JOHN, PAUL, GEORGE, RINGO, SHEP
—THE BEATLES TRIP
The Beatles had been an enormous phenomenon in Great Britain since 1963, traveling mostly on one-night stands and selling records. They were already selling well in the United States and were the nation’s number-one group by the time they first arrived at New York City’s Kennedy Airport on February, 1964. The airport, the Plaza Hotel where they stay, and nearby streets, were mob scenes with hysterical fans. Sunday they performed on the Ed Sullivan Show for the first time live in the United States, with an estimated television audience of seventy-three million.
In July their film, A Hard Day’s Night opened in Great Britain,
and in August in New York City. They had arrived, and they are not going away.
Jean Shepherd, a long-time enthusiast of classical music and opera, does not like contemporary folk-singing, and has a particular aversion to rock and roll, sometimes making disparaging remarks regarding the motivations of such luminaries as Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. And also, regarding the music, Shepherd directs negative comments toward The Beatles because they are such a spectacularly unavoidable target.
Playboy offers Shepherd the opportunity to go to the British Isles for two weeks and travel with them, in order to do the Playboy Interview. I asked Hugh Hefner why Playboy would choose a rock-and-roll-hater such as Jean Shepherd, and he replied that sometimes the magazine would send what seemed to be an antipathetic person on assignment because the editors felt it would produce an “interesting” result. Hefner said, “Using a very American guy like Jean, with his sensibilities” to interview The Beatles, is just such an inspired decision.
And why does Jean agree to go? As an intrepid traveler, he probably can’t pass up a free trip to observe the primitive natives—aka, the British— with their attitudes and pop-fashions, their strange, trendy, tribal customs now enveloping his own world back home. Especially on an excursion in which he will have the opportunity to trash the already mythic heroes of what he calls “pop music.”
On a postcard to his then-wife, actress Lois Nettleton, sent at the beginning of his Beatles adventure, he writes from Edinburgh, “The Beatles are a first class pain in the ass! I’m really sorry I have to do a story on them. They are the epitome of aggressive cocky slobs who lead other slobs— Love! J.”
While in Edinburgh, Shepherd takes advantage of free time to record some comments about his experience, which he tapes in a series of programs to be used in syndication rather than for his regular broadcasts. Only about forty years later are these recovered, and then released little-by-little in boxed CD sets. The present author, based on his program guides for the series, appropriates some of those comments here.
Disparaging The Beatles whenever he has the chance, he sees them as a prime example of Britain’s degeneration of taste, also exemplified by the then-popular English fashions and art. Yet, he will come to like the four mop-topped Liverpudlians as rough-and-ready fellows. Rubbing shoulders with them in smoke-filled hotel rooms and bumpy car rides through the night, escaping wide-eyed fanatics down fire escapes and dark alleys as though he were a fifth Beatle in their A Hard Day’s Night, brings him to a modified view of them as fellow human beings. As he says, “I wasn’t really traveling as an observer—they began to accept me as part of the gang.”
On his radio shows when he returns to the States, he reports on the outlandish activities he’s observed and participated in. We get an inside look at daily life on the road of four guys who have become celebrities beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. And we see how a world traveler, used to encountering unexpected experiences and different types of people, comes to accept these cocky, witty guys as companions. In an extraordinary admission he can hardly believe himself, he says, “I found myself becoming not only a Beatle fan but a Beatle!”
For the past two weeks I have been living with The Beatles. I have been in Dundee, Scotland, I’ve been in Edinburgh, I’ve been in London where they worked, Leeds, Liverpool, I’ve been in all these various cities on a whole series of one-night stands with The Beatles. Living with them, living in their room with them, in their dressing room, riding in the dark countryside trying to escape the fanatics, and observing England from the other side of the glass.
Because, you know, I, being a good American, have been completely awash in Britain ever since I was a kid. We take English literature in school, we study English poets, English history. In fact, most of us know more about English history than we do American history. So now I find myself in England in the real thing. Sitting in a tiny, super-heated, stinking, smelling, dressing room knee-deep in fish and chips and beer with the Beatles. England’s final answer to Richard the Lionhearted.
It’s a weird thing. Out in the darkness I can hear the sound of millions of girls screaming. It’s a children-girl thing in England. It sounds like a thousand sirens going off in the distance. It’s just a high-pitched wail—WEEEEEEE! Goes in waves—WEEEEEEE! And then one of the Beatles says to another Beatle—I think it was George saying to Paul, “Paul, you’re a Beatle!”
And Paul says, “Aye.”
