And the first of their two concerts at the Forum, at 4 p.m. that afternoon, didn’t even sell out. Only 9,500 tickets, priced at $4.50 and $5.50, were purchased for the matinee performance. Given that the group was almost impossibly popular by that point, the fact that it was the first day of school is generally cited as the explanation. You didn’t see many adults at rock ’n’ roll events in those days.
The brevity of the whole event and the subdued reaction to the early show are beside the point for the team behind The Beatles in Montreal, an exhibition that starts a one-year run March 29 at the Mariners’ House of the Pointe-à-Callière Museum of Archaeology and History.
That 10 hours was preceded by months of anticipation, exhibition director Louise Pothier pointed out. “As soon as it was announced in May that tickets would go on sale, a feverishness took over the young people,” she said.
It’s what brought some 5,000 excited, hooky-playing fans to Dorval Airport to meet the group when their plane arrived at 2:20 p.m.
That sense of excitement is at the core of the exhibition, project manager David Ledoyen said. “We have created an environment where people will be surrounded by music,” he said. “We’re bringing them into the centre of that sense of anticipation. We’re not simply presenting the information. We’re trying to bring out emotion. For those who weren’t there, like me, that’s what you notice when you hear the reminiscences of those who were there: the impatience.”
The Beatles in Montreal will offer memorabilia from the era, some oral history, a full recording of the concert and historical context. It was, after all, a heady time in Montreal: Quebec’s Quiet Revolution was in its infancy and construction had started on Expo 67.
Beatlemania had taken hold everywhere, and Montreal was no exception. The “youngsters,” as variety-show host Ed Sullivan called them, had watched his Sunday night television program in February to see the group’s highly publicized appearances, spread over three weeks. And they were smitten. The girls screamed and cried. The boys grew their hair and bought guitars. (The concept of women actually playing rock ’n’ roll or starting groups was — with very few exceptions — still in the future.) Quebec groups quickly became disciples, recording French cover versions of British Invasion hits, mixed in with original songs.
The spreading of the word en français by local yéyé heroes like Les Sultans, Les Merseys, Les Baronets (René Angélil’s group), Les Classels, Tony Roman, Les Hou-Lops, Les Sinners and Les Bel Canto is part of the exhibition. Bruce Huard, former lead singer of Les Sultans, is among those who have lent some items from his personal collection, Pothier said. Stage outfits, guitars, audio recordings and video clips will be displayed to drive the point home.
“The Quebec yéyé groups were inspired by the music from Britain, but the arrival of the Beatles in Montreal made that inspiration much more direct, more concrete. They absolutely wanted to be at that show to experience the group’s energy,” Ledoyen said.
Probably the biggest coup was landing John Lennon’s 1965 Phantom V Rolls-Royce, which the Beatle had repainted in 1967, with a psychedelic design by artist Steve Weaver. The rear seat had been converted into a double bed, and a television set, refrigerator, telephone and sound system had also been added.
According to a history of the car compiled by the Pointe-à-Callière staff, Lennon donated it to the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York in 1977 for a $225,000 tax credit. The museum put it up for auction in 1985, when businessman Jim Pattison bought it for $2,299,000 U.S.
A year later, he lent it to Vancouver’s Expo 86, of which he was the chairman. It was donated to the province of British Columbia in 1987 and ended up at the Royal BC Museum in 1993. The 5.8-metre, 2.7-tonne vehicle has been transported — very carefully — to Montreal, on loan from the Royal BC.
The chain of ownership for the tape of the Sept. 8 concert at 8:30 p.m. — 12 songs in 26 minutes, before a sold-out audience of 11,773 — has been lost, Ledoyen said. A collector, whose name the museum spokesmen declined to reveal before the event, handed it over and wished them luck. The small reel-to-reel tape was carefully transferred to digital audio, Pothier said, and the quality — allowing for the overpowering screams from the fans — is “surprising. The sound seems to have been recorded quite close to the source,” she said.
The actual performance is part of what Pothier calls the intangible legacy — the music and video they are using to recreate the experience. Part of the fun of this exhibition, she said, is mixing the individual objects on display with the sights and sounds of the era to convey a sense of excitement. “It’s one of the first times we have done it to such an extent,” she said.
The Beatles themselves were, by all reports, glad to board the plane out of Montreal at 11:46 p.m. They were bound for Jacksonville, Fla., to beat Hurricane Dora, which was hitting the state coastline.
Or maybe they just wanted an early exit.
Ringo Starr — the object of a phoned-in death threat, calling him an “English Jew,” although he is not Jewish — had spent the two shows cowering behind his cymbals, which he placed facing upwards instead of flat on. A plainclothes policeman sat with him on stage. (“If someone in the audience has a pop at me, what is this guy going to do? Is he going to catch the bullet?” Starr quipped in an interview for the Beatles Anthology, published in 2000.)
The local journalists were unimpressed, too — although, to be fair, there was no such thing as a pop-music writer in those days.
Walter Poronovich, covering the concert for the Montreal Star, wrote: “The noise inside the Forum was unbelievable. As soon as a stagehand appeared with their guitars, there was a burst of sound as if 100 jet engines were being revved up at centre ice. It made the Stanley Cup crowd sound like nightingales. The screams lasted as long as the Beatles were on stage. In the rare pauses when the adolescents were gasping for breaths, the shrieks were replaced by even something more unbearable: Beatle music.”
But the fans who were there, Pothier, Ledoyen and communications and marketing director Claude-Sylvie Lemery agreed, had the opposite reaction. Those who spoke to the museum team for the exhibition still see it as one of the key experiences of their lives.
“To last for such a long time, you really must have genius,” Ledoyen said. “You have to speak to several generations. The length of this love story between the Beatles and their fans, and the new people discovering them, and those who loved them and never stopped loving them ... it’s all very impressive on a human level.”
Pothier, who grew up in a house where classical music was the norm, said the Beatles were never a big deal for her — until she began working on the exhibition. “I allowed myself to be touched by this fervour,” she said. “I discovered with admiration and some astonishment this wave that touched so many people and continues now.”
Pothier said she asked some of the 30-ish staff setting up the exhibits whether this event spoke to them. The reaction, she said, was beyond enthusiasm. “That’s what’s stunning,” she said. “We’re talking about a generation that didn’t know them and they are in an emotional state like people would have been in the ’60s.”
“There’s an aura of mystery,” Lemery agreed. “We all want to get closer. We all want to touch the Beatles somehow. So with this event, we get to touch them, just a bit.”
The Beatles in Montreal will be at the Mariners’ House of the Pointe-à-Callière Museum of Archaeology and History, 165 Place D’Youville at Place Royale in Old Montreal, from March 29, 2013 to March 30, 2014. For opening hours and admission prices, go to http://pacmusee.qc.ca/en/plan-your-visit/hours-rates
By Bernard Perusse, GAZETTE MUSIC COLUMNIST