Fifty years ago this week, The Beatles created stadium rock
The August 15, 1965 show by The Beatles at New York's Shea Stadium was a seminal moment in the history of rock music, writes Michael K. Bohn
On a hot and muggy night 50 years ago this week, four mop-haired young men walked across the top of New York's Pan Am Building and boarded a waiting helicopter. A few minutes later, the aircraft carrying The Beatles - John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr - approached Shea Stadium in Flushing Meadows, Queens. There, 55,600 screaming fans, then the largest crowd in show business history, waited in a frenzy for their arrival.
The undisputed leaders of the British Invasion were about to launch their second sortie on American soil, one year after their debut tour. The Shea Stadium concert was the first stop in an 18-day, 11-city tour that showcased The Beatles in front of a total of 300,000 fans. The Shea concert generated the biggest crowd and biggest hype during the trip, and the event helped cement The Beatles as music's most influential rock 'n' roll band.
Moreover, the tour itself became important in other ways. First, it reflected The Beatles at the apex of their career. In his 2006 memoir, John, Paul, George, Ringo and Me, Beatles press agent Tony Barrow wrote of the significance of the 1965 concerts. "This was the group's brightly shining summer solstice, after which all the Beatles' days would insidiously grow a little darker."
Second, Beatles biographer Bob Spitz described the impact of the 1965 tour as "a giant step toward reshaping the concert business. For promoters everywhere, the Shea Stadium concert was a major breakthrough. It freed them from the constraints imposed by a gym or cinema, thus turning a pop performance into an event."Shea was a circular baseball park, with an opening between the foul lines in the outfield, and people completely packed its four tiers of seats. Security staff confined the hysterical fans, predominantly teenage girls, to the grandstands to protect The Beatles. Promoter Sid Bernstein had erected a stage at second base, and police roamed both infield and outfield.
When the Beatles moved to the third-base dugout, the crowd noticed the commotion and unleashed a hurricane of noise. The Fab Four were "gobsmacked" at the sight of the crowd, as Barrow later recalled. George, in The Beatles: Off the Record, described his reaction: "It was terrifying at first, but I don't think I have ever felt so exhilarated in all my life." As the four emerged from the dugout, with George, John and Paul carrying their guitars, they looked up in awe at row upon row of screaming young people. "Their immature lungs produced a sound so staggering," wrote The New York Times' Murray Schumach from the press box, "so massive, so shrill and sustained that it quickly crossed the line from enthusiasm into hysteria and was soon in the area of the classic Greek meaning of the word pandemonium - the region of all demons."
The three guitarists plugged into their amps, and Ringo sat behind his Ludwig drum set. Paul repeatedly shouted "Hello" into the mic. But the three others couldn't hear him over the incredible din, and the din-makers couldn't hear Paul. Seeing that any opening talk was impossible, the band quickly launched into a punchy cover of Twist and Shout.
Through the first number and the second, She's a Woman, the crowd noise prevented the Beatles from hearing their own instruments. Dave Schwensen, in his book The Beatles at Shea Stadium, described the band's dynamics. "George and Ringo concentrated more on trying to hear what they were playing and John bashed away on his rhythm guitar. Paul continually moved about his side of the stage singing and playing his bass to every fan in every section of the stadium."
As The Beatles moved on to Dizzy Miss Lizzy, Ticket to Ride, and others on their 12-song set, fans began to leap onto the field and start running toward second base. Police intercepted all immediately, save for a teenage girl who made a beeline for Lennon, who seemed to wave her on.
The band finished with I'm Down, the recording of which had featured John on electronic organ, but this was his first live performance. "I really didn't know what to do, because I felt naked without a guitar," Lennon recalled in The Beatles Anthology. He bounced about the organ, sometimes using his elbow or foot to play, like Jerry Lee Lewis, adding, "George couldn't play for laughing." The age of stadium rock had arrived.
Two days later, the band and handlers flew on a chartered Lockheed Electra, a four-engine turboprop, to Toronto for two shows at the Maple Leaf Gardens. The next day The Beatles played a concert in front of 30,000 at the new Atlanta Stadium.
