The Beatles in Hong Kong: The unreleased concert tape
Posted by Roger Stormo
Thursday, August 25, 2016
Hong Kong press conference
A review of an unreleased audio concert recording of The Beatles, this was sent us by the person who owns the tape, and the review is by a friend of him, who is also a Beatles fan.
Back in 2013, I was approached by someone who has in his possession a tape recorded at The Beatles Hong Kong concert in 1964. He wanted advice about the copyright of the recording. I told him about what was then known as "The Beatles Live Project". Still, three years later, he still owns the recording and has asked a friend, a Beatles fan, to review the tape. Here's that review.
On 9th June 1964, The Beatles played two concerts in Kowloon, Hong Kong as part of their far eastern and Australian tour legs. Notably, Ringo Starr did not accompany the tour, having been hospitalised back in the UK. A session drummer by the name of Jimmy Nicol stood in for Ringo and had a brief moment of fame as a temporary member of the Fab Four.
Apparently, the evening and matinee performances were not sold out, as the local promoter had pitched the ticket prices too high at the equivalent of a weekly wage. In the audience that night was a radio journalist who had decided to attend the concert out of curiosity, as he had previously briefly taught Ringo at primary school. With him he had his UHER tape recorder, and as The Beatles hit the stage he pressed the record button and captured the entire show for posterity on a BASF reel to reel tape.
I have had the privilege to hear the recording on three occasions on a transferred to cassette copy. The original tape is safely and appropriately stored, it is going to be professionally treated to preserve its integrity. Its authenticity has been verified by EMI and independent auction houses.
I am a lifelong Beatles fanatic. They mean everything to me. Growing up in difficult family circumstances, they almost became surrogate parents to me, keeping me on the straight and narrow, with my passion driving me to learn and study music. Now at the age of 53, I have had a lifetime of sharing their music in the various bands I sing and play with.
You can therefore imagine my delight in having an opportunity to hear this once in a lifetime gig, with the most unusual of circumstances attached to it and etched in Beatles history and folklore. So I’m not going to keep it to myself. Here’s a little run through of how the gig sounds, its highlights and feel, and its sheer uniqueness.
First thing to address is whether the sound quality is any good. Those of us who remember the Hamburg Lingasong release of the 70s, still remember the disappointment at how poor the sound quality was. Worth having as a completist, but never succeeding in getting more than one play. This is a whole new ballpark to that.
It’s mono of course and comes from a mere tape recording machine of the early 60s. It is however crystal clear and could probably be sound enhanced further on modern equipment. I listened to it on cassette format through a small machine purchased for about £20. It was a thrilling listen and much to be enjoyed in terms of little moments which I will describe to you. This has to be the only available recording of this snapshot moment in Beatles history and it is wonderful.
The sound starts a little muffled and then drastically improves half way through the first number. There is really clear and interesting audience reaction, the effect you get from actually being in the audience among it. I couldn’t fully make out what the announcer is saying but he does say ‘The biggest ever to hit Hong Kong and The World’. There is audience crescendo and…bang…..they launch into I saw her standing there.
Now I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing, or the fact that it wasn’t sold out, but there is none of the Beatlemania white noise of the screaming, and the audience can clearly be heard reacting to the dynamic of the music, and you get the feeling that the Fabs are a touch surprised to be hearing themselves playing. The Cavern fire, guts and power is abundantly evident.
Jimmy’s drumming is notably different to Ringo. Steady beat and throughout not as cymbal heavy as the Starkey. The sound quality boosts half way through the tune and the second verse is nice and clear with Lennon’s low harmony shining through. Finishing the song there is a lovely audience crescendo, sending the hairs on the back of the neck upwards as you imagine what it must have been like to have been there.
On stage in Hong Kong
Without dropping a beat, we are seamlessly attacked with the opening riff of I want to hold your hand. George’s playing sounds pronounced and unusual, and is just a joy all the way through, with lovely janglyness. As they sing the ‘touch you’ line in the middle eight, there is a swoony scream in unison from the audience. It’s a powerful performance so much so that when they hit the ‘I can’t hide’ line, there is some distortion which has a certain charm. Paul’s harmony at the end is just divine.
