August 29, 1966: Candlestick Park, 50 years later…

The Beatles have a long and complicated history with live concerts. Even when they stopped doing live performances, they didn’t just simply quit, they did things differently from everyone else.

To their casual fans, the Beatles “began” in the early months of 1963, when EMI released their first 45 single “Please Please Me.” The song was their second single but the first one to top the charts in the UK. Thanks to a terrible winter storm that had most of the country snowed-in, a great number of people caught the Beatles performing on the late-night TV show “Thank Your Lucky Stars.” The performance gave the band its first taste of national publicity, boosting the enthusiasm for the single. As a result of it’s success, the band’s first LP (also titled Please Please Me) was set to be released just weeks later.

beatles

Needing ten more songs to fill out the LP, producer George Martin asked the band what material they had they could put on the record. The band had material, as Lennon and McCartney had already been writing songs for a few years, and they told George they could record their “stage” act.

The “stage” in question was the “Cavern Club,” a nightclub located in the heart of Liverpool. Lennon first played the Club with his band, The Quarrymen in the mid-to-late 50’s. Though at the time there was a “no Rock-and-Roll” policy, Lennon would often break the rules (because of course he would) and begin rocking out to “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky” only to be scolded and threatened by the Club’s manager. By 1958 McCartney was playing with the band at the Club, and by May of 1960, Ringo Starr was playing the Cavern as part of the band “Rory and the Hurricanes.”

By the time the Beatles had formed and played the gig in 1961, they were already under the management of Brian Epstein. John, Paul, George and Ringo played there as their first gig after returning from their time in Hamburg, Germany. In fact, the announcer mistakenly introduced the band as being “from” Hamburg, leading the audience to think they were German (it didn’t help that John insisted on faking a German accent whenever he’d introduce the next song…because of course he did).

For the next two and a half years, the Beatles played almost 300 gigs at the Cavern Club. Their last performance came in August of ’63, shortly after the release of their latest #1 smash-hit “She Loves You.” As the band grew in popularity, so did the horde of female fans, who insisted on “screaming along with every song.” The Cavern eventually became so inundated with fans that the building simply couldn’t hold them all. The Beatles quit playing there, not just because they had become too big for the club, but because the club had become too small for them!

Soon after finishing up with the Cavern, The Beatles made their first stop in America. Movies would follow, hit records would fly off the shelves and #1 singles would flood the radio waves. Through it all and for the next three years the band was a non-stop touring machine. All over the world they would perform their manic, hyper-active stage show, racing through a dozen songs in only about thirty minutes (for comparison, the average Elvis concert in the 1970’s ran an hour and a half, and Paul McCartney’s concerts these days usually last a good three hours), and though the audiences never seemed to tire of it, the Beatles were tiring of it.

There were extenuating circumstances which contributed to the band’s stage show burnout, with many of them occurring in 1966 (50 years ago if you old timers can believe it). The band did a tour of Asia which began with controversy in Japan. They were booked to perform in the Nippon Budokan arena, which was customarily used for Marital Arts exhibitions and not for musical performances. This was seen as culturally offensive. Of course, the foursome didn’t book the gig or the venue; they just went where they were told, but they bore the heat.

In July of ’66 they performed in Manila, Philippines. At the time, the country was under the control of the dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. Once again, the band didn’t select their venues but they did often bear the brunt of the controversies. Marcos’ first lady, Imelda, requested the band’s presence at a breakfast gala, but the band refused because it was to be on their (one) day off. They were polite and sincere but Marcos’ was a dictator’s wife…they’re not accustomed to being told “no.”

As a result of the snub, the state-police protection that had been escorting the band was removed, leaving them to fend for themselves in a very dangerous country. As The Beatles prepared to leave, they were bombarded with insults (both in Spanish and English), while others took swings at them. Finally they made it to their airplane, only to discover that they were not being allowed to leave the terminal. Manager Brian Epstein and road-manager Mal Evans were ordered to leave the plane and believed they were going to be imprisoned or executed. Instead they were shaken down and forced to give up the money they had earned from their tour.

Back in the Western Hemisphere, things were not much better for them. The band took part in a bizarre photo-shoot that featured disembodied parts of various baby dolls as well as chunks of raw meat scattered about. The band dressed in butcher’s smocks and smiled merrily for the camera. One of the pictures became the cover for their “Yesterday and Today” album in the US…

beatles-yesterday-today-album-cover

Almost immediately the backlash ensured and the album had to be pulled and replaced with a much more generic cover. When asked to comment on the gruesome original cover, John said “that’s our commentary on the Vietnam War.” And there went that can of worms.

