The Beatles, the Cambridges: Modern gods and why we destroy them

It’s 50 years since the one and only Beatles tour of Australia. Beatlemania had already flooded the US and UK by June 1964, but when the tsunami hit us, it reached new heights, and new depths. In Adelaide, originally not included in the tour, 80,000 people signed a petition and then 300,000, believed to be the largest crowd ever gathered for the Beatles and a third of the city’s population, turned out on the streets to welcome the band. In Brisbane, in the last two days of what was their world tour, the Beatles played four sold-out concerts at Festival Hall. By all accounts, you couldn’t hear the music above the screams, and the images that have endured are those of enraptured fans, lines of dark-suited police officers punctuated by white-veiled nurses, and the four nonplussed faces of the Beatles themselves.

Among the thousands who were at Eagle Farm Airport when the band arrived in Brisbane just after midnight on 29 June was a young Bob Katter. For reasons I don’t quite understand, as The Beatles passed by on the back of a table-top truck waving to fans, Katter and friends started pelting them with eggs. The band members shielded their faces and finally hid behind a piano as the truck sped away. Via newspaper and radio the next day, the Beatles called for those responsible to come forward. Katter and friends went to Lennons Hotel and met the band. We don’t have the Beatles’ account of the event, but Katter’s, in an ABC interview in 2004, makes true the statement that we are the heroes of our own narratives. “Our reputations were made from that point forward,” he said of himself and his friends. According to Katter, John Lennon kept saying, “Everywhere we go now, we’re going to have eggs thrown at us.” How right this was, symbolically at least.

For their remaining time in Australia and succeeding tours as a band, the Beatles – who were then just boys, the oldest 23, the youngest 19 – remained ensconced in guarded hotel rooms. If they went outside they were mobbed. In Manila in 1966, where their manager inadvertently snubbed First Lady Imelda Marcos by declining a breakfast invitation, they were abandoned by their police escort, jostled by angry citizens, narrowly escaping injury. When, in the same year, John Lennon said they were more popular than Jesus, they became hated in parts of the US as much as they had been loved just months earlier.

Our obsession with celebrity evokes something needy in us. We worship these minor gods, the beautiful and blessed, however randomly they’re anointed. Google makes it easy. When the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited last month, I found myself checking where they were and what they were doing. I don’t know why I did this. I don’t know them, and I don’t have anything in common with them. And yet, I did. As a couple, I read, William and Kate are happy, so different from Charles and Diana who visited years before. I was relieved they were happy, although when I looked at pictures of Charles and Diana, they weren’t all that different, just a little more like rabbits caught in headlights.

Soon after the recent visit, the seeds were already being sown for a fall, which may be the way of gods. The news was that George’s new nanny had fed him ice cream while the family were in New Zealand, much to Kate’s chagrin, and after the tour, William was partying in Memphis at a friend’s wedding, leaving Kate and George home alone.

We want our gods to be untouchable, but at the same time, we want to bring them down. In February 1964, 75 million people watched The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show in the US. Six years later, the band imploded, leaving an unmatched musical legacy. John Lennon was later assassinated by one mad fan, George Harrison stabbed 40 times in his own home by another. The surviving two have had their share of unhappiness in life. If I’d thrown eggs at those four gifted young men, I’d be ashamed of myself, just as I was when I googled and gawked at those lovely photographs of the Cambridges in Canberra, taken on what was supposed to be their day off having to be themselves.