Like a lot of people of a certain age, I’ll never forget the night I watched The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” It was February 9, 1964, I was 7 years old, and John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr had just invaded America. Coming scant months after the assassination of President Kennedy, the whole country (or at least 73 million television viewers) was ready for an evening of guilt-free fun.
“I used to watch them wiggle their butts on stage.”
Even more memorable was an afternoon a couple of years later, a day or two before August 29, 1966, when The Beatles were scheduled to play Candlestick Park, then the home of Willie Mays and the San Francisco Giants. My friend Billy had offered me a ticket to the show, as well as a ride with his big brother. It was a done deal, all I had to do was say yes.
“No thanks,” I replied instead, with all the breezy hubris of your typical 10-year-old. “I’m into the Stones.”
We didn’t know it at the time, but that concert at Candlestick would be The Beatles’ last. Apparently, a lot of other people didn’t know it either: The show was not even close to sold-out.
With the golden anniversary of the Fab Four’s first visit to North America upon us, many are thinking about their half-century relationship with The Beatles, whether it’s the first time they heard “Tomorrow Never Knows,” that late night in their dorm room when they realized that Paul McCartney was singing the words “the doctor came in, stinking of gin” in “Rocky Raccoon,” or, as in my case, the fateful afternoon they decided not to see the band for free because of musical principles that now seem indefensible.
“John Lennon himself rebuffed Finley, saying, ‘Chuck, we only do 11. That’s it.'”
This month, a two-volume chronicle of The Beatles’ official tours in 1964, ’65, and ’66 called “Some Fun Tonight: The Backstage Story of How The Beatles Rocked America: The Historic Tours of 1964-1966” takes a behind-the-scenes look at Beatlemania back in the U.S. of A. The 618-page, hardbound boxed set, written by Chuck Gunderson and retailing for $175 (including postage in North America), tells the real story of what those tours were like in the words of the DJs, promoters, and people who were there, brought to life via some 450 photographs of the band performing their 11-song sets, giving increasingly impatient press conferences, and fleeing the affections of their frenzied fans.
Gunderson, who’s been working on the book for roughly eight years, had a harder time than he expected finding images to go with every city on each of the three tours. “One of the things that surprised me was how little photographic evidence exists of these tours,” he says. “You would think that with their international superstardom in ’65 and ’66, there’d be photos galore. But a lot of photographs had been stolen over the years out of newspaper archives. In the process of writing this book, we were actually able to save 54 negatives from the last show at Candlestick Park that were about to go on the black market. About seven or eight of them are now presented in the book and all are safely archived.”
Getting the stories right was often just as challenging. “It was endless phone calls and emails,” Gunderson says, “not just to get a story, but also to corroborate it, to make sure the stories matched up. I didn’t want the book to just be a bunch of facts and figures thrown around. I’m a trained historian, with a master’s in history from the University of San Diego. To do it right, you have to confirm sources and things like that. It took a lot of perseverance.”
By design, Gunderson skipped the February 1964 visit, which included three appearances on “Ed Sullivan,” plus a gig in Washington, D.C., and another at New York’s Carnegie Hall, deciding instead to focus on the official tours. “Bruce Spizer covered that extremely well in his book, ‘The Beatles Are Coming,’” Gunderson says. “I didn’t want to re-create his well-crafted history, so I decided to stick with the three tours.”
Within that structure, Gunderson treated each city like its own chapter. “I decided to basically write the history of the moment they arrived and the moment they left, as well as all the negotiations that went on beforehand. Along with the photos, I wanted to present the memorabilia from each city, so the book has tickets, handbills, contracts, newspaper ads, programs, and anything that was sold at a concert. Each city gets its own comprehensive history.”
The first city profiled in the book, San Francisco, is also the last. Purely by coincidence, San Francisco was the first stop of the first Beatles tour in August of 1964, as well as the place where the tour ended in 1966. “The Beatles were going to kick off their tour in San Diego, California, on August 18,” Gunderson says, “but because of contractual commitments they had in the U.K., they were not able to do it. So the first show ended up being on August 19 in San Francisco at the Cow Palace. When you look at that ’64 tour,” he adds, “it’s really haphazard. They’re north, they’re south, they’re back east. It was not a logical procession across the United States. They were just all over the place.”
In fact, on that first U.S. tour, which included three shows in Canada, one date was even added along the way. “Kansas City was not on the original itinerary,” Gunderson says. “The tour had already been scheduled and booked. September 17 was supposed to be a day off for the Beatles. They were going to play New Orleans on the 16th, and then they had hoped to explore New Orleans a little bit, which, obviously, they couldn’t have done anyway, given all the fans.”
But Charlie Finley, who owned the Kansas City Athletics baseball team, had promised his city a Beatles concert, so he started working on the band’s manager, Brian Epstein, from the moment the tour began in San Francisco. Finley was prepared to pay top dollar to bring The Beatles to Kansas City, which is saying a lot, since they were already the best-paid act in show business.
“At that time,” says Gunderson, “the big stars were Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, who were each getting between $10,000 and $15,000 a show. When The Beatles came around in 1964, Brian was getting them anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000 per show. Finley offered $100,000, and Epstein essentially said, ‘No. They’re having a day off; the tour is booked. Go away.’”
Used to getting his way, Finley was not so easily brushed off. “His ego was huge,” says Gunderson, “and he had the money to spend. So he went to Brian again when The Beatles were in Los Angeles to play the Hollywood Bowl and wrote out a check for $150,000. Reportedly, Brian took it to this private mansion in L.A. where The Beatles were staying and said ‘What do you want me to do with this?’ And they basically said ‘We’ll do anything you want.’ And so The Beatles were booked to play Kansas City on the 17th of September, at just under $5,000 a minute.”
