Famously, within about five minutes of becoming the world’s biggest band, The Beatles hated playing live. George Harrison and John Lennon (in that order) were particularly against the idea, with the former gleefully noting “That’s it then, I’m not a Beatle anymore” in August 1966, hours after the Fabs final ‘proper’ concert at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. This was before ‘Sgt Pepper’ had even been written, by the way.
Harrison was to remain an integral member of the group, but his statement was clear enough: The Beatles as a money making exercise and cultural force existed almost entirely because of their image, which in turn was a direct result of their touring successes, and now that era of the band had come to an end, things would change.
In some ways, the seeds of their eventual split started at that final gig. While Lennon and Harrison stuck closely to their guns, Paul McCartney was still giving interviews a couple of years later saying he’d be open to taking the band on the road again, while manager Brian Epstein even drew up a full tour route – kept secret from ‘the boys’ – after Pepper had come out. But it was never to be.
All of which makes Ron Howard’s proposed film about the band as touring musicians, reportedly called The Beatles Live, intriguing. While audio evidence of their time in Hamburg (pre-fame) confirms them as seriously proficient, punky performers (just check out how awesome Macca and George sound below on ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ and Chuck Berry’s ‘Roll Over Beethoven’), latter Beatles bootlegs are pretty woeful, partly due to the inept equipment the band played with onstage (their minuscule Selmer amps and lack of monitors meant they were continuously drowned out by fans) and partly because by the mid ’60s they were tired of endlessly travelling and singing three-chord love songs to kids who couldn’t even hear them, instead itching to get back to Abbey Road Studios and get down to recording business. Hence why you don’t see many officially sanctioned Beatles live releases out there.
All of this, of course, should add considerable fire to the documentary, which is being made with full co-operation from all four Beatle estates and is rumoured for release this Autumn. And just in case Howard’s reading this blog and is hideously underprepared and behind schedule on it, here are five of the best Beatles live moments out there:
THE FIRST US SHOW
A Tuesday night in Washington, 1964, a couple of days after The Beatles were ‘introduced’ to America courtesy of their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. I can’t sum up their first proper gig there better than YouTube commenter Jack Sprat, so I’ll hand over to him: “No monitor, dead mics, no smoke, no set, no back-up singers, turning Ringo (on a flimsy stand) around to face the other half of the audience by hand, no PA or soundboard, using the same instruments throughout the show, figuring out onstage how to deal with the situation without missing a beat. It’s raw, it’s real, but it cuts through the crap – that’s Rock n Roll!”
Jack forgot to mention that fans were also pelting the band with jelly babies all the time too, after Macca said he liked them in an interview which ran the day before. Here’s George talking about that: “That night, we were absolutely pelted by the fuckin’ things. They don’t have soft jelly babies there; they have hard jelly beans. To make matters worse, we were on a circular stage, so they hit us from all sides. Imagine waves of rock-hard little bullets raining down on your from the sky. It’s a bit dangerous, you know, ’cause if a jelly bean, travelling about 50 miles an hour through the air, hits you in the eye, you’re finished. You’re blind aren’t you? We’ve never liked people throwing stuff like that. We don’t mind them throwing streamers, but jelly beans are a bit dangerous, you see! Every now and again, one would hit a string on my guitar and plonk off a bad note as I was trying to play.” (The Beatles Off The Record, Keith Badman)
THE CHAOS OF SHEA STADIUM
As best evidenced by this short video of John Lennon clearly not giving a flying fuck:
…and this excellent, long forgotten film by Ed Sullivan to document what, at that time, was the greatest grossing show in the history of showbusiness. “It was pretty wild,” Lennon said later, correctly. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, both in attendance at Shea that night, must have literally seen their future light up in front of their eyes.
THE HALF-ASSED MID ’60S
It’s not the most illuminating footage of one of the greatest songs ever, performed by the best band ever at the peak of their powers, but this live footage of ‘Yesterday’ from 1965 is, at the very least, interesting – if only because it offers solid gold proof that Macca was 100 percent right to record it solo (and not full band) in the studio.
Just check out that stage!
While there’s hardly any footage of the band playing in Hamburg, there are millions of amazing anecdotes – of Lennon pissing on nuns, of McCartney setting fire to a cinema by lighting a condom, of Harrison getting deported for working underage, of orgies, of drugs, of songwriting, of the invention of the Beatle haircut and more. There’s also this amazing bootleg, of a performance at The Star Club in 1962, just before they broke big and left that part of their story behind forever. It’s fascinating to hear now – they sound chaotic and electrifying, like they don’t really give a shit about being professional – and with it you can hear echoes of all those scratchy, early bootlegs of future guitar greats’ pre-fame gigs, from The Sex Pistols to Nirvana to The Libertines and beyond.