Photo from “The Beatles: Get Back,” / Courtesy of Apple Corps Ltd. – Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and George Harrison
perform on the roof of the Apple Corps building on Jan. 30, 1969.
Interviewer: “What would you like to see The Beatles do now?”
Beatles fan: “… A show. Yeah. A live show. Any show.”
The above conversation played out in January 1969 in front of the Apple Corps building on London’s Savile Row in part two of “Get Back,” the recent Beatles documentary directed by Peter Jackson. There, an “Apple scruff,” as the Beatles called fans hanging about their headquarters, articulated a sentiment shared by millions of fans across the globe who never saw the band perform. A few days later, they do play live one last time, on the Apple roof. It’s a tantalizing taste of the Beatles’ performance prowess which, when combined with the band’s creative process on full display throughout the revelatory eight-hour doc, is proof positive the band could have – and most certainly should have – toured.
“If they could have toured in ’69, ’70, ’71, it would have been a whole different story that people would be writing today about the Beatles,” says Neil Warnock, M.B.E., United Talent Agency’s global head of touring, who first saw the Beatles live on April 8, 1963, at London’s Leyton Baths. “They were an incredible live band because they had to be an incredible live band, otherwise, they wouldn’t have been employed. It was as simple as that,” says Warnock, who started working for NEMS, the music company owned by Beatles manager Brian Epstein, in 1967. “All of those bands, The Big Three, Faron’s Flamingos, Gerry & the Pacemakers, Freddie & the Dreamers, all of those Liverpool bands, they were live, live, live.”
By January 1969, when “Get Back” was filmed, The Beatles were no longer “live, live, live” – far from it. They hadn’t performed in nearly three years, since Aug. 29, 1966 at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, their last-ever concert. Instead, they are at an inflection point with an uncertain future and interpersonal and creative differences swirling. The sessions captured in “Get Back,” at the outset, seem a bizarre and almost cruel psychological experiment. The Beatles are foisted with the impossible task of writing 14 new songs in two weeks and performing and recording them live on television, with an ominous calendar ticking off each belabored day. For context, five weeks earlier, on Nov. 22, 1968, The Beatles had released The White Album, a magnum opus of sorts with 30 new songs, and then Yellow Submarine on Jan. 13, at the same time as the “Get Back” sessions.
10,000 Hour Rule: John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison of The Beatles, onstage circa May 1962 at the Star-Club in Hamburg (Photo by K & K Ulf Kruger OHG/Redferns)
The Beatles, since 1963, were on a torrid recording schedule, releasing two albums a year – something unfathomable today. For any band, let alone the world’s biggest, it was an inordinate amount of pressure. It’s no surprise in “Get Back” when they blow deadlines, change studios and alter their goals with execs in ties floating around waiting for new product. By the first episode’s end, George Harrison quits; and thankfully returns a few days later after the band nixes the TV special. While the sessions weren’t the official end of The Beatles, they presage their ultimate demise.
What might have saved The Beatles, as “Get Back” strongly indicates, was touring. Performing was in The Beatles’ DNA and critical to their astronomical success. From 1961 until their breakout February 1964 performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” The Beatles seemed to play every available date possible, performing 250 to 300 shows a year and helping to elevate them to astonishing levels of musicianship, creativity and success. Especially notable were their early ’60s Hamburg residencies, where the Beatles sharpened their chops and forged their mettle.
“We got better and got more confidence,” John Lennon told biographer Hunter Davies recalling their Hamburg days. “We couldn’t help it with all the experience playing all night long. It was handy them being foreign. We had to try even harder, put our heart and soul into it, to get ourselves over. In Liverpool, we’d only done one-hour sessions, and we just used to do our best numbers, the same ones, at everyone. In Hamburg, we had to play for eight hours, so (we) really had to find a new way of playing.”
Author Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, uses the sheer volume of Beatles live performances as proof of concept for his 10,000-hour rule. The band’s diligence and hard work, he argues, correlated directly to their mastery and subsequent massive success.
Photo by PA Images / Getty Images – Beatlemaniacs
“It was like watching a 747 take off,” is how promoter Ron Delsener descrined hearing The Beatles’ screaming fans, pictured here at a November 1963 Fab Four show at the Manchester Apollo.
