MAGICAL HISTORY TOUR
ON the morning of Sunday, June 14, 1964, 30,000 screaming, chanting, struggling teenagers, mainly young women, mass in the rain outside Melbourne’s Southern Cross Hotel to glimpse the Beatles. Clearly distressed, television reporter Tony Charlton is full of rectitude, holding his microphone aloft like a beacon of sanity. “The stupidity of letting their children come to something like this and run the risk they are all running,” he shouts about Melbourne’s mothers, his voice quivering with righteousness over the orgiastic wailing.
It’s just one of the startling scenes from When the Beatles Drove Us Wild, a mesmerising documentary from Adelaide-based ABC producer Lincoln Tyner that covers that unsettling time for some — though it was magical for anyone under 18 — when the newly famous Fab Four made their one and only visit to Australia and turned the southern hemisphere on its head. The canny Australian promoter, Kenn Brodziak, had negotiated the tour in July 1963, before the hysteria had begun in England. By the time they arrived here, the Beatles were the biggest musical act on the planet and Brodziak had his hands on the most successful undertaking in Australian show business history.
These days many of us get our history from television, the ideal medium for presenting what British historian Simon Schama calls “the business of representing something that’s no longer there”. There’s no better means, surely, to find ways to persuade us to suspend our disbelief, to spend a while imagining, to paraphrase Schama, “we are indeed in a world akin to dreams or memories, a fugitive universe”.
According to Tyner’s film, the arrival of the Beatles, creating these unprecedented scenes of mass hysteria wherever they appeared, brought a new — and unsettling for conservative authority figures — loss of control of public spaces as their children found a voice for the first time.
While the Beatles’ career has been documented in every detail, the story of their 13 days Down Under is less well known and Tyner does it imaginatively with some superb footage, never seen before. The band played 20 shows — in Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, two each night and none on Sundays. To judge from this film, the Beatles were not so much exhausted by their performances but by the after-hours shenanigans.
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 svelte charm of the band.
As Tyner shows, 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.
It’s one of those unusual docos that taps into our memories and takes us back in emotional waves to the people we used to be — especially, if you were there at the time or watched it on television.
Chantal Contouri — now 65 and once known as Number 96’ s sadomasochist serial killer, “the “Pantyhose Strangler” — was first famous, it turns out, as “The Girl Who Wagged School for the Beatles”.
In a newspaper interview at the time she revealed how she sneaked out of the posh Adelaide Girls High (“the beret, the tie, the gloves”) after headmistress Miss Harris banned her girls from attending their arrival, locking the gates and marshalling prefects to guard them. “For me wagging school, well, right, it gave me no option. Morning recess I got out.”
Her interview is enthralling as she describes the noise the huge crowd made when the Beatles travelled in an open car from Adelaide airport to the city.
“I remember the scream; it started off at such a pitch that it travelled to the point where you went deaf,” she says. “You couldn’t actually hear yourself screaming, you knew you were screaming, but it was as though the sound travelled away from your ears and there was just a few seconds of vacant nothingness, and you felt you had left your body.” Has anyone described what rock ’n’ roll does to us more exactly?
Narrated by the laconic Bryan Dawe, the doco also features interviews with other leading Australians about their direct experiences, including Glenn Shorrock, Molly Meldrum, Bob Rogers, Blanche d’Alpuget, Patricia Amphlett (aka Little Pattie) and Jenny Kee, one of the many who seems to have spent at least a night with John Lennon.
The bulk of the vision came from the ABC archive, and Tyner and his executive producer, the redoubtable Margot Phillipson, were fortunate that the rather conservative ABC, as it was back in June 1964, rightly identified the Beatles’ visit as a major cultural event. A great deal of film was shot, particularly of the record-breaking crowds in Adelaide. Tyner intercuts this footage — arrivals, press conferences, concerts and the mesmerising behind-the-scenes sequences — with gorgeously preserved generic vision of young women of the period, including a libidinous “Stomp” competition.
There are also stylised re-enactments, imaginatively shot by cameraman Greg Ashman, impossible to pick from the original footage. “They were undertaken by raiding the ABC wardrobe and props department, and shooting in various locations around the older parts of the ABC’s Adelaide building,” Tyner says. “Greg shot reenactments using a variable shutter speed to make them look less staged and hopefully more dramatic.” And they are; I was certain Tyner had somehow snuffled some actual footage of Lennon punching up an errant press photographer in a Brisbane hotel toilet.
The illusion Tyner creates is masterful. It looks as if all this dazzling footage had been shot by the same cameras, as though a documentary film crew is following them from start to finish.
“The majority of the archive vision was originally shot on 16mm black-and-white film and the vision of the Melbourne crowd outside the Southern Cross Hotel was a live ‘outside broadcast’ recorded on two-inch videotape,” he says. “So, as all the vision was going to be in black and white, a lot of effort was put into grading it to give the film an art-house look.”
This kind of homogenises the aesthetic look, giving the appearance of all the vision being shot by the same camera. He gives the still photographs, newspaper clippings and graphics a distinct treatment, embuing them with a hint of colour so as to differentiate them from the film vision. Tyner cleverly shoots his interviewees on a standardised light background and stylises the segments by grading and highlighting the colour in what each was wearing. When they appear, they stand out without dominating the seamless narrative.
Like all good rock documentaries, from DA Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back to Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, Tyner’s film brings together documentary’s traditional focus on actuality and the fictional cinema’s emphasis on stars, spectacle and joy. And occasionally pain, though there’s little on view during this tour. Far from it; it’s hard to imagine any group of rock ’n’ roll stars enjoying themselves quite so lustfully. Behind the scenes of the Beatles tour is fascinating — as Lennon mused later, it was like being in Fellini’s Satyricon, a mesmerising orgy of faces, images and music. Says publicist Barry Whalan, who lucked into the Brisbane trip: “If I had had a camera I could have shot enough footage to make Linda Lovelace blush.”
Media commentator Catharine Lumby, who provides a droll but cautionary contemporary feminist context through which to view the events of the tour, is more quizzical.
“You’ve got to wonder if the media weren’t getting some of the spoils, so to speak, and certainly enjoying the parties,” she says.
And dear old Rogers, a prominent DJ at the time, wonders, “There was so much going on, I’m surprised there wasn’t a whole array of young Beatles born in 1965.”
The Beatles arrive at Sydney Airport in 1964