Naturally, Finley wanted the band to play a few extra songs since he had paid them so much to perform. But the set list for that tour, as well as the ones that would follow, was almost sacred. At one point, John Lennon himself rebuffed Finley, saying, “Chuck, we only do 11. That’s it.”
“You’ll notice in many photographs in the book that they have set lists taped to their guitars,” says Gunderson. “Ringo had one on top of his bass drum. The shows would run anywhere from 28 to 34 minutes. They didn’t need to re-tape a new list every night. That was the set list.” In the end, the band relented a bit, adding a Little Richard-inspired medley of “Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey!” as the opening number for their Kansas City show.
“My friend Billy had offered me a ticket to the show. It was a done deal.”
All three tours featured supporting acts, so for fans paying the average ticket price of $4.50 in 1964 (Finley’s Kansas City shows were the most expensive, with some seats selling for $8.50), they were getting a lot more than just a half hour of The Beatles. The first tour featured Jackie DeShannon (she had a minor hit at the time with “Needles and Pins”), Bill Black’s Combo (Black had been Elvis Presley’s bass player, but he was too sick to play the tour), the Exciters (“Tell Him”), and the Righteous Brothers, who were stars in their own right but were replaced by Clarence “Frogman” Henry (“Ain’t Got No Home”) early in the tour after the Forest Hills, New York, performances.
“The Beatles had to be transported by helicopter from Manhattan to the Forest Hills shows,” says Gunderson, “so as the helicopter would come in for a landing, the Righteous Brothers were just drowned out.” For the Righteous Brothers, the noise from the audience was just as deafening, and equally insulting. “The whole time they were onstage, fans would be yelling, ‘We want The Beatles! We want The Beatles!’ Finally, they went to Brian and said, ‘Look, we’re done. We’re sick of this. We get paid more on the West Coast where the people know our music.’ So, they were graciously let out of the contract by Brian.”
The 1965 tour featured support from Motown singer Brenda Holloway, the King Curtis Band, Cannibal and the Headhunters, a Brian Epstein-managed group called Sounds Incorporated, and the Discotheque Dancers. In 1966, Beatles fans were treated to performances by a Boston band called The Remains fronted by Barry Tashian, a short-lived group called The Cyrkle (their single was “Red Rubber Ball”), Bobby Hebb, and the Ronettes, who sang “Be My Baby” and their other hits without lead singer Ronnie Bennett, who was forbidden by her jealous future husband, producer Phil Spector, from going on the tour with The Beatles.
If the 1965 tour is remembered for being even more profitable than the first (it was completed in half the time, with many dates featuring two shows in the same venue), the 1966 tour was overshadowed by controversy over comments John Lennon had made many months earlier, in which he was quoted as saying that The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” While the context of the remark had been about the perception others had about The Beatles, a teen magazine called Datebook turned it into a boastful brag on the part of Lennon, provoking the burning of Beatles albums and protests at concerts by the Ku Klux Klan.
“The 1966 tour started off like the others,” says Gunderson. “People were like, ‘Hey, they’re coming back. This is great!’ Initially, ticket sales were brisk, and then Datebook came out with Lennon’s remark about Christianity, and that almost entirely derailed the tour.”
Caught in this maelstrom was the venue for what would be their final show in San Francisco. “They were originally going to play the Cow Palace again,” says Gunderson of the site of their 1964 and 1965 concerts. But the Cow Palace only held 16,000 or so people, whereas nearby Candlestick Park could handle more than 40,000. “There’s an image in the book of a telegram to Brian suggesting that they use Candlestick for one show instead of the Cow Palace for two, as they had done in 1965.”
That suggestion was followed, but then the local promoters had to scramble to fill the large ballpark after Lennon’s allegedly controversial comment depressed ticket sales. Which led to a rarity in the history of Beatles tours in North American, a show poster.
“In three years of touring,” says Gunderson, “there were less than six posters. They didn’t need to do much advertising; they’d just put a few ads in the paper and go to local AM station. But there was a little bit more advertising during the ’66 tour,” including that handful of posters, although, says Gunderson, the one designed by Wes Wilson for Candlestick Park is hardly the rarest. “It’s a great poster,” he says, “but the rarest Beatles poster out there is probably for the show in Toronto in ’66. There are only a couple that I know of in existence.”
After the final chords of “Long Tall Sally” had faded away into the cool Candlestick night, The Beatles as a live, touring band were no more. Already burned out and dissatisfied by the fish-bowl existence that came with being on the road, they turned inward, focusing their considerable creative energies on studio albums.
In retrospect, it’s difficult to argue that giving up touring was the wrong decision, since it led directly to classics like “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in 1967, “The White Album” in 1968, and “Abbey Road” in 1969. Those recordings, along with “Revolver” in 1966, are routinely ranked among the greatest albums of all time, whose audio quality stands in stark contrast to the dissonant cacophony that awaited North American fans in 1964, ’65, and ’66, when the best one could hope for was a fleeting glimpse of John, Paul, George, and Ringo straining to be heard in an echoing basketball arena or acoustically challenged baseball park.
“There were no monitors back then,” says Gunderson. “Ringo would often say, ‘I used to watch them wiggle their butts on stage, and that’s how I knew where I was in a song.’ Everything was just run through the amplification system of the venue. The sound was horrible.”
Even so, I wish I’d been there.
(To order the boxed set, visit somefuntonight.com.)