Wednesday, February 11, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Some Fun Tonight! The Backstage Story of How the Beatles Rocked America: The Historic Tours of 1964-1966

Volume 1: 1964
Volume 2: 1965 & 1966



















The Beatles as a live band have always gotten a bit of short shrift when the history of rock music and the band itself are both discussed. The myth (and it is just that, a myth) is that they were a lousy live band who couldn't hear themselves or be heard. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle. The fact of the matter is that, as anyone who has heard their BBC sessions or the best sounding live recordings from their touring years of 1962-1966 will tell you, they were a great live band who generated some incredibly exciting live performances. Their problem was that they were hampered not only by the mania that followed them everywhere, but also by the primitive limitations of the amplifier and PA technology of their day. Indeed, it was right after they stopped touring in August 1966 that bands like The Who, Cream, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience helped pioneer louder, clearer, and better amps and PA systems that we've all taken for granted since 1967. However, the Beatles' touring years overall were years of fun and innocence, and that feeling of wonder and excitement comes across loud and clear in Chuck Gunderson's wonderful 2-volume set, Some Fun Tonight.


As he states in the introduction to the book, Gunderson decided to focus on the three North American tours the Beatles undertook in the summers of 1964, 1965, and 1966, both as a collector of memorabilia and as an author. While there are two excellent books on concerts from these tours by author Dave Schwensen, who focused on Shea Stadium in 1965 and Cleveland in 1964 & 1966, Some Fun Tonight takes you through the entirety of those tours, from the planning of each show, the support acts, travel and hotel arrangements, and press conferences all the way through to the concerts. The book is split into two volumes: Volume 1 covers the groundbreaking 1964 tour, while Volume 2 covers the massive 1965 tour and the final tour of 1966. Each touring year is prefaced by an introduction giving a broad overview of the concerts played and the organization of the tour, followed by brief biographies of the supporting acts. Then, we get to the meat of each entry, which is the actual concert. Each chapter focuses on one show, running in chronological order from the beginning of each tour to the end. Along with the date, venue, and showtimes, each chapter has wonderful photos of the Beatles traveling, hanging out backstage, speaking at press conferences, and onstage in each city. There are also numerous photos of memorabilia for each show within the chapters: tickets, posters, handbills, contracts, correspondence, hotel bills, and more. The author has done a painstaking job researching each and every concert in order to present an immersive visual and reading experience. It really does transport you back in time to that moment and into the eye of the hurricane,  when the Beatles were storming through each city and whipping everyone into a frenzy with not only their music, but also their mere presence.



It is perhaps this last point that is most striking when reading through the books. The fans were really and truly insane during the peak Beatlemania years. It's one thing for massive groups of fans to be rabid in their devotion and to cheer, shout, clap, holler, cry, and burst forth with excitement. But the Beatles had to put up with so much more than all of that.  They were constantly besieged, physically manhandled, and aurally assaulted by screams and shouts by fans whenever the got into or out of a car, plane, bus, hotel, etc. They were trapped in their hotels and dressing rooms for these very reasons, and they often couldn't get a good night's sleep because of the fans who kept all night vigils outside their hotel windows. Sightseeing wherever they were was out of the question. The concerts were excuses for the fans to shout, scream, climb over barriers, run away from chasing police, and jump onstage and grab the Beatles.  In a couple of cases, there were full-on riots during concerts that caused the shows to be stopped and had the Beatles literally running for their lives. Fans used increasingly creative (and oftentimes bizarre!) methods to sneak into the bands' hotel suites, press conferences, and dressing rooms.  There were even several incidents when the band's safety was seriously in jeopardy when their cars would be surrounded by fans, who would climb on top and bang on the windows to try and get at them. Most shockingly, there were instances where the fans themselves were in danger, such as the time fans broke through a barricade and rushed the Beatles plane on the tarmac when it had just landed and the propellers were still spinning! One thing that struck me is that is was an absolute miracle that the Beatles and their entourage weren't seriously hurt and that none of the fans were hurt or killed.  It's even more striking when you consider how new and uncharted the territory was for large scale rock concerts. The Beatles were the first to go through all of this and were the industry's pioneers in the truest sense of the word. Given the laughable scale of the security and logistical planning of those times when compared to the massive crowds at each concert, it is a testament to everyone involved that for the vast majority of the tours, everything went off without a hitch. It's also no surprise that the Beatles grew increasingly tired of all of this. In all honesty, it can be said that as much as the valid artistic reasons the band has given over the years as to why they quit the live stage, the cumulative effect of the mania surrounding them is just as much to blame. In essence, it was largely the fans' fault that the Beatles stopped touring after August 29, 1966.



