The Original Stadium Stars
Fifty years on from on from their debut tour of America, Jeff Slate explains why the peerless British band set the tone for every stadium concert you enjoy today
“It was so new then, in 1964,” Ringo Starr recently recalled when I asked him about The Beatles’ first tour of America during a break from his own current tour of some of the very same cities. “We were just making it and it was getting bigger and bigger. Live it was mad, but it was so exciting.”
Fifty years ago, The Beatles sold millions of records, changed fashion and culture, and became movie stars. But they hit another benchmark: The band invented the stadium tour as we know it today. On the heels of the band’s Ed Sullivan Show appearance, topping the charts — including the top five slots on the singles chart in April — and reinventing the movie musical with A Hard Day’s Night, the band criss-crossed the United States for the first time that summer, playing venues no one had ever considered playing.
“How much did we do 50 years ago?” Starr asks. “We did everything. When we used to work, we had one day off a month. But once the count-in happened no one could touch us. We could read each other’s minds.”
“There was no one who could touch The Beatles musically,” Julian Lennon, John Lennon’s son, and an accomplished musician and photographer, agrees. “But they surrounded themselves with businessmen who were smart and savvy and knew almost instinctively that they could take it to a whole new level at each step of the way.”
“Brian Epstein could have gone for broke on the 1964 tour,” says Chuck Gunderson, the author of Some Fun Tonight, a two-volume book chronicling every single stop of The Beatles’ 1964-1966 tours. “He was offered huge stadiums — even bigger than Shea Stadium, which held 56,000 people and which they sold out in 1965 — but decided to his credit to take a more conservative approach and book smaller venues. They had only been playing to crowds in the U.K. of 2,500 to 3,500 fans and he didn’t want to overexpose The Beatles and risk playing to half-full stadiums in 1964. He wanted to create a demand that would allow him to book stadiums or two arena shows. But even those smaller venues were typically 17,000. That was huge compared to what anyone else was doing at the time. There’s no doubt that The Beatles and Brian Epstein ushered in the modern, large concert we are all accustomed to today.”
“If you look at the ‘64 tour diary of The Beatles, it’s just fascinating,” says Giles Martin, Beatles producer George Martin’s son, who is the band’s go-to person when preparing new releases and who recently remixed their film debut in 5.1 for theatrical and Blu-ray distribution. “You just look at it and think, ‘When did they record?’ I remember looking at it thinking that it was just completely bonkers.”
“Brian [Epstein] was looking at these things in relative terms,” Vivek J. Tiwary, the author of The Fifth Beatle, the best-selling graphic novel about Epstein that’s being adapted into a movie, explains. “3,000-seat theatres to 17,000-seat arenas and stadiums seems like a big leap — and it was — but he also knew that the difference between playing a small town in the UK relative to an American city was huge. He knew the demand was there. But mostly he believed that The Boys, as he called them, were the best and he believed very simply that they should do what the best would do in the United States.”
But at the time even huge stars like Sinatra and Elvis weren’t typically playing anything bigger than those 3,500-seat theatres. As a result the technology and logistics were hardly up to snuff.
“I had an [Ringo Starr & His] All-Starr Band recently who practically refused to go on because right before show time we were told that the monitors were out,” Ringo Starr told me, laughing and shaking his head in disbelief. “I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding?’ I’m from clubs. I know how to listen to the amps. But we did the gig and everyone afterward said, ‘Wow, that was great.’ And I knew it was because we all listened to each other. We watched each other. They were in the band, so to speak. That’s how The Beatles did it even when we could hardly hear each other.”
And compared to the extravagant riders that are standard in rock touring today, The Beatles’ demands were modest: clean towels, army-style cots to rest on, and a few cases of cold soda.
“Even as they were becoming superstars, one promoter spent only $33.96 to feed the whole entourage,” Gunderson says. “And that included two tubs of Kentucky Fried Chicken, reportedly The Beatles’ favourite food while on tour in America. Onstage, Brian Epstein required only a drum riser for drummer Ringo Starr and two Super Trouper follow spotlights, along with only a bare minimum in sound equipment.”
“We usually just played through whatever sound system the venue had,” Starr agrees. “I can’t imagine what it sounded like. No wonder everyone who was there says they couldn’t hear us.”
So as one 50th anniversary after another for The Beatles rolls past, remember the next time you catch your favourite artist in your nearby arena or stadium: The Beatles, as always, did it first.