It’s standard rock-history practice not to rank the Beatles, as a live band, at the level of more obvious titans like the Who, Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience or Dylan once he paired with the Band. Their symbiotic relationship with the studio perhaps dulls what ought to be a clear point: When the Fab Four were invested in tearing it up live, you were gonna get torn up too, in a good way. They could cook, and to paraphrase John Lennon in the Anthology, there was no one to touch them on a concert stage.
On the 50th anniversary of their final public performance, let’s get beyond those tired, misleading, unchallenged opinions that the Beatles went through the motions as a live band, accepting that they couldn’t compete with each evening’s Wall of Sound that came in the form of thousands of screaming teenagers, and stake out their in-concert epicenter. Below is our survey of their best documented gigs. If you truly wish to hear the Beatles blowing the doors off all misperceptions, start with this 10-pack.
10. Sam Houston Coliseum; Houston, Texas; August 19th, 1965
Frantic, frenetic, faster-paced than usual, the two Beatles gigs on this day represent the sweaty zenith of Beatlemania. The band had arrived in Houston at two in the morning, to be met by phalanxes of fans. It’s the toss of a dime over which show contains more kinetic energy, in part because the fans can’t get close enough to the stage, which causes the MC, Russ Knight, a local DJ known as “The Weird Beard,” to rave like a madman into his mic. One of his hoarse-voiced admonishments concludes with “This is the Houston Security Beatle division.” Lennon mocks him repeatedly, as if he were a headmaster back in the Quarrymen days. “Thank you very much, that was wonderful.” If you listen to the tape, it sounds like the Beatles are drenched in sweat, and loving it. The second show is maybe incrementally better, for a version of “Can’t Buy Me Love” that ups the urgency of the studio take, with a face-melter of a George Harrison guitar solo.
9. Candlestick Park; San Francisco, California; August 29th, 1966
Time to clear away the old bromide that the Beatles were garbage on their last American tour. Well, they had their evenings where they were garbage. But as they knew that this was to be their last touring concert, the Beatles did what Beatles were wont to do, and struck the great galvanizing chord of posterity. As any baseball fan will tell you, the wind was hell at Candlestick Park, and so it was on this day, too, and the sound is blown around a bit on the tape of the gig made by Beatles press officer Tony Barrow. That the tape cuts off in the middle of a maniacally raunchy version of “Long Tall Sally” feels appropriate. History does not come with clearly marked starts and stops. “John wanted to give up more than the others,” Ringo Starr would say. “He’d had enough.” His vocals on the 1966 tour could be an exercise in careless shower singing, but he’s bang-on here, and even coaxes a few notes of “In My Life” out of his guitar as the band departs the stage. Their evening’s services pocketed them $90,000.
8. Concert Hall; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; September 2nd, 1964
The Beatles were in a bad mood for this one, distressed at seeing only white faces in the crowd. Their musical angst was captured in a radio broadcast on WIBG, resulting in one of the best-sounding live Beatles tapes. Starr pulls an “I’d like the band to slow down a little but also not really” move on the close of “Boys” as he shouts “all right!” as part plea, part admission of delight. “If I Fell” was even more hilarious than usual. Throughout the 1964 U.S. tour, McCartney and Lennon would wrestle with their harmony, going off-kilter at some point such that they’d then start egging each other on to sound more absurd. They yell “easy now!” at someone near the front of the stage who’s screaming as the song starts. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” has real rhythmic buoyancy and swing; listening to it feels floating in the Dead Sea while listening to Count Basie tackle Merseybeat.
7. Festival Hall; Melbourne, Australia; June 17th, 1964
Ringo Starr was the hard-pressed man of the Beatles touring days. A lot of their sound was built up from what he did at his kit, and battling the screaming fans challenged him more than the others. This was the tour where Jimmy Nicol sat in on drums while Starr battled tonsillitis instead of teenyboppers. The two shows on this day marked his return, and the second one is of special interest. His bandmates are clearly jacked to have the drummer back. This is the only time in Beatles history that you can say they did a stomping version of “Till There Was You,” with Starr laying into his toms as Lennon grinds out chords on his rhythm guitar. McCartney does the welcoming back honors with “It’s very nice for all of us to have back with us now — Ringo!” As you’d expect, the crowd rejoins with a cacophony of fetter-free joy, but our Mr. Starr does not get to sing on this night — doctor’s orders.
6. Empire Theatre; Liverpool, England; December 7th, 1963
What fun this is. The Empire is where the Beatles would come to watch their early rock & roll heroes, and here it became the venue at which they’d say goodbye to their hometown, as the world at large swallowed them up. (Or they swallowed it up — something like that.) It’s rare that we get a surviving tape of a full concert by the pre-global dominance Beatles. The conquering of American is a couple months away, and this gig has a sweetness to it courtesy of its “you’re one of us” feel. Everyone here would have seen the Beatles at the Cavern. McCartney usually introduced “Till There Was You,” but Lennon handles that chore on this night, adding, “a lot of you will remember this from the Cavern.” And so they did. The bridge of “This Boy,” with its wailing, nakedly exposed Lennon vocal, presages a gig-closing back-to-back run of “Money” and “Twist and Shout.” This was a mega-rarity, and the last time the band would play both songs in one concert, but even when they did in the Hamburg days, they spaced them apart to save Lennon’s throat. Plus, it just feels like Christmas throughout, and that you’re hanging with good friends and family.
