Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Love Me T.O.: In Conversation with Author Piers Hemmingsen

A Beatles' press conference at Maple Leaf Gardens before they took the stage on Aug. 17, 1965. (Photo: John Rowlands)

Canadian Beatles authority Piers Hemmingsen served as guest curator on the multimedia BEATLES 50 T.O. exhibition, and this Saturday he will give a talk at Toronto's Market Gallery, where the show continues until Nov. 12, explaining his role and the role Canada played in making the Fabs famous in North America. The author of the recently self-published book, The Beatles in Canada: The Origins of Beatlemania!, Hemmingsen is a retired computer programmer who spent the last seven years investigating the topic. He knows what he's talking about.

His sizeable tome -- an expansive 468 pages -- grafts little-known fact to revealing interviews with such important early Beatles figures as Paul White, the former Capitol Records Canada singles promoter who in 1963 was the first to release a Beatles' record – "Love Me Do" – in North America. Canadians reacted. More than 100,000 eventually signed on to join the Toronto edition of a Beatles fan club that ended up being the biggest of its kind in the world. The U.S. had nothing comparable. When the Beatles touched down in New York in February 1964 for the first of three Ed Sullivan Show appearances, Toronto sent down two of its teenagers to handle the deluge of fan mail. Beatlemania had erupted on the continent and Canada helped make it happen, ushering in the pop-centred British Invasion which would come to shape the 1960s.

Those sparks flew for the first time over 50 years ago with Toronto, or T.O. as it is familiarly known, emerging as the North American city where the Beatles played the most during their touring years. Their last concert in Canada took place at Maple Leaf Gardens, the city's major hockey arena, in 1966. That transitional year forms the focus of When the Beatles Rocked Toronto -- whose displays of rare Beatles memorabilia, including the infamous "butcher" album cover, Hemmingsen organized, borrowing from public and private archives across the country as well as his own collection.

"The Beatles’ story is a great story. They were never happy to live with what they had already recorded and they always strived to improve with each new release," said Hemmingsen during a conversation which took place earlier this week in Toronto. "There was a start and an end, just like life. Their messages of love and peace are universal messages that will reverberate for a long time to come."

Here's more of that conversation:

Author Piers Hemmingsen poses with a 1966 concert poster at the BEATLES 50 T.O. exhibit at Toronto's Market Gallery.
(Photo: Anders Hemmingsen)

dk: Tell us about the Market Gallery exhibition, co-curated by Jane French and Wayne Reeves in partnership with the City of Toronto and the province of Ontario. What's the local focus?

ph: The exhibit itself has three primary components, all linking to the societal impact of The Beatles on Toronto – its fashion, furniture, lifestyle and, of course, its music that rose organically out of the folk clubs, theatres and auditoriums then taking root in the city.

dk: Why did the phenomenon take off in Canada first, before anywhere else on the continent?

ph: Pure and simply, Canada was much more of a “British Colony” back then – the 1950s through to 1967 – and there was much cultural influence from the “mother country." Kids in Canada could buy Melody Maker and New Musical Express magazines at W.H. Smith – that was where some early birds like Ricky Patterson of The Esquires heard about them in early 1963.

dk: How did they learn about the Beatles?

ph: The music hit the airwaves via radio stations in Toronto, Ottawa, London and Winnipeg, along with smaller communities like Pembroke, Ontario, which was close to an army base where kids were coming back from England and Europe with Beatles records in the summer of 1963. Our family was an example. In 1963, kids returning from England spread The Word. Radio stations had to play The Beatles, which they did starting in early 1963. Kids had to like what they heard on the radio before they went out to buy a record. Our family had Beatles records from England (the first LP and some 45s) and they were much different from the records we were hearing over the radio waves in August and September of 1963.

dk: Toronto and The Beatles shared a special bond. Why was that?

ph: The Beatles played two sold-out concerts – 17,500 at each show – in Toronto on Labour Day Monday, September 7, 1964. Security around their Toronto visit was highly organized and successful. The Beatles felt safe in Toronto. But there was also a personal connection. George Harrison had family in Toronto – an uncle and two cousins – and they all attended the Toronto concerts. His older sister, Louise, lived just across the border in Illinois and she came up to see George at that time as well. The Beatles played Vancouver and Montreal but they were fly-in, fly-out events. In Canada, The Beatles only ever slept in one city and one hotel and it was Toronto and the King Edward. The fans stormed the lobby, confining The Beatles to Suite 869 for the duration of their stay. But they enjoyed themselves.

The Beatles performing at Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens on August 17, 1966. (Photo: Boris Spremo/Toronto Star)

dk: The Beatles played different cities across Canada, most of them only once. But Toronto was a repeat destination. The group performed here more than any other North American city, six times in less than three years. What kept them coming back?

pk: It is my assertion that a number of factors led to the return of The Beatles to Toronto in 1965 and 1966 – well-organized security, a large organized chapter of The Official Beatles Fan Club, family, and well-run press conferences. Maple Leaf Gardens holds the record for hosting the most number of Beatles concerts in North America – almost 100,000 tickets sold over a three-year period. The connection continued beyond the touring years. When John Lennon was denied entry to the U.S. in 1969 due to a prior drug conviction, Toronto and the King Edward Hotel were the logical next choices as a base to plan his "bed-in for peace." So you see, Toronto is possibly the North American city with the best Beatles story of them all. The BEATLES 50 T.O. exhibit tells some of that story really well, in my opinion.

dk: But the love affair seemed to cool off by 1966. The Maple Leaf Gardens concert did not sell out. What happened?

ph: Again, it was the result of several factors. John’s comments on Christianity had led to a number of protests in the U.S. and Beatles records were banned from several radio stations. Initial critical reception to their latest album Revolver was not overly positive; many preferred Rubber Soul from the previous year. A number of concerts had been lined up in the weeks before The Beatles' last Toronto concert on August 17 – The Supremes, The Byrds, The Animals, Herman’s Hermits and The Rolling Stones – and perhaps saturation had set in. With less than one week to go before The Beatles’ concerts in Toronto, there were more than 5,000 unsold tickets. For the first time, Maple Leaf Gardens had to promote a Beatles concert and a couple of colourful posters were hastily created to sell tickets. One of those original posters is on display at the Market Gallery.

dk: The Market Gallery has other memorabilia on display, in particular photographer Robert Whitaker's gory "butcher" album cover for The Beatles' 1966 album, Yesterday and Today. It's a rare and valuable collectors' item. How did you come to include it in the show?

