In the fall of 1961, the Beatles were rock ‘n’ roll kings in Liverpool and on the rise in the U.K., but nowhere else. Then, in October of that year, an aunt in Scotland gave John Lennon £100 for his 21st birthday – that’s about $2,500 today. He and Paul McCartney decided to take a two-week holiday in Spain with a stopover in Paris on Lennon’s dime. According to Mark Lewisohn’s fine book Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years, the duo planned to hitch-hike the whole way, and even had a pair of bowler hats to make themselves look more respectable. But with the money burning a hole in their pockets, Lennon and McCartney ended up taking a train to Dover, then a ferry to Dunkirk, and then another train to the Gare du Nord, in Paris. Jürgen Vollmer, an aspiring photographer whom they’d met in Hamburg the year before, was living on the Left Bank, and the two Beatles went to find him. Jürgen was happy to see them, but the two had arrived with nowhere to stay. Jürgen tried to slip them into his room at the Hôtel de Beaune, but the trio was caught by the concierge. Today BudgetPlaces.com says the hotel “counts Serge Gainsbourg and The Beatles among its former guests.” But, in truth, that night, Jürgen put them in a cab to Montmartre. With little French between them, John and Paul had to turn to prostitutes on the streets for recommendations for cheap hotel rooms.
Still, John and Paul loved the exotic and risqué feel of the City of Light, and extended their stay by a day, then another, and soon decided to spend the whole two weeks there. They drank at Les Deux Magots, the famous café where 1920’s literati like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone du Beauvoir, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and others imbibed. They took in the Eiffel Tower, L’Opéra Garnier and the Louvre. And while early rock ‘n’ roll hadn’t made a big impact on France, things were changing as the Sixties got underway. Wanting to check out the French music scene, they caught an 18-year-old Johnny Hallyday at the Olympia Theatre. Lennon was unimpressed, writing home that Paris had “no ‘Rock.’ (Well, a bit of crappy French Rock.)”
But the real legacy of their trip to Paris was how it transformed not only John and Paul’s, but the whole band’s, style. John and Paul were used to being popular with young women back in Liverpool, but Les Parisiennes had a tepid response to them. One day they sat with Jürgen Vollmer at a café on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. He was eager to introduce them to his bohemian French girlfriend, Alice. When she arrived, however, Alice was appalled by the disreputable look of the two Beatles with their black leather jackets and greased, pompadour hair. She quickly left. The songwriters may have taken note, because they found themselves latching onto the cool, new Parisian fashions they saw, and they spent some more of John’s birthday money buying colorful new clothes at a flea market in the 18th Arrondissement. And in one Parisian shop they found round-necked, collarless jackets like the ones Pierre Cardin had shown in his spring 1961 collection. In addition to new fashions, John and Paul noticed that the French men favored a combed forward hairstyle that was very different from the Elvis Presley look they’d sported for several years. Ready for a change, they got Jürgen to cut and style their hair into the ‘do that would become known as a “moptop.” Those haircuts and collarless jackets soon set them apart from other bands back home.
In January 1964, less than two and a half years later, John and Paul were back in Paris, along with George and Ringo, for an eighteen-day stand at the Olympia Theatre. Beatlemania was raging in the U.K., and the rest of world was catching the fever, too. At the start of their stay, the foursome learned that “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had rocketed to #1 in the U.S. And they were still three weeks away from their famous first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show that drew a record 73+ million viewers (almost 40% of the entire U.S. population). Demands on their time were so high, that the group almost never had a day off. At the Olympia they were doing two, sometimes three, shows a day, as Lewisohn notes in his The Complete Beatles Chronicles.
But their producer George Martin still pulled them into the Pathé Marconi Studios on the Rue de Sevres for a recording session. The West German division of their record label was asking for German language versions of the Beatles’ latest hits, and, though they didn’t really want to do it, the boys dutifully went in on January 29 and recorded “Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand” (“I Want to Hold Your Hand”) and “Sie Liebt Dich” (“She Loves You”). They banged out the new versions so quickly that there was enough studio time to record a new song Paul had written in their room at the George V.
And so, Paris holds the distinction of hosting the first – and only – time the Beatles had a studio recording session outside of the U.K., much less London. On March 13, less than six weeks later, that song, written in the room of a famous Paris hotel, “Can’t Buy Me Love,” was released as a single in the U.S. and would soon appear in their first movie, A Hard Day’s Night – or Quatre Garçons Dans Les Vent in France. By April 4, “Can’t Buy Me Love” was the Beatles’ third #1 hit in the U.S., and that same week it was followed on the Billboard Top 100 by the Beatles’ version of “Twist and Shout” at #2; “She Loves You” at #3; “I Want to Hold Your Hand” at #4; and “Please Please Me” at #5. No other artists had ever owned the top five songs on the Billboard charts at the same time before. It was a feat that was not matched until just this past September, 57 years later, when the rapper Drake did the same. In total, the Beatles notched 20 #1 hits, a record which no one has yet equaled.
Craig Pospisil is the award-winning author of the plays Months on End, Somewhere in Between, The Dunes, and Life is Short among others. His plays have been seen Off-Broadway, around the country, on six continents, and translated into French and seven other languages. A native New Yorker, Craig lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter. CraigPospisil.com