World-famous people have often done world-famous things during their visits to Australia. Michael Adams recounts the moment Jimmie Nichol became drummer for the most famous band on the planet.
Jimmie Nichol’s moment in the sun, 1964
On June 3, 1964, just one day before The Beatles left the UK on their first world tour, drummer Ringo Starr was hospitalized with tonsillitis. Manager Brian Epstein turned to producer George Martin to find someone who could stand-in on the skins and he suggested Jimmie Nichol, a session drummer who’d played on various recordings at EMI and who had his own band The ShubDubs.
“Brian called me and I went down to his office,” Nichol recalled in a 1987 interview. “I nearly shit in me pants when he told me he wanted me to play for the Beatles in place of Ringo.”
A day later, the 24-year-old was in Copenhagen belting out Beatles hits for thousands of screaming fans. But what Nichol saw there and then in Hong Kong paled in comparison with what awaited The Beatles in Australia.
While their arrival at Sydney airport was relatively sedate – thanks to torrential rain and live-TV coverage – Beatlemania soon engulfed Macleay Street outside their Sheraton Hotel digs in Kings Cross. But when the band landed in Adelaide for the first gig, Nichol faced the biggest crowd the Beatles would ever see. Up to 300,000 people lined the 15-kilometre route from the airport to city – an incredible number given the city’s population of one million. Newsreel footage shows Nichol beaming in the open-topped car and waving to the adoring crowd who obligingly roar with enthusiasm when his name was called. Over two nights in Adelaide, the band played four 30-minute shows to a total of 12,000 screaming fans.
Melbourne was even more chaotic. John Lennon broke from Beatles protocol – which had it they’d praise all tour destinations fulsomely but equally – by declaring the tens of thousands of fans who thronged the city’s streets had provided “the greatest reception we have received anywhere in the world”.
But Nichol’s fame was literally here today, gone tomorrow. On June 14, the fully recovered Ringo arrived in Melbourne to take up his place with the band – and his stand-in was booked on the next plane back to Britain. At the Melbourne press conference – the only one in history to feature five Beatles –– Nichol was asked what he would do back home. He replied by saying he’d get his band together and do some TV. “And then he’s away,” an optimistic John Lennon interjected good-naturedly.
The next morning, having been paid 500 pounds and given a gold watch, Nichol waited completely alone and unrecognised at Tullamarine airport. That forlorn photo – reproduced in Glenn A. Baker’s 1982 book The Beatles Down Under – graphically foretold the man’s future. Back in Britain, the Shubdubs went nowhere and though Nichol enjoyed brief success with Swedish band The Spotnicks he dropped out of music in 1967.
In the subsequent years, Nichol only twice spoke publicly about his 10 days as a Beatle. “Standing in for Ringo was the worst thing that ever happened to me,” he said in a 1987 interview. “Until then I was quite happy earning 30 or 40 pounds a week. After the headlines died, I began dying too.” In 1990, he described leaving Melbourne as being “like a bastard child being sent back home from a family that didn’t want me. When you have had the best, you can’t accept anything else.”
As of the last media report – a Weekend Australian article in 2004 – Nichol is estranged from his family and lives as a recluse in a flat in North London.