For the British beat group boom, it didn’t get better than the Summer of 64
By Pat Murphy
The summer of 1964 was a personal watershed, as it was the first time I ventured outside of Ireland.
As a university student on summer break, I lived and worked in London for three whole months. While it may not sound very daring by today’s standards, it was quite an adventure for a hitherto cloistered 20 year-old Dubliner.
It was also a summer when lots was happening on the pop music scene – and The Beatles were in their pomp.
On the evening I arrived, A Hard Day’s Night had its world premiere at the London Pavilion on Piccadilly Circus. Picking me up from the airport bus, my older London-savvy cousin was emphatic our journey to Highgate needed to avoid the crowds gathered for the opening. After all, there might be a riot!
And there was a touch of the gladiatorial contest about it all, at least as far as the tabloid press was concerned. The previous week, the Daily Mirror had run a feature pitching the theme of an impending cinematic battle between The Beatles and Cliff Richard. On July 2, Cliff’s Wonderful Life was set to open at the Empire in Leicester Square, with A Hard Day’s Night following at the Pavilion four days later.
Who would emerge triumphant? As it happened, the Beatles shaded it comfortably. Whereas Cliff’s two previous movies – The Young Ones and Summer Holiday – had garnered reviews that ranged from positive to triumphant, Wonderful Life had very mixed notices.
The approach that had previously seemed so fresh and energetic was now deemed to be tired and formulaic. And this time there was only one bona fide hit song.
In contrast, the reviews of A Hard Day’s Night bordered on the ecstatic. There was much talk about its cinema-verite style, its clever editing, and the fact that it purportedly captured the spirit of the age.
The Beatles also won the battle of the box office. When the financial accounts were tallied at year-end, A Hard Day’s Night was 1964’s second highest grossing film, beaten only by Goldfinger.
As for Wonderful Life, while it ended-up as the year’s fifth highest grosser, the extent to which it fell short of its wildly successful predecessors suggested that Cliff’s reign as king of the cinema box office was over.
That summer also had the first significant face-off between The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. And The Beatles won that one too.
Since early May, The Stones’ debut album had been top of the album chart, only to be promptly pushed into second place the moment A Hard Day’s Night was released in July. The ensuing one-two situation persisted for the balance of the summer.
Something roughly similar happened in the singles market. It’s All Over Now’s brief ascendancy was swiftly terminated by the release of A Hard Day’s Night. The Stones may have firmly established themselves as the major group challenger to The Beatles, but they were still just the challenger.
Overall, though, it was a halcyon summer for what are now considered to be classic beat group chart-toppers. House Of The Rising Sun kicked the string off, then came the two from The Stones and The Beatles, which were subsequently followed by Do Wah Diddy Diddy and Have I the Right? For the British beat group boom, it didn’t get better than the summer of 64.
But there was other stuff going on as well. For instance, Burt Bacharach. The songwriting partnership of composer Bacharach and lyricist Hal David had been well known in the industry since the late 1950s. Indeed, in early 1958 they enjoyed the rare distinction of back-to-back UK No.1s, courtesy of The Story of My Life (Michael Holliday) and Magic Moments (Perry Como).
But 1964 was the year in which, thanks to his combination of imaginative melodies and complex rhythms, Bacharach was elevated to near-iconic status.
The year began auspiciously with 24 Hours From Tulsa high in the charts, and then came Anyone Who Had a Heart, which was followed by Walk On By. In August, there were no fewer than three Bacharach tunes in the Top 20 – I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself, Wishin’ And Hopin’, and You’ll Never Get To Heaven.
For a while, it seemed as if every solo singer wanted to record a Bacharach song, and some erstwhile beat groups tagged along. It was the Merseybeats’ version of Wishin’ And Hopin’ that was in the August Top 20, Dusty Springfield’s rendition having been held off the UK market so as not to compete with her then current I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself.
And the Bacharach influence didn’t stop there. There were also those, such as Tony Hatch and Chris Andrews, who wanted to write like him. But all this novelty and excitement notwithstanding, more traditional sounds and personalities were also prospering.
The decidedly old-fashioned Bachelors were enjoying their golden year, one in which they scored five Top 10 singles and one of the year’s best-selling albums. For three fellows from Dublin who’d previously toiled in obscurity, they were very big indeed.
Country singer Jim Reeves was at his commercial peak. First, in July saw he had two big hits simultaneously on the go. Then his tragic death in a plane crash provided enough extra momentum to place no fewer than four of his albums in the Top 10 for the final week of August.
On the live performance front, the main action outside of London came from the summer shows in the major seaside resorts. And resorts didn’t come any bigger than Blackpool, where the combination of Frank Ifield and Kathy Kirby on a single bill produced the season’s runaway hit.
In the telling of impresario Leslie Grade, it even managed to outdo Cliff’s record-breaking 16-week run the previous summer.
Meanwhile, in London, Startime opened at the Palladium in mid-May for an extended season that went all the way up to Christmas. Having just enjoyed consecutive No.1s, new girl Cilla Black’s spot on the programme was the object of much attention. But she wasn’t the headliner: that distinction being preserved for Mr. Moonlight himself, Frankie Vaughan.
While the summer of 64 may have set the stage for Swinging London, it was also a very eclectic time, one in which the public taste was a good deal more varied than you’d guess from reading most retrospective descriptions. Mind you, it does help to have actually been there.
A native of Ireland, Pat Murphy now lives in Toronto, Canada.