Fade to 1964. It’s 7.30 on a cold and rainy winter’s morning. Hundreds of drenched teenagers are gathered at Sydney airport, looking to the dark, overcast skies for a glimpse of the aeroplane carrying an English pop group to Australia. At a time when breakfast television is unheard of, the two commercial stations are running direct telecasts from the airport. The broadcast is relayed to Melbourne via the new coaxial cable. It seems that the whole of Australia is waiting to welcome The Beatles. The boys disembark, minus drummer Ringo Starr who is sick in a London hospital. Happy to greet their fans, they brave torrential rain and howling wind, as they are slowly paraded around the tarmac on the back of an open truck.
The Australian promoter, Kenn Brodziak, had negotiated the tour in July 1963, before the hysteria had begun in England. By the time they arrived here, they were the biggest musical act on the planet and Brodziak had his hands on the most successful undertaking in Australian show business history. In the intervening 11 months, the English press had coined the word ‘Beatlemania’ to describe the frenzied screaming of fans. This phenomenon had created a huge international demand for records, merchandise and concert tickets. It even helped to restore a sense of optimism in America after the assassination of President Kennedy.
While The Beatles’ career has been documented in every detail, the story of their thirteen days ‘down under’ is less well known. They played 20 shows — in Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. The concerts usually consisted of a ten-song, half-hour set, performed to screaming audiences and padded out by four support acts. There were two shows each night and none on Sundays. Between the Sydney and Brisbane concerts there was an eight-day tour of New Zealand.
Australia had never witnessed scenes of adulation by such huge crowds of teenagers. In fact, the eruption of Beatlemania was more intense here than anywhere else in the world, as the nation quickly became captivated by the talent, the songs and the charm of The Beatles.
Each Australian city welcomed The Beatles in its own way. Adelaide was originally to be excluded, but a petition signed by 80,000 fans persuaded the promoter to extend the tour. In gratitude, 300,000 people lined the streets of Adelaide, the biggest Beatles crowd anywhere, any time. There was mayhem in the centre of Melbourne as The Beatles’ motorcade edged its way to their hotel from the airport. Their midnight welcome at Brisbane airport was marred by a handful of anti-Beatles egg-throwers, including a young Bob Katter, now a Queensland politician.
The tour was a major event for Australia in the 1960s. It kicked into gear that tumultuous decade, sparking an exciting period in music and culture. The Beatles’ music sounded fresh, bright, and different, while their ‘mop top’ hairstyle symbolised a cheeky rejection of conformity. They seemed to unite a whole generation in a joyful, exuberant celebration of youth. This was a time for teenagers to defy authority, simply by screaming their heads off. Australia’s conservative establishment had no choice but to loosen its controls on the young. From 1964 the pace of social change accelerated, not just in music, clothing and hair, but in attitudes and lifestyles as young people demanded greater freedom.
The presence of The Beatles in our cities connected Australian fans to the world, as part of an international cultural movement. For a generation of Australians, the band’s influence would make travel to the UK more attractive, as London became the font of youth fashion and popular culture. The Beatles continued to set the musical agenda until the end of the 1960s, however they never returned to Australia as a group.
The success of the tour paved the way for other English bands to visit. This ‘British invasion’ caused a sudden and dramatic shift in Australian music. A new generation of local groups, most made up of recent migrants, including The Easybeats, The Bee Gees, Billy Thorpe & the Aztecs, MPD Ltd and The Twilights, led an Australian ‘beat boom’ in the mid-1960s.
The Beatles in Australia exhibition presents the sights and sounds of Beatlemania – the arrivals, the press conferences, the concerts, the merchandise and the screaming fans. It displays objects from the Powerhouse Museum and Arts Centre Melbourne’s Performing Arts Collection, as well as from fans and private collectors, including Australia’s most articulate Beatles fan, the rock historian Glenn A Baker. Documents from Arts Centre Melbourne’s remarkable Kenn Brodziak archive illuminate how the tour was planned and how it unfolded. In 1964 there was no email, skype or computerised ticketing. Communication was by mail, telegram or large, black telephones. The Brodziak archive gives a fascinating insight into the way business was done in the early 1960s.
A highlight of the exhibition is a suit worn by John Lennon, on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It was The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein’s inspired idea to dress the Fab Four in immaculate, matching suits, a style that was followed by many other bands at the time.
Powerhouse designer Malcolm McKernan has created a design for the exhibition that evokes the excitement of a Beatles appearance, playing with 1960s graphics and finding creative ways to display a large amount of archival material.
Visitors have the opportunity to play a Beatles jukebox, test their knowledge in an interactive quiz, hear interviews with tour participants, explore Beatles scrapbooks and record their own impressions of Beatlemania. Television reports, concert and newsreel footage, radio coverage, photographs, fan letters, magazines and press clippings bring the exhilaration of the tour to life.
These heady times – which live on in the memories of those who lined up for tickets, waited at airports, gathered outside hotels or screamed inside concert halls – are recreated for all to enjoy.
Curator, ‘The Beatles in Australia’ exhibition, 2013
Presented by the Powerhouse Museum and Arts Centre Melbourne.