Today, all of the biggest names in popular music make their way around the world on tour by way of large outdoor stadiums, filling the enormous structures with tens of thousands of fans. Playing to a packed, screaming stadium crowd, on the ground usually occupied by the world’s greatest athletes, is a “holy grail” dream for every aspiring musician. But that wasn’t always the case. The stadium rock show dream was born with a historic bang 57 years ago today, August 15th, 1965, when The Beatles headlined Shea Stadium, home of the New York Mets.
The concert has been documented at length for its historical significance, from books, to editorials, to a documentary film produced by TV icon Ed Sullivan, a sprawling 14-camera snapshot of the de facto peak of “Beatlemania” in the U.S. In his 2013 book The Beatles at Shea Stadium: The Story Behind Their Greatest Concert, author Dave Schwensen details all the surrounding circumstances and cultural significance of the band’s Shea Stadium debut. Live For Live Music’s Bob Wilson spoke to Schwensen ahead of the legendary show’s 50th anniversary, and the writer doled out countless astounding anecdotes about the show and history surrounding it. (You can read the full interview here). On the anniversary of The Beatles’ 1965 Shea Stadium show, we’ve gathered a few of the best story lines from the fabled event. Here are 5 things you may not have known about one of the most influential rock concerts of all time, courtesy of Dave Schwensen:
On the enormous risk of booking the show, and the balls-y promise that sealed the deal:
Dave Schwensen: “A subtitle for [my] book could’ve been (and almost was) ‘The Birth of Stadium Rock.’ Nothing on this scale had ever happened before in rock/pop music. Elvis Presley had played six stadium shows in 1956 and ’57 before going into the army, but nothing even remotely close to Shea Stadium. His largest audience was just over 26,000 fans at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. The Beatles had to more than double that number to fill Shea Stadium’s 55,600 seats. No one knew what to expect or even if they could do it. They were the biggest act in showbiz and their concerts were sell-outs, but they were mostly in smaller sports arenas for 10,000 to 15,000 fans. In England they were still playing large theaters. So promoters knew more tickets could have been sold for almost every show, but filling a major league baseball stadium was unheard of.
And you had the generation gap in full swing back in ’65 – as it was with Elvis in the 1950’s and even now with Justin Beiber, Miley Cyrus and others. You know as well as I do that it’s mostly the older generation that puts down many of today’s pop acts, and they wish these kids would fail and disappear into pop culture footnotes. It was the same with the Beatles. A lot of adults made fun of them and complained about their long hair and loud music and that they were corrupting the younger generation.
[Manager Brian] Epstein’s biggest worry in making the deal with promoter Sid Bernstein [was that] empty seats could hurt their image. Bernstein only convinced him to accept the show by guaranteeing a sell-out. Whatever seats weren’t sold, Bernstein would buy himself at $10 per – almost twice the highest ticket price. After that, Epstein’s biggest worry was how to protect “his boys” from so many fans. He was afraid they wouldn’t get out of Shea alive. Again, no one had even attempted this before. It was a huge risk in 1965.”
On the keen instinct and determination of promoter Sid Bernstein:
“From what everyone told me, Sid Bernstein was a hard working, honest and decent guy. No one I interviewed had a bad thing to say about him. What I liked most was that he wasn’t afraid to take a chance. He would think outside of the box – know what I mean? Without getting into too much detail, he took a chance in 1963 – almost a full year before their appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” – and booked them for two shows at Carnegie Hall. No one in this country had even heard of The Beatles at that time – not even Ed Sullivan. He rolled the dice and hit. For that reason Brian Epstein was loyal to Sid.
So when Sid approached him just after the 1964 North American tour about playing Shea Stadium, Brian listened. He wasn’t exactly sold on it for the reason mentioned earlier, but he gave Sid a chance. That’s all he needed. It’s in the book because his main obstacle was not being allowed to advertise the show before giving Epstein a deposit, which he didn’t have. But he did it and put the whole thing together. All the Beatles had to do was show up and play.”
On the diverse support lineup that led up to the Beatles’ headlining set:
“It was like a variety show, which was pretty standard in those days. Now opening acts are supposed to compliment the headliner is some way, but this one was a real mix. The opening act was The Discotheque Dancers. They were five girls and a guy that demonstrated popular dances like The Frug and The Watusi while The King Curtis Band played instrumental medleys of pop songs, including a couple by The Beatles. Can you believe that? Cannibal and the Headhunters sang “Land of 1,000 Dances,” and another instrumental group Epstein represented called Sounds Incorporated were on the bill. The King Curtis Band also did a set and then backed Brenda Holloway. Marvin Gaye was introduced, but didn’t perform.
On the reasons why the Beatles’ set was much shorter than you’d expect:
“The Beatles played for just over half an hour. Once again, no one knew what to expect, but that was pretty much the length of all their shows once Beatlemania became a scream fest. In fact, and I can’t remember who mentions this in the book, the Beatles could’ve just walked onto the field, stood there and waved for half an hour and everyone would’ve been thrilled. The fact that they played was almost like a bonus.”
On the “expensive” ticket price:
“[Tickets cost] $4.50, $5.00 and $5.65. You know, we laugh about that now when you have to pay a few hundred bucks to sit in the nosebleed section to see The Rolling Stones and others. But that was a big chunk of change for the average teenaged Beatles fan back in 1965. There are memories in the book about kids who couldn’t go to the concert because their parents thought it cost too much.”
You can watch a few assorted video clips from the performance and the big buildup to the Beatles’ headlining set on 8/15/65 at Shea Stadium below: