52 years ago today, on a frigid February afternoon, The Beatles played their first ever concert in the United States at the Washington D.C. Coliseum, to a sold out audience. The energy of that performance is as riveting and fresh today as it was half a century ago. America was in the throes of Beatlemania, and its love affair with those lads from Liverpool was at its most gleefully rapturous. There are many, many reasons why that first concert is so damned enjoyable, but today, on its anniversary, we’re taking a step back in time and focusing on the 5 biggest reasons that this 30 minute freight train of joyous rock and roll still kicks ass.
(Apologies just might be in order: I’m an unabashed fangirl.)
1.) No Pyrotechnics. No HD Mega Screens. No sound monitors of ANY kind.
Today, the production of a concert is just as memorable as the music itself– and, often, moreso. Laser light shows. Pyrotechnics. Fireworks. All the bells and whistles that can keep the audience keen. On Febraury 11 1964,however, what the audience got was a concert as performed by your local high school band. Only … they kinda happen to be the best rock band on the planet.
You can easily count the number of amps they’re using because… they’re all on the stage. In a stockpile. One, two, three, four … five amplifiers. The boys were using Vox AC-30 amps that night, just as they had used back in Britain for about a year or so. Their sound was sharp, hard and clear– perfect for the clang of an early 60s guitar. But… still… 30 watts! It wasn’t until 1965 that Vox would design a special 100 watt amp specifically for the Beatles, and so they relied on 30 watt amplifiers to feed a crowd of three thousand hysterical, screaming teenage girls. Without sound monitors. Today, it would take four of Vox’s AC-30 amps to equate to one Vox Valvetornic amp. I’d love to see some of our over produced contemporary bands try something like that!
Today, a high-profile band is guarded by 400 pound security gorillas armed with oozies. In 1964? It was every man for himself. The Beatles were shoved onto a plywood 20 x 20 stage guarded by a few white-collar pencil pushers as a hysterical teenage audience pelted them with… jelly beans. The gesture was meant to be affectionate as it was a well known piece of Beatle-lore amongst teenage fans that the Beatles loved jelly babies. But in England, jelly babies are a soft little candy. Their American cousins, jelly beans? Quite another story. Recounts George Harrison:
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! … Every now and again, one would hit a string on my guitar and plonk off a bad note as I was trying to play.
3.) Rock and Roll
In the years before albums like Sgt. Pepper, Revolver or Rubber Soul pushed the boundaries of contemporary music, The Beatles were just a straight up Rock and Roll band. They idolized black American R&B, emulated its raw intensity and the result was magic. This rendition of Little Richard’s Long Tall Sally had been a stage staple since the early 60s, when The Beatles were nothing more than cellar regulars at The Cavern Club.
It has rarely been played with more purity and energy than this two minute bit in D.C.:
Ringo tends to get a hell of a lot of flack. People dismiss him as just a third wheel, a yes-man, or the luckiest substitute drummer in the history of music. Truth is: Ringo rocks. He was a major name in Liverpool WAY before The Beatles were even a blip on the radar and did the Lads a favor by playing with them over in Hamburg.
And if you insist on demeaning his skill as a musician, I highly suggest first taking in this particular number from the Washington D.C. concert.
Not only does he showcase his worth as a major percussionist… he is the man of the match!
5.) THE FANS
For the few of you out there who may not know… there is an art to being a Beatlefan. The head bump, the seat bounce, the finger scrunch– all are the result of much study and practice. Then again … it’s actually just the spontaneous, knee-jerk reaction of exposure to what was the most head-pounding rock and roll of its time.
The Beatlefan is unmistakable. And the 1963 Washington D.C. concert is especially noteworthy since the Beatlefans are at their unruly best. Beatlemania in the US was a new disease… and the symptoms manifested itself in some particularly entertaining cases…
This girl? Love her. Squealing, screaming and then staring straight into the camera as if to say ‘Eat your heart out, girls. I’m the shit.’
The Pirate Bay. These supremely cool front row chicks, smuggled in a tape recorder and microphone. (Ohhh those years before intellectual property rights…)
I call this one “Sweetpea.” She’s the everygirl Beatlegirl. LOVE her.
And at every Beatles concert there is always THE number one fan. Ladies and Gentleman, here’s Ringo’s!
This guy … oh this guy. Lost a spring in his neck somewhere in the middle of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.’ That’s Ok, luv. We all did.
Conniption Girl. This gingham gal probably has a good 10 years on her fellow fans … but age poses no barrier on conniption fits.
And this? Well, this is just the best. Date. Night. Ever.
The entire concert can be found on the excellent Maysles’ documentary The Beatles’ First U.S. Visit, or you can watch the entire concert, below, on Vimeo. You will be hard pressed to find a better way to spend 30 minutes. (That’s right. 30 minutes.)