The Night The Beatles Rocked Shea Stadium

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Though the Fab Four found it hard to remember the second occasion, the Beatles actually played Shea Stadium twice. When he was later asked about the "second Shea Stadium concert," George Harrison replied, "Did we play Shea twice?" Ringo Starr was asked the same question and gave the same exact response, "Did we play Shea twice?"

This is rather understandable, with the Beatles' extraordinarily eventful career, the excessive drugs taken, and the natural flaws of memory. Another word would probably also apply: anti-climactic. The first Beatles concert is often considered an apogee, some kind of peak in the unforgettable phenomena we know as "Beatlemania." After their monumental first Shea concert, the second one just over a year later was surely anti-climactic -- the tickets didn't even sell out. (The poster at left is for the less-memorable second concert at Shea Stadium.)

The first Beatles concert at Shea Stadium was on August 15, 1965. Any Beatles fan worth his or her salt knows this one as "The Shea Stadium Concert."

A Full House

Although the Beatles had sold out countless theaters, local auditoriums, and dance halls, no rock group had ever played a concert at an actual sports stadium before. The crowd was at capacity, an eye-popping 55,600 fans, mostly screaming, crying, and even fainting women and teenage girls.

Interestingly, among the screaming, worshiping fans were two future Beatle wives. Both Linda Eastman and Barbara Bach (the future wives of Paul and Ringo, respectively) were sitting amongst the other adoring fans. (One has to wonder what was going through those girls' minds at the time.)

The boys were dramatically escorted to the roof of the World's Fair in a whirling helicopter. According to George, en route to the rooftop, the pilot was zipping and whizzing them wildly over the Big Apple, pointing out the various sights, as the Beatles sat in slight terror at the aerial acrobatics. The boys were then driven to the concert in a Wells-Fargo Bank van.

After they were deposited at the stadium, each of the Beatles was given his own little Wells-Fargo badge. (In the film of the concert, you can spot each Beatle proudly wearing his Wells-Fargo badge pinned to his jacket.)

Once the previous acts finished their obligatory, thankless performances, the Beatles walked out onto the field like four deities. The noise was deafening -- in the video footage, some of the security people can be seen putting their hands over their ears or sticking their fingers in their ears to block out the noise. Thousands of bright camera flashbulbs greeted the Beatles as they entered, making the field look like a wild electronics laboratory.

Video of the opening of the concert from YouTube user saltaeb99

The boys nervously picked up their guitars and Ringo climbed aboard his drum kit. They stood in the middle of Shea Stadium, small and distant figures, which probably added to the adoration and surrealism of the moment.

It was a typically brief Beatles concert, just 12 songs played in about 30 minutes. The Beatles used their "new" 100-volt amps, rather like using a portable hand mic to get an interview with King Kong, and throughout the deafening roar, they couldn't hear a note any of them played (or sang).

INTERVIEWER: "Does it bother you that you can't hear what you sing during a concert?"

JOHN LENNON: "No, we don't mind. We've got the records at home."

Because of the excessive noise and the need to somehow keep some kind of a beat, Ringo later confessed to watching the swinging rear ends of his three bandmates to give him some semblance of rhythm.

John opened with his version of "Twist and Shout," a usual routine, but Paul, George, and Ringo all noticed something slightly different about John. According to George, John Lennon "cracked up" that night. The surrealism of the event caught Lennon's fancy and, always the craziest of the Fab Four, John just "lost it."

In the video footage, John can be seen cackling and breaking up with mad glee several times, as the other boys look over the crowd, and each other, with slight disbelief. At one point, John holds his arms out-stretched and starts chanting, in a Peter Sellers-like voice, up at some imaginary heavenly presence above him. At another point, as Paul talks to the crowd, John does his usual spastic clawed hands impression and stomps his feet. (But that was a regular part of John's routine in those pre-politically correct times.)

During the closing number, as Paul sang "I'm Down," John went over to play the electric organ. Lennon started playing the organ with his elbow and laughing devilishly. The normally staid and conventional Paul is seen doing a full 360-degree spin, in seemingly pure exhilaration. Even the usually stone-faced George laughed out loud at John's antics.

In between the "Twist and Shout" and "I'm Down" bookends, George and Ringo each performed their obligatory solo turns. John and Paul rotated and sang lead in the other ten songs.

Thus, the band played on.

And then, the most amazing 30-minutes of condensed music ended in a flash, and the Fab Four tromped off the field, exhausted.

The concert pulled in a then-record gross of $304,000, of which the Beatles would receive half. It was noted, at the time, as the biggest grossing event "in the history of show business." (Tickets sold for the ridiculous prices of $4.50, $5.00, and $5.75.)

Many years later, John Lennon ran into Sid Bernstein, the producer of the Shea Stadium concert. As they happily reminisced about the Shea concert, John looked at Sid with a twinkle in his eye and said, "We reached the top of the mountain, Sid."


Eddie Deezen has appeared in over 30 motion pictures, including Grease, WarGames, 1941, and The Polar Express. He's also been featured in several TV shows, including Magnum PI, The Facts of Life, and The Gong Show. And he's done thousands of voice-overs for radio and cartoons, such as Dexter's Laboratory and Family Guy.

Read all Eddie's mental_floss stories.

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August 15, 2012 - 10:15am
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