It was 53 years ago today (give or take three months) that Sgt. Pepper and the band last played. The sight of the Beatles rocking away in the icy wind on the roof of Apple Corps in January 1969 is an iconic image from an iconic decade. The history books all said this was both the last hurrah and the bitter end of the Beatles, but recently unearthed footage and audio recordings have sparked a re-examination of the band, their marriages and the last days of their career.
The ’60s belonged to the Beatles. They embodied a new way of looking, of sounding, of thinking. It was a hope for the future. But what we didn’t see was the price they paid personally.
Sydney-based DJ Bob Rogers was the fifth Beatle for almost two months in 1964, following every step of the band’s only Australian tour. Almost 60 years later, in the sunshine of his Mosman backyard, the memory of it all still makes him weary. He says the pressures on the Liverpool lads were enormous.
As Bob recalls, from the first moment to the last Beatlemania was on. Thousands of fans besieged the group. Girls climbed up the outside of their Sydney hotel. Streets were blocked. They were imprisoned in their suites, where teenage girls were delivered to them like room service. Bob found himself, typically, summoned to breakfast in bed with John Lennon. The most important meal of the day was a bottle of a “very nice red”. And the chaos went on from there.
“By the time they left, I was completely exhausted,” Bob recalls. “I thought at best they had two or three years left.”
We can only imagine what it must have been like for the four people in the eye of that whirlwind.
“Every year we were Beatling was like 20 years. So, although it might only have been five or six years, it seemed like eternity,” George Harrison told Rolling Stone in 1987. “It might have been fun for everybody else, but we never saw the Beatles. I mean, a lot of the time it was fantastic, but when it really got into the mania, it was a question of either stop or end up dead. We almost got killed in a number of situations— planes catching on fire, people trying to shoot the plane down and riots everywhere we went. It was aging me.”
No wonder the band stopped touring in 1966. They were still very young men then. John at 25 was married with one son, Ringo was married, Paul was dating the actress Jane Asher and George, only 23, had settled down with actress/model Pattie Boyd. Although they had “paired off”, none of the Beatles was a model husband.
It was far from a normal life. “Living in London with George, there were so many fans every day, it became impossible to leave the flat,” Pattie told singer Taylor Swift in a recent interview. “I got to see the Beatles play at a theatre in London, and George told me that I should leave with my friends before the last number. So before the last song, we got up from our seats and walked toward the nearest exit door, and there were these girls behind me. They followed us out, and they were kicking me and pulling my hair and pushing us all the way down this long passageway.”
The Beatles were at the centre of Swinging London. When not making masterpieces that reshaped music, they rubbed shoulders with The Rolling Stones at exclusive clubs like The Scotch of St James or The Speakeasy Club. Jenny Kee recalls one night there seeing Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Micky Dolenz of The Monkees jamming until dawn while John Lennon watched, amused.
Having literally lived in each other’s pockets for six intense years, the four Beatles now bought their own homes. It was the first house in which George enjoyed an inside toilet. Inevitably, too, the Beatles began to develop individual tastes.
Manager Brian Epstein had kept four strong personalities together and focused, but when he died by suicide in August 1967, the group became rudderless. And they soon discovered their finances were in a mess as well.
“I knew that we were in trouble then,” John told Rolling Stone in 1970. “I didn’t really have any misconceptions about our ability to do anything other than play music, and I was scared. I thought, ‘We’ve had it.’”
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