A version of the infamous "butcher" cover.
ph: The Canadian butcher cover is certainly the most unique item in terms of The Beatles’ original recorded legacy in Canada, and the only known production cover is the one on display at the Market Gallery until November 12. That cover also has an incredible story from its original owner. I'll save it for Saturday's talk.

dk: What else has Canada got of significance to the Beatles' story?

ph: The rarities that are significant in our country include the Canadian-only sequence of 45s on the Capitol 72000 series. There were only nine of these 45s issued between February 1963 and June 1964. One of the releases was a German version of "She Loves You." Later on, there was a white label promotional copy of "Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane" from early February 1967 that featured a few-seconds-longer version of "Penny Lane" with a unique trumpet ending. In late 1969, the “Paul is Dead” controversy yielded a wonderful Canadian Polydor LP with a selection of early Tony Sheridan tracks from their Hamburg days and carried a front cover depicting a four-candle candelabra with one candle snuffed out. That cover was unique to Canada.

dk: You have led us into serious connoisseur territory. What other rarities does Canada – or should I say do you – have?

ph: Over the years, I have been fortunate to find a few Canadian test pressings including a Quality Records test pressing of "Twist And Shout" from early 1964 and a Compo Records test pressing of The White Album from November 1968. These test pressings to me are very important artifacts that illustrate the evolution of their Canadian recordings. In the beginning, records were pressed from records sent directly from England. Later on, their releases came by way of Capitol in Los Angeles. All of their original Canadian records tell a wonderful story on their own. I have been writing about that story for many years.

dk: Indeed, The Beatles in Canada: The Origins of Beatlemania! is not your first Beatles book. How do they compare?

ph: I had already self-published three books before this one. They are part of a three-volume set entitled The Beatles Canadian Discography. These earlier books are hardcore reference books about the records and tapes issued in Canada. The where, when, how, along with original sales records, adverts, and so on. Sir Paul McCartney along with Apple Corps. Ltd., EMI/Universal and others around the globe have copies of these early books. Which makes sense. But I was really surprised a few years back when the Prime Minister's office called me from Ottawa and requested a set. That was very awkward, because I prefer to keep politics well away from the Beatles research and writing that I do.

dk: Did the success of those books inspire you to write this one?

ph: The new book is a proper history book with what I think is the best way to approach the subject. I start chronologically, explaining how rock and roll came to Canada in the first place and why the sound of The Beatles displaced the commercial pop sounds, starting in early 1963. This is the RED book and it covers up to the first Canadian tour. It is pretty detailed.

George Harrison (centre) walking through the lobby of Toronto's King Edward Hotel, 1964. (Photo: Boris Spremo/Globe and Mail)

You are presently working on volume two. What will be the focus there?

ph: The next book will be the BLUE book and it will cover the years 1964 through 1970. This will be a huge task. I know that everyone likes this period of The Beatles story in Canada. It is quite eventful. As with the first volume, I will again have direct access to the folks who were there in the day to make things happen business-wise and concert-wise for The Beatles in Canada. I obviously caught some great things in the 'net while I was researching the RED book so I think I am well on the way with the concept.

dk: Will the format remain the same?

ph: Yes. I don’t think I would change much. One thousand books, each numbered and signed. And of course, another audio companion disc with some totally cool audio treats. But it's going to take a while. I anticipate a publication date of late 2017 or early 2018.

dk: What excites you most about the new book?

ph: I really am most proud of the fact that the book was made and printed here in Canada. It cost me a little more, of course, but it would be hypocritical to go anywhere outside Canada for this type of project. Ditto for the special audio companion disc, which has 37 historic audio tracks linked to the book. There are snippets from The Beatles’ 1965 concert at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto.

dk: After all these years of research, what is your favourite Beatles in Canada moment, and why?

ph: The very most rewarding aspect of doing the books is that I have been able to capture stories from people who are no longer with us: Roger Stanion, who was the disc jockey at CHOV Pembroke who took a chance on playing those weird imported Beatles discs in the fall of 1963; Ruth St. Clair, who worked for the BBC here in Toronto and organized a Beatles tape for play on a local CBC Radio station in October 1963; David Pritchard, a disc jockey at CHUM-FM, a real Beatles fan who shared so much Beatles lore with me over the years. All of them are gone from us now, but they were magical people who played an important part in a wonderful story.

dk: What would top that?

ph: Working with the Apple folks at Abbey Road Studios is right up there.

dk: Could you elaborate?

ph: Along the way, I have been lucky to track down an original tape recording of The Beatles concert and press conference made at Maple Leaf Gardens on August 17, 1965. Apple Corps. arranged for Giles Martin to audition the tape and hopefully it will be issued later on. Fingers crossed. It really is a nice recording.

Piers Hemmingsen's lecture, When the Beatles Rocked Us, takes place on Oct. 29, starting at 2p.m., at Market Gallery, inside The St. Lawrence Market, 95 Front. St. East, Toronto. (416-392-7604;

– Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

No comments:

Post a Comment