“The Beatles ended up traveling to Hamburg five times between 1960 and the end of 1962,” Gladwell wrote. “On the first trip, they played 106 nights, five hours or more a night. On their second trip, they played 92 times. On their third trip, they played 48 times, for a total of 172 hours on stage. The last two Hamburg gigs, in November and December of 1962, involved another 90 hours of performing, All told, they performed for 270 nights in just over a year and a half. By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, in fact, they had performed live an estimated 1,200 times. Do you know how extraordinary this is? Most bands today don’t perform 1,200 times in their entire careers. The Hamburg crucible is one of the things that set the Beatles apart.”
In the intro to “Get Back,” of course, there are the requisite Beatlemania clips of freaked-out fans, the “Ed Sullivan” appearance and Shea Stadium (where they played in 1965, setting an attendance record of 55,600, and again in 1966). When they stopped touring in Aug. 1966, performing wasn’t anything like what they had experienced in the clubs or what touring would soon become.
“We had the Beatles at [Queens’] Forest Hills Stadium in 1964,” says legendary New York promoter Ron Delsener,“ the production was very simple in those days. We had what they called poles on both sides of the stage for lights. It was very crude. We had to put the police barriers around the tennis court, because it was grass and nobody was allowed on the grass. But people charged the stage afterwards and stepped on the grass. The speakers were on the ground on the stage, which wasn’t the greatest, because you couldn’t hear them sing. I think they played for maybe 30 minutes at the most. It was very archaic.”
Their subsequent New York City stadium shows were grimmer. “It was worse at Shea Stadium,” Delsener says. “They only had the stadium PA system. ‘And now playing third base is so-and-so…’ [laughs] It wasn’t quality sound. That was the worst. Not only couldn’t you hear them, you couldn’t understand them. I walked out when I saw them at Shea and said, ‘This is bullshit. This is the worst.’ They couldn’t even stand it anymore, it was a bunch of teenyboppers screaming.”
“Manila or Memphis,” George Harrison says sarcastically in “Get Back,” as the band brainstorms where they might perform their TV special, before settling on the Apple roof. His cheeky remark references two of the Beatles’ live low points in 1966 that made their decision to quit the road easier.
The first was the group’s tense experience in the Philippines where, on July 4, 1966, they played two shows at Manila’s Rizal Memorial Football Stadium before 80,000. After the band failed to appear for a state function hosted by Imelda Marcos, her husband, Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos, pulled the band’s security and put them in harm’s way, with protestors and military personnel marring their exit out of the country and reportedly taking their earnings.
AP Photo –
Help! The Beatles perform at Shea Stadium, which reportedly had terrible sound, in New York City on Aug. 23, 1966 on their final and fraught tour.
Worse, perhaps, “Memphis” referred to the repercussions of the sharp-tongued John Lennon’s infamous quip that the band was “more popular than Jesus.” Those remarks, taken out of context, originally appeared in March 1966 in the U.K.’s The Evening Standard, and drew little attention. When the U.S. media got a hold of the quotes that summer, just as The Beatles were to begin their U.S. tour, a shitstorm ensued that included protests, boycotts and record burnings across the Bible Belt and beyond.
The Beatles played two shows at Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis on Aug. 19, 1966, for 10,000 and 12,500. The Reverend Jimmy Stroad staged a rally outside, as did the Ku Klux Klan, who detested the Beatles for supporting civil rights. Someone threw a firecracker during the show, which the band thought was a gunshot. Three years into Beatlemania, The Beatles were done with the road.
Their timing was fortuitous, however, as The Beatles, with George Martin and Abbey Road’s studio engineers, resplendent in white lab coats, began recording one of the greatest runs of albums the world’s ever seen. Starting with 1965’s Rubber Soul, their first non-soundtrack album made-up entirely of originals, they then proceeded to release Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour and The White Album, pioneering new recording techniques like speed changes, tape loops and backward tracks.
A big reason they went to Twickenham Studios for the “Get Back” sessions was that, in September 1968, the Beatles shot a promo film there with an audience for their single “Hey Jude,” recorded during the White Album
sessions (some of which ended up on 1969’s Abbey Road
). It was the first time they had performed for an audience in over two years (even if only the vocals were live), and the experience influenced their decision to perform their next album in front of a live TV audience.
Photo by Linda McCartney Copyright Apple Corps Ltd./Disney – Kaleidoscope Eyes:
The Beatles at Twickenham Studios during the “Get Back” sessions, where they set out with the impossible task of writing, recording and performing 14 new songs in two weeks.