Mass adulation as the song ends, and we are in to the first speaking link from Paul……….’Hello. How are you? We’d like to carry on with a song we recorded not long ago………All my loving!’ Bosh…out rings Lennon’s Rickenbacker with what could be one of the hardest rhythm guitar parts ever created. His speedy triplets ring out loud and pronounced. George’s solo loud and crisp and the harmonies just beautiful. Into the 2 nd verse you hear Lennon shout ‘Sing along’. Jimmy is not as good a sticksman as Ringo but he’s doing the job for them.
Johnny takes the next introduction link. ‘Thank you. Next song we’d like to do is on our last record……. (Interrupted by the audience)...WHAT? …then She Loves You at a pace to rival The Clash. Jimmy’s drumming is so significantly different to Ringo here. It’s a curiosity. Great harmonies as always and George’s twangy fills ring out. As you can imagine, tumultuous applause at the end for one of the pop songs that defined the 60s.
Paul up to the mic introducing a song from ‘The Music Man’ as they glide into a beautiful rendition of Till there was you. I can only presume that George is playing the solo parts on his Gretsch rather than a Spanish guitar because there doesn’t appear to be time to change guitars around. His playing and phrasing is notably different to the recorded version we know and love, and there is very unusual phrase at the end which is worth the price of admission on its own.
Bang! Hits you like a freight train, straight into Roll over Beethoven. Hardly a breath in-between and no time for a guitar change. Great Cavern style attack and real stomping and handclapping from the audience who are really going with the flow. It really takes off in the ‘reel and rocking’ bit. Some unusual little improv in the solo and finishes up on some ringing seventh chords.
Paul back to the mic ‘Next record is our latest record in England. Do us a favour. Join in and clap (the audience does) and stamp your feet. You can hear Lennon alongside joining in the sentiments. Can’t buy me love takes off like a rocket with the audience faithfully living up to Paul and John’s request and sound like they are having a party. Just wonderful. Guitar solo cuts through like a knife. Audience frenzy at the end.
John to the mic this time and introduces This Boy as the B side of I want to hold your hand. His rhythm guitar sounds fantastic as does Macca’s harmonies. John’s vocal makes you want to cry, yay yay yay when he sings that bit at the end of the bridge. Powerful vocals all round and produce some of that charming distortion when they really go full tilt.
Macca introduces Twist and Shout and they power drive in. Lennon’s growl and the call response vocals just so uplifting, and the audience are going crazy – stomping, clapping and screaming. Instrumental bridge superb and a tight crisp finish.
We then get one of the most interesting aspects of the recording. Paul goes to the mic to announce the last song and there is a resounding boo. John says ‘Best to Ringo. He couldn’t make it today but give a round of applause to Jimmy Nicol…… (The audience does) Just found out there are people from Liverpool in the audience.’ They then launch into a fantastic spirited version of Long Tall Sally with a lovely little reprise of the Twist and Shout riff. Then it’s all over.
The audience scream for more and the announcer states ‘On behalf of The Beatles. Thanks for coming down. Hope you enjoyed the show. Then it goes quiet.
Well a moment in time that I have been honoured to have participated in. Would love to hear this recording again and again anytime. You really do feel in among the audience and I was entirely thrilled to hear the little unusual things going on, the little differences in George’s playing, the inspired vocals of John and Paul, the stage banter and the congruent audience reaction flowing along with the music rather than screaming them off the stage. One of the things I found most fascinating is the absence of Ringo. Jimmy Nicol did a great job for them but Ringo often much maligned, it shows what a truly great drummer Mr Starkey was and is. I wonder if he has heard this?
I hope that one day you’ll have the opportunity too.
According to an article in South China Morning News from 2013, quoting Hong Kong institution DJ Ray “Uncle Ray” Cordeiro, the screaming during the concert most likely came from military servicemen. In fact, the concert was a flop, because tickets went unsold.
"It was quite a flop because the teenagers couldn’t afford to buy the tickets … and the parents didn’t know who The Beatles were. So the theatre was empty," Cordeiro says. According to Cordeiro, the promoter was forced to offer the unsold tickets to the army, free of charge, and the auditorium was filled with soldiers in uniforms.
