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Extract from SHAKE IT UP, BABY!

  02 Feb '24   |  Posted by: Birlinn

Shake It Up, Baby! tells the story of how The Beatles rose to fame in 1963, through exclusive eye-witness accounts from those who were there: Beatlemaniacs, journalists, broadcasters and TV producers, and the other bands who could only watch in awe as the Beatles went from bottom of the bill to headline act to the biggest band on the planet. The below extract is from the introduction, where four unknown Liverpool boys disembarked from a plane at the beginning of 1963, not knowing that this would be the beginning of one of music’s most incredible journeys.


Touch down. Turbine engines fall silent. The British European Airways plane from Hamburg had taxied to a standstill in its landing slot at London Airport. Outside, everything was alabaster white. The runways were carpeted in thick snow, icicles hung from the roof of the main terminal and the midday mercury had dipped well below freezing point. It was 1 January 1963, and from Land’s End to John O’ Groats, Britain was entombed in its worst winter since records began, an extraordinary polar plunge that would last three long, depressing months.

The passengers began to disembark. They were the familiar mix of formally attired business types, homecoming students and families heading for celebratory New Year reunions. Few took any notice of the four slightly scruffy young men – bleary-eyed and hungover – who made their way down the central aisle. Some gave them a wide berth, those sharp-edged Liverpool accents reason enough to avoid awkward eye contact – as if the uncouth Scouse dialect, with its whiff of distant Irish émigré, somehow carried with it a sense of aggression. Nothing marked them out, except perhaps a cocky camaraderie, a kind of curious rat-pack aesthetic.

Making their way through the arrivals lounge, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were just four nameless faces in the crowd. Yet, in ten months, almost to the day, they would arrive at the same airport to be met by the cacophony of thousands of overwrought fans repeatedly screaming four words:

WE WANT THE BEATLES. WE WANT THE BEATLES. WE WANT THE BEATLES.

Five days after those ear-splitting scenes, they would give two iconic performances – first at the London Palladium and, three weeks later, before British royalty, where insouciance and irreverent risk would bring its own unparalleled reward.

WE WANT THE BEATLES. WE WANT THE BEATLES. WE WANT THE BEATLES.

Their concerts had by then transformed into scenes of unbridled hysteria, with entire towns brought to a standstill and hormonal teenage girls especially working themselves into an emotional frenzy from the first note to the last. They were, by some measure, the four most outlandishly famous people in the country.

WE WANT THE BEATLES. WE WANT THE BEATLES. WE WANT THE BEATLES.

By the end of this rollercoaster year, they would be feted as the biggest pop phenomenon since Elvis Presley, the songs of Lennon and McCartney incongruously bracketed alongside the genius of Gustav Mahler and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Nineteen sixty-three – the year when everything changed. The year when the world began its gradual transition from slate-grey mono to glorious Technicolor. The year when the sixties really began its vertiginous ascent in the face of rapid British empirical decline – a colonial red stain that still covered huge swathes of the world – and young people emerged as the vanguard in the new age of consumerism. The year when MI5’s uber-patriot James Bond flew the Union flag in From Russia with Love. And the year when a dynamic young American president was held up as a beacon of hope for a world still quaking in the nuclear shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis only for his life force to be snuffed out by an assassin’s bullets.

But in the here and now of this first day of the year, The Beatles were turning the page of their own lives. Exactly 365 days ago, they had flunked an audition in London for Decca Records before EMI had offered them a possible foothold in the industry of human happiness.

The night before, Hogmanay, they had said their final drunken farewells to Hamburg’s Star-Club, the dank, sweaty former cinema at Grosse Freiheit 39 in the city’s notorious St Pauli quarter, home to pimps, transvestites and hookers in what Harrison described as ‘the naughtiest city in the world’. This was where three of them – John, Paul and George – had made their bones as a live band, finessing covers of their favourite R&B and Motown groups, writing their own songs, improvising, winning over hecklers, gorging themselves on Preludins to stay awake and learning how to mach schau to juiced-up sailors often for eight lunatic hours a night, and in the process becoming a band of brothers. Gig-hardened beyond their callow years – Lennon and Starr were twenty-two, McCartney was twenty and Harrison a mere nineteen – they were already veterans with the experience of 900 live shows and 10,000 hours of musical graft on their gun belts.

Given that it was New Year’s Eve, naturally it had been a rambunctious affair. Bum notes flew like empty beer bottles. Anyone could stagger on stage and sing with the band. And fellow Liverpudlian Ted ‘Kingsize’ Taylor, whose own group, The Dominoes, were also on the bill, surreptitiously recorded much of the chaotic performance on a primitive Grundig reel-to-reel tape machine with a single mic placed in front of the stage. It was the final act in an old contract loyally honoured by Beatles manager Brian Epstein, in line with his family mantra ‘a good deal is a fair deal’.

Their first single, ‘Love Me Do’ – penned by Lennon and McCartney – had plateaued at number seventeen in the British charts in the same week they had said their final Auf Wiedersehen to Germany. However, the chart placing only strengthened an unequivocal conviction in Epstein and the band that sunnier uplands lay ahead. Hamburg felt like the past, and the future was already being written at speed. In just ten days’ time, EMI would release ‘Please Please Me’, the band’s second single on which high hopes rested.

‘If we’d had our way, we’d have copped out of the [Hamburg] engagement because we didn’t feel we owed them fuck all,’ Lennon later said. ‘We’d outlived the Hamburg stage and wanted to pack that up. We hated going back to Hamburg these last two times.’

Uppermost in their minds was the gruelling January touring schedule Epstein had already mapped out. It would see them crisscross the UK, travelling north to the remote Scottish Highlands and south to London and the Home Counties over twenty-two gigs, playing anywhere from local dance halls to ballrooms and, of course, Liverpool’s Cavern, the airless basement club that was a wellspring for the restless dreams of youth.


Ken McNab is a sports journalist with the Scottish Daily Mail, a lifelong Beatles fan and the author of The Beatles in Scotland and And in the End: The Last Days of The Beatles.


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