George says, “Paul, you’re a Beatle. Pass a miracle—walk on water. Walk on water!”
Paul says, “Okay,” and he goes to the window, sticks his head out and—WAAAAAAA! the whole world explodes. He turns back to me and he says, “Are you Beatle-people?”
I say, “No.”
He says, “Well, sit down and have a beer.”
I’ll tell you, the sense of unreality I think that these four people feel—nothing is real out there anymore. They have to drive at three o’clock in the morning through secret roads that are guarded by police so people will not attack out of the bushes. You’re seated in the back seat of the car and the Beatles are hiding down on the floor at three o’clock in the morning going god-knows-where, being protected from god-knows what! You begin to have a slight realization of what mankind is about. And you don’t really quite like it. And at the same time you can’t help it because you’re part of it.
Today the world is like Mars to the Beatles. They’re the only real thing. Just four of them sitting there, eating a steak, drinking a beer—and it’s all brought to them. They’re never allowed to walk on the street—like normal people. They’re never allowed to even look out of the window—it’ll cause riots. How would you like that fantastic sense of power that all you had to do is go to the window and say “Kill each other,” and the knives would come out! That’s exactly what they do, and they do it often.
Once in a while, sitting around there in their T-shirts, they will get a little bored, and outside you hear the rock and roll roaring around, and suddenly Lennon, or maybe Paul, will get up: “Ya like a li’l excitement?”
And Ringo says, “Uh!” That’s Ringo’s total vocabulary. Not one of the brighter people. But he’s sweet, girls. I wish I could tell you the real story of the Beatles. Ringo goes “Uh!”
And just five minutes before—you have any idea the kind of madness this thing is? Because we’re sitting in this tiny little dressing room, sweaty, hot, show-biz, these are rock and roll performers you know, and they’re very simple, very earthy, basic people, just like show-biz people everywhere. They don’t read, they just sit there and there’s a little knock on the door. And one of them looks up and says, “’o’s there?”
The door opens just a crack and it’s one of their managers. He says, “Excuse me, Paul. The Lord Mayor of Glasgow is here. The Lord Mayor.”
Ringo turns to Paul.
Then somebody says, “Let ‘im in!”
The little Lord Mayor comes in. Remember, this is the Lord Mayor of the city of Glasgow. He comes in with his hat in his hand. “Are you the Beatles?”
And they say, “Ay, we’re the Beatles. Who are you?”
In a whisper, in a trembling voice, he says, “I’m the Lord Mayor of Glasgow.”
“Ah, politician, ay?”
“We’ve got to get back to work.”
He says, “Thank you for letting me in.” And the door closes.
What kind of madness is this!
Now get this scene. This is the Beatles in Dundee, Scotland. This is an ancient part of the British Empire. There’s a knock at the door and one of the Beatles says, “’o’s there?”
And I hear another little knock, and it’s the secret knock, which says it’s okay, open up.
Lennon goes over and he takes the door and he just sort of peaks out and there is one of their managers, who says, “A countess is here.”
And Lennon turns to the other Beatles and he says, “A countess.”
And Ringo says, “Let ‘er in. Let’s take a look at her.”
I’m thinking, “A countess is coming to see this!“ And sure enough, the door opens and in comes this magnificent woman—she really looks exactly the way you think a regal countess should look. She’s dressed in furs, she’s tall, thin, she has a peculiar kind of ring on. And she walks in, and behind her are two ladies-in-waiting and a tiny chauffer wearing a little black hat and black puttees.
I’m standing there watching this. My god! I had the terrible feeling of being an eavesdropper on something I shouldn’t have seen.
The countess comes in—and here are the Beatles all with their shirts off. One is sitting there with his shoes off, picking his toes. I’m telling you the truth. I’m not inventing it.
They’re all sitting and not one of them gets up as the countess comes in with her furs trailing behind her, and you could just hear the sound of the medieval trumpets rising—it was the British Empire! She stands in the middle of the room.
Nobody says a word until finally, Paul says, “I ‘ear you’re a countess.”
She says, “Yes, I am a countess, yes, yes. Are you the Beatles?”
Ringo belts John in the short ribs, “Get this—are we the Beatles? Is she putting ya on?” With their hair all Beatle-style, like asking Santa if he’s Santa Claus.
I wonder, “When are they going to ask her to sit down or something?” Here they are, they’re shoving potato chips in their mouths, one guy’s got a piece of fish hanging out, they’re belting down the Scotch, and she finally says, “We have driven all the way over from the castle to see you, and I’m so delighted that you’ve allowed us to come by today. I love your work.”