The group hadn’t yet replaced Brian Epstein, the original “fifth Beatle,” who died at age 32 in August 1967, which left the band somewhat rudderless and their decision-making fraught. And a constant pressure in “Get Back” is the proposed live performance, in which possible venues are constantly mulled over. Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg is fixated on Sabratha Amphitheatre, an ancient venue in Libya dating back nearly 2,000 years. Other venue ideas include a hospital, an orphanage, the Houses of Parliament, The Tower Ballroom, a boat, Primrose Hill and Brighton. Paul McCartney, at one point, suggests performing with live news reports and at the end they announce the band’s breakup.
Designs are reconsidered of the set for the 1964 TV variety show “Around The Beatles,” where the Beatles perform in the round on a set meant to look like the Globe Theatre. They actually do a send up of Act V, Scene I of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” before playing a set of early hits. Watching Lennon with film producer Denis O’Dell in ‘69 discussing an updated version of the set with modern plastics seems a combination of Monty Python, Spinal Tap and The Graduate.
What’s obvious in “Get Back,” however, is how effortlessly The Beatles jam together, playing snippets of classic songs by an array of artists to butcher, vamp on or pay tribute to, while writing some of the greatest songs of their careers, many of which will appear on Abbey Road and Let It Be and their solo albums. It’s a testament to the group’s brilliance that, on a dime, they can whip out classics by Hank Williams, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Carl Perkins, Bob Dylan, James Brown, Elvis Presley, The Isley Brothers, Eddie Cochran, Leiber/Stoller, Four Tops, Doc Pomus, Canned Heat and others. Sometimes they drop in a Scottish accent, an Elvis impersonation or other goofy patois.
Getty Images –
Hamburg Friend: Billy Preston, who performs with the Beatles in “Get Back” circa early-1970s
When their friend Billy Preston, who they met in their Hamburg days when he was touring with Little Richard, shows up and drops in virtuosic piano runs, the “Get Back” performances kick into another gear. The Beatles are happily jamming along, interpolating and creating incredible work. At that point, they are primed, at least musically, to perform.
“Get Back” concludes Jan. 30, 1969, with The Beatles giving their last live performance atop the Apple Corps roof. It’s great, but they play only five songs over the course of 42 minutes and the repeat performances become monotonous. They do three takes of “Get Back,” two of “Don’t Let Me Down” and “I’ve Got a Feeling,” and single takes of “One After 909” and “Dig a Pony” before the bobbies shut it down.
While that was to be the Beatles’ final live performance, that same year saw the beginnings of the modern touring industry. Concerts and how fans engaged with them were radically changing, with advances in performing, audio, lighting, transportation, security, finance, venues, merch and more. For proof of concept, look at the Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour.
The Stones and The Beatles were counterparts, competitors and friends, or “frenemies,” in today’s parlance. How they influenced each other, copied or picked up what was in the zeitgeist is open to debate, but, with a half century’s perspective, they have far more in common than not.
At both groups’ foundation was a shared love for American rock ‘n roll, R&B, country and blues. The two made their bones in clubs, honing their performance skills on small stages. The Rolling Stones’ second single, in fact, 1963’s “I Wanna Be Your Man,” was written by Lennon and McCartney. Both groups became incredible songwriters and at young ages experienced extraordinary popularity. They experimented with drugs, sounds and spirituality, acted in films, were embroiled in over-sensationalized scandals, became regular tabloid fodder and faced difficult business dealings. Their shared fans were often made to unnecessarily choose sides, when today digging both is a no-brainer.
In early 1969, both groups had stopped touring and were using TV, a relatively young and powerful medium, to transmit their rock and roll message. Weeks before directing the “Get Back” film crew, Lindsay-Hogg directed “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus,” where John Lennon performed with Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Mitch Mitchell as The Dirty Mac. Lindsay-Hogg, in “Get Back,” even asks Lennon to do a promo spot introducing the Stones’ “Circus,” which he mercilessly mocks throughout the documentary (“Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Bones!”).
Drug busts, the loss of guitarist Brian Jones and shady business dealings put the Stones in a bind. Jones’ unreliability led to his firing and the hiring of the brilliant Mick Taylor from John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, which allowed them to get back out on the road.
“It would be the biggest rock music tour the world had ever seen,” wrote Ethan Russell in “Let It Bleed,” his beautiful coffee table book about the 1969 tour. Indeed, the Stones’ month-long U.S. trek, which fell between two of their masterpieces, Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed, took the art of touring to another level.