When The Beatles came to Hong Kong
Half a century ago, The Beatles brought Hong Kong closer to the world of global music, but the gig’s importance has been exaggerated over the years
Thursday, 29 August, 2013
The Beatles, with replacement drummer Jimmy Nicol (front), wave to fans on arriving at Kai Tak on June 8, 1964.
Fifty years ago next year, The Beatles came to Hong Kong.
June 9, 1964, has been called the most important day in Hong Kong’s pop history. In the collective memory of the city, The Beatles’ appearance at the Princess Theatre in Kowloon – today the site of the Mira Hotel – marked the beginning of an era: the era of Hong Kong English-language rock 'n' roll, and ultimately of the Cantonese-language pop that it gave birth to.
However, when speaking to the people who were there – audience members and the movers and shakers of Hong Kong’s 1960s pop scene – a more complicated picture emerges. Have we been giving the Fab Four too much credit?
First of all, Fab Three would be more accurate: The Beatles who appeared in Hong Kong were short one Ringo Starr, who was recovering from tonsillitis in a London hospital; he was temporarily replaced by drummer Jimmy Nicol.
Also, the commonly heard story that the Princess Theatre was packed with thousands of screaming, music-starved Hong Kong youngsters doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. The screams were real, but according to Hong Kong institution DJ Ray “Uncle Ray” Cordeiro, they most likely came from military servicemen. In fact, the concert was the only time in Beatles history where the promoter lost money. Tickets went unsold.
DJ "Uncle Ray" Cordeiro with a signed picture of the band. Photo: Jonathan Wong
“It was quite a flop because the teenagers couldn’t afford to buy the tickets … and the parents didn’t know who The Beatles were. So the theatre was empty,” Cordeiro says.
According to Cordeiro, the promoter was forced to offer the unsold tickets to the army, free of charge, and the auditorium was filled with soldiers in uniforms.
Other audience members remember things a bit differently. Anders Nelsson, then a teenager and lead singer of the band The Kontinentals, and Philip Chan Yan-kin of the Astro-Notes, clearly remember throngs of screaming female fans. Nelsson recalls barely being able to make out the music, “the girls were screaming so loud and the PA system was so bad that it was basically an experience rather than a concert”.
Their female fans greet The Beatles at the airport in 1964.
Regardless of the band’s reception, all three witnesses believe the idea that The Beatles’ appearance in Hong Kong launched the local pop scene is flawed. Cordeiro thinks someone else entirely was responsible for Hong Kong’s pop boom: himself. “I’m proud to say I’m the one who initiated the pop scene in Hong Kong in the ‘60s … I was king of the pop scene in Hong Kong,” he says.
He might be right. Through his radio show on what was then RHK, Cordeiro was introducing Hong Kong listeners to Western, mostly British, pop and rock ‘n’ roll music long before The Beatles arrived. The musicians who would come to define the ‘60s musical landscape here, such as Teddy Robin of Teddy Robin and the Playboys, Joe Junior of Joe Junior and the Side Effects, Chan and Nelsson all agree they were listening to and playing English-language pop music before The Beatles touched down at Kai Tak airport. And as soon as the young bands recorded a new single, Cordeiro was there to put it on the air.
Nelsson, whose band is commonly credited with producing the first English-language pop records in Hong Kong, admits The Beatles concert “sparked off a boom in more bands” but he says, “it wasn’t that there were no bands before The Beatles came”.
Also, there was a matter of taste. Robin says his band The Playboys were called “The Beatles of Hong Kong” and boasts that “The Playboys played more than 30 Beatles songs, probably over 40”.
But if Robin is the self-described “wild man” of 1960s Hong Kong pop, then Joe Junior was what Chan describes as “the well-behaved school boy”. Joe was more representative of the Hong Kong listening public. He loved The Beatles and sings their songs to this day, but his preferences, and those of a large portion of Hong Kong’s music lovers, were slanted towards straightforward love songs and tamer performers such as Pat Boone.
The 1964 concert represented perfect timing: The Beatles were at their poppiest and most accessible, just as Hong Kong was most open to new sounds. But for many Hongkongers the love affair was short-lived.
