As dates go October 5, 1962, isn’t famous. They don’t mention it in schools, nobody very important was born or died then and no world changing events made the headlines. Perhaps the most newsworthy event of that day was the London premiere of the first James Bond film, Dr No.
But, fifty years ago next Friday, and unnoticed by all but a couple of hundred teenagers in Liverpool, the Beatles’ first single, Love Me Do, was released. And, in that moment, it seemed that the torch was passed from one generation to the next. Nearly three years late, the Sixties, as we think of them, had begun.
Obviously few of the changes, for good or bad, which that decade brought were as a direct consequence of the Beatles. But, by reflecting their time so famously, the Beatles put to music the attitudes of a new and confident youth that appeared to overnight brush aside the staid Britain of their parents.
And the funny thing was, no one saw it coming, least of all the Beatles.
The conception of a new era hadn’t been how the future had looked just three weeks earlier on September 11 when the group had driven down from Liverpool in their van to London’s Abbey Road studios. It hadn’t seemed that way to their record producer, George Martin, either, when he’d agreed to pay each of them the union minimum of seven pounds ten shillings (£7.50) for the session and a royalty of one fifth of an old penny each for every disc sold.
Martin wasn’t taking much of a risk, but, as every other record label in London had already rejected the group, why should he?
Nor was the record welcomed with any excitement outside Merseyside, where the day after its release the band had a reality check when they found themselves performing at a local horticultural society dance in Port Sunlight. It’s been said that to increase sales their manager, Brian Epstein, ordered 10,000 copies himself, but even that could only push Love Me Do to number seventeen in the charts. And it certainly wasn’t played on TV’s Juke Box Jury.
All the same, the breakthrough had been made. The Beatles’ next record, Please Please Me, recorded just seven weeks later, would top charts around the world.
But what was the world like half a century ago, back then on October 5, 1962? What else was happening? Who were the stars? What were ordinary people reading, watching? What were they talking about?
Well, nothing too outlandish that was for sure. While ripples of change may already have been stirring, they were largely unnoticed.
Two months after the death of 36 year old Marilyn Monroe in August, Marlon Brando was playing a fat Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty and Elvis Presley was committing career suicide in cheap Hollywood beach movies with terrible songs – carelessly leaving a vast musical vacuum in his wake.
Most of the big films of the year were backward glances, like the D-day epic The Longest Day and Lawrence of Arabia; and although Len Deighton’s new nameless hero in his first spy novel The Ipcress File was born then, it wouldn’t be until 1965 when Michael Caine put flesh on him in the cinema version that the character would become a Sixties icon. Meanwhile solid Agatha Christie thrillers like The Mirror Crack’d plodded on in the libraries, which was where most people got their books.
Altogether it seemed a quiet, insular time, with a global population of around three billion, which is slightly less than half of what it is today, in which Eastern Europe was a far-off place of grey, grim Communism where few people from the West ventured, and where East German border guards shot anyone who tried to escape over the wall built the previous year to divide Berlin.
And when Nelson Mandela went on trial accused of treason in Johannesburg on October 11, 1962, the moment was largely overlooked outside South Africa. He would stay in prison until 1990.
As for a Britain approaching the end of Empire, the average UK house was worth £2,670, the average annual salary was £800 and a Ford Cortina, the flashiest new family car of the time, cost £591.
With almost full employment, the austerity of the Fifties might have been over, but there was still an ingrained unfairness and waste in the education system, especially if you were a girl.
With only four young people in a hundred getting into university, three were boys, with many bright girls being encouraged to go to teachers training colleges – whether teaching was their vocation or not.
So, all in all, things only looked modestly exciting for the young in 1962.
But there’s something else, and this cannot be stressed too strongly. 1962 was a million miles from the image of the swinging Sixties we’ve come to know.
Some teenagers in a few clubs would have tried amphetamines, known then as purple hearts, but, with cannabis rare, heroin and cocaine the habit of a tiny, invisible few, and LSD unknown, there was no big drugs problem.
And although smoking was common, binge drinking was hardly known, certainly among teenagers. With a shorthand typist just out of secretarial college in a provincial town lucky to earn £5 a week, and a London bedsitter considered expensive at £4 a week, few young people could afford much more than a couple of halves of bitter.
The fabled, or perhaps even mythical, Sixties decade of sex, drugs and rock and roll was as yet nowhere in sight.
Nor were the clothes as daring, revolutionary and colourful as they would very quickly become. This was pre-mini skirts time, when, despite Mary Quant’s best Kings Road efforts, college girls around the country dressed like frumps, and fans at Liverpool’s Cavern would wear curlers in their hair all day at work, to take them out just before the Beatles came on stage at night.
London’s Carnaby Street had, as I recall, a couple of shops which sold relatively brightly coloured, and thus daring, clothes for boys, but V-necked Marks and Spencers sweaters were what most young blades wore on a night out, and everyone had a sports coat and flannels in the wardrobe.
