Sunday, April 5, 2015

Interview with Chuck Gunderson, author of Some Fun Tonight! The Backstage Story of How the Beatles Rocked America: The Historic Tours of 1964-1966

Author Chuck Gunderson

The Rock and Roll Chemist is very excited to bring you today's interview with Chuck Gunderson, author of the excellent book Some Fun Tonight which has previously been reviewed here on the site. Chuck Gunderson was raised in San Diego, California, the site of the Beatles’ eighth stop on the 1965 North American tour. He was too young to attend the show, but he fondly recalls his older siblings spinning the records of the Fab Four as he grew up, which perked a life-long love for the band. He has worked in the outdoor advertising industry most of his life, although his true passion is history. He holds two degrees in history—a B.A. from San Diego State University and an M.A. from the University of San Diego. Having published a few articles over the years, Chuck turned his sights to researching and writing this epic two-volume set on the history of the Beatles’ North American tours of 1964 to 1966. Chuck is married to Christina, and they are the parents of four children, each a self-described Beatles fan.  After reading both information-packed volumes of his book, I had a LOT of questions and Chuck was kind enough to answer them.


RNRChemist: Chuck, thanks so much for taking the time to discuss your excellent books; it's a real pleasure.  Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? How did you first get into the Beatles?

CG: I am almost a first-generation fan (born in 1962), but fortunately for me, I had older brothers and a sister who were constantly spinning 45's and albums of the Beatles.  I fondly recall the Capitol swirl and later the Apple label revolving on our cheap turn table-so a fan from the very beginning of my life.

RNRChemist: What made you decide to write this book? Why focus on these specific tours from the Beatles' career?

CG: My favorite period of Beatle history is their live performances. Let's face it, they didn't start in a sterile studio but the rough and tumble stages of Liverpool and Hamburg where they logged thousands of playing hours.  Mark Lewisohn's book, "The Beatles Live!" was for certain a catalyst.  Others had written books on one or two of the tours, but they lacked detail and great photos.  I waited and waited for someone to do a definitive book on the tours like Bruce Spizer, but when no one stepped up to the plate I decided to do it myself.  I have a Master's in history, so I know how to write, research, and organize and being a huge fan made it all work out!

RNRChemist: How did you go about researching each show, tracking down the people involved, etc.?

CG: Most firsthand accounts of the Beatles playing in a city in North America were scant at best.  Newspapers of the day devoted a paragraph or two about the concert and maybe printed one photo, and almost never printed a set list of what was even sung!  So in the 8 years of research I conducted in assembling the books, I interviewed lots of people that were connected with the shows: promoters, DJ's, photographers, hotel managers, venue personnel, newsmen, fans, people from GAC (The New York talent agency that booked the shows) and of course, the Beatles' inner circle like Tony Barrow and Bernard Lee.  I'm glad I started to conduct the interviews several years ago as many have passed on.



RNRChemist: Along the same lines as above, your attention to detail is impressive, down to describing what the Beatles ate for room service. How on earth did you find all that stuff out?

CG: One interview led to another which led to another; someone would tell me, "Hey, that guy still works at the hotel the Beatles stayed at!" Great, let's find that guy and conduct an interview.  Some of the finer details of what they ate for breakfast was usually printed in primary sources like the newspaper or teen magazines.

RNRChemist: How did you track down all of that great memorabilia? Hardest piece to find? Most expensive?

CG: The vast majority is from my own personal collection.  Along with loving the music, I've been a collector for many years.  Knowing I would go broke if I collected all you can collect of the Beatles, I decided to concentrate my efforts on North American tour memorabilia: tickets, handbills, programs, posters, photographs, and documents. All of it is in the book and printed in a high quality format so you can easily read every line of a Beatles tour rider. Luckily, they weren't 50 pages long like they are today! The riders for the Beatles tours only consisted of about a page and a half.

