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Why 'One Directioners' Are Nothing New

William Shaw on Beatlemania and the weird world of the ultimate superfans

Why 'One Directioners' Are Nothing New

The passion of pop fans is like nothing else, as various celebrities, men’s magazines and Twitter users have recently discovered to their cost.

Acts like One Direction and Justin Bieber have been carefully marketed to ignite the passions of – mostly – young female fans. And they have done it very well: anyone criticising these pop princes are liable to be inundated with threats of violence. Tread carefully on the dreams of pop fans. They are not to be toyed with.

Even in the dying years of pop music, young female fans are the engine that drive the pop machine. If you win their loyalty you can drive records up the charts and still, in theory at least, make millions.

But these innocuous youngsters are also a dangerous audience to rely on. For a start, like everyone they grow up and move on, ripping down their posters and discarding their heartthrobs. Think Boyzone or 911. Most teen pop careers are over very fast. As the former T. Rex and Wham! Manager Simon Napier-Bell once put it: "The depressing thing about building an industry constructed group for a teenage audience is that it only has the life span of a couple of years or so."

It is now fifty years since the start of probably the most phenomenal fan movement ever. Beatlemania was born in 1963. It evolved out of the young women who queued for hours to get into The Cavern and caught fire when the lovable mop tops arrived in America. It's hard to remember how massively transformative that Beatles fanbase was. Today's fans are nothing compared to that first tidal wave of Beatle love.

Pop has never been as big as it was then. 1964 was the year the British bought more than 100,000,000 records – a total which has never been exceeded. And The Beatles were the biggest act of all. In April 1964 they were at 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 31, 41, 46, 58, 65, 68 and 79 in the Billboard Hot 100.

My crime novel, A Song From Dead Lips centres around one particular group of Beatles fans, the Apple Scruffs, named for the way they congregated around the group's HQ in Savile Row. They were a hardcore group of fans who had a unique relationship to the band. In an age of the industrialised pop fan, the Beliebers and JLSers, the Scruffs remain something unique.

As a writer for Smash Hits during its mad 1980s heyday, I met plenty of superfans. The quietly spoken Michael Jackson fan who dressed to look like his hero who eventually grew his own fanbase – and who Jackson eventually befriended, inviting him to Neverland. The Duran fans who wrote bitter letters whenever we pointed out their star was fading. The A-Ha fans who had run away from home to follow the band and who stole cutlery from hotels in the hope that Morten Harket had eaten with that fork.

The first exposé of fandom was a 1969 book called Groupie, supposedly written by Jenny Fabian but co-written by a man; it was a fictionalised account of her real life sleeping with mid-80s pop stars and famous for detailing repeated instances of oral sex – or "plating" as it was quaintly called in those days.

In the 1980s, the situationist Fred Vermorel published a book called Starlust. It was a collection of fan fantasies, gathered through letters and transcribed phone calls. They detailed dreams and sexual fantasies fans had about pop stars of the time.

Vermorel's book too was lapped up for prurient details. A young man fantasied about having sex with The Jam's Bruce Foxton in a toilet. Bizarrely, scores of Barry Manilow fans detailed what they would do with the awful crooner. (At the time, some critics suspected that these were as much Vermorel's fantasies as the fans'.)

Undoubtedly sex is part of the teenage fantasy. In her great account of her teenage days in the 1970s following the Bay City Rollers, music journalist Caroline Sullivan admits to finally sleeping with one of the band – though she coyly doesn't say which one. But actual sex was almost a step too far, she admits, "We were a bit like those dogs who chase cars - what would they do if they caught one?"

The point of fandom is exactly that. It's about being part of that chase, and the chase can be for anything. As Sullivan remembers, her gang ran to pick up cigarette butts that the Bay City Rollers had discarded, to add them to their collections.

Because there is something glorious about being part of that chase. Vermorel described it as "utopian romanticism". I'm not sure it's even utopian. In some ways it's a very real, powerful experience.

Fandom is about the deliberate construction of a shared adventure that allows fans to escape drab and sometimes even highly toxic home lives. Fans are a gang that play by their own rules. Fans are revelling in a magical, self-created runaway world.

In the 1990s I wrote a book about religious cults, Spying In Guru Land. Spending time with some of them, it dawned on me that it wasn't clear who was in charge: the earnest gurus or the passionate followers. It's the same with fans. Though pop stars usually try to move on, if they're lucky enough to keep their fans, their fans often refuse to allow them to change.

David Cassidy, one of the great teen stars of the 70s, is currently on tour, still playing the 70s hits to the 70s fans who made his career, still chained to that moment in his fans' lives. He'd probably love to move on, but he can't.

In the 50 years of pop fandom, the weird passion of the fan has remained a constant. It's the world around them that has changed. By the 1970s, publicists had become a standard part of the PR machine. They learned how to leak facts to fans to make sure there was a screaming horde outside the Radio One studios at Broadcasting House.

Social media has made the chase even easier, appearing to narrow the distance between pop star and fan. (Though that tweet from a pop star is just as likely to be written by a social media manager as the star themselves).

The extraordinary thing about the Apple Scruffs is that they joined the chase before any of this machinery was in place. So their chase was probably the best of all.

They continually baffled the Beatles' entourage by being able to somehow predict The Beatles' movements. Often, the first warning the staff at EMI's Abbey Road studios had that the group were about to appear was that the Scruffs had begun to gather outside. Remember, these were the days when the only means of mobile communication was expensive payphones. No mobiles. No SMS. No Skype.

Before his death, The Beatles press officer Derek Taylor recalled how baffled everyone was by the fan's self-created intelligence network. "What fascinated me most was how they got their information," he said. "Often they knew more about where the boys were they we did. It was often a process of abstraction and deduction with them. Sherlock Scruffs they were. They’d use some infallible female intuition to work out whether the boys were recording at Olympic or at Trident, AIR or Abbey Road. Very clever."

And like the One Directioners, they had their own image of what they wanted the band to be. "They didn’t want to sleep with the boys or attempt to get their psychic tentacles into them or invade their space," said Taylor. "I found that aspect bewildering but fascinating and the Beatles did too.  After all, they were used to extraordinary scenes of groupiedom in America, where they were literally queuing up for a favour."

The Scruffs were using The Beatles for their own adventure. Occasionally it was slightly more invasive than Taylor recalls. Once a pair broke into McCartney's house and stole a pair of trousers; the Scruffs passed them around, each wearing them for a while. A kind of trouser timeshare. But with nobody standing in between the Scruffs and the Beatles, some of the band, Paul and George in particular, befriended the Scruffs.  They even invited them to their homes a few times, though as Taylor recalls, the Scruffs were just as happy standing together on the outside.

The Scruffs were lucky, to find themselves in the presence of the most creative group of the pop era at that innocent time when there was almost nothing standing between them and the group. But even these days, as One Direction's fans show, the passion remains the same.

In A Song From Dead Lips, the book opens with the murder of one of the Scruffs. I'm hoping that the remaining Scruffs don't react as badly as Harry Styles' fans.

A Song From Dead Lips is out now.