The Beatles' first show at Shea Stadium remains a landmark in music history. I wrote this anniversary piece for the US magazine TV Guide. Paul McCartney helped with a few memories.
One warm summer evening in 1965, a helicopter took off from Manhattan and pointed itself at Queens. On board, the four biggest stars in the world peered towards their destination, the home of the New York Mets. Already sick with nerves, The Beatles suddenly knew they were headed for the wildest night of their lives. Forty years later the show they played that August 15 is legendary. Even today, Shea Stadium stands for the peak of that madness the world knew as Beatlemania.
Hysterical fans were the norm at Beatle shows by 1965. What was different at Shea was that the hysteria gripped the band as well. Captured on 12 TV cameras around the stage, The Beatles' performance was riot of panic and hilarity. While 55,600 fans screamed and cried, and 1300 New York police struggled to keep order, the four young men at the center of it all looked at one another and knew this was something they could not control, only enjoy.
At that point it was the biggest concert ever staged for a rock'n'roll act. (Yet its promoter, Sid Bernstein, spent not a cent in advertising - word of mouth ensured an instant sell-out.) When The Beatles' helicopter dropped them close to the Stadium, they had to be smuggled inside by an armoured Wells Fargo truck. George Harrison quipped: 'I didn't think Wells Fargo were still going; I thought the Indians had got them all years ago.' In the changing room they were fascinated by the exotic names on the players' hangers. But when they changed into their mod stage costumes, beige epaulette jackets with toy sheriff badges, Paul McCartney says they became 'the four-headed monster'.
It took a manic sprint to reach the stage, erected at second base, where they were introduced by Ed Sullivan, whose company was co-producing the TV special. But already the noise was deafening. 'We were playing through the baseball speakers,' remembers Paul, 'and you couldn't hear a thing with the screaming - those 56,000 sea-gulls.' In vain they tried to re-tune their guitars. Not even the custom built Vox amplifiers - primitive by today's standards - could prevail in that steaming cauldron of teen passion. And how many of those screaming girls fantasised about marrying a Beatle? Actually, two of those present achieved exactly that - Barbara Bach became the future Mrs Ringo Starr and Linda Eastman the eventual Mrs McCartney.
In collar and tie, chewing impassively, The Beatles' manager Brian Epstein looked on. He knew he was witnessing the highest grossing rock show so far ($304,000). Perhaps he also sensed that his life would never get better than this. But up on stage his beloved 'boys' were not thinking of anything. They bashed their way through 12 songs including the title track of their movie 'Help!' premiered in London two weeks previously. Throughout Paul's new rock number 'I'm Down' he watched John Lennon weep with laughter as he played the keyboard with his elbow. Neither they nor the audience could hear the difference. It was, says, Paul, 'like being in a washing machine.'
But the band survived and were conjured back to their lair on the 33rd floor of New York's Warwick Hotel. Still besieged by fans their guests included Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones. Security prevented The Beatles accepting an invitation to visit Frank Sinatra, while Frank declined to drop by the Warwick. All that remained, on their return to England, was a two-day stint in a TV studio. Here The Beatles viewed the Shea footage, winced at their chaotic playing, and overdubbed some vocals and instrumental parts.
The TV special did not air in America until screened by ABC on January 10, 1967. It was already the document of a vanished age. Disillusioned by touring, The Beatles had played their last ever public show on August 29, 1966, in San Francisco's Candlestick Park. (Strangely, a return visit to Shea Stadium six days earlier had failed to sell out.) The band had decided to concentrate on recording and now turned their thoughts to the masterpiece that became 'Sgt, Pepper'. Lost and lonely in this new routine, Brian Epstein died of a drug overdose in August.
Yet if Shea Stadium was the beginning of the end for The Beatles as live performers, it was the dawning of a new era for rock music. After Shea, vast outdoor shows would become the superstar standard, as rivals like The Rolling Stones took up the baton The Beatles had dropped. Amplification and stagecraft advanced: new bands such as Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin took the rock gig to heights previously undreamt of. Consider this: John, Paul, George and Ringo took just two helpers out on the road. Modern acts like U2 take several hundred. But Shea 's importance will never be forgotten. It certainly haunted John Lennon. 'At Shea Stadium,' he once told Sid Bernstein, 'I saw the top of the mountain.'
See a complete index of Paul Du Noyer's Beatle articles here.