The Beatles, Twist and Shout

The Beatles Shake Britain: The Beginning of Beatlemania

Shake It Up, Baby! breaks down the Beatles’ concerts, business deals, sleepless nights, and bloody fights month by month during the transitional year of 1963.

Shake It Up, Baby! The Rise of Beatlemania and the Mayhem of 1963
Ken McNab
May 2024

It is hard to imagine the Beatles playing to less-than-packed houses or being heckled onstage. But those are the situations John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr faced as they toured Scotland in January 1963. A month after the group’s final residency in Hamburg, Germany, and eight months after producer George Martin signed them to EMI Records, the Beatles were intent on conquering Britain. Stars in their native Liverpool, the rest of the world barely knew them.

The Beatles’ debut single, “Love Me Do”, appeared in October 1962 and peaked at No. 17 on the UK charts. This modest success wasn’t enough to impress the skeptical audiences the group encountered while on tour. At one gig in Dingwall, Scotland, just 20 patrons showed up to see the band. During another in the town of Bridge of Allan, local toughs pelted them with coins, trying to drive the English “southerners” from the stage.

The Beatles’ early days were spent tooling up and down Britain’s motorways in a cramped cargo van. A tiny road crew, Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans braved the snowstorms of a particularly harsh winter to get the Beatles from show to show. Any “time off” was devoted to recording sessions at EMI Studios on Abbey Road, London. It was a hard toll for the band and their families, especially Lennon’s pregnant wife, Cynthia – stuck in Liverpool with a housemate, Lennon’s aunt Mimi, who despised her.

Ken McNab’s new book, Shake It Up, Baby! The Rise of Beatlemania and the Mayhem of 1963 is a gritty account of the Beatles’ rise to fame. McNab, an award-winning journalist and communications professional in Glasgow, breaks down the Beatles’ concerts, business deals, sleepless nights, and bloody fights month by month during the transitional year of 1963.

Much of the grit stems from Brian Epstein, the dapper, driven manager who kept the Beatles working incessantly. The group were used to hard work: stints in Hamburg between 1960 and 1962 exposed them to the rough quarters of the city’s Reeperbahn as the band tightened their sound. However, touring around England added a layer of uncertainty about how audiences would react to their bristling pop-rock and whether corrupt promoters would agree to pay them.

Things began to improve after the Beatles’ first appearance on Thank Your Lucky Stars, Britain’s favourite pop music television show. A mimed “Please Please Me” performance helped catapult the single to the top of the charts. This, in turn, raised the Beatles’ prestige on the packaged tours they performed with other artists, including teenage pop diva Helen Shapiro and American heartthrob Tommy Roe.

During one marathon studio session in February 1963, the Beatles recorded ten of 14 tracks for their debut album, Please Please Me. Added to four tracks from the earlier singles, the album would prove to be the turning point in the Beatles’ fortunes. Released in March 1963, Please Please Me became the first British pop album to top the album charts.

McNab shows how even this initial blush of success did not make life much easier for the Beatles. Epstein’s scrupulous nature forced the band to honour contracts negotiated months earlier when the band could only command minimal fees. The manager’s inexperience cost the group millions of dollars in lost publishing royalties, film percentages, and merchandizing licenses. Success on the level the Beatles achieved was unprecedented in British pop, causing inevitable mistakes as Epstein learned the ropes of a cutthroat music industry.

Tensions on the personal front also loomed. During a holiday to Spain, Epstein, a gay man who made no secret of his attraction to John Lennon, faced a potentially devastating scandal after the two vacationed separately from the other band members. Although McNab discredits rumours the relationship turned physical, rampant homophobia in England (where homosexuality was still illegal in 1963) made the insinuations dangerous for the Beatles’ public image. Lennon fueled the fire by violently assaulting a comedian who joked about the alleged “relationship” with Epstein to his face.

Most of the time, however, the Beatles and Epstein faced the onset of Beatlemania with camaraderie and good humour. They devised outlandish routines to avoid being mobbed by adoring fans. Crawling over rooftops, wearing disguises, and hiring human decoys to cover their passage in and out of concert venues, the Beatles’ lives were as absurdly funny as the film A Hard Day’s Night would depict a year later. Amid the mayhem, the brotherhood of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr remained strong, as did the familial bond among Epstein, Aspinall, Evans, and publicist Tony Barrow.

Shake It Up, Baby! is most fascinating when McNab explores the hidden gems of Beatles lore. Paul McCartney’s near drowning, after the bassist got caught in a riptide off the coast of Spain, highlights how easily tragedy might have scuppered the group’s fortunes. A few months before Beatlemania struck stateside, George Harrison’s holiday in America’s Midwest was the guitarist’s last-ever taste of anonymity. The account of Epstein’s struggles to interest American record companies in the Beatles is equally poignant – a stark reminder of how tentative the group’s fortunes were in the early years.

McNab’s prose is light and vivid, even when discussing contractual negotiations, promotional campaigns, and record company contracts. The author’s compulsion for detail makes Shake It Up, Baby! feel scholarly without sacrificing readability. However, because it concentrates on a single year, the book is probably best suited to readers familiar with the wider arc of the Beatles’ career.

For the same reason, the book is more tightly focused than other Beatles biographies, some of which attempt to cover too much ground in a single volume. Beatles scholarship is a crowded and ever-expanding field. Regardless, Shake It Up, Baby! is essential as it details one crucial year in the Beatles saga.

RATING 8 / 10