Thursday July 02, 2015
The Beatles Come to Canada!
This episode of Rewind was originally presented on September 4, 2014.
It was late summer 1964, 50 years ago, and the hottest musical group around was The Beatles. Their first hit, Love Me Do was topping the charts, they had appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and toured the U.S., and now they were coming to Canada. Vancouver August 22, Toronto September 7, Montreal September 8. On this edition of Rewind, you'll hear how CBC Radio covered the story of The Beatles' trip to Canada with a mixture of fascination, disdain and enthusiasm.
It seemed like they had come out of nowhere, these four long haired boys from Liverpool who harmonized so beautifully. Their hair was shockingly long, they were cheeky, and it seemed that they didn't take anything all that seriously. We aired a piece on Rewind that had never been catalogued in the CBC Radio Archives and was only recently discovered by our own brilliant Keith Hart. You'll hear CBC announcer Alan Maitland as the breathless host of a program called Countdown.
But first we had a CBC news report from October 1963. It's the earliest mention we could find of the Beatles in the CBC archives. At this point they had released songs like Please Please Me, Twist and Shout and She Loves You to great acclaim in Britain.
The next piece is a month later, when the CBC program Assignment picked up on the popularity of the group. They figured it was time to find out what the fuss was all about. But rather than sending someone themselves, they presented a report from the BBC.
On the Radar
Now that The Beatles were on the radar for CBC Radio, the reports about them began to multiply. Our next report was from November 1963.
By the spring of 1964 The Beatles were not only big in their home country, but they had made it big in North America as well. In February the group had played New York, Washington and Miami, had appeared on the Ed Sullivan show and were attracting the same sort of buzz they had at home. CBC Radio decided it was time to send our own people to England to find out more. The CBC program Matinee sent Barbara Greene to clubs in Liverpool to get the local flavour of the Fab Four. Of course not everyone there loved them.
Liverpool had a reputation for working class poverty and scouse, as the birthplace of the Mersey beat, and now home of the Beatles.
The CBC program Soundings sent Raoul Engel to Liverpool in September 1964 to find out more about this gritty city.
The story is well known now, how the four working class boys from Liverpool made it big as The Beatles. But back when this was first reported, in 1964, it was astonishing to think that these local boys could be so successful. So Engel followed in the footsteps of Barbara Greene before him to the nightclubs of Liverpool to talk to young people.
Of course it was in a club in Hamburg, as well as in Liverpool that The Beatles perfected their sound and made their name. And in order to increase their appeal to German fans, they rather reluctantly agreed to perform two of their hits in German. Rewind aired one of them: She Loves You.
On August 22nd the Beatles performed an eleven song set at a concert in Vancouver that lasted 29 minutes before they were whisked away for a flight to L.A. Local critics were not impressed. As William Littler, arts critic for the Vancouver Sun sniffed:
I do not know how it came, why it came and when it will go away. But go away the Beatle phenomenon will, and with it will go The Beatles. When it does, music lovers everywhere can rejoice - yeah, yeah, yeah.
Fans disagreed, and turned out in full force to greet them for their appearance in Toronto. We had a CBC Radio news report from September 7, 1964. The reporter was CBC's Tim Ralfe, who went on to report from the Vietnam War and then became famous for an exchange he had with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau about the War Measures Act. Remember ' just watch me?'
Check it out here:
Alan Maitland and Countdown
Back to 1964. CBC Radio hosts could be more opinionated than CBC news reporters. Alan Maitland, for example, was way more excited. Al auditioned for the CBC as a singer in 1947. But he was hired as an announcer, and stayed for 46 years. As was the case for announcers in those days, versatility was his middle name. He contributed to programs such as On the Move, Children's Stories, Action Set, Centennial Diary, Matinee and more. In 1974 he joined As It Happens as co-host. For seven or eight years Michael Enright and Alan Maitland worked together on that show.
In the early 1960s Maitland hosted a program for teenagers called Countdown. CBC archivist Keith Hart, who often helps us with Rewind, told us how he found a piece of tape that was previously uncatalogued. "I knew that the Beatles were a big deal in 1964. It seemed that every local program made some mention - either sharing in the excitement, or sneeringly reporting on the commotion. So I looked at all the programming that had been recorded that week and in all that material I got lucky with Countdown." We aired some of it.
A More Measured Response
Before you think it was only programs aimed at teenagers covering the Beatles, think again. The eminent CBC news and current affairs program This Hour Has Seven Days did its own story, and from it we picked up a couple of minutes including some of the riotous press conference that the boys held the next day.
And just before we got back to the very excited Al Maitland and his program Countdown, we had time for a CBC nerd break. Not content to simply report on the popularity of the Fab Four and their fans, the program Assignment decided to talk to a British sociologist about, and to quote "the success of the Beatles in a social/class context." Sociologist Mark Abrams spoke with CBC reporter Marjorie McEnaney.
Back to Screaming
Nerd moment over, we got back to the screaming and Alan Maitland's Countdown. According to Globe and Mail columnist Bruce West, there was more press and more photographers at the Beatles press conference than he'd ever seen in one place, even compared to events with Sir Winston Churchill and U.S. President F.D. Roosevelt. The Beatles shrewdly capitalized on their popularity by making a movie that featured themselves. It was called A Hard Day's Night. It could easily have been a bit of fluff, a throw away piece of propaganda, but it turns out that the film was not only popular, but is remembered as one of the freshest and most enduring music movies of all time.
John Lennon's book of poetry, drawings and music didn't get quite as warm a reception, but the bad review didn't matter a bit. In His Own Write was a runaway success, and was a predictor of the more complex songs from the Beatles in the years ahead.
The Fab Four played two concerts at Maple Leaf Gardens on September 7, an afternoon appearance at 2:30 p.m. and an evening show at 8 p.m. Ticket prices ranged from $4 to $5.50.
Toronto and Montreal
After Toronto, The Beatles made their way to Montreal, where their visit was briefer. Ringo Starr had received a death threat and police sharpshooters were present at the Forum. The Beatles said afterwards that they were nervous, but the concerts passed without incident.
We don't need to tell you that the Beatles went from success to success. As a group they only had one more visit to Canada; that was to Toronto in 1966. As for the future, we know everything that happened: the even longer hair, the pilgrimage to India, the breakup and the deaths. But in 1964 that was all still ahead, and for now there was only speculation.