Peter Cox was seven on June 11 of 1964, and remembers watching TV footage of the Beatles arriving in Sydney, in the pouring rain. “In those days there was no breakfast television, but Channels 7 and 9 had cameras at the airport; it was a television event,” he says. In Adelaide, 300,000 people lined the streets from the airport to the city to welcome the Fab Four – the biggest Beatles crowd on record, and larger by far than any during the Queen’s visit a year earlier.
“The Beatles were at that time the biggest thing in the world, and Australia was at the other end of the world, where nothing ever happened,” says Cox – now a curator at the Powerhouse Museum, where he is presided over the exhibition The Beatles in Australia (headed to the Arts Centre Melbourne on March 8). “Suddenly the Beatles were in our country, and the action was here – suddenly we were at the centre of the world.”
The Beatles in Australia is the story of how the mop tops’ visit irrevocably changed post-war conservative Australia – in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. Cox and his team have peppered the narrative with news footage, sound recordings and print media from the time, personal scrapbooks, and a vast archive of artefacts from Australian collectors.
The most tangible change was in the music scene, where new bands emerged emulating the Beatles’ sound and look – bands like the Easybeats, the Twilights, a young singer by the name of John Farnham, and a group of ex-Brits in Brisbane called the Bee Gees.
And there was the fashion: men’s hair suddenly came forward, rather than sweeping back, and women’s hair came down, as they abandoned the bouffant. Shoes became pointed, trousers became tighter, and the mod look – the neat suits – became a uniform for young men. (The exhibition will feature a suit worn by John Lennon, on loan from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.)
For Cox, this is all window dressing for the larger changes, however. “There was a sense of youthful optimism and happiness that the Beatles brought – it was almost like a celebration of youth,” he says. “Fifties rock’n’roll had an element of rebellion against the older generation – but the Beatles brilliantly trod this fine line between rebellion and charm."
Conversely, the Beatles inspired acts of unprecedented defiance: wagging school to camp outside the pop stars’ hotel, resisting the police, disobeying their parents, screaming their lungs out in public. “It’s behaviour that most of these people wouldn’t have dreamt of until then,” says the curator. “I just wonder if there’s a line you can draw from that to five or six years later, when many of that generation took to the streets to protest the Vietnam war.”