Ringo says, “Uh?”
She says, “Yes, we play your records at the castle all the time.” And I could hear it—rock and roll booming out through the castle! You just don’t want to think these things.
There’s a long, pregnant pause and Lennon, who is the most civilized of the Beatles, suddenly comes to and says, “Sit down, sit down, countess, sit down.”
And she sits down. You ever see a countess sit? All the Beatles are watching her sit down, and her furs go down and they see her special ring displayed.
She says, “Which Beatle are you?”
The Beatle in question says, “George, like in King….”
She laughs. She says, “Yes, how funny!”
Then Lennon says to her, “Are you a real countess?”
She says, “Yes, I am.”
Paul says, “Where’s the count?”
“Well, he didn’t come tonight.”
We wait for a moment. It is one of those great moments of classical human behavior. It sort of hangs there for a second. Then Lennon says to her, “What kind of castle do ya live in?”
“Well, it’s a very big one. It’s called Glamis Castle.”
Glamis Castle is the oldest of all the great castles in the British Isles—and she’s talking to four Englishmen, remember that.
One of them says, “Glamis? Where’s that?”
She says, “Well, you turn left at the road out here and turn at Route 7 and you continue—you can’t miss it, you know. It’s a big castle.”
McCartney says, “How many rooms does it have?”
She turns to her lady-in-waiting and says, “Lady Barbara, that would be in your department. How many rooms do we have?”
Lady Barbara thinks for a second and she says, “I believe, two-hundred thirty-eight.”
Paul says, “You got plenty of room for your relatives, haven’t ya?”
She says, “Yes, we have lots of rooms.”
Lennon then comes back with a question that is a pure American question. “When was it built? How old is it?”
She says, “I believe it was started in ten-sixty-seven.” Ten-sixty-seven! And I’m listening to this fantastic story of the British Empire unfolding, right out here before me.
The countess finally speaks. You can see she is the master of all difficult situations. This is the thing that sets the aristocracy apart and above us. She doesn’t know how to end the conversation, but she finally says, “You’ll have to come and visit me. Why don’t all of you come to the castle?”
Paul said, “That ain’t a bad idea! We’re staying in a motel tonight.”
Immediately the poor countess can see four drunken Beatles arriving at four in the morning with eight million fans in Glamis Castle. She says, “That would be lovely. May I have your autographs?”
And one after another they sign their names. That’s the end of it. She walks to the door and the Beatles, not once getting up with their fish and chips, their gin going, slugging away their Scotch, as she gets to the door, one of them says, “Countess, have you eaten? Would you like something to eat?”
She says, “It looks very good.” And out she goes to the sound of more trumpets.
I sit there and I’m an American and I shouldn’t have seen this. Somehow it doesn’t seem right that I should see a thing like this.
Was she slumming—or were the Beatles slumming? It is very hard to tell. She went out and walked down the hallway. And Paul said to John, “You know, you guys, that was a real countess!” And John said, “Yes, I’ve seen countesses before. They always wear coats like that.” And Ringo went “Uh!” And that was the total discussion of the countess and her life.
So the big concert went on and the people screamed and yelled. It was almost like a fever in the air. It was like the bubonic plague. As if the entire country has decided it’s going out of its skull. And they have appointed the Beatles to be the reason. And the Beatles don’t even sing anymore, they just go out on the stage WHOOOOOOO! it starts, they wave a little and they leave the stage. And the roaring continues for hours.
About two hours later I’m in the back seat of the Beatles’ car and we’re heading for the Scottish Highlands. A very interesting experience. These hills climb all the way to the sky. The country is probably the most beautiful in the world, next to Switzerland, and possible even Switzerland included. You can’t believe it. It’s two or three o’clock in the morning and we are screaming down a highway at ninety-five miles an hour in a gigantic Austin Princess, which is about the size of a supper-deluxe Rolls. They’ve got it floored, screaming through this little country road, taking corners on one wheel WHOOOOO! in the back with the Beatles.
I say, “What’s the matter, what are you doing?!” They’re all sitting back there changing clothes. Their clothes zip-on. You can’t put on those little skinny suits they wear. Their pants zip all the way up the back. They have a guy who zips them and they walk out on stage. Have you noticed the Beatles don’t move much when they’re on stage? No Elvis-movements. They just sort of stand there. The curtain goes down, it’s wild, they all turn to the right and a guy rushes out and unzips them and then they walk.
