BOOK REVIEW: The Beatles at Shea Stadium

The Beatles' famous concert at Shea Stadium in 1965 was not just another concert, it was a milestone in the history of rock music and a pre-Woodstock cultural touchstone of the 1960s generation. It changed the music industry and showed that large stadiums could be used for rock concerts, but it also changed other aspects of the entire experience that we now take for granted, such as concert films, organization, sound, and presentation. In this new book, author Dave Schwensen focuses solely on this Beatles concert and the history surrounding it. What follows is a fascinating book that chronicles the entire life cycle of this legendary show, from its inception to its execution and aftermath.

***special thanks to Debbie at North Shore Publishing for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

What makes this book so interesting is that it goes behind the scenes of the concert to give the full story, which is told not only by the author, but in the words of people (or their relations) who were there and involved. There are multiple reminiscences from people involved in the planning and execution of the concert, such as DJ Cousin Brucie, Murray the K's son, Nat Weiss' son, news reporter Joan Murray, men like Peter Bennett and Ken Mansfield who would eventually work for the Beatles, Ron Furmanek and Michael Adams (whose father Clay's film company, Clayco, was in charge of filming the concert for the TV special), and so on. Each chapter is broken into sections, first with the author giving a synopsis, followed by quotes from those involved behind the scenes, and then memories from the numerous fans that were interviewed. The book itself is broken down into sections: the planning of the concert in 1963 and 1964, the concert itself (from the Beatles arriving at the venue to their performance and subsequent departure from the stadium), and the aftermath of the concert (mainly concerned with the editing and airing of the TV special of the concert).

Even though the Beatles played their concert at Shea Stadium in New York City on August 15, 1965, the impetus for the concert began back in late 1963, which is where Schwensen begins his book. As much as Ed Sullivan was a visionary for agreeing to book the band on his show prior to them having a hit record in America, so too was Sid Bernstein, who, upon noticing news reports from the UK and Europe about Beatlemania, booked them into Carnegie Hall and the Washington Coliseum in February 1964 in between their three Ed Sullivan appearances. Upon the success of these appearances, as well as their wildly popular 1964 American tour, Bernstein's next idea was the first of its kind: to book the Beatles into the newly built Shea Stadium in New York City in the summer of 1965. A rock concert on this scale had never been attempted and there were a lot of naysayers within the industry and the press who didn't think the band could sell out the stadium and that logistically, it couldn't be planned and implemented successfully. As we all now know, the Beatles had no problem selling tickets for each and every one of Shea's 55,600 seats. In fact, there were three or four times that amount of ticket requests that came in, showing that they could have easily sold it out multiple nights. What really boggles the mind is that, given the setup of the concert where the stage was on second base and there was no field seating, they still sold it out. Had on-field seating been allowed in 1965 the way it is in 2014, it's not a stretch to think that the Beatles could have easily played to 75,000 people or more on that hot August night!

Imagine if they allowed on-field seating in 1965!
The first part of the book, which discusses the planning of the concert, is very interesting and I came away quite impressed at how it was done, especially given the constraints and limitations of 1965 technology, especially communications; if you've ever wondered if we take email and cell phones for granted in 2014, read this book and then ask yourself again!  The bulk of the book is concerned with the day of the concert and begins with the arrival of the fans, the opening acts, and the Beatles' dramatic arrival, first by helicopter, then armored van, and then hanging out in the bowels of the stadium until it was their turn to perform. From numerous eyewitness accounts, the band were alternately excited, anxious, and nervous at the scale of it all. A couple of new and fascinating bits of information I learned in this part were that not only were Mick Jagger and Keith Richards present for the first part of the Beatles concert, but so was future villain Allen Klein! Their presence is confirmed by photographs in this book, making this a really great piece of information to add to Beatles lore. George Harrison also had a peek out of the dugout during one of the opening acts in order to get an idea of how big it was going to be once they got out there. Once the band got on stage, the author goes through the concert dedicating a short chapter to each song, leading each one off with the stage banter that introduced it followed by his short description. The relevant memories of everyone he interviewed then fill the rest of the chapter. What's interesting to note is that, depending on where they were sitting, some fans said they heard nothing but screams while others said the sound was quite good. The Beatles were using new 100 Watt amplifiers and everything was tied directly into the PA system; even so, this was woefully inadequate given the size of the venue. There was no stage monitoring and there were no video screens so for most fans, the band were little more than moving specks in the distance. It becomes painfully clear that, while staging this rock concert at a large stadium was ahead of its time, it took another year or two for the sound and video technology to catch up.