As The Beatles became more psychedelic, experimental and non-conformist, both the listening public and the young musicians had trouble keeping up.
Chan remembers trying to play The Beatles’ later hits. “There came a time we couldn’t follow the development of The Beatles as they got more sophisticated. I think we got as far as Eight Days a Week and I’ll Follow the Sun, but as they got into the psychedelic stuff, and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, we just had to give up.”
And also – to put it bluntly – without the right drugs, Hong Kong struggled to relate to what groups such as The Beatles were saying. “I don’t think young people here could identify that much with psychedelic music. We would drink ourselves blind but that’s all,” Chan says.
Nelsson agrees: “Hong Kong never really got into that whole drug scene. Flower power was a fashion statement.”
The Kontinentals in their heyday with band leader Anders Nelsson (far left).
A Music Maker popchart from December 1, 1965, shows Hong Kong's own The Kontinentals second only to The Beatles.
Meanwhile musicians in Hong Kong were busy blazing their own trail. By the late 1960s, Hong Kong’s English-language musicians were facing competition from an unexpected source: Mandarin singers from Taiwan. Nelsson remembers one specific instance in 1970 when he knew the days of English-language pop were numbered: “I was playing in a club with a band and we started off playing English and then the boss started telling us to back singers they brought in to sing in Mandarin.”
The Mando-pop craze gave way in the early 1970s and for a brief period, English-language music was ascendant again, but by this time many of the classic groups had broken up and it wasn’t long before everything changed again – this time for good. Sam Hui Koon-kit, who had gained fame with his ‘60s English-language band The Lotus, started producing music in Cantonese for his brother Michael Hui Koon-man’s films. The films and their soundtracks were surprise hits. Hui, who became known as the God of Song, had given birth to Canto-pop and there would never be a real market for home-grown English-language music in Hong Kong again.
Another leading local act of the time were Teddy Robin and the Playboys.
So if the idea that The Beatles’ concert ultimately gave rise to Canto-pop at the very least lacks nuance, what was the real impact of the show in Hong Kong? The consensus seems to be that, like so many things, it all comes down to sex. Sex and hair.
Chan remembers fondly: “From the first chord we couldn’t hear a thing because of the girls; they were screaming like in a horror flick. We’d seen that in the news reels, but to be there and see these short little Chinese girls and Western girls – That made me want to be a pop singer.”
Before The Beatles concert, most teenagers in bands in Hong Kong focused on their music. But the Fab Four showed Nelsson and his peers that the power of rock ‘n’ roll came from more than perfectly executed scales: “[We realised] that if you grew your hair longer and you shook your head and went ‘woo’, the girls would scream,” he says.
This was a revelation to Nelsson. “Before, we just played and we were fairly serious about our playing. We hadn’t realised that you could make girls faint.” Like teenage boys in bands all over Hong Kong, he wanted to have that effect on girls, and now thanks to The Beatles they all knew how. “All of us started growing our hair and trying to do things to make the girls squeal.”
The concert also had a more practical impact on the music business in Hong Kong. Nelsson says that after The Beatles show, demand for new rock ‘n’ roll records exploded. Not only was that good news for local bands, but it also got the notice of record companies and distributers overseas. “More records were brought in and they were brought in faster, finally flown in rather than brought in by boat. There was a phenomenon happening,” Nelsson says.
And it didn’t stop at records. The concert effectively opened the gates for a string of popular Western acts to perform live in Hong Kong. “The Beatles concert brought Hong Kong closer to the world of international pop music,” says Chan. “Hong Kong’s young people got exposed to all these concerts. The Carpenters came, Herman’s Hermits, Peter, Paul and Mary, everyone who was popular came – except for The Rolling Stones, who came much later.”
As the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ appearance in the city looms, thoughts drift back to the golden age of Hong Kong pop. But, like all golden ages, those who were there know the reality was less golden than the fantasy. When Robin thinks back, he says what he remembers most is that “it was tough to be a musician in the ‘60s. We were all students, you know? My parents didn’t like it. Only the people from our generation enjoyed it. There was no money even though we were so popular.”
Even so, one thing they can all look back fondly on is the music that made it all possible, of which The Beatles were only one small – albeit important – part.
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as:
And the beat moved on