Out of Australia: Oz still loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah

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The Independent Online
SYDNEY - For the past fortnight, anyone over 40 in Australia has been swept up in one of the country's most unusual anniversaries: the commemoration of 'B-Day' when the Beatles arrived for a concert tour in June 1964. Newspaper supplements and television documentaries, of the type once reserved for war anniversaries and royal weddings, have flooded the media. Thousands of people are flocking to Beatles exhibitions mounted by the British Council, the Victorian Performing Arts Museum and the Queensland Performing Arts Centre. Respectable and prominent women have described how they lied or gatecrashed their way into the Beatles' hotel rooms 30 years ago. Few anniversaries have captured such public imagination.

As one who remembers the events with absolute clarity, I suspect there is more to it than nostalgia for a less complicated era. When Australians are questioning their national identity, when their British past is sliding towards an Asian future, many look back on the Beatles' visit as a cardinal reference point.

When the Beatles arrived in Sydney, I was just out of school.

This was a very different Australia from today. Bigotry, wowserism (extreme puritanism) and censorship reigned. Anyone who spoke of republicanism and Aboriginal land rights was labelled a Communist fellow- traveller. Aborigines were not counted in the national census. Asians were kept out. Richard Neville, then co-editor of Oz magazine in Sydney, remembers the Beatles' visit: 'Spaghetti came in tins, all telephones were black, to unravel ladies' underwear you needed a PhD. Things are different now and the first symbol of that difference was the Beatles.'

The Sun, a Sydney afternoon paper that no longer exists, labelled their arrival B-Day. It gave away concert tickets in a competition which asked you to write in 25 words why you wanted them. I won with a line my elder sister thought up: 'I want two Beatles tickets for my grandparents, who think they're the greatest thing since Dame Nellie Melba.' I took a mate and we fought through 12,000 people to our seats in the front row. The stage was the boxing ring in the Sydney Stadium, a cavernous venue for title fights which has since been pulled down. The Beatles played for 25 minutes amid screaming which one newspaper said was measured at the same loudness as a Boeing 707 taking off from Sydney airport. My ears rang as we spilled on to the street afterwards and I remained partially deaf the next day. As they toured Australian cities, playing two concerts a night, the Beatles appeared like royalty at civic receptions on town-hall balconies before crowds which have never been equalled since. In Melbourne, they drew 250,000 people. In Adelaide, said to hold the world record for a Beatles crowd, 350,000 (out of a population then of 500,000) jammed the city centre to cheer them. There was no security, no drugs, no guns and no casualties. Brian Epstein, the Beatles' manager, compared the crowds to those outside Buckingham Palace for the Queen's coronation in 1953.

Could it happen again? Almost certainly not. Australian youth of 1994 is less yearning for rebellion and less optimistic than its counterpart 30 years ago, which found a focus in the Beatles. The rigidities of the predominantly Anglo- Celtic Australia of 1964 are no more. Some inner-city classrooms are now mainly Asian, while school text books are adopting the Aboriginal notion that Britain 'invaded' rather than settled Australia.

The Beatles generation which protested against the Vietnam War and the Americanisation of Australian culture was succeeded by one which has embraced everything American. The US National Basketball Association has become the country's biggest sports- marketing body. Michael Jordan, the US basketball star, was voted the top sporting hero among teenage Australians last year. Sports shops report a steep decline in demand for cricket, tennis and rugby equipment. A recent survey of 3,000 Australian teenagers found their favourite television programmes were overwhelmingly American, outstripping any Australian soaps.

'Young people are far less Australian than they used to be because national boundaries are no longer relevant,' said John Kellett, director of the agency that conducted the survey. 'That's why talk about a republic and changing the flag means little to them. What does it matter who our head of state is when everyone in the world is watching Roseanne?' If this is the future, then things may not be so different after all. Perhaps the information super-highway is bringing us a different version of the 'I'm All Right Jack' society which the Beatles generation rebelled against.