RNRChemist: What is your overall assessment of the Beatles as a live band? I always feel that aspect of their career gets overlooked and unfairly dismissed as subpar.

CG: I think they were a fabulous live band.  I would have given anything to have seen a performance at the Cavern or any of the small cinemas they played throughout the U.K.  In America, I would have loved to have seen them at the Paramount (about 3500 seats) and of course, Shea just to say, "I was there!"  Remember, they didn't have the sound technology they have today and I just marvel how they even played a set at Shea with 55,000 plus fans screaming their lungs out!  The reason they endured as a live act was because they had had logged thousands of hours together on stage.  It was a beautiful sympathy to watch as everyone knew exactly where they were in the song despite the sound challenges.



RNRChemist: Can you discuss your thoughts on the scale of those tours relative to the time? It's always seemed as though the band grew too big for the venues they ended up playing and outpaced the logistics as well as the amp/PA technology of the era.  Fair assessment?

CG: Somewhat of a fair assessment.  Nothing on the scale of the Beatles' 1964 tour had ever been done before.  Elvis had played the Cotton Bowl in Texas in the mid to late 50s but he normally played much smaller venues than the Beatles did.  The music they were to create later, Revolver, Rubber Soul, Sgt. Pepper simply could not be recreated on stage due to sound technology limitations.  The venues they played in North America were the biggest around and were the only options Brian and GAC had to satisfy the fans.

RNRChemist: If they'd hung on another year when amps and PAs caught up do you think they could have kept touring? Obviously they wouldn't have been able to reproduce much from Revolver or Sgt. Pepper, for example, but they could have at least been heard if they'd done stripped back versions of some of those songs.

CG: Great question! I'm just not sure on that.  I think Paul would have gone on, but George was the most vocal in giving up the stage.  Had they been able to recreate some of the newer music they were releasing, Brian may have asked them to continue touring to create more fans and make more money. It seems to fit that after they quit touring in August of 1966, Brian died a year later.  He was instrumental in creating those tours with promoters from around the world.

RNRChemist: Along the same lines, we've all read about how they were invited to play Monterey Pop in '67 and Woodstock in '69.  There is also credible evidence they had booked the Roundhouse in London for some shows in December 1968 before pulling the plug.  Given what you know about their American tours, could you have seen them actually doing those shows in an alternate universe?

CG: I don't think so.  Again, if they did Paul, most likely, had pushed for it.  Later shows featured groups that stayed on stage for an hour or two...would the Beatles do that?  I don't think so....Paul does now, but I don't think the four of them would have post-1966.

RNRChemist: Back to the American tours that are the subject of your book: what's your opinion on their musicianship on these tours? What do you think they could have done differently/better?

CG: Under the circumstances, I thought it was good.  How did Ringo hold down a beat amongst the screams? The answer: experience.  They were playing venues where the sound system was installed in the 20s, like Maple Leaf Gardens...I don't think they could have introduced anything to make the music sound better as it wasn't invented yet.

RNRChemist: Brian Epstein's business ineptitude has been detailed a lot over the years. His tour planning left a lot to be desired in terms of logistics and how the Beatles criss-crossed the country in an apparently random pattern. Do you think it all could have gone smoother had he been a better businessman and more versed how to plan the travel, for example?  I've recently read a book about their UK tours and the same thing happened where they zig-zagged all over the country with no logic behind it.

CG: Brian relied on GAC (the New York talent agency) to book the tours.  GAC knew America and knew the venues.  They presented Brian with everything but the kitchen sink as many cities wanted them.  I think Brian and the Beatles wanted to see particular cities (Las Vegas, New Orleans) that GAC may have frowned on due to size.  It was haphazard, though, playing Montreal then flying down to Jacksonville, then back up to Boston.  It seemed they were inventing the tour as they went along because they cancelled reservations of hotels they were booked to stay at.  The 1965 and 1966 tours were more logical in terms of flight plans.

