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The hard day's night of fainting and screaming when The Beatles played two gigs in Belfast

Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' second and final visit to Northern Ireland, where they played two sell-out concerts in one day. They were the biggest shows the band played in the UK. Ivan Little was among the 17,000 fans who paid less than £1 to see their idols.

I can't remember everything about that unforgettable night - the manic Monday half a century ago that I watched The Beatles playing live in Belfast before my very own adoring eyes.

But I know I was there. Up until a house move a few years back, I could still lay my hands on the ticket which confirmed I'd paid 15 shillings - 75p in new money - for the privilege of seeing arguably the best group ever to grace rock and roll music.

But the passage of 50 years plays tricks with the memory and dims the clarity of recollection.

And I needed a little help from my friends, family and newspaper archives to bring that historic night - November 2, 1964 - back into sharp focus.

I was barely into my teens and I'd had a ticket to see The Beatles in 1963 at the old Ritz cinema in the centre of Belfast, but couldn't use it because my headmaster had decreed that a prizegiving on the same evening took precedence over pop, even for those of us who weren't among the winners.

But, a year on, my older brothers said they were buying tickets for the King's Hall concerts and were promptly ordered by our parents to take their wimpy kid of a sibling with them.

They were gigs which almost never happened at all. For Belfast hadn't been in the original plans for a British tour that autumn.

The Beatles' manager Brian Epstein had kept November 2 free because the Royal Variety show was being recorded in London that evening.

The Beatles had been a huge hit with royalty at the London Palladium the year before, but even though John Lennon vowed they'd never play the gig again, Epstein hoped they might change their minds. But they didn't. And Her Majesty's loss was Belfast's gain.

Belfast promoters Trevor Kane and George Connell - a man more associated with boxing tournaments than pop concerts - struck a late deal along with English impresario Arthur Howes for The Beatles to come to Belfast to play two money-spinning shows at the King's Hall.

The Beatles were apparently offered £850 each to give up what should have been a rest day. The tickets went on sale in several parts of Northern Ireland, but were also available by post. The most expensive seats were £1, but there was also an "unreserved" section in the balcony where the admission price was 7/6, the equivalent of 37 and a half pence today.

My brother Norman, who worked near the city centre offices of George Connell, recalls having little difficulty securing our tickets, in marked contrast to modern-day concerts which are sold out in minutes via online and telephone booking. Our tickets were for the second of the two shows at 8.45pm and, on a frosty evening, our Little band of brothers arrived in a state of anticipation excitement at the King's Hall, but the newspapers of the time didn't exactly go overboard.

They may have been the swinging Sixties but a bid to continue a ban on the swings swinging in Belfast on Sundays was the big news of the day.

The Belfast Telegraph did have a picture on the front page of the Beatles flying in to Aldergrove airport from London three hours before the concerts with a brief story about how fans had waited at the airport to welcome their heroes with posters proclaiming their undying love for the musicians, especially Ringo Starr.

One banner was ripped apart by the backdraught of a plane, but four enterprising young girls broke through a security cordon and thrust autograph books into the hands of the disembarking Beatles who were whisked away from the runway by a car with an RUC escort straight to the King's Hall for sound-checks. Dozens of fans on an airport balcony - some of whom had been there for seven hours - got only the briefest glimpse of The Beatles as they came down the steps of their BEA Viscount plane and were said to have broken down in floods of tears. "Paul waved to me" cried one of them.

I'd never been in the King's Hall for a concert before. And the first impression was that it was, to use Beatle-speak, cavernous.

The second impression was the noise. Ear-splitting, nerve-jangling noise. But I'm sure I didn't take a vow of silence. Thousands of us roared at the first sound of music from the stage - but it wasn't from Liverpool's finest.

The concerts, which were attended by dozens of Ballykinlar-based Merseyside soldiers who were guests of The Beatles, were part of what used to be called a package tour. Which in effect meant there were a host of uninspiring support artists to endure before the real stars hit the stage.

The bit players' pictures were all included in a programme which my brother Norman recently produced from his attic to show to his son's girlfriend as proof that he'd been at a Beatles show.

She simply didn't believe anyone could be old enough to have actually seen them.

The likes of the Remo Four, Sounds Incorporated and Michael Haslam all died with their boots on in front of an audience only there for one thing - and it wasn't singer Tommy Quickly, who couldn't get off the stage quickly enough for our liking.

Only the Motown star Mary Wells sang any songs that anyone knew, like My Guy. But the only guys the girls in our midst wanted to see were The Beatles and there was pandemonium all around the King's Hall as soon as the four mop-tops were spotted by the fans at the front.

That was the cue for hundreds of us to leap onto our seats to get a better view of John, Paul, George and Ringo, but even though the chairs were collapsing under the weight, seeing The Beatles was actually a dawdle compared to hearing them.

The cacophony of screaming completely drowned out any songs which may or may not have been coming from the stage.

Glengormley man Denis Wilson, who was at one of the concerts as a 14-year-old, told me "Hand on heart, I didn't hear a single note from The Beatles. I assume they were playing and singing, but I was almost deafened by the screams."

Denis was in the unreserved section in the balcony where fans could see twice as much as the rest of us who'd paid twice as much as them.

The Little brothers were stuck near the back, but resolved to get nearer to the stage, though half the audience on the ground floor had precisely the same idea.

I remember that girls were fainting all around us, but, gentlemen that we were, we gingerly stepped over them in our determined drive for a closer look at The Beatles.

It seemed to take forever but I recall reaching the barriers in front of the stage just in time to hear Paul McCartney politely thanking the crowd for coming, and off he ran with the rest of The Beatles in hot pursuit.

The Beatles didn't come back for an encore. Indeed, they never came back to Belfast at all.

The next morning the newspapers were again restrained in their reports about the gigs. One writer in the Belfast Telegraph said the shows were noisy rather than hysterical and added there was no doubt about it: "Beatlemania is on the wane, but the Beatles aren't."

The report said there'd been high spirits, but no hooliganism at the King's Hall. Which was thankfully true, and that was a relief after a chaotic Rolling Stones gig a few months earlier at the Ulster Hall which had to be cut short.

But Beatlemania on the wane? The pictures from the King's Hall which were carried in the Belfast dailies ­­- and the ones in my memory bank - tell a different story.

And, in the years that followed, The Beatles conquered the world with groundbreaking albums like Revolver and Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band which still sell in their millions today to a totally new generation of fans.

After the 1964 concerts there were conflicting reports about where The Beatles stayed the night in Belfast.

Girls besieged the city's hotels searching for their quarry. But there were reports that the group shunned the likes of the Grand Central in Royal Avenue and instead holed up in the long forgotten Alverno in west Belfast which would have made sense because it was only up the road from the King's Hall.

Because of the size of the audiences that night in November, the concerts have gained their own special place in The Beatles' story, but their concerts in America later dwarfed anything they'd ever done in the UK.

One website carries a list of the songs The Beatles sang that night, all 10 of them at each concert where the performances were done and dusted in about 45 minutes.

The hits they played at the first concert, at 6pm, were repeated at the second one nearly three hours later, though how anyone could be sure of anything that was played in all that din is a mystery.

The songs were: Twist And Shout; Money; Can't Buy Me Love; Things We Said Today; I'm Happy Just To Dance With You; I Should Have Known Better; If I Fell; I Wanna Be Your Man; A Hard Day's Night and Long Tall Sally.

The setlist website shows The Beatles played the exact same numbers in the same order the night before Belfast in Finsbury Park Astoria in London and two nights later at the Ritz in Luton.

Posters for the Belfast concerts are like hen's teeth. A few years ago, Trevor Kane was reported as saying he thought he had the last remaining one. And it wasn't up for sale.

Tickets for the shows however have become collector's items. One London auction house had one on offer recently with a reserve price of nearly £100, which should be an incentive for me and everyone else at the King's Hall to root through boxes of junk for more golden ticket stubs.

But would I sell mine? Too right I would.

The memories, however, are priceless.

So, was King's Hall peak moment for Beatlemania?

"Beatlemania is on the wane," wrote the Belfast Telegraph 50 years ago, on November 3, 1964.

Well, the phenomenon that was "Beatlemania" and all that screaming might have been on the wane, but the band's creativity and popularity certainly wasn't, writes David Roberts.

But there's good evidence to suggest that the November 2 concerts at the King's Hall might have been their peak moment.

The 17,500 fans lucky enough to witness John, Paul, George and Ringo's two shows that day created the band's record UK concert audience.

That and the fact that they'd already wowed 73m viewers on US TV, had registered a staggering five UK No1 singles in 18 months and had made their movie debut in A Hard Day's Night all point to them being at the height of their powers that day in Belfast.

Yet to come were two more movies, 12 more UK No1 singles and album masterpieces such as Sgt Pepper and Abbey Road.

By the end of the summer in 1966, they'd played their last concert and by 1970 they were no longer a group.

They might have been at the height of their popularity in Belfast, but The Beatles obviously weren't flush with money.

Having scoffed a selection of Northern Irish bread and a pot of tea served up by the King's Hall catering company, the group then treated waitress Susy Crymble to an impromptu rendition of The Everly Brothers' hit Wake Up Little Susie. They then forgot to pay their half-crown (12p) bill.

Another member of the catering staff that day was May Majury, who eventually got over her indignation at the unpaid bill.

She had, after all, managed to get autographs from John, Paul, George, Ringo and Brian Epstein. Years later, that set of signatures realised an astronomical value, unthinkable in 1964.

It's astonishing just how popular The Beatles are 50 years on. Still on magazine covers, still filling the pages of books - and still selling records.

  • David Roberts is the author of 50 Things You Might Not Know About The Beatles (PopPublishing, £3.50)

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