Australia’s Beatles mania
As Paul McCartney heads our way, we look back on his first Australian tour, when The Beatles brought mop-top madness to our shores in 1964. Among the fans was fashion designer Jenny Kee, writes Susan Horsburgh.
They were the rock gods of their generation and they could reduce their disciples to hysterical wrecks. When The Beatles arrived in June 1964 for their first and only Australian tour, the band’s rabid female fan base came out in their thousands to worship at the altar of the
Fab Four, weeping and wailing their way through the country’s 20 concerts. The witty, workingclass Liverpudlians, with their mop-top haircuts and matching mod suits, belted out self-penned boppy love songs and beautiful ballads, but the music was immaterial.
“We were far too hysterical to hear anything – we were listening to everybody else screaming as we were screaming,” says legendary fashion designer Jenny Kee, who was 17 when she went to the Sydney Stadium concert. “It was electric and it didn’t matter that you couldn’t hear them. You could see them.”
Every fan had their favourite – pretty romantic Paul, intellectual rebel John, quiet mystery George or lovable mascot Ringo – and having all four idols only metres away proved way too much for many in the audience. “Thousands of girls … seem to be in a state of delirium,” reported The Sun-Herald, “laddering stockings and losing their shoes. Many were hurried off to the first aid room, too excited to stand.” At the Melbourne
“They were the antithesis of the beefy Australian bloke.”
show, Molly Meldrum was thrown out by the bouncers. At every concert, fans pelted the stage with jelly babies – a tradition that arose after George named them as his lolly of choice in a TV interview. Paul asked the crowds to stop, but the sugary grenades kept coming.
For some, Beatlemania went beyond delirium to delusion. When the Liverpool lads touched down at Sydney airport in torrential rain on June 11 (minus Ringo, who missed the first few concerts because of tonsillitis), they were paraded for the 1000-plus crowd on the back of a flat-bed truck. Bizarrely, that’s when one fan shouted, “Catch him, Paul”, and threw her disabled six-year-old son at the band, hoping the pop stars could offer a cure. (Thankfully, Paul did catch him and the child was returned to his mother when the truck stopped.) The foursome may indeed have been bigger than Jesus, as John Lennon so infamously quipped a couple of years later, but it seems even they couldn’t pull off a medical miracle.
With their image of boyish innocence, though, The Beatles managed to woo the oldies as much as the adolescents – perhaps because no one knew what they got up to at their after parties. Labelling the tour the “Event of the Yeah”, The Weekly described the quartet as “healthy, handsome young men”, although it also likened George to “a depressed basset hound” and captioned a picture of Ringo with the words, “ugly face plus sudden smile equals instant likeability”.
In retrospect, it was a fluke The Beatles even made it to the Antipodes. Melbourne promoter Kenn Brodziak just so happened to secure The Beatles’ Australian tour for a steal a year earlier – when they were relative nobodies – and then the phenomenon took hold. When The Beatles, all in their early 20s, toured the US in February 1964, pandemonium reigned and 73 million people tuned in to watch them on The Ed Sullivan Show.
For Australia, then an isolated British outpost, hosting international megastars was a rare treat, which might partly explain the lunacy. In fact, the reception in Adelaide, which was only added to the concert schedule after fans filed a petition of 80,000 signatures, remains the global high-water mark of Beatles fever: a staggering 300,000 fans – half the population of the state – lined the route from Adelaide airport to the city.
The crazed response also had a lot to do with the staid, colourless Australian culture at the time. For Jenny Kee, then a fashion design student, everything about The Beatles was exotic. “We were children in the ’50s and it was such a bland, straight society,” says the 70-year-old. “You’ve just got to think what people wanted from life after the war – the cleanliness of it all: the fridges and the swimming pools. That was the aspiration. For me it was so white bread. For a creative person it was absolutely stifling.”
Attracted to the band’s effeminate look – the antithesis of the beefy Australian bloke – Jenny and her friends were obsessed. When The Beatles arrived in Sydney, they rushed to the Sheraton Hotel and worshipped their idols from the footpath opposite, thrilled to get a glimpse of the band on the balcony. After the concert, Jenny wangled her way into the hotel on the arm of a photographer and her friend hatched a plan to jam the lifts so The Beatles would have to take the stairs up to their eighth-floor suites. The girls waited in the stairwell and when the boys came trudging up the steps, Jenny locked eyes with John and he invited the girls to the after party in his room.
Jenny’s edgy outfit, a tartan suit teamed with knee-high boots, helped seal the deal. She was a naive 17-year-old, but “the one thing I was confident in was the way I styled myself”, she says. “I looked like a terrific little mod.”
Jenny thought she was a Paul girl until she clapped eyes on John. “Paul was so pretty, and I love pretty boys, but John just had It,”
she says. The funny, charismatic frontman swept her off her feet. Few teens get to bed their idols and Jenny wasn’t about to let the opportunity go by. She called home and her mum, a fellow Beatles fan, was thrilled to hear that Jenny was hanging out with her heroes. “She would have just thought we were at a Beatles party having fun, dancing,” says Jenny. “We did all of that, but we also did more than that.”
Jenny recounted the night in her autobiography, A Big Life. “He knew I was young and nervous so he cracked jokes and sang, ‘Please please me, oh yeah, and I’ll please you’, making me laugh,” wrote Jenny, who also lists Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Roger Daltrey among her rock conquests. “He had his way with me and it was hot: a genuine emotional charge for us both. It was only one night, but it was a magical one.”
At dawn, Jenny crept home to Rose Bay to find her mum had put a doll and a bolster in her bed so that her dad would think she was asleep. Two weeks later, the teenager was back among the hordes at Sydney airport with a specially made outfit, hoping to say goodbye.
This time, Jenny wheedled her way into the reception room, where she spent a final few hours with John. She was apparently his first Asian lover and he had nicknamed her the Chinese Dragon Lady. “So Yoko,” she jokes, “I paved the way for you, darling.”
That encounter changed everything and, the next year, Jenny set off for swinging London. “I knew if London was producing The Beatles, it was the most exciting place for a young girl like me to be,” she says.
Australia may have been a bit of a slow starter, but The Beatles tour marked the beginning of the 1960s – and all the social, political and cultural upheaval that came with it. The Beatles changed Australia and the world, influencing fashion and music, turning rock ‘n’ roll into an art form.
As Jenny recalls, it was a crushing farewell when The Beatles left the country 53 years ago. “My heart plummeted when the plane was in the air,” she wrote. “How could I face ordinary life again?” No doubt countless other Australian girls were wondering the same thing.
The Beatles’ fans scream at the Sydney Stadium on June 18, 1964.
FROM TOP: The Beatles in Brisbane; on the cover of The Weekly after being awarded MBEs in 1965; a young Jenny Kee.
Paul enjoys being the birthday boy in Sydney (above) and looks deft with a boomerang as he waves to fans alongside George Harrison and John Lennon in Melbourne (left). BELOW: Police guard the stage in Brisbane.
BELOW: Paul was the star on the cover of The
Weekly’s June 24, 1964 edition, which also featured Jimmie Nicol (bottom left) standing in for Ringo Starr.