Let’s not even get into the whole “Bigger than Jesus” fiasco and the hostility it generated across the southern US.

By the time the band prepared to play an August concert at Candlestick Park, in San Francisco, “fatigue” with the spotlight didn’t even begin to express their feelings. Though no official statement had been made, either publicly or privately, it was later conceded that “everyone kind of knew it was the last one.”

There were other factors at work that made the band ready to walk away from live performances. For one, George was growing increasingly paranoid about the possibility of a sniper or other gunman taking an easy shot at him (or any of the others…except for Ringo, whom he deduced was safe behind the high hat). 1966 was only a few years removed from the JFK assassination, so such fears were not completely irrational, especially considering the previous “bigger than Jesus” controversy that was only a few months old at the time.

There was also the fact that the band’s music had changed so much from the Cavern and early Beatlemania days. The Candlestick Park concert took place about three weeks after Revolver was released in the UK and US. The songs on that album (the greatest), and the 45 single that accompanied it, were designed almost intentionally so that they couldn’t be played in a live venue. Songs like Rain (with its backwards parts) and Tomorrow Never Knows (with it’s…all of it) could only be done with stripped-down versions that were pale imitations of the genuine arrangements. Even the more traditional songs they recorded around that time, such as Paperback Writer were not conducive to a live show, since they included so much studio manipulation and double-tracking of the vocals. Paperback Writer was done live (in Japan, among other places in 1966), but the quality was far removed from the 45-single version…

Which brings us to the final reason they decided to quit touring: The quality of the music they were doing live was not up to snuff, and the more experimentation they did in the studio and the more excited they became about all the new things they could try at Abbey Road, the more disgruntled they were singing Love Me Do and Twist and Shout. And due to the fact that their live shows were played in front of so many screaming fans (to the point that it just sounds like white noise enveloping the whole arena, wherever they went), the band was hardly ever able to hear themselves.

Until they played in Japan: The Japanese audience was infamously quiet (culturally, out of respect for the performers). They still shouted and screamed, but not with as much mania as western fans did. The concert in Japan opened the band’s eyes to just how mediocre they had become as a stage act.

Thus, when they arrived at Candlestick Park, August 29, 1966, there was an unspoken understanding among the group and their closest companions, that this was it.

In fact, Paul McCartney had the idea to ask Tony Barrow (the band’s press agent) to hold up a tape recorder during the concert. Barrow stood just past the stage, between it and the mob of fans on the field and recorded most of the set (losing only a little of the final song, Long Tall Sally, due to the tape running out). The foursome also brought cameras on stage with them and took shots of the crowd, the stadium and themselves. Lennon even took a wide-angle shot with his camera, mounted atop an amplifier…

beatles-selfie-1966

(the first celebrity selfie?)

After it was over, they bowed, they ran and they sighed. George even screamed “that’s it, I’m not a Beatle anymore!”

Of course he still was and would remain one for the next three years. But this was the end of the second phase of the Beatles’ existence. They had gone through their early days, before the hit singles and mobs of fans, and now they had endured their middle years, as the most popular pop act of all time. All that was left was to return to the studio and make music for the first time, as a group without the pressure of another concert lingering over their heads.

But, as already said, The Beatles never did anything the traditional way. Instead of just quitting, they quit “their way.”

Almost a year later the band released what many consider their magnum opus, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The nature of the album was, in part, designed to let it tour instead of them. They used it to create a new band identity, give it an opening and closing “live” show feel, and then sent it around the world to become Rolling Stone’s #1 greatest album of all time. They had already switched to “music video” like advertisement films in lieu of appearances on Ed Sullivan and the like, but those videos became more extravagant (in the peak of the psychedelic 60’s) as the band viewed these videos as their replacement to their live touring.

After a few years of reinventing themselves (more than once) the band climbed onto the roof of the Apple Studios building to play the songs they had recorded during their aborted Let It Be film. That was their last “concert” together as a group. It ended with police threatening to arrest them, and with Lennon dryly remarking “I hope we’ve passed the audition!”

A few months later they were broken up and each went their own way. John made a couple appearances here and there, with his last coming at an Elton John concert in New York City. George famously did the Concert for Bangladesh. Ringo continues to tour smaller venues with his AllStarr Band, and Paul’s career as a live performer is perhaps second to none.

But no matter how great they were and are individually, there was something truly magical when they were all together, on a stage, screaming their silly rhymes to a mass of weeping teenage girls. 50 years ago, they did that one last time.

Candlestick Park, August 29, 1966.

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