The book also does a great job putting into perspective what rock and roll touring was really like in its infancy. For every nice hotel the Beatles stayed in (mainly in the major cities they played), they also put up with a lot of subpar, rundown motels and motor inns in some of the more rural backwaters they played (New Orleans, LA instantly springs to mind).  There was nothing really fancy about their transportation other than the fact that they had a private chartered plane to fly them from concert to concert. Yet even here, it should be noted that the planes were far from luxurious and, in a few case, suffered mechanical issues severe enough that the Beatles had more than a few terrifying close calls.  Limousines were increasingly a luxury, and a rare one at that since, by the time the mania became too much (and the numerous death threats they received needed to be taken more seriously), they spent most of their time driving between venues in armored vans, laundry trucks, ambulances, box trucks, and school buses. Their tour rider was almost primitive in its simplicity: the band simply wanted cots, clean towels, a case of Coca-Cola, a TV set, and a stereo backstage. Their only other stipulation was that they would never play before a segregated audience. Compared to the pampered existence rock stars have had on tour since the early 1970s, it's shocking how simply and spartanly the Beatles existed on those grueling tours.  The photographs really help bring all of this to life, showing some of the venues and hotels the band were booked into as less than stellar.  Speaking of the photographs, there are loads of never-before-seen images in this book, including Bob Dylan arriving at the band's hotel in New York City in 1964 on the fateful night he introduced them to marijuana. Along with the rare documents, ticket stubs, and more than accompany each concert, these books are a veritable museum of memorabilia and information from all three of the band's American tours.



So many books have been written on the Beatles that it is a full-time exercise trying to sift through all of the shoddy ones just to find the worthwhile books: the truly good books are the ones that bring something new to the table and do it in a fun, interesting, engaging, and informative way. Some Fun Tonight is definitely in that category and the books are pure joy to explore from beginning to end. The only negatives, and I'm being incredibly nitpicky here, are a few minor typos and a couple of mis-captioned pictures (for instance, one photo shows Paul and George singing into a mic but the caption says John and Paul. The other states John playing his 12-string Rickenbacker when a look at the tailpiece reveals it's his 6-string). Otherwise, there isn't anything I can knock this book for. In fact, the enjoyment I derived from reading this book extended beyond the pages, as it made me go through all of my live Beatles bootlegs and listen to the various shows I have between 1962-1966. It gave me an even greater appreciation than I already had for their live years (I was already a huge fan of their live stuff) because I was able to listen to the individual shows knowing the background about each one; the venue, the size of the crowd, how it was booked, and how the Beatles received and were received by each city. Beyond being an information-packed tome, the greatest thing about Some Fun Tonight is the magic and innocence of a bygone time it manages to capture on every page...that and the way it breathes new life and interest into the most overlooked aspect of the Beatles' remarkable career, which took place on the concert stage.

MY RATING: 10/10

2 comments:

  1. Yeah, I think one of the reasons, among many, for the Beatles greatness is for the reasons you state above--they didn't have state of the art equipment, the PAs back then were small and minimal, heck no wonder they couldn't hear themselves play among all the chaos. But also I think one of the things that propels them above the rest is that they could still play sets, and sound pretty good--their ability to play was still there (plus they didn't have all the great pedals and gizmos to make them sound better), and they could still sing with all the harmonies and make it sound good, etc.

    I read somewhere when one fan reached in one of their moving cars and grabbed Lennon and irrc, tore his shirt or he had to get out of his shirt and let them have it. I was a wake up call that things could get crazy.

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  2. I've heard story not only about Lennon but also John Sebastian...Steve Boone even mentioned it in the interview he did with me that I posted earlier this year.

    You're right about the Beatles still playing great with puny sound equipment. Ringo once said it was all down to reading lips and head bobs and foot taps as cues. Amazing when you think about it!

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