The journey made by the phenomenon known as The Beatles was remarkably short – just nine years – but their winding road had its share of twists and turns. Soon after it began, 50 years ago, their route careered into Ireland and, just as quickly, out again.
This beat group, as they were then known, played two concerts at the Adelphi Cinema in Dublin on the evening of November 7th, 1963, and two more in Belfast the following evening. They were ready for more, but a few months later they were noisily welcomed by the United States. While they were in Ireland their manager, Brian Epstein, was in New York preparing the ground.
John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison had begun in Hamburg as rockers in tough leather jackets. They picked up a new drummer, Ringo Starr, along the way, and were tamed by Epstein in Liverpool into Beatle haircuts and snazzy suits with round collars. They ended up a little older but much wiser, if not saner, in embroidered jackets, velvet loons and acrimony. They had become part of the psychedelic counter culture, although nothing associated with The Beatles remained counter for too long: it was automatically swept into a widening mainstream.
During those nine years they recorded 12 LPs in a trajectory whose rise, like a climbing firework's, was spectacular, then lost momentum at its zenith but finally exploded with a flourish – followed by a lingering fallout. The final time they performed together was January 30th, 1969, up on the roof of the Apple building, their London base, on Savile Row. Ironically, the number was Get Back.
At the start of the 1960s I and many other young people treated The Beatles with disdain. If we liked the sound of the moment it was from the US, from Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry or Buddy Holly. We also liked the cooler sounds of modern jazz – the cooler the better – which was less threatening to our lifestyles.
The Beatles’ rapidly increasing popularity seemed inexplicable. I remember a question asked by interview panels at the BBC at the time: “What do you think of the Beatles?’’ I thought it a trick question: if I said I thought them new and exciting I would be considered uncritical and shallow, but if I said I did not like them I would be considered old fashioned.
For me, and many like me, this disdain was conquered by a string of albums, as we were beginning to call them. Rubber Soul, Revolver (on which we marvelled at George Harrison on sitar) and, triumphantly, Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band completed the conversion. I was so high on The Beatles by then that the offer of a job on their film Magical Mystery Tour was an epiphany.
At the start of 1963 they had begun serious touring. First they accompanied stars such as Helen Shapiro around the wilder reaches of Britain in a blur of second-rate venues. It was hard work, a cold winter, and for part of it they travelled in the back of a van.
In Liverpool Epstein had been astutely manipulating the sales of their first single, Love Me Do, by buying 10,000 copies and organising letter-writing campaigns to the BBC and Radio Luxembourg. When Please Please Me followed, reaching number one in February, television invitations arrived.
The hit singles The Beatles performed, and those they had written for others, soon became fixtures at the top of the charts.
For the second tour, which began in March, they had third billing, beneath Chris Montez and Tommy Roe. By May, after a short break, they were on the road again, this time with Roy Orbison.
With them they now brought something else, quickly dubbed Beatlemania by the Daily Mirror. The screams that had first been heard in the Cavern Club in Liverpool were now part of the show.
Never mind that the songs could not be heard: the manic hysteria the Fab Four stoked only boosted their fame. And with the screams came the crowds, the stampedes and the riots.
The exhausting, madcap touring schedule returned in the autumn. The band went on a mini tour of Scotland, then played four dates in Sweden before returning to Heathrow Airport, whose terraces were packed with girls. A Royal Variety Performance followed on November 4th, then, three days later, The Beatles landed in Dublin.
The Adelphi, on Middle Abbey Street, where Ella Fitzgerald, Marlene Dietrich and Louis Armstrong had previously performed (and on which now stands the Arnotts car park), was ready if apprehensive, as was the Gresham Hotel, but the city itself had little idea of what was about to happen. Nineteen sixty-three had already seen the arrival of President John F Kennedy in Dublin, but that was nothing like this.
The closest event Dublin had seen to the arrival of The Beatles had perhaps been the visit of Bill Haley and his Comets in 1957; they were met by bouffant hairstyles, hooped skirts, winkle-pickers and jiving in the aisles.
Anticipation in Ireland had built over many weeks. Merchandise was arriving. Beatles posters, jackets, Cuban-heeled boots and even wigs were soon on sale. As Christmas approached, “autographed” guitars, “official” Beatles black roll-neck sweaters and other goods filled the shops.
Two concerts had been arranged, at 6.30pm and 9pm, and tickets were priced at 6/6, 8/6 and 10/6. The 2,000 people in the seats, and the gatecrashers and freeloaders beside them in the aisles, wanted only one thing: John, Paul, George and Ringo, who stormed into I Saw Her Standing There and, playing to an audience that barely heard them, ended triumphantly with Twist and Shout.
The Dublin authorities had feared the impending circus of The Beatles' visit. Urgent briefings were held between Aer Lingus and the airport authorities, the venue, the hotel and the Garda Síochána. Over 24 hours, the Beatles' visit caused havoc in the centre of the city.
"More than a dozen men were arrested and taken to various Dublin police stations last night, when fights broke out while the Beatles, the Liverpool 'beat' singers, were playing at the Adelphi Cinema," The Irish Times reported. "Cars were overturned in Abbey street and O'Connell street, at least 50 people were treated for minor injuries, while three people were taken to hospital with fractured legs and arms. A youth was also admitted after he had been stabbed in the head in O'Connell street . . . Almost 200 policemen and 20 squad cars tried to control crowds of more than 3,000."
Beatlemania will soon be back: Dublin Beatles Festival and a series of talks at Trinity College will celebrate the best of it. In the 50 years since the band's visit, and influenced by films, fashions and, more recently, bands such as Oasis, old memories regularly return and new audiences are won.
In Ireland, Beatles fans of different generations will be able to see plays, hear talks and enjoy their music. There could be new insights and revelations. I will certainly have some. And they won’t provoke any riots.
Back in 1963, The Beatles were being driven along another winding road to Belfast, pausing only for autographs at the Border, while Dublin breathed out and the Adelphi Cinema returned safely to Peter Sellers in Heavens Above.
Gerry Harrison worked with The Beatles and, later, with John Lennon. His book The Great War Diaries of Charlie May will be published shortly by HarperCollins