No “musical ensemble that was more sociological” than the Beatles

Looking back at the Beatles playing Shea Stadium in 1965, one radio personality the group was a sociological phenomena:

Fifty years ago, the Beatles changed the way America witnessed live music by performing the first stadium show of its size and scope. On Aug. 15, 1965, the boys from Liverpool played a record-shattering concert at New York’s Shea Stadium, which would be televised on BBC and ABC, immortalized in a documentary, and further the massive reach of Beatlemania in the ’60s. Legendary radio personality Cousin Brucie served as the announcer, and now, 50 years later, he says it still stands as the tipping point for turning concerts into must-see live spectacles…

The Shea Stadium show broke records in terms of profits and attendance; promoter Sid Bernstein said the event made $304,000, and 55,000 fans were at the stadium. Ed Sullivan’s iconic documentary about the event, The Beatles at Shea Stadium, culled footage from 12 cameras that documented the day, and captures the band at their peak of fame…

1965 was a pivotal year in both music history and American history, and Brucie remembers the Shea Stadium performance being one of biggest events that brought young people together for something that was pure enjoyment. “At that time in our nation, we needed something desperately to get our minds off some of the tragedy that was happening, the assassinations, racial strife and political problems,” he said. “Anybody who was at Shea Stadium, it’s like someone who was at Woodstock. You have to have been there.”

Experiencing live music has changed nearly completely since the Beatles took over Shea Stadium, and Brucie attests today’s music festivals and arena tours would not have existed without that one day in New York. “The [show] was really the beginning of major events that we we have today at stadiums. It was a precursor of everything. It was an experiment that worked very, very well. Today when people go to concerts, they go to listen to the music. There has never been a musical ensemble that was more sociological and garnered the emotion than this particular group, the Beatles,” he said.

Similar arguments have been made by many: the Beatles came about at the right time, the group was more than the sum of their parts and was able to amplify the hoopla (which also burned them out as they stopped touring one summer after the Shea Stadium concerts), and concerts in the 1960s were the place to be (from Shea Stadium to Woodstock).

But, the statement that “There has never been a musical ensemble that was more sociological” is interesting. What exactly does it mean? That they shaped broader society more than any other group? They are more fascinating to study and ponder than other groups? Everywhere they went was an interesting social scene? Their innovations were way ahead of other artists? Not too many groups could claim similar things and perhaps the time is past when a single music act or musical/social experience could truly get the attention of the world.

Listen to the full Shea Stadium concert here.

Quick Review: Tune In: The Beatles, All These Years, Vol 1

Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn has released the first in a Beatles trilogy titled Tune In. While plenty of books and authors have covered the Beatles (and I’ve read quite a few treatment), this book does a number of things well as it covers the band’s career through the end of 1962:

1. Lewisohn does a nice job discussing the more mundane aspects of their early life such as the home life of each band member. They came from a range of working to middle-class families with several from the Liverpool suburbs. Additionally, until 1962, several Beatles had to have regular jobs because the music business wasn’t yet working out. If I remember correctly, both Ringo and George worked as apprentices in certain trades while Paul worked in various delivery and clerk jobs. It is hard to imagine the Beatles in these roles but they had to balance a normal life path (as some of their family members reminded them) versus trying to succeed in music.

2. Like others, Lewisohn highlights the importance of the band’s early stints in Hamburg. However, he clearly drives home the point that this is where the true Beatles emerged. Not only did the band have a lot of time to play and hone their craft, they also took advantage of this: they knew they had to become serious about their music in order to get ahead. In other words, they went to Hamburg as just another band from Liverpool and came back and blew everyone away with their music, image (black leather), and confidence.

3. There is a lot of emphasis in the book on the larger music scene in England – which was fairly nonexistent regarding rock and roll. The Beatles were quite good at tracking down American music and they were heavily influenced by black artists like Little Richard, white artists who played black music like Elvis, and musicians who emphasized the band like Buddy Holly and the Crickets. The Beatles liked a broad range of music, which helped give them plenty of music for their long sessions on stage in Hamburg but also set them apart from other Liverpool bands who stuck to more tried and true songs. When the Beatles were in position to record auditions, the music labels weren’t really looking for full bands like them that sang in harmony, emphasized the group rather than the lead singer, and wrote some of their own songs. It is interesting that they ended up with a fruitful working relationship with George Martin at Parlophone as Martin had an eclectic career himself producing a wide range of albums and having difficulty getting a #1.

4. From the beginning, the Beatles wanted to be rich and famous. Perhaps it was simply the brashness of youth. Perhaps they wanted to escape humdrum Liverpool. It is not necessarily clear that the natural talent was there early on to back these ideas up: the Lennon-McCartney classics didn’t really start flowing until 1962 (plus bands didn’t a whole lot of this themselves at this point), John was creative but not always pleasant or focused, they weren’t the greatest musicians early on (especially with Paul learning the bass – though he became good quickly), couldn’t settle on a good drummer until Ringo was asked to join, and some of their early shows/auditions were marked by nervousness. But, it eventually came together in a product that was quite different from other music options and that propelled them ahead of other bands that were once their peers.

This book is full of details in its 800+ pages such that even as it covers similar ground as other biographies, it helps show how the mundane became extraordinary by the end of 1962. I’m looking forward to the next two books which should help reveal how the band that led to Beatlemania entered their most creative period of songwriting, transforming the music and recording industry, and maturing.

The kind of music debates I like: the Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones in the psychedelic era

This past Sunday’s Chicago Tribune featured a book excerpt where two music critics debated the merits of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the psychedelic, late 1960s, Sgt. Pepper vs. Their Satanic Majesties Request era. An interesting read if only for the suggestions that the Rolling Stones laughed their way through the psychedelic era while the Beatles, Paul McCartney in particular, couldn’t stop themselves from wanting to be accepted by the British establishment.