“Prior to that tour, whoever you were, you went to a facility and you sang through the facility’s PA such as it might be and use the facility’s lights, and you might have your own amplifiers if you were lucky but often not,” Sam Cutler, who was the Stones’ tour manager, told Pollstar. “It was all very chaotic. As you went from venue to venue, you had to put up with all kinds of different sonic parameters. The uniqueness of the Stones tour was that they were going on tour carrying, for the first time that I know of, their own sound system, which included fold-back speakers, so Mick could actually hear himself sing.”
Not only did the tour have better audio and lighting and production by Chip Monck, who had lit the Fillmore East and Woodstock, but audiences actually listened and engaged with the concerts unlike the previous out-of-control teenyboppers.
Photo by Walter Iooss Jr. / Getty Images – Star Star:
Mick Jagger performs at New York’s Madison Square Garden on Nov. 28, 1969, during the Stones’ 1969 tour, which was something of a paradigm shift for the touring industry. Parts of the show would appear on the Stones’ live album Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!
“In ‘69, they listened,” said former Stones bassist Bill Wyman in “Let It Bleed.” “It was the first time that the audiences had actually listened to us.”
Instead of playing 30-minute sets as part of a pop revue, The Stones played for well over 75 minutes. They also brought their own support acts: music legends Chuck Berry, B.B. King and Ike & Tina Turner, as well as rising British sensation Terry Reid. No police were allowed at the lip of the stage, as they had been on previous Beatles and Stones tours. And not dressing in matching suits or standing statically, Jagger now moved like Jagger, preening and strutting clad in scarves, with silver buttons on his pants or an Uncle Sam hat on his head, while he bantered cheekily with audiences.
The ‘69 Stones tour also changed the financial structure of touring.
“All of our money was locked up,” says Ronnie Schneider, the tour’s business manager, whose uncle Allen Klein managed the Stones before the band fired him in 1970. “[The Stones] had no money. So the key was, how do we get money to begin with?” Schneider explained how William Morris gave him an initial $15,000 advance, which was a pittance of what was needed. He changed the contracts, making payments go directly to him and the artist instead of the agency. And, most game-changing, The Stones got percentages and upfront payments from promoters.
“They had been doing flat rates, which good promoters were paying,” Schneider tells Pollstar, “but I was looking at it, like, if you can sell out the house and your house is scaled for $100,000, we should get 70% of that, and we wanted 50% in advance.” That arrangement floated the band through the tour.
The tour also yielded one of the greatest live albums, Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!,
which was recorded primarily at the run’s two Madison Square Garden shows by Glyn Johns, who figures prominently in “Get Back,” engineering the Beatles sessions. The Stones’ final tragic stop at Altamont was a debacle and resulted in the murder of a fan by a Hells Angel hired for security (captured in the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter),
but it didn’t negate the importance of the band’s ’69 tour and the foundation it gave modern touring, which the Beatles, sadly, never experienced.
Photo by Peter Stone / Mirrorpix / Getty Images – Life Is A Circus:
“The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus” TV special included (from left) Pete Townshend, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, Bill Wyman and Eric Clapton, pictured here at Intertel Studios, Stonebridge Park, Dec. 11, 1968.
McCartney, in his first post-Beatles interview with Life in April 1971, pegged the beginnings of the Beatles’ demise to when they stopped performing and sought to rectify that. “I think the troubles really began when we weren’t aiming anymore for the same thing, which began, I think, when we stopped touring in 1966,” he said. “One night – this was the autumn of ‘69 – Linda and I were lying there, talking about it, and I thought, ‘That’s what I miss, and what they miss too – playing.’ Because we hadn’t actually played for anyone for a long time. And being an actual good musician requires this contact with people all the time. The human thing. So I came into the idea of going to village halls which hold a couple of hundred people. Have someone book the hall and put-up posters saying, maybe, ‘Ricky and Redstreaks, Saturday night.’ And we’d just turn up there in a van and people would arrive and we’d be there. I thought that was great. John said, ‘You’re daft.’”
It’s impossible to know what might have happened if John Lennon had agreed and the Beatles had gone out on the road after their rooftop performance, but it’s clear it wouldn’t have been what they experienced in 1966. And it might have cooled tensions.
“Remember, I worked with the Beatles too at the end,” says Schneider, who also did their books on behalf of ABKCO, Klein’s company. “I 100% believe that if George and John were still alive, they’d be out touring together. The Beatles would be together. There’s rancor with lots of bands but how many other big groups [stay] together?”
“Man, they would still be working today,” Delsener says. “I’ll tell you, they could’ve done it.”