the balcony. The screaming was hysterical but because we were upstairs we had the most amazing view of the band and the crowd.”

As for Ronnie, he had the great misfortune of being booted out of the concert along with Molly. “The excitement level [in Festival Hall] was hyper – it was amazing. The sound was deafening. As The Beatles walk out all the girls start screaming really loudly, including Molly. All of a sudden, a St Johns Ambulance person makes his way to our row of seats and he takes Molly’s arm and says, ‘I think you better come outside with me’. The ambulance guy was extremely concerned. I stood up and grabbed Molly and clenched my fist at the ambulance guy. Well, two ushers saw my fist, came over, grabbed Molly and I, and threw us out! Molly turns around and tries to get back in so they lock the doors on us. When the doors slammed shut I could hear them start playing ‘Long Tall Sally’. Molly starts crying emotionally and hitting the doors and scratching the doors – I think his nail marks are still in the door.”

Beth Murray, 16 at the time, went along to one of the Sydney shows with her sister. “We were coming out of rock’n’roll, and [The Beatles] was something new and really exciting. Something we could call our own.”

Bob Rogers, a popular Sydney radio DJ who hosted a music program on 2SM was chosen to accompany the band throughout part of Europe and Australia and witnessed firsthand the mayhem. “I would talk to them every two or three days. It was always either Paul or John, they were the ones that where most obliging. I spent the best part of four weeks with them but it felt like six months. I flew to Amsterdam with them and watched people jumping into canals. Flying into Australia we stopped in Calcutta, India to refuel. Paul and I thought we’d go for a walk around the terminal but suddenly 300 people appeared from nowhere. In Melbourne, girls would knock on their hotel-room doors. They were so over-exposed I said no-one would remember them in 12 months. And now we’re still talking about them years later.”

In the aftermath of The Beatles visit, the slicked back rocker style favoured by boys was replaced by the unruly floppy fringe. And the showy outfits and colourful suits worn by most Australian bands were replaced by the cooler, black beatnik-style favoured by their brand new idols. The music also changed. Suddenly everyone in the band could sing a song.

Australia, too, was slowly turning into a remarkably different place. The decade would go on to be characterised by escalating anti-war protests coupled with women demanding equal rights. A 1967 referendum saw Australian’s vote overwhelmingly for the recognition of Indigenous people as citizens. And bands like The Rolling Stones, who would go on to release a run of successful albums that triggered a rivalry with The Beatles that would last decades, further cemented the arrival of “youth music”. Menzies finally resigned in 1966 (replaced by Harold Holt), and the hippie movement was well and truly taking shape.

Footage from that rainy day at Mascot Airport, now 60 years old, may render the past in hard-to-see, grainy black-and-white, but the sense of endless possibilities in the eyes of those kids who had gathered to catch a glimpse of their idols is clear for all to see. The future beckoned. One brilliant song at a time.


Anastasia Safioleas is a former deputy editor of The Big Issue and has been a diehard Beatles fan for a long time. This story was original published in Ed#518.