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Sixty years ago this week, a boys boarding school in England had a surprising presentation in its theater.
The group was just a year away from conquering the world, but it was already a phenomenon in England, and a date at a posh high school in Buckinghamshire was a curious booking.
Stowe School is a well-known private institution (what used to be called a “public school”). My best friend from prep school went there in the early ’70s, and, because of his height, got roped into playing rugby. I remember it as an impressive, stately pile, set amongst one of the most famous of English gardens and parkland designed by Capability Brown, among others in the 18th century, and now managed by the National Trust.
It’s also famous for the following ditty:
Where do you go?
What do you do?
That sells the school a bit short; it’s actually a well-regarded institution in a beautiful setting, and film fans might recognize the main building from such productions as The Crown, X-Men: First Class, Stardust, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The school’s history doesn’t go back as far as some British private schools do; it was opened after the First World War as a new kind of educational experience, which probably just meant the boys weren’t beaten senseless and were fed rations that were likely to keep them alive.
“The Beatles at Stowe” has the ring of “The Rolling Stones at Phillips Academy” or “Bob Dylan plays Groton,” except that the Stones and Dylan are still extant (Dylan has been willing to play anywhere; the Stones have always had their price), and this was early 1963. The sixties, as we’ve come to know them, hadn’t quite started yet; President Kennedy was still alive and the Profumo scandal hadn’t yet broken in England and brought down its prime minister yet (Harold Macmillan would resign that October).
There was probably some snob appeal in this engagement, despite the fee being slightly under their going rate. David Moores, a pupil at the school, had written directly to Beatles manager Brian Epstein proposing the show. Moores was from a distinguished Liverpool family that Epstein would have been aware of; they owned the Littlewoods football pools (a gaming venture) and a large retail business.
One hundred pounds sounds like nothing to us now, but it roughly translates to about $10,000 today. Epstein was a lower-middle-class businessman from a Jewish family who was aspirational for both himself and his “boys.” No doubt he was curious to see the workings of an upper-class boarding school and thought it would be of interest to his charges. They were surprised by what they saw.
Sir Paul McCartney, recalling the event, recently said, “Good old working class boys like us had never visited an establishment like Stowe and we were shocked to see the stark living conditions.”
The band and their equipment arrived in two saloon cars after a two-hour drive from London. They were a little late as they’d just performed two half-hour sets for the BBC at their Paris Studios on Lower Regent Street (I once saw Spike Milligan perform at the same venue).
You’d think they’d slightly resent having to play to a roomful of posh teenage boys in the country, but they actually enjoyed it for a simple reason: They could actually hear themselves sing. This was several months into Beatlemania when most of their shows elicited such screaming the musicians couldn’t hear their own playing.
Some visiting girls at the back of the Stowe theater did provide a bit of shrieking, but it was mostly a respectful audience, with some of the boys actually calling out requests. The Beatles’ first album, Please Please Me, had been released only two weeks earlier, but it was already well known to the crowd.
One of the boys was 15-year-old John Bloomfield, who remembered the concert as a transformative experience. “I would say I grew up at that very instant,” he told BBC’s Front Row on Radio 4 recently. “It sounds a bit of an exaggeration, but I realized this was something from a different planet.”
When Front Row producer Samira Ahmed traveled to Stowe to report on the concert’s anniversary she made a startling discovery: Bloomfield had made a recording of the concert.
Played briefly on the radio, it revealed clearly audible onstage banter as well as what would have been received as a startlingly loud show for the boarding school boys accustomed to plays and classical concerts in the theater.
The recording, just an hour long, represents the earliest known full Beatles concert recording from this period.
Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn remarked that the tape “is fantastic because we hear them just on the cusp of the breakthrough into complete world fame. And at that point, all audience recordings become blanketed in screams.”
After the gig the band were taken to the dining room for a meal of chicken and chips (french fries).
It’s not known what will become of the tape, but at the very least it’s a remarkable document.
The theater where they played now has a plaque on it: “The Beatles performed here at Stowe School, 4th April, 1963.”
“It changed my life completely,” said Bloomfield. “We were absolutely stunned.”
J.B. Miller is an American writer living in England, and is the author of My Life in Action Painting and The Satanic Nurses and Other Literary Parodies.