We went deeper and deeper into the countryside until we finally arrived at the loch where we were staying. The Beatles have more security regulations governing where they stay than that which governs the President. People are sworn to secrecy all over the countryside, and they always stay outside of town in the most likely place. The most likely place for anything but Beatles. They’ll stay in a little place that’s marked “Diner.” Just staying there overnight. Or they’ll be in a little place marked “Motel” and they’ll stay there.
We were staying in a tiny inn next to an ancient Scottish loch, which is one of the most ancient and most revered. In fact, Bonnie Prince Charlie had fought a battle twenty feet away from where I was staying. They had a little plaque out there. Rob Roy had robbed somebody twenty feet outside the other way.
Each one of us is poured a little drink. We start to sip the drink when, without warning there’s a sound outside in the darkness. A hum, like the hum of angry bees—at three o’clock in the morning. And it’s getting closer and closer. It is coming like a big storm. And the Beatles are doing nothing, they’re just sort of standing. And I say to the man behind the bar, “What is this, a storm?”
“I don’t know what that sound is. Must be something on the road.”
Just when he gets this out of his mouth, the door slams open and there stands a Scottish constable, who says, “Are the Beatles staying here?”
The man behind the bar says, “Yes, sir, yes, sir.”
The constable says, “I have just called out all available men. There are twenty-thousand people coming this way. What are you going to do about it? What have you done to us?” The Beatles, calm, are just drinking their Scotch.
That night we spend in total darkness, in the hills, with a ring of policemen. Five hundred policemen keeping the entire British Isles away. You can hear the hum of them out there. You can hear them in the trees. You can hear them in the hills. Once in a while you can hear a little wail and it would trail off.
Jean Shepherd’s reporting about his extraordinary experience of being with the Beatles concludes with his description of a riot on stage and his own comments on what it was like to be a part of the Beatles’ world and to be surrounded by a mayhem of pre-pubescent girls gone amuck.
The Beatles sat in total control of their world. They would either give people an audience or they would deny them. And believe it or not, it got to the point where I began to feel special myself because they talked to me! Yes! This is the kind of nuttiness that must have created a Hitler. Must have felt good to a guy to walk in and have Mr. Hitler say, “Oh, hello, hi, Hans!” We all have a secret desire to somehow be greeted on a first-name basis by somebody who is a real myth and a legend. And up to that point, I’d been a non-believer. And I saw this happening.
So it got to that point where I would come into their room and John would look up and say, “How ya doin’, Jean?” I would glow! The Beatles recognized me! When one of them would say to me, “How’d ya like a drink, heh? Here, have a drink,” and he’d hand me a drink, and that great warmth would come out again, and I realized that I had been admitted to Olympus! I was allowed to be on the same plain with a world phenomenon. Fascinating!
And when I got out into the privacy of a hotel hallway, all of a sudden I’d say to myself, “What are you doing? This is a rock and roll group—these are the Beatles. For god’s sake, Shepherd, get a grip on yourself!”
And then the door would open down there and McCartney would stick his head out and say, “Hey, Jean, when you come back, knock twice, we’ll let ya in.”
He’d slam the door and I’d say, “God recognizes me!”
Well, let me tell you, the wildest scene of all is not to watch the Beatles—I stood on the stage apron just back of the curtain where you could see out and they couldn’t see you, and I watched the audience. Whoever was staging this did a fantastic job. They had red lights playing over the audience—just back and forth, red and green spotlights up into the balcony and over into the lodges and into the theater pit.
And this entire mass of screaming, waving, insane, wild human beings you couldn’t even relate to as human beings. It was like looking at some kind of swarm of beetles or gnats, some kind of insane wasp nest that had been stirred up.
Shepherd has been in the underbelly of Western decadence, 1960s- style in the British Isles, and he has come home to tell us and Playboy readers all about it. His interview of them took place in the town of Torquay on the English Channel, the south-western coast of England, following the Beatles performances in Exeter, on October 28, 1964, about ten days after he’d met them. In Playboy, Shepherd describes the hotel setting as consisting of a padlocked suite with a “goodly supply of Coke, tea and booze.”
PLAYBOY asked if they were primarily entertainers or musicians
JOHN said they were money-makers first, then entertainers.
RINGO said they were entertainers first because they were entertainers before they made money.
John, Paul, George, Ringo, and Shep traded questions and remarks for about six pages in the February, 1965 issue of Playboy. The published interview is not at all as exciting as Jean Shepherd’s spoken descriptions of his experiences in the land of Richard the Lionhearted—his hard days’ nights’ adventures with four regular fellows who had only recently been inexplicably, miraculously, transformed into a performing entity known forevermore as The Beatles.
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