RNRChemist: All of those tours and the Beatles had a road crew of two: Neil and Mal. Talk about a skeleton crew! You can't imagine anyone these days, let alone even from the early 1970s onward, going out with a crew smaller than 100. It was truly a different era...can you comment on the job Neil and Mal did on these US tours?

CG: I had Ed Freeman, who worked on the 1966 tour, tell me it took four people to set up the stage: him, Mike Owen, Mal Evans, and Neil.  They fit all the Beatles equipment into one stretch van!  For sure Mal and Neil were the backbone of the tour and I feature an image of them sitting on an amp during the 1965 tour for my dedication page on the second volume.



RNRChemist: The Beatles almost split for good after the '66 tour because of everything that had happened on the road that year.  How much do you think the sheer insanity (the endless mania, lack of privacy, screaming, etc.) of these tours contributed to their stopping playing live and never wanting to go back on the road (apart from Paul?).

CG: Even Paul called it the "Lark of touring."  Even though the U.S. '65 and '66 tours were much shorter in duration than the 1964 tour, the group was yearning to be in the studio creating new music.  Bob Eubanks, who promoted them all three years in L.A., told me that he made more money in the promotion of the 1965 Hollywood Bowl shows than the Beatles earned on stage.  Yes, they made a ton of money during the 1964 tour (over a million) but it was becoming more costly as venues were getting larger and logistics more complicated.

RNRChemist: Speaking of the mania, why do you think the crowds (mainly the girls in the crowds) felt the need to scream and shout nonstop? It's been endlessly debated over the years but I'm interested in your view of it.

CG: The Beatles, as viewed by the girls, were mostly looked at as good looking guys rather than serious musicians.  Plus they added elements into their shows that created the gasps and screams from the girls: the clothes, the hair, the head shake, the scream going into the bridge, PLUS they were handsome, let's face it!

RNRChemist: Can you comment on how spartan the conditions were for the Beatles, the biggest band in the world, on the road? Especially compared to what it would be like a few years later, they had minimal comforts and their tour rider was so innocently simple.

CG: One promoter I interviewed booked them to play in San Diego during their height of superstardom in 1965.  He only spent $33.96 on food for the ENTIRE entourage of the Beatles camp!  He had it listed on his statement which I feature in the book. In 1965 they only added these additional requests from the 1964 tour rider: four cots, mirrors, a portable T.V. set, and clean towels. Yes, very sparse compared to today's spoiled rock stars.

RNRChemist: Let's dive into the actual performances on stage.  First, how bad must it have been for the support acts? No one wanted to see them and they were shouted down by crowds who only wanted to see the Beatles and paid them very little attention. Do you think they only agreed to the support slots because of the exposure they'd get?

CG: Bill Black reportedly paid GAC a bribe to book his group on the 1964 tour.  Sadly, Bill never made it on tour as he became sick and died a year later, so he for sure wanted the exposure.  The Righteous Brothers, however, were not very happy with their slot on the tour.  In trying to sing their soulful melodies, they gave it up after 9 dates on the 1964 tour.  They were sick of fans screaming, "We want the Beatles!" Plus they made more money doing venues on the West Coast.  Brian and GAC were gracious to let them out of their contract.  All the support acts, however, were consummate professionals and played every gig. I still can't imagine what King Curtis, who was used to performing in small jazz clubs, must have felt appearing on stage at Shea Stadium to kick off the 1965 tour!



RNRChemist: Now, regarding the Beatles, here is a theory of mine that I've held to for many years and I'd like to get your opinion on it.  I've always thought that the fact that the crowds didn't even try to listen to the music was a bigger factor in their decision to stop touring than its given credit for? I mean, they've got older teenagers and adults buying their records and really listening to the records and trying to understand their more complex music, while on the other hand their concert audience is made up almost exclusively of young girl teenyboppers who do nothing but go nuts screaming without listening. As John said, they used the concerts as "bloody tribal rites" and an excuse to go crazy at the Fabs' expense. That has to wear on an artist who takes their work seriously and is trying to share it with their fans, no? Am I making too much of this?

