“For our last number I’d like to ask your help. Would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry”
These were the words used by John Lennon, on stage for the Royal Variety Performance at the Prince of Wales theatre in central London on 4th November 1963, to introduce the last number of the set played by the Beatles. The packed audience included the British royal family. Black and white archive film of the set exists:
That moment was part of a period of a few months when the phenomenon of “Beatlemania” burst into the public consciousness. As told by Beatles historian Bruce Spizer,
By September 1963, The Beatles were gaining coverage in the British press and were receiving tremendous radio and television exposure. But their big break through was a widely-watched and well-publicized television appearance on “Val Parnell’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium”, which was televised throughout the U.K. during prime time Sunday evening and was the British equivalent of “The Ed Sullivan Show”. The Beatles headlined the Oct. 13, 1963, Palladium show, which was seen by more than 15 million people. The bedlam caused by the group both inside and outside the theater caught the attention of British news editors, who elevated The Beatles from a successful entertainment act to a national news phenomenon. The Daily Mirror described the hysteria as “Beatlemania!” The term stuck.
The Beatles’ triumphant Palladium appearance was quickly followed by the Oct. 31 airport reception witnessed by Sullivan and their playing before British high society at the Royal Command Performance, also known as the Royal Variety Show. Their presence on the Nov. 4, 1963, show drew more attention than the arrival of Royal Family. The Beatles, who were seventh on the bill of 19 acts, impressed the upscale crowd with “She Loves You”, “Till There Was You”, “From Me To You” and “Twist and Show”. Prior to ripping into a rousing rendition of their closing rocker, Lennon said, “For our last number I’d like to ask your help. Would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry.” While [Beatles manager Brian] Epstein viewed John’s remarks as being a bit risque, he was relieved that the crowd seemed charmed by the Beatle’s cheeky humor. Before the show, John had joked to Brian that he was going to ask the Royals to rattle their “fookin’ jewelry.”
Nearly fifty years later, the show “Let It Be”, playing at the very same Prince of Wales theatre, re-created a great deal of the same music, musicianship, and mannerisms of the original act. Including the jewelry quip.
There’s no plot. It’s simply a group of four musicians who look and sound remarkably similar to the original Beatles, playing a series of sets of fabulous music, interspersed (allowing the band a chance to change clothing – and wigs) with archive news footage, mock advertisements conveying a wistful sense of the 1960s, and audio excerpts of retrospective interviews by the Beatles.
The show progresses through segments (each with their own clothing and hairstyles)
- the 1963 Royal Variety Show era,
- a set from the 1965 Shea Stadium concert – where the Beatles had played to an audience of more than 55,000
- a Sergeant Pepper segment
- a flower power segment featuring All You Need is Love, Magical Mystery Tour, and more
- a quieter section, with the group members seated for evocative melodies such as Norwegian Wood and Blackbird
- an Abbey Road segment, culminating in a powerful rendition of The End
- a final encore – including (of course) Let It Be, as well as a fore-taste of forthcoming solitary careers: Give Peace A Chance.
I offer a few thoughts from my stream of consciousness during the performance:
- On either side of the stage, large screens showed images to frame the main actions. The young women who were shouting and screaming with such hysteria must in many cases be grandmothers by now – I wonder if they know their images are still delighting London audiences, nearly fifty years after their rush of blood was captured on camera
- The vibrant twanging of Get Back mentally transported me back in time to April 1969, when I remember being enthralled, as a very naive ten-year old, by that song playing on Top of The Pop: “Sweet Loretta Martin thought she was a woman, But she was another man…”
- The vocals to Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and A Day in the Life were, if anything, even more trippy than in the original
- Actually the audience seemed bemused and unsure about A Day in the Life, with many of them showing blank faces as the cacophony grew – I guess this song is nothing like as well known nowadays. And the clincher: half the audience started applauding the end of this song too soon, before that final apocalyptic multi-piano E Major chord rang out, woops
- Perhaps another sign of the differentially fading memories of the Beatles music – the audience were happy to rise to its feet to sway along to Twist and Shout in the opening section, but when a similar request was made to stand up during Sgt Pepper Reprise, everyone sat stuck in their seats
- A nice touch of fidelity in the Abbey Road segment – the “Paul McCartney” character was barefoot on stage – as on the Abbey Road album cover photo
- For sheer musicianship, the guitar crescendo at the end of While My Guitar Gently Weeps was outstanding; that has always been one of my favourite Beatles tracks – particularly in its remastered version on the Love album remix – but it seemed particularly dramatic on stage this evening.
With such a rich music portfolio to choose from, inevitably many favourites have to be excluded from the two-hour show. Personally I would have missed out one or two of the tracks chosen, in order to find room for glorious stomping classics such as Lady Madonna, Hello Goodbye, The Walrus, or Back In the USSR. For example, I’ve probably heard Hey Jude enough times already in my life, but its iconic status presumably meant it needed to be included.
Is this the show with the best set of music ever? Seeing that the competition includes Mamma Mia (with its feast of Abba hits), Westside Story (with its feast of Bernstein), and Amadeus (with its feast of Mozart), the answer is perhaps not – but it was still a tremendous occasion, providing a welcome break from thoughts about futurism, existential risk, free markets, and mobile phone technology!
Footnote: But I could not forget about mobile phone technology altogether that evening. On the way home, my companion found that her London Travel Card was being systematically rejected by tube turnstiles - again. That’s despite having bought the ticket only a few hours earlier. It’s by no means the first occurrence for her. “Is it OK to carry my travel card here, right next to my mobile phone, in this small section of my handbag?” she asked. “That is exactly the problem”, I answered – and there seems to be plenty of knowledge of this problem online. And the Beatles music faded out of my mind, to be replaced by thoughts on the health implications of proximity of mobile phones to the human body.