Once the concert ended, the band left the stadium and the remainder of the book focuses on the events surrounding the ensuing TV special. There is more new information in here, the most interesting being that Brian Epstein and the Beatles initially approved of the final film before changing their minds and insisting on sweetening the recordings in a secret studio session in early 1966 (their main complaint being that it lacked bottom, ie drums and bass). This of course scotched the plans of Ed Sullivan Films and the filmmakers to show it on American TV during the 1965 Christmas season. While it's been common knowledge that the Beatles rerecorded some of the audio, I had never known that they initially approved of the film. What was interesting is that they could not use Abbey Road Studios (since they were signed to EMI but would be recording for a different company for the film project) and had to discreetly go into a different studio (CTS Studios) in order to do the session with George Martin. Eventually, the music was deemed satisfactory but for whatever reason, while the film was shown in the UK in mid-1966, it wasn't shown in the US until early 1967 by which time it was ancient history to the Beatles, who were knee deep in recording Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and about to release the groundbreaking "Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane" single.

Accompanying all of the text and interviews are archival photographs, most of which have never been seen before. Many were taken by a fan and photographer who was backstage with the band before the concert and then right in front of the stage during it. Even though they're in black and white, many are stunning and quite literally give a completely different perspective of the concert. There are many fan photographs showing the scale of the event and how primitive it was; one picture taken from the upper deck shows how small the stage and the band looked all alone in the middle of the field with no one around (the closest fans, all of whom were in the stands, were around one hundred feet away from the Beatles). There are also numerous reproductions of documents and correspondence between Brian Epstein and NEMS, Ed Sullivan's company, Clayco Films (who made the documentary), and various other people involved. In one interesting letter sent from Clay Adams to his son Michael, he details what happened at the secret recording session in 1966 and offers astonishment at the fact that airplanes now have in-flight movies and music! Reading this really threw into relief just how much things have changed, but also showed that not just music, but everything else was also changing at a rapid pace beginning in the 1960s.

Apart from a few typos scattered throughout, there's not too much I can fault with this book. It's a really interesting and well put together book detailing one of the biggest concerts of the 1960s, if not all time, and it's the story of an event that changed everything about the live music industry that we take for granted in the present day. It's clear from his writing that the author is a fan and the excitement of the event comes through on the pages. Most of the interviews he conducted are enjoyable and some are quite informative; the only ones I really didn't like reading were those from Nedra Ross, who was one of the Ronnettes and a friend of the Beatles at the time. Her memories tended to be really rambling and not very focused. What irritated me the most about them was that she tended to barely talk about the Beatles or Shea Stadium at all and usually ended up expounding on the Ronnettes, her personal life and issues at the time, or her scattered thoughts. While every other person interviewed for the book added something to it, whether they were behind the scenes or in the stands, hers didn't add much at all. Obviously, it's not the author's fault that she said what she said, but perhaps including less of her material would have been better, in my view.

In closing, this is a great book that any Beatles fans would enjoy reading and adding to their library. It's also a great snapshot and a time capsule of a time when the Beatles were at the height of their touring period and the mania surrounding them was at fever pitch, especially in America. Rock music was still young and the band, America, and the world were all more innocent than they are now. The information contained in the book will enlighten and the memories shared will bring a smile. The subtitle of the book rightfully claims this as the Beatles' greatest concert achievement, but the book itself is also quite an achievement for the author.