CG: I agree with you.  Especially in 1965 and 1966.  Before the tour began in 1965 the Capitol "Help!" soundtrack was released and "Beatles VI" was released only a few months prior.  The Beatles only played three songs off those two albums and one was a cover: Dizzie Miss Lizzie. In 1966 "Revolver" was released right before the tour and not ONE song was covered on stage!  The teenie-boppers would have loved at least to hear "Yellow Submarine."  Ringo said it best in Anthology: he felt people were only coming to see them and not listen to the music.  In 1964 they could pull it off, but not for the subsequent tours that followed.

RNRChemist: Let's talk about the massive and groundbreaking 1965 tour, where they finally made the leap from theatres and auditoriums to stadiums and arenas.  They sure didn't have any problem selling out venues across the country but it seems like they were flying by the seat of their pants and barely doing it given the state of 1965 infrastructure in the USA.  Tell me what you think of this tour.

CG: Many people consider the 1965 tour the "Stadium Tour" when in fact, of the 10 cities they performed in, 5 were stadiums and 5 were arenas, the difference being if they played an arena they would always do two shows.  Plus, they didn't sell out every venue.  Of the stadiums in 1965 only Shea was a sellout and there were plenty of tickets to be had in places like San Diego and Minneapolis.

RNRChemist: Now, let's discuss the final tour of 1966: the fallout from John's "bigger than Jesus" comments, death threats and protests, Beatles memorabilia burnings, a significant amount of unsold seats, and a press that was finally antagonistic (with the Beatles responding in kind). It seemed like a perfect storm of everything that could go wrong going wrong all at once. How much of the press' behavior do you think was due to Beatle fatigue?  And how much do you think this contributed to their already fragile attitude toward touring?

CG: The press went after them in 1966.  They were asked serious questions during all three tours about politics, Vietnam, race relations and such, but it seemed the group was much too flippant for the American press to handle, especially  during the 1966 tour.  They just didn't care anymore and looked at the tours as a business obligation to be fulfilled.  In 1966 they cut back on formal press conference and preferred "Press Tapings" where a reporter would get with an individual Beatle for a series of questions. They did 25 formal press conferences in 33 days in 1964, but by 1966 they only did 6 or 7 formal sessions with the press.  Fatigue was a factor, but they were tired of answering the same "type" questions from city to city.



RNRChemist: Even considering all of what happened in 1966, it's always seemed as though the Beatles were adored much more in the US than in their native UK. This seems to hold true even more today, where the UK press has no problem taking swipes at Paul or Ringo whereas they are almost 100% loved here.  Why do you think America did and still does hold the Beatles dearer than their native England?

CG: America put the "stamp" on the Beatles.  In a worldly sense, I would say New York City is the center of everything Beatle.  Plus the Beatles were not here on American soil a ton as everyone seems to think.  As a matter of fact, the group as a whole only stood on American soil for a total of 90 days...maybe limited exposure? People always want more than they are getting!

RNRChemist: What was the most surprising and/or interesting thing you discovered when working on the book?  Were there any crazy rock and roll stories from the road you uncovered that didn't make the final cut that you can share with us?

CG: I pretty much shared everything.  It was a planned one volume book of about 350 pages, but when I started uncovering stories and photos that had never been seen I just had to share. I'm a fan first and wanted to give the fans the best I could give them for the money.  So it morphed into 2 volumes and over 600 pages and I even threw in a slipcase!  Some people are taken back on the price of $175, but if Genesis did a project like this fans would be paying $600 to $800.  Plus, I put all the bells and whistles on this project: extra thick paper, spot varnish on all the photos and memorabilia, just a complete quality project, plus hundreds of unpublished photos.  I busted lots of myths that had been held for years, so read the books to find out!

