Lost Edinburgh: The Beatles at the ABC

THIS WEEK marks an incredible 50 years since the pop phenomenon of Beatlemania invaded Edinburgh for the first time.

The Beatles sit down and relax with drinks in Edinburgh. Picture: TSPL

The Fab Four’s unforgettable brace of shows at the ABC cinema on 29 April 1964 have since gone down in local pop folklore. There will have been few souls oblivious to the event taking place that evening. The hordes of screaming adolescents along Lothian Road would have been difficult to ignore at any rate.

The Beatles had recently returned from the USA and their seminal appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. They were selling millions of records across the globe and were truly at the peak of their powers. It would be billed as the capital’s biggest show of all time.

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“We Want the Beatles” petition

Fans queue in Edinburgh. Picture: TSPL

Incredibly, the Beatles landmark gigs at the ABC cinema on Lothian Road might never have happened in the first place. The city of Edinburgh had been a notable absentee from the Beatles’ previous Scottish tour dates which had seen them visit Glasgow (twice), Aberdeen, Dundee, Kirkcaldy and much of the Highlands.

In a frantic effort to rectify this oversight, a pair of 17-year old Beatles fanatics from the Sighthill area of the city, Eileen Oliver and Patricia Conner, managed to collect an incredible 8,000 signatures in hope that it might persuade the boys to make a visit. The girls’ tireless efforts paid off spectacularly. Their petition, backed by local media interest, had ensured that the world’s no.1 pop act would soon be heading to Edinburgh.

The concert

The 5,400 tickets for the two half hour shows (one at 6:30 and the other at 8:50) were snapped up in no time. Swarms of avid fans armed with sleeping bags, blankets and thermos flasks had queued for hours to be in with a chance of securing the hottest ticket in town.

Morrison Street and Semple Street showing side and back of ABC cinema, where fans can be seen queueing. Picture: TSPL

On the afternoon of the concert Lothian Road was mobbed. The whole city was out in force to witness the arrival of the most popular band on the planet. The atmosphere was electric and the shrill racket of several hundred hysterical teenage girls filled the air. Beatlemania had reached Edinburgh.

At 6pm the Fab Four had arrived and found time to speak briefly with the press and local radio reporters in the ABC’s foyer. The band were excited about their upcoming shows in Edinburgh and Glasgow, with Paul McCartney explaining that Scottish audiences were always “knockout”.

Like most Beatles’ concerts from mid-1963 onwards, accounts of the show itself lack fine detail regarding the quality of the band’s performance. Inside the venue, Edinburgh’s “craziest and noisiest audience ever” drowned out any chance of hits such as Twist and Shout or I Want To Hold Your Hand from being properly heard. An ambulance crew, set up in anticipation of what was coming, was kept busy during both performances as the scale of the occasion proved to be too much for some. The four Liverpudlian lads dressed in their sharp grey suits plugged on until the last number, unperturbed by the frenzied screams and shower of small objects (mostly jelly babies) which flew their way from time to time. The next day the Beatles departed for Glasgow to do it all again.

John, Paul, George and Ringo revisited the ABC and Edinburgh as a pop group for the final time in October 1964.

Edinburgh connections

An often over-looked piece of the Beatles’ story is the band’s connection to Edinburgh. Stuart Sutcliffe, the band’s original bassist, hailed from the city. The former art student had suggested a shift in name from ‘The Quarrymen’ to ‘The Beatals’ in early 1960 as a nod to Buddy Holly and the Crickets.

John Lennon was no stranger to Scotland’s capital either, describing it as ‘one of my favourite cities’. A young Lennon had spent summer after summer visiting his aunt’s terraced house on Ormidale Terrace, Murrayfield as a child in the early 1950s. He even spoke about buying the house shortly before his untimely death.

Fate of the ABC

The 2,769 capacity ABC opened as the Regal Cinema in 1938, changing its name shortly before the Beatles’ first performed there. In 1969 the ever-popular ABC on Lothian Road became the first cinema in Europe to undergo a conversion into a multi-screen theatre. However, in 2001 the entire original auditorium, including the stage which had graced so many great acts such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, was demolished. A supermarket and office complex now occupies the space. A small Odeon multiplex still exists on the corner of Lothian Road and Morrison Street today due to a contractual agreement, dating from the creation of Lothian House, which stipulates that a cinema must forever be incorporated into any new developments on that site.

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