The Beatles at Shea Stadium: An Interview with Dave Schwensen

– Bob Wilson

Live For Live Music caught up with writer Dave Schwensen, just as Paul and Ringo recently played together at The Grammy Awards to commemorate the Beatles’ 50th anniversary of their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.  Dave is a Beatles historian and comedian, and recently published his new book ‘The Beatles at Shea Stadium’ (North Shore Publishing, 2013), which gives an in-depth look at the first major stadium concert in rock history.  Dave fills in many details in this exclusive interview. 

#1.  Today many fans may take for granted that Stadium shows were not always a given. Can you speak a little to the risk that the Beatles took breaking new ground in playing at Shea Stadium?

A subtitle for this 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. It’s like 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.

So a big risk with playing Shea Stadium that weighed heavily on their manager, Brian Epstein‘s mind was that they wouldn’t sell out. The old school critics would start cranking out stories that they had been right all along, that the Beatles were just a flash in the pan and losing their popularity. And that’s exactly what they did in 1966 when John Lennon’s remarks about Christianity hurt ticket sales. That was Epstein’s biggest worry in making the deal with promoter Sid Bernstein. 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.

#2. You are a lucky one who saw the Beatles perform live. Can you describe your experience, and the mark it had on you?

I still haven’t recovered – ha! My parents took me, along with my cousin and best friend to Cleveland Stadium in 1966.

I always said they sounded good because I could hear them through the speakers around the stadium. But the screams were so loud I can only describe it as standing next to a jet taking off. And it never stopped. I’ve taken my kids to concerts now like “American Idol” and others, and the fans scream between songs but stop to listen to the music. With the Beatles they never stopped. Plus there were a lot of girls crying, fainting and just going hysterical. I’ve never seen anything like that since.

#3. Will you tell us a bit about Sid Bernstein, and what part he played in getting the Lads to Shea, please?

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.

#4. Today, we see a Bruce Springsteen in a stadium, we get hours of Bruce music. What was the bill like when the Beatles played a baseball stadium? Who were the opening acts?

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.

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.

#5. Security at shows today is often state of the art and polished. What was security like at Shea?  How did the Beatles feel about emerging before a throng of 50 thousand plus people?

There was plenty of security. It turned out they were more active in protecting the kids from hurting themselves, rather than having to protect the Beatles. There was no way anyone was going to make it to the stage before being gang tackled by a group of New York’s Finest.

But this is one of the insights that really fascinated me when researching the book. Like everyone else I’ve seen the TV film, The Beatles At Shea Stadium. They came off like their characters in A Hard Day’s Night and Help! But they were very aware of when the cameras were on them and when they weren’t. The people I interviewed who were also backstage talked about how nervous they were off camera. Even with everything they had accomplished up to that point, they’d never had an experience like this.

There’s a great segment in the book with Cousin Brucie and record promoter Peter Bennett standing with the Beatles before they ran onto the field. The stands were shaking and so were the Beatles. John Lennon was worried they could get hurt, which set up a great conversation between Cousin Brucie and Ed Sullivan as they were climbing up the steps to the stage to introduce them. I won’t give it away, because it’s one of my favorite bits in the book.

6. Concert tickets today can sometimes require a small loan.  What were ticket prices like for the Beatles at Shea?

$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.

#7. Among the many interviews you conducted for your work, who provided some insights and facts you may otherwise not have known? What did you learn?

You know, I honestly have to say everyone. I can’t just single out one or two. That’s why their stories are in the book. I’m a pretty knowledgeable Beatles fan, but it’s different when you hear firsthand accounts from people who were actually with them. I mentioned in the Acknowledgements there were a lot of, “Hey, I didn’t know that!” moments when I was doing the interviews. That was always a lot of fun. I always knew they had snuck out of their hotel the night before the concert and had dinner at Rockefeller Center because my cousin was a Radio City Music Hall Rockette and was there with them. But I had never read about that anywhere else before. So that was a fun, “Hey YOU didn’t know that!” moment for me to share in the book.

There’s also a lot of information about making the television special that I don’t think a lot of fans or even Beatles historians know about. Most of those documents in the book have never been seen by anyone outside their inner circle, and even then it was almost five decades ago.

#8. The film of the Shea concert can be found by collectors, but is not easily found commercially. Why do you think that is?  -And what are the chances we may get an official release on CD?

That’s another “Beatles mystery” that comes up a lot. The making and broadcasting of the film is covered pretty thoroughly in the last section of the book. The videos circulating among collectors and on the internet are decent documentaries of the Shea concert, but are really bootlegs. They’re copies, and usually copies from copies, taken from the film that was edited by M. Clay Adams back in 1965 and early 1966. They’re not great quality when compared to concert films today.

The TV special has never been officially released, but has been completely restored from the original negative and locked away in the “vault” at Apple. We’ve seen segments of it in “The Beatles Anthology” and the film “Imagine: John Lennon.” When I first saw that segment in the “Imagine” film on the big screen in a movie theater, it pretty much knocked me back in my seat. The difference from what I was used to seeing was stunning.

So can you imagine seeing the entire Shea Stadium concert like that? It exists and again, the story behind it is in the book. Also the original, raw audio from the concert has been restored and remixed into stereo. There’s a hint of the final result on “Anthology” when we finally get to hear George sing “Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby.” That song was cut from the television special. But the “Anthology” track is in mono, which is another mystery because like I said, the entire concert had been remixed before that release in true stereo.

While writing the book I was given the opportunity to hear that song and “She’s A Woman,” also absent from the TV special, in the remixed stereo format. That not only knocked me back into my seat but pretty much on the floor. It sounded amazing. People sometimes say The Beatles didn’t sound all that great live because they couldn’t hear themselves over the screaming. But by using the same studio technology that goes into just about every live album you can think of, you can hear what a great band the Beatles were live. Even if they couldn’t hear themselves, they were playing off the instincts they had developed performing together for hours at a time in Liverpool and Hamburg.  

#9. In your opinion, where does the Shea Stadium show stand among major concerts overall in the history of rock and roll?

Because it was the first major stadium rock show it’s historic and should always remain near the top of anyone’s list. Plus it was The Beatles. Fifty years later it’s still headline news when Ringo and Paul are within a few miles of each other. The celebrations marking a half century since they came to America and the fact that this was their biggest high-profile concert in the media capital of the world speaks volumes on why Shea Stadium will always be considered historic. And I don’t only mean for rock’n roll, but for entertainment in general.

#10. When you watch the Shea show on film, what song stands out to you, or what moment has the biggest impression on you?

Before, I would’ve said “I’m Down.” Don’t get me wrong because it’s still a major highlight. John appeared to almost go out of his mind over the absurdity of the whole thing and he and George were in hysterics almost all the way through the song.

But after researching the book it’s when the four Beatles run out of the baseball dugout and onto the field. They had been surrounded by friends, deejays, security – even Mick Jagger and Keith Richards from The Rolling Stones were there. But everyone else had to stay back in the dugout and these four guys for the first time are in full view of everyone who was there for that specific reason – to see The Beatles. And it’s the first time John, Paul, George and Ringo had ever seen anything like this. You can see it in their faces as they look around and again, after all the research for the book, I can only imagine how they must have felt.

– Bob Wilson

Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream when you turn on Anna Frawley’s ‘Anna’s Beatle Hour on WNET‘.  Look for Dave Schwensen to be scheduled as a guest in the coming weeks.  Find the show through the Facebook link.

Dave Schwenk’s earlier work: ‘The Beatles in Cleveland’ details the Beatles shows in Cleveland in 1964, and 1966.  It is also available from Northshore Publishing. Click on this link to view Dave’s works.