Early Intimacy, Then Screams Louder Than Explosions
IN THIS PHOTO: The Beatles took the stage for the last time ever on 29th August, 1966, marking the end of their final tour/PHOTO CREDIT: Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images
The Beatles’ Life on Stage
EVEN though there is nothing in the news right now...
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
regarding The Beatles and live gigs, there are a couple of new releases that show the band on stage during the peak of their career. There is one, Blackpool, ABC Theatre, 19th July 1964 & 1st August 1965, that is a cracker and another, Australia, Festival Hall, Melbourne, 17th June 1964, that is worth snapping up. It is rare we get Beatles-related live albums coming up and, aside from The Beatles: Live at the Hollywood Bowl, there has not been much from the vaults. I applaud every Beatles album that comes out, whether it is B-sides or something remastered. Any opportunity that we can get for ‘new’ Beatles material is golden. This year, there will be a fiftieth anniversary release of Abbey Road. I suspect that is going to happen and, as it has been the case with other big albums of their turning fifty, I cannot wait to see what comes about; maybe Giles Martin (son of the late Beatles producer, Sir George Martin) will engineer something. That is all great but we often forget about The Beatles as a touring band. They pretty much stopped touring when they went into the studio to record Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and many forget The Beatles at their gigging peak. One can understand why they stopped touring. They got to a point where fans were screaming so loud they could not hear themselves play.
To have that admiration, on the one hand, must have been thrilling and beyond anything the human mind can comprehend! On the other hand, there is that problem with what the gig becomes: four men on stage who are playing music but damned if anyone can hear what it is! The sheer hysteria and noise generated by fans turned Beatles gigs into something chaotic, frightening and delirious. One can only imagine, too, the relief The Beatles felt when they retreated into the studio and knew they did not have to endure touring again. This might all sound bleak and weird but I actually think the albums of The Beatles’ tours/gigs are among the most powerful records you can imagine. I have just purchased the album of them playing Blackpool (see above). There is footage on YouTube – despite claims on websites that there is no filmed evidence of the gig – and you can tell how much the lads loved being on stage. Perhaps the new releases that have come out (of them in Blackpool and Melbourne at their height) is a little more controlled and less hysterical than some of the gigs they played after that point. They did not have the emptiness of a stadium or the expanse of screaming faces drowning out their words. Listen to songs on their live albums and you can get a real sense of these brothers being in a natural environment.
I love how John Lennon switches between sarcastic and funny; the way Paul McCartney shyly interjects and the way he and George Harrison harmonise. Ringo Starr on his trusty kit is sometimes afforded a vocal lead and plays the roughish, cheeky chap who is self-deprecating and cool! We often listen to The Beatles and get a sense of who they are as writers – it is when they are on stage and afforded some time to breathe that we can really get an understanding of the men behind the microphones. Maybe those big stadium gigs and the bedlam that greeted them in the U.S. was more about spectacle: there is something quite intimate about some of the smaller gigs they performed in 1964 and 1965. There is much to love about Beatles gigs but, invariably, the pressure and problems associated with fame made them reconsider their future. This article from Ultimate Classic Rock details when the final nail was struck:
“For many musicians, playing live is the best part of the job — but touring, on the other hand, is a necessary evil. These days, veteran bands take all sorts of smart, unorthodox measures to mitigate the worst parts of life on the road, but even at their peak, the Beatles often found the experience a painful slog. On Aug. 21, 1966, they decided to do something about it: quit as soon as possible.
As Paul McCartney later reflected in the Beatles Anthology book, there had been rumblings among the band members about getting off the road for some time, particularly from George Harrison and John Lennon, but he'd always maintained that they needed to keep performing live; in his words, "I'd been trying to say, 'Ah, touring's good and it keeps us sharp. We need touring, and musicians need to play. Keep music live.'"
PHOTO CREDIT: Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images
The tide turned on Aug. 20, when the band's performance at Crosley Field in Cincinnati had to be called off due to rain — the first and last time, according to Beatles lore, that the band ever failed to take the stage when it was supposed to. In his own recollection of the aborted gig, Harrison pinned the blame on poor planning at the venue, which compounded an already dangerous situation.
"Cincinnati was an open-air venue, and they had a bandstand in the center of the ballpark, with a canvas top on it. It was really bad weather, pouring with rain, and when [Beatles assistant Mal Evans] got there to set up the equipment, he said, 'Where's the electricity power feed?' And the fella said, 'What do you mean, electricity? I thought they played guitars.' He didn't even know we played electric guitars," Harrison recalled later. "It was so wet that we couldn't play. They'd brought in the electricity, but the stage was soaking and we would have been electrocuted, so we canceled — the only gig we ever missed".
From their early days playing at The Cavern Club in 1961 through to their final rooftop gig in 1969, they definitely went through a lot. Even those wild and packed-out gigs in the U.S. are thrilling to watch. To me, the finest Beatles shows are those where you get to see the boys talk; a more revealing insight into who they were and how they interacted with the audience.
IN THIS PHOTO: The press and fans greet The Beatles as they arrive in Washington, U.S.A. in 1964/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
There are some video clips online and it is infectious and warming seeing the band smile and performing their big hits. Even though they had rattled out the same songs time and time again, they gave the songs new life and loved every minute. If you can snap up The Beatles’ live show in Blackpool (two shows, technically, on a variety slot) then do so. There is a lovely bit where Lennon banters with the audience and takes a dig at one of the band’s songs. Starr mocks his technical abilities when he is asked to sing and there are wonderful moments when the guys are enraptured in the performance and lost in the moment. Rolling Stone, in this article, celebrated fifty years since The Beatles’ final live performance with a top-ten. They include some cool shows from 1964 but, right near the start of their career in 1963, they included a gig from Sweden:
“The show was broadcast on Swedish National Radio, so the extant sound is impeccable, with lots of chunky, efficacious distortion from the guitar amps. This was the first concert they’d given outside of England after reaching stardom. They yelp over the start of “Money,” trying to force Lennon to get a further rung up in his vocal intensity. He gets there. They’re impeccably tight on the cover of Smoky Robinson and the Miracles’ “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” and the closing “Twist and Shout” gives its famous studio counterpart a push. This is a band discovering just how powerful they could be, even after knowing they were damn powerful. But it’s like they’re realizing they’re better than they knew they were, and it’s not like they lacked for confidence. That is one glorious hell of a sound”.
To have been a fan then and to have witnessed these early shows must have been something truly spellbinding. When the band was playing the songs fresh and they had not become so worn and over-familiar, you could sense the fun. It is a shame things changed and the sheer demand wore them down. When they played their final gig in Candlestick Park in 1966, it seemed like they have reached a natural end as performers. Rolling Stone tells the story:
““Following the harrowing ordeal, no one was particularly thrilled about having to hit the road again for a U.S. tour the following month. “We’re going to have a couple of weeks to recuperate before we go and get beaten up by the Americans,” George Harrison cracked with more than a touch of resentment. The off-the-cuff joke turned to a horrifying reality when a supposedly anti-religious statement made my John Lennon ignited a firestorm among Bible-toting zealots south of the Mason-Dixon line. They torched Beatles albums, boycotted songs and unleashed a torrent of death threats. Fresh bullet holes on the fuselage of the band’s plane cleared up any doubts: They were in harm’s way.
In 1966 the road was getting pretty boring,” Ringo Starr recalled in the Beatles Anthology documentary. “It was coming to the end for me. Nobody was listening at the shows. That was OK at the beginning, but we were playing really bad.” Perched in the back on his drum kit, he was reduced to following the three wiggling backsides at the front of the stage just to determine where they were in the song.
At least the audience couldn’t hear how ragged they had become – not that they would have cared. “The sound at our concerts was always bad. We would be joking with each other on stage just to keep ourselves amused,” remembered Harrison in the Anthology. Lennon took particular delight in making vaguely obscene alterations to their song lyrics (“I Wanna Hold Your Gland”), knowing full well that no one had any clue what he was saying. “It was just a sort of a freak show,” he later said. “The Beatles were the show, and the music had nothing to do with it”.
In a way, the rooftop gig they performed in 1969 was them stripping away all the plans, hordes of people and physical danger: just the guys jamming and giving this final hurray. In many ways, The Beatles touring life was split into two. The first half (1961-1964) seemed to bare more fruit and there was this real sense that the band were engaged in every moment. As they grew and gigs became more charged through 1965 and 1966, it sort of marked a turn. In any case, the story of The Beatles on the road is like no other band in history. I grew up around The Beatles and was introduced to their music as a child. It was thrilling listening to their music and I especially love their early output (1962-1965).
You get one side of the songs when you hear them on the record but I love the sound of their live performances. The thrill of seeing the early days when the guys rocked the crowds and were lost in the music…that is one of the great joys of life. I have seen some of the early footage of them at The Cavern Club and a few gigs they did in the U.K. The reaction of the crowd and the tightness of the performances is amazing. Even when they started blowing up in America, there was still a time when they were committed and feeding off of the buzz. If there are two sides to their life on the road, it is definitely worth buying as many of these recordings as you can.
We do not have bands like The Beatles anymore and nobody that commands the same sort of focus and excitement as them. I adore all The Beatles’ live performances and the sheer majesty of hearing these songs performed at venues. It is wonderful that a couple of their 1964/1965 performances have been released as it still shows them in love with performing and gigs. Has any other band created the same shivers and wonder when performing live? Maybe so but no other group has attracted the same level of celebration and popularity than The Beatles. Maybe they were not bigger than Jesus – a John Lennon comment that faced swift backlash – but they were something truly remarkable; the likes of which we will never see again. The band’s two surviving members, Starr and McCartney, are still active, although they are in two different places in their careers – McCartney touring the world whereas Starr has a slightly quieter life. To put on an album like (The Beatles at) Blackpool, ABC Theatre, 19th July 1964 & 1st August 1965 or Australia, Festival Hall, Melbourne, 17th June 1964 is truly awe-inspiring. If their touring life became problematic to the point of no return by 1966, investigate these earlier recordings and discover a time when The Beatles…
RULED the world!