5. Washington Coliseum; Washington, D.C.; February 11th, 1964
First U.S. concert. Doesn’t get more historic than that, unless you deliver one of the great sets in rock & roll history, and ding-dong, went the doorbell, the Beatles are here with a package for you. It’s cute to see them start with George Harrison singing “Roll Over Beethoven,” because their thinking is clearly that, well, we’re new here, we’re English, they’d probably like a song by one of their own to start things off. What this means is that the next number, “From Me to You,” which is jointly sung by Lennon and McCartney, would feature the two practically biting pieces out of their microphones in their earnestness to show what they could do. The interplay between Starr and Harrison on the latter’s guitar solo during “I Saw Her Standing There” is as charged as the insane guitar duel that will close out “The End” on Abbey Road five years later. Starr never drummed with more ferocity. Happy ferocity, but ferocity nonetheless. Got a bead on you, America.
4. Circus-Krone-Bau; Munich, Germany; June 24th, 1966
Yes, this gig is sloppy. And if you want to play a game of count-the-flubs, you could go deep into the night with what remains of this Beatles set. But this is how they must have sounded when it got to be late at night on the Reeperbahn in those let’s-bust-our-ass days of 1961 and 1962. The Beatles certainly mailed it in a bunch on their final global trek. There’s some great fidelity on the extant recordings of their Tokyo recordings, starting a week after this German show, but with that fidelity you notice their sterility. The Beatles were a blood-and-thunder, pumping rhythm & blues band in their heart of hearts. And so it’s appropriate that they flip that switch one last time with their return to Germany, where they once cut their teeth into wolf-like points. This is the first full-band version of “Yesterday.” They sound like they’ve been up too long, but they still want to rock your balls off. Remember: Revolver is already in the can, and will be released in a month and a half after John Lennon sings “Rock and Roll Music” here. You listen to it, and you think that if he had to pick a place to lay his loyalties, it might be with Mr. Chuck Berry rather than “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
3. Palais de Sports; Paris, France; June 20th, 1965
The one and only time the Beatles performed an encore after they became famous was at this Parisian evening gig. The Beatles hadn’t gone over well in Paris the year before; this is the sound of a proper conquering, after a failed first attempt. It’s also one time that the crowd singing along is a boon on the chorus of “Can’t Buy Me Love.” The set list is a dazzling blend, mixing the always-autumnal-sounding Beatles for Sale material with some kickers from A Hard Day’s Night, and singles like “I Feel Fine” (which was never easy to pull off with its tricky guitar opening and Latin sway-beat) and newcomer “Ticket to Ride.” McCartney is gassed on the closing “Long Tall Sally,” almost speaking the words “Everything’s all right.” True at that.
2. Apple Rooftop; London, England; January 30th, 1969
To the roof! Unable to finish their Get Back project, feeling themselves prisoners of the studio, the Beatles reverse-engineered the sequence in A Hard Day’s Night when they raced down the fire escape for liberation and instead headed upwards. The one-off of one-offs, there is obviously no paying crowd, just local office workers with their heads stretched out their windows in disbelief. They do “Get Back” three times. Lennon’s guitar is over-loud as he plays lead, and the cops show up. This is the only time we get to hear the Beatles, in a live context, at a point when each player was among the best in the world on his respective instrument. You might love circa-1965 George Harrison as a guitarist, but it wasn’t until 1968–69 that he hit the Jeff Beck/Eric Clapton/Mick Taylor level. Fittingly, “One After 909” features one of the best guitar solos you’ll ever hear by anyone. The spirit of truancy, of having a lark, of bonding with one’s mates, infuses every last note, every piss-taking joke between the songs. Before McCartney met Lennon on July 6th, 1957, he first saw him on the back of a flatbed, singing a song and changing the lyrics to tease his Aunt Mimi, and so now does the duo tease the police who have come to put a stop to their excessively loud fun, though you know they wish they could get in on it.
1. Karlaplansstudion; Stockholm, Sweden; October 24th, 1963
Rumors used to persist that in the 1970s John Lennon would scour Greenwich Village record shops in search of a recording of this set from Sweden. If you wanted to claim it better than Dylan at the Manchester Free Trade Hall or the Who at Leeds, your argument would at least deserve to be heard. It is primal. It possesses finesse. It is the loudest rock & roll anyone had ever recorded up until that point. The show was broadcast on Swedish National Radio, so the extant sound is impeccable, with lots of chunky, efficacious distortion from the guitar amps. This was the first concert they’d given outside of England after reaching stardom. They yelp over the start of “Money,” trying to force Lennon to get a further rung up in his vocal intensity. He gets there. They’re impeccably tight on the cover of Smoky Robinson and the Miracles’ “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” and the closing “Twist and Shout” gives its famous studio counterpart a push. This is a band discovering just how powerful they could be, even after knowing they were damn powerful. But it’s like they’re realizing they’re better than they knew they were, and it’s not like they lacked for confidence. That is one glorious hell of a sound.