Saturday, June 14, 2014

Beatlemania is alive and well...

...and Melbourne pop artist extraordinaire Gemma Jones is living proof! That's right folks, today is B-Day - half a century exactly since The Beatles first played Festival Hall - and to mark the occasion, I interviewed Gemma about her own Beatlemania, and her incredible series of paintings that capture the era's hysteric highs, Screaming Fans

Neither Gemma nor I were born when The Beatles toured Down Under, but read on and you'll see that the legacy of their Aussie visit lives on — in vibrant shades of orange, pink, minty green and teal — thanks to this most creative and talented of artists. (By the way, for readers who aren't familiar with Gemma's work, see the end of this post for more info. Talk about a one-woman pop-cultural sensation!) 
Gemma - aka Paintergirl - with her treasured Glenn A. Baker book and 'John' painting
Tell me about how your Beatles love affair started?
I was born into a record collection full of Beatles vinyl eight years after the Beatles 1964 tour.  My parents were really relaxed and encouraging with my brother and I flipping records and playing what ever we wanted on the stereo at a really young age (I don't know that I'd be the same) … and The Beatles were an instant favourite amongst the sixties gems. 

I still remember exactly where I was when I heard from the radio on top of the fridge that John Lennon had been shot down.  I guess I can pin point in that moment my loss of innocence. 

An influential book I've held onto since I bought it as a teenager is Glenn A Baker's The Beatles Down Under: The 1964 Australia & New Zealand Tour, which is a whole 130 pages of their crazy visit to Oz 50 years ago.  As many photos of fans as of the Fab Four themselves.

What inspired you to create the 'Screaming Fans' series, and how long did it take you to complete all the paintings?
Screaming Fans were brewing in my bird brain for a few years before they came tumbling out onto canvas. These paintings encompass a whole lot of subject matter very dear to my heart and psyche: girls, the sixties, The Beatles, popular culture and the depiction of femininity. I think the wild, weirdness of Beatlemania has always made me happy. That totally obsessive state of being is all about defying acceptable ways of being and behaving. Extreme misbehaving! It's a kind of beautiful Otherness to me, I guess.

To be honest I can't remember how long the eight paintings took to actually make — but the whole journey of conceptualising, researching and making the works was probably about six months.  

'Not a teenybopper'
Looking at the paintings as a whole, I'm struck by the power of these girls' emotions — their teen-screaming seems to transcend mere fun-loving fandom, and enter into the realm of sexual desperation or frenzy. It's quite a full-on effect, in fact ('Electric Hand' and 'Exploding Star' in particular). Were you aware of this dimension when you were painting them?
Yes!  I just love that cusp between — to be completely simplistic — happiness and sadness.  Or yeah, as you say, fun and frenzy.  Are these girls actually having a good time?  When does love and adoration turn bad?

These are not secret crushes or casual fancies — these are all-engulfing, self-indulgent, overflowing nonsensical passions!  These girls are defying the efforts of their parents, their boyfriends and the newspapers to 'understand' them.

'Electric Hand'
And also the rarity of this kind of public hysteria is great.  I guess we all know those private, behind closed-doors sobbing-letting-go moments, but for a moment like this to leak so loudly into the public domain is pretty powerful and confronting.

The fans are part of this big surge of crowd mentality, but when you look at the photos and the footage, most of these girls are totally caught up in the moment and selfishly unaware of anyone else.  Completely unselfconscious.

Yup — it's electric and it's explosive and its very own power.
'Exploding Star'
What do you think was so special about Beatlemania compared to female hysteria over, say, Frank Sinatra or Elvis?
To be honest, my own blinkered obsession with the sixties mean that I don't really know much about the fandom around either of those two.  But there isn't really anything on my radar that matches Beatlemania.

I was thinking about the kind of easy-going, out-of-a-packet fandom that happens in the age of the internet … click 'like', download the album for free, buy your concert tickets online.  I love the upfront homegrown, humanity of Beatlemania.  Sure, you could buy Beatles wigs and badges — but there was also so much handmade, heartfelt love too.  In that Glenn A Baker book, there are so many great fan drawings of the Fab Four and homemade welcome banners.  Fan mail almost broke the postal system. Fans putting genuine time and energy into expressing their PASSIONS.  It's still absolutely palpable over the ages.

I'm making an educated guess here, but is John your favourite Beatle by any chance? And if so, why?
Hahaha, yes John is my all-time favourite Beatle.  I love that non-sucky, tough, smartness (and startarseness) that he embodied.  He was loving and cynical all at once.  He was a totally unpretentious artist   What's not to love?  

He was the true heart and head of the Beatles.  There was plenty more that George, Ringo and that other guy contributed and they are also great — but John is my number one.

'John' - NB: this painting is for sale!
 I heard a theory once that you can tell a lot about someone's personality by which Beatle they like most — do you agree? If so, what conclusions would you draw if someone told you their favourite Mop Top was George, for example?

To be honest, I'm always surprised that anyone would love another Beatle above John.  When someone says that they like Ringo better, I always assume they are just trying to be contrary for the sake of it. Or maybe they just have a thing for drummers?  I dunno. These days, I'm just happy if someone genuinely loves The Beatles, full stop.

I want people to care that much that they bother to have a favourite in 2014!

Whatever I (somewhat jokingly) think about Paul, it did make me sad when #whoissirpaulmccartney was trending on social media.

'She Loves Them'
Have you ever seen one of those Beatles tribute bands (eg. The Bootleg Beatles)? I saw one play in Perth once, and found myself screaming like a teenybopper even though they weren't that great and were wearing ill-fitting wigs. Could Beatlemania have become so entrenched in our collective consciousness that even pale imitations can provoke hysteria?
No, I've never seen a full-blown Beatles tribute band … but I love the idea that they could trigger something in our shared history (or shared hystery?!) that make you want to lose your shit spontaneously.  Could be a kind of therapy, huh?

If you could time travel back to Festival Hall in either 1964 to see The Beatles or 1968 to see The Who and The Small Faces, which would you choose and why? (HARD question, I know!)
A hard AND mean question.  I gotta be honest, I think the whole controversy around the 'Big Show' tour of '68 is pretty appealing … and whilst I love The Beatles for being one of my first favourite childhood bands, The Small Faces and The Who have a whole other level of teen adoration and love from me, which harks back to me first unlocking the Mysterious World of Mod.

By the way I still genuinely love Festival Hall because I like to think that the memories of all of those bands and all of those screaming fans still linger. Just as much as I like it when you have to walk across the tarmac and take the rear stairs on to an airplane. Don't tell me you don't turn around and wave and pretend that you're one of The Beatles. [ummm, nup. Never done that myself! Next time...]

'Stars in her eyes'
So, word has it you've got a new exhibition coming up. Tell us more...
My new mini-show is a small exhibition of paintings and prints under the banner 'How Am I Not Myself', which opens at Melbourne's OutrĂ© Gallery on 18 July 2014. My friend Victoria Mason (an amazing jeweller) has done a collaboration with me as part of the show too.  You're all invited! RSVP here.

Find out more 

Check out Gemma's website 
Read a review of her 'Screaming Fans' exhibition

Related posts 

Then and now: When American jet-set and Beatlemania came to town  
Holy Mop Tops, Batman! Beatlemania in Melbourne: a quiz


  1. These artworks are just fantastic! I'd love to have one on my wall.

  2. They sure are, Lucy in the Sky - they're just so intoxicatingly POP! You're clearly a woman of impeccable taste. I love your blog by the way! :-)

    1. Exactly, very POP indeed. And thank you very much!