Musically, the world was even straighter. Cliff Richard had started the year withThe Young Ones, but the biggest hit that summer was I Remember You-who by a yodelling Australian called Frank Ifield. Not a record that is remembered much any more by anyone.
As for sex, although the Pill had gone on sale a year earlier, it wouldn’t be available for some years for single girls, who would even then have to run the gauntlet of some fierce questioning by moralising GPs.
Attitudes were very different. When John Lennon’s girl friend, Cynthia, had told him in June that she was pregnant, his instant response had been to marry her. On the cusp of fame, the timing was hardly opportune for him, and, worried about adverse reactions from fans, the fiction that he was single was maintained for a year. But marriage had been “the decent thing to do”.
Early Sixties Britain was, therefore, still tied by tradition and conformity. It was also a very stratified “know your place” country, where Civil Service type rules of politeness, decorum and respect for one’s seniors ruled. At the Abbey Road studios, for instance, musicians, the people who actually made the music recorded there, had to use the tradesmen’s entrance.
Such general deference was, however, about to be burst. Just three weeks after Love Me Do was recorded a new programme was aired for the first time on the BBC. It was called That Was The Week That Was, and with satirical impudence it made fun of the great, the good and the pompous.
Not only did TW3 (as it became known) make David Frost an overnight star, it marked a sea change in attitudes towards politicians, which grew to hilarity when the ministerial sexual hanky-panky of the Profumo Affair began to leak a few months later.
Until then, still in black and white and the only channels being the BBC and ITV, television had vacillated between being cautious, worthy and dull, the most popular programmes being Dixon Of Dock Green and the Western series Bonanza. So it’s no surprise, that apart from one short, solitary piece of film by Manchester’s Granada-TV, there is no footage of the Beatles playing at the Cavern - although they appeared there 292 times.
Ground-breaking technological change for television had, however, already arrived. When the Soviet Union had thrown its first Sputnik into orbit in 1957, Cold War defence worries had been the most common reaction. But, if the Beatles had gone home to watch a special late night programme after their Cavern appearance on July 11, 1962, they would have seen the future in the shape of the first live images from America.
Relayed to Britain through the satellite tracking station at Goonhilly Downs in Cornwall, and with the voice of Richard Dimbleby lilting in excitement, the nation watched and waited for a satellite called Telstar to come over the horizon and show us – what? A car, I think, driving along a road over three thousand miles a way. It might have been mundane, but it was mesmerising, too.
And what was top of the charts three months later on the day Love Me Do was released? Telstar, played by the Tornados.
The Beatles didn’t know it, but all through that autumn they were living the last three private months of their lives before impossible fame would overtake them in 1963. Soon, however, in moments of black humour, it may have occurred to them that they might be living the last few months of their lives altogether
It certainly crossed my mind when on October 22 President Kennedy went on television and announced to the world that the Soviet Union had installed intercontinental nuclear missiles on Cuba, and that the US Navy would now blockade that island until they were taken away.
It was a confrontation that, it was agreed later, came rather too close to a nuclear war. I was a student in London at the time and marked Kennedy’s sabre rattling television speech by putting up warnings around the Georgian hall of residence where I lived, saying that missile watching from the balconies was not allowed as they were structurally unsafe.
There were many other such jokes, but I remember being quite pleased the following morning to discover that I hadn’t been vapourised overnight in an atomic holocaust. With black CND (Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament) badges pinned to many student scarves, there were demonstrations outside the US Embassy that week – even some outside the Soviet embassy.
What other memories of that autumn? Well, it was a time when people wrote lots of letters, hence the flip side of Love Me Do being PS I Love You, and, although it’s unlikely any of the Beatles would have noticed, the season when Liverpool Football Club rejoined the First Division under their new manager Bill Shankly. Then in December there was a simply unbelievable smog, in which you couldn’t see a lamp post until you walked into it, and which killed sixty people.
I’d like to be able to write that I’d been one of the Beatles first fans who went out and bought Love Me Do on the day it was released. But I can’t. In fact it wasn’t until the start of the long frozen winter of 1963, when in January I heard Please Please Me on the Light Programme’s Housewives Choice for the first time, that I realised what I’d been missing. And by then, so did everybody else.
Looking back at that following year of 1963 as the Sixties began to flower, it seemed to me that the world I was living in was changing from black and white to dazzling colour. Perhaps, later, as drugs began to permeate through society, it became too dazzling. But, all the same, it was an astonishing and often exhilarating time as class barriers tumbled and opportunities multiplied. Suddenly the future looked exciting.
As I say, the Beatles weren’t responsible for most of the changes of the Sixties, but from October 5, 1962, they proved a terrific musical accompaniment to them.