RNRChemist: You did indeed do a great job with the presentation of the books...they are gorgeous and as nice to look at as they are to read!  Okay, now for some personal questions:

Which of the American tours do you think was the best, and why?

CG: 1964: new and fresh. Exhaustive in that they did 32 shows in 33 days!



RNRChemist: Musically, which is your favorite concert (I'm assuming you've heard recordings? My personal favorites from the US tours are the Hollywood Bowl shows from '64 and '65, Shea Stadium '65, and Atlanta '65. Philly from '64 is a great one, too).

CG: Atlanta 1965 is my favorite and not because they had feedback monitors; they didn't... another myth broken and a great story in the book.

RNRChemist: What's your favorite song they did live? Least favorite? How about one you wish they played in concert?  What about one they played live that you wish they hadn't?

CG: Most favorite: without a doubt, "Long Tall Sally:" it's a cover song but was the inspiration for my title and the last song they ever sung live, albeit only just over 30 seconds on tape because Tony Barrow's tape ran out...aagghhhh! Least favorite: Yesterday (Sorry, Paul). My wish: I Saw Her Standing There...One, Two, Three, Faaaoorrr!!! Great starter.

RNRChemist: Did you ever see the Beatles live? How about any of them solo?

CG: I wish I had; they came to San Diego in 1965 but I was only 3! I've seen Paul and Ringo several times...if you haven't, you need to see them!

RNRChemist: I saw Paul in 2013 and Ringo last summer and I agree, they were fantastic and must-see for any Beatles fans! Any future Beatles project coming up? Maybe a book on other tours they did?

CG: I would love to do another project and have some ideas in mind, but right now I'm concentrating on selling this book, so please buy it! Thanks so much for the interview...great questions!

RNRChemist: Chuck, thanks so much for enlightening us with your Beatles knowledge and discussing your book with us...it was a real pleasure to speak with you! And to my readers, I cannot recommend Chuck's books enough; if you're a serious Beatles fan, you need these! Once again, thank you, Chuck!

2 comments:

  1. As Mary Hopkins would sing, "Those were the days my friend." It's fond to remember them however. I never got close to a Beatles concert, so all I caught from them came off TV. I didn't know they were more popular here than the UK. I have to admit it's still odd to realize how spartan things were back then, whether it be their sound system, lodging, and so forth--but it's a part of the time frame. $33.96!, ha, you'd spend that much on eating out once with a family today, or more. I have to admit that I think a lot of rock stars are spoiled by today's stardom. I guess more power to them if they can get it. If you think going out of town ever so often for work is a hassle, living that way has to be tough. It would get old fast. Yeah I think a lot of the screaming girls phenomena were a sign of the times so to speak. They probably saw it on Ed Sullivan, and just thought: hey that's what you do--scream and let it all out. I get a bit annoyed today when people go to a concert and are talking on their cell phones or whatever, rather than paying attention to the concert or a movie for that matter. Good interview.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words, el vox! Yes, times were so different back then, even throughout the 60s and into the early 70s. I mean, band's still even played gigs at local high school and college gyms (I even reviewed a book about the Who playing one such gig in 1967 --> http://rnrchemist.blogspot.com/2014/08/book-review-when-stars-were-in-reach.html)

      The closest I've ever come to a Beatles concert is when I saw Paul in 2013 and Ringo in 2014...I was not quite a year old when John was murdered so obviously I was too young :). A friend of mine's mother saw them in Boston on their final tour in 1966...I really should sit down and try to get her memories of it, I'm sure it would be fascinating!

      As for the cell phone thing, I'm with you! When I go to a sporting event or a concert, I am there to LISTEN and WATCH. Especially given how expensive they are these days. I take my phone out to take the occasional picture but that's it. Like you, it blows my mind when I see people spending the whole time texting or talking...not only did they waste money to do something they could do at home but they're taking a ticket away from someone who would actually appreciate it.

      Can you imagine if smartphones had existed in the 1960s?

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