It was sixty years ago today….
A spread from the Stowe School archive was laid out in the Headmaster’s Gothic Library when I arrived there on March 22nd, ready for me. Copies of the letters from Brian Epstein, photos and more. Anthony Wallersteiner and old Stoic John Bloomfield had agreed to spend the morning with me and producer Julian May for a special Front Row report marking the 60th anniversary of the Beatles’ most unusual gig – the time they played a private boys’ boarding school.
My fascination with the intersection of popular culture and social change is the driving force behind my journalism. My partner had taken me for a visit to the school last summer and Anthony had given us a tour and told us about the concert. Seeing a blue plaque on the school theatre building marking the event set my spidey senses tingling. Not only did I love The Beatles, I knew there was a story about what that concert represented as a pivotal moment of transformation in British society and the uniqueness of that almost all male audience. What I didn’t know until a couple days before we arrived was that John might have a tape of the whole concert.
Last night’s Front Row special in which I revealed the existence of the earliest complete live recording of the Beatles in the UK was one of the most delightful stories I’ve ever worked on.
It’s all thanks to John Bloomfield’s self confessed technical nerdery in taping the concert on his new tape player that it exists. And thanks to his generosity and trust in me, that he told me about it.
He brought along an extract that we played through the stage PA system turned up as loud as possible to match the experience he’d had back in 1963. It was emotional for all us, including two young A level music students who came along to listen. It was like time travel. The Front Row listen hopefully gives a sense of that.
Back home I decided I needed to be sure of my story and therefore to hear the whole tape. I rang John to ask him if he’d play it in full over a call. I also asked if I could let Mark Lewisohn join us on the call and get his expert opinion on what it revealed. John kindly agreed. Mark was in New York on a research trip for his next volume of his definitive Beatles history (covering 1963-66 by great coincidence), but we found a date and time slot and the three of us listened to it in full for the first time in 60 years, grinning and tapping our feet but also..given that this was cultural history – making careful notes. I now had an almost complete set list — more than 22 songs with another 2 we guessed, missing as the tape had run out before the end. I collated Mark’s notes with mine; John made amendments to correct what we’d misheard on the banter.
I Saw Her Standing There
Too Much Monkey Business
Love Me Do
Some Other Guy
I Just Don’t Understand
A Shot of Rhythm and Blues
From Me To You
Thank You Girl
A Taste of Honey
Twist and Shout
Please Please Me
Hippy Hippy Shake
I’m Talking About You
Ask Me Why
Till There Was You
I Saw Her Standing There (reprise) – tape runs out at this point. Possibly there were a couple more songs – maybe Sweet Little Sixteen and Long Tall Sally, according to another Stoic’s partial set list.
I then arranged to record an interview for the Front Row piece with Mark, who gives his invaluable insight and context about what the tape reveals, how it changes our understanding of the band’s performance and the potential for it with audio enhancement, as an artefact of cultural importance. And I don’t mean an artefact as a dead, fetishised object, but for its dynamic exciting capture of a live moment.
As the edit came together with more clips of the banter, the BBC worked its Reithian power when it counted: A colleague in BBC Music rights helped my editors Tim Prosser and Rebecca Stratford clear permission to use extracts. My editors gave constant support and oversight and allowed the piece to be as long as it needed to be: 27 minutes. Julian cast his George Martin-level magic to weave a sound collage of new interviews and archive – he found the BBC’s session recordings with the Fab Four made the same day as the Stowe Concert, matching some of the same songs from my written set list, in case we couldn’t use the tape. We had a nerve wracking week, keeping the secret, and waiting for clearance of clips.
I had written a news story for the BBC News website and my colleagues including Ian Youngs turned that around before 6pm – just over an hour before Front Row went on air. Somehow I recorded an interview with Hugh Laurie about his wonderful Agatha Christie adaptation. Producers Paul Waters and Kirsty McQuire took care of the shape of the rest of the programme. With the symmetry of pieces falling into place, Laurie’s drama was set in 1936, the same digits, rearranged, as 1963. Then we were on air. 1, 2, 3, 4… Tune in:
It was sixty years ago today – Schoolboy’s tape of the Beatles takes us back to an age of optimism (Observer April 9th 2023)