by Brad Richason
Perhaps no band in pop history has inspired as much romanticism as The Beatles. Growing up in the staid malaise of post-World War II England, The Beatles grasped onto the escapism of American rock and roll, flourished it with prodigious musical innovation (and later recording experimentation) to create an invigorating sound utterly unlike any that had come before. More than any of their contemporaries, The Beatles provided a ubiquitous soundtrack to the galvanizing societal shifts that were upending traditional mores for a new sense of liberation. To many fans, The Beatles were more than musicians, but representatives of an expanded global perspective that pushed beyond the boundaries set by previous generations. Having been ascribed such lofty significance, it’s no wonder that so many consider the band’s most memorable moments as pivotal points in our cultural timeline.
The recent announcement that the popular Rock Band video game series will introduce a Beatles edition on September 9th, 2009 promises a fantasy outlet for anyone who has ever longed to be the walrus (kookookachoo). But for rock and roll historians, the game signals a chance to travel back through time and recreate soon of the landmark performances of the band’s legendary career.
With that in mind, below is my personal top 6 wish list of essential Beatles performances:
Indra Club – Hamburg, Germany – August 17th through October 3rd, 1960
Fresh off renaming themselves The Beatles (as opposed to The Quarrymen, Johnny and the Moondogs, and the Silver Beetles) the not quite Fab Five (Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison, along with original bassist Stu Sutcliffe and original drummer Pete Best) took residence in the seedy environs of Hamburg’s red-light district determined to make a name for themselves on the club circuit. Wearing black leather and slicked back hair, the band ripped through American rock and roll, fueled with aspirations (and copious amount of Preludin and booze). These were the Beatles at their most unpolished, playing marathon sets for hours on end, hardening their determination while sharpening their skills (except for Sutcliffe and Best, neither of whom would remain within the group much longer).
Cavern Club – Liverpool, England – February 9th, 1961 through August 3rd, 1963
No other venue looms as large in Beatles lore as The Cavern Club. Located in their home town of Liverpool, the Beatles played the Cavern far more than any other venue, logging a total of 292 shows between 1961 and 1963. They were Cavern regulars all the way through the release of their first album, Please, Please Me. It was here that The Beatles would meet their manager Brian Epstein, here that they would debut their newly refined style (suits having replaced the leather) and here that they – to the shock of devoted fans – would introduce Ringo Starr as Pete Best’s replacement. Though some fans protested the change, the newly unified sound placated all but the most obstinate. Beatlemania was officially born.
“Royal Variety Show” at Prince of Wales Theatre, London, England – November 4th, 1963
A little more than three years after suffering the myriad indignities of being an unknown bar band in Hamburg, The Beatles were a national sensation, playing for the Queen Mother and assorted glitterati at the annual Royal Variety Show. The Beatles played through their set with a swaggering confidence that revealed little of their nervousness at being in the spotlight of sophisticated society. But before an exuberant performance of Twist and Shout, Lennon couldn’t resist a light jab at the establishment, instructing “those of you in the cheap seat I'd like you to clap your hands to this one; the rest of you can just rattle your jewelry." England had been conjured.
Ed Sullivan Show – New York City, NY – February 9th, 1964
The band had charmed much of Europe, but the USA remained an elusive prize. Many popular English bands had failed to make an impression on North American shores, so it was an unprecedented sign of success when crowds flocked to see the band arrive at JFK International Airport. An even more definitive indication of their untouchable popularity came when an estimated 3 million viewers, the largest audience in television history, tuned in to the Ed Sullivan show to get their first glimpse of these four musicians from Liverpool. Overnight the names John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr were known in households across America.
Shea Stadium Concert – New York City, NY – August 15th, 1965
The first ever rock and roll stadium show, the sound was atrocious, but the spectacle was undeniable. Over 56,000 fans converged upon Shea Stadium, letting out a collective scream so deafening that even the band couldn’t hear the music. Despite the unrelenting noise, Ringo valiantly endeavored to keep the beat while the band fought a sometimes losing battle to stay in synch. But with the exception of a couple of gaffs and crack-ups, The Beatles managed to keep their sanity over the standard 12 song, 30 minute set. The Beatles were at the height of their powers as a touring band, still relatively untarnished darlings of the press and public, a “four-headed hydra” of musicians who had the world at their command.
Apple Records Rooftop – London, England – January 30th, 1969
Having ceased touring in 1966, The Beatles had first contented themselves with elaborate studio productions, but with the overly meticulous nature of such recordings growing tiresome and personal riffs growing larger, the band faced an uncertain future. Since the death of manager Brian Epstein in 1967, McCartney had increasingly sought to provide direction to the band, often to the resentment of the others. One suggestion floated by McCartney was a return to live performance, perhaps as a climax to the documentary being made in conjunction with their latest album, tentatively titled Get Back. The rest of the band, however, proved ambiguous to the idea. In desperation, The Beatles latched upon an idea first suggested by engineer Glyn Johns to perform unannounced on the rooftop of Apple studios. On a seemingly ordinary London day, passerby suddenly heard the most influential band in pop history performing an impromptu concert. Downtown London came to a standstill as the rapidly gathering crowd craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the band. After nearly 40 minutes the police would stop the performance, but it was long enough to provide a timeless coda worthy of the band’s extraordinary legacy. As Lennon quipped, “Thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we’ve passed the audition.”
Have other suggestions? Feel free to drop them into the comment box below.
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