The group then flew to Chicago for two performances at Comiskey Park on August 20; the evening show drew 37,000 fans. Next was a performance at Metropolitan Stadium near Minneapolis-St Paul. The next stop would be Portland, Oregon, and as the aircraft neared its destination, fear gripped the passengers. "Oi, look!" George shouted, pointing at the right outboard engine. "The bleedin' thing's on fire!" British journalist Chris Hutchins included George's reaction in his account of the incident years later.
American TV journalist Larry Kane said both pilots were in the rear of the cabin chatting with John and Paul, and had left the automatic pilot in charge. Kane yelled at them, "There's a fire in the right engine."
He later described how the incident ended. "A half-hour later, smoke still pouring from the engine, the plane landed in a sea of foam and an army of firefighters."
Following the Portland concerts, the Beatles flew to Los Angeles, arriving before dawn on August 23. In a rented hillside home, they settled in for a scheduled five-day respite from flying and singing.
The first four days in Beverly Hills featured guests such as David Crosby and Roger McGuinn of The Byrds, folk singer Joan Baez and actor Peter Fonda, as well as helicopters full of teenage girls hovering overhead.
The break also marked a change in the Beatles' drug experiences. Half of the band had resolved to introduce the other half to LSD. "John and I decided that Paul and Ringo had to have acid," George recalled, "because we couldn't relate to them any more." Harrison explained in The Beatles Anthology that LSD had changed John and him so much that they wanted the others to share the experience.
The week's highlight came on the evening of August 27. The band had longed to meet Elvis Presley, one of their greatest influences. "We just idolised the guy so much," Lennon said years later. Now was the chance.
Hutchins had brokered a meeting four days earlier between Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and Epstein. The two men agreed that the Beatles would visit Presley's home in Bel Air, a few miles west of the band's rented house. Elvis was in Hollywood finishing the filming of Paradise, Hawaiian Style. Hutchins accompanied the Beatles that evening and wrote of the epic meeting in his 1994 book, Elvis Meets the Beatles.
The Beatles fought their nervousness on the way to Bel Air by smoking marijuana and had the giggles as they entered the house about 10pm. They found the King and Priscilla Beaulieu, his future wife, on a horseshoe-shaped couch. Elvis wore tight slacks, a red shirt, and a high-collared jacket. Twenty-year-old "Cilla" wore heavy make-up and a minidress, and her black bouffant hairdo towered over her head. Paul thought she looked like a Barbie doll.
The early moments were awkward as the Beatles quietly arrayed themselves around Elvis, who finally broke the uncomfortable silence. "If you guys are just gonna sit there and stare at me, I'm goin' to bed … I didn't mean for this to be like subjects calling on the King. I thought we'd sit and talk about music and maybe jam a little."
"That would be great," said Paul, sensing a way out of the mess.
"Somebody bring in the guitars," Elvis said to his entourage. Soon they were exploring common musical ground and swapping anecdotes about touring. Elvis showed Paul his newly acquired skills on the bass guitar, and received encouragement. After a few hours, the Beatles walked to the limos, and Parker said to Hutchins, "Tell the fans it was a great meeting." Hearing that, Lennon interjected, "Tell them the truth - it was a load of rubbish." The band travelled by chartered bus to San Diego the next day, and cars full of fans chased them along the freeway. Two concerts followed at the Hollywood Bowl, a large outdoor amphitheatre, on August 29 and 30, each to capacity crowds of 18,000.
At San Francisco's Cow Palace, the tour's last stop on August 31, the band gave two concerts. During the second show, fans spilled through barriers and rushed the stage. The Beatles retreated backstage until security staff had regained control.
The Beatles reportedly grossed US$357,000 during the tour, a sum equal to US$2.6 million in 2014. Barrow told Kane nearly 20 years later that the Beatles enjoyed the 1965 tour more than the others. "They were suddenly playing at being superstars. The boys were all smiles … they were happiest in 1965." Barrow added: "1964 was tough, 1966 was forgettable because they were ready to stop touring, but 1965 was the best for them."
Tribune News Service
For this story and more see The Review, published with the Sunday Morning Post, on August 16