Editor’s Note: This piece, originally published on Feb. 6, 1994, refers to the The Beatles’ concert at the Washington Coliseum as “their first live performance anywhere in the United States.” It was the band’s first concert in the United States; its first live performance occurred two days earlier on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Hank Blum got the tickets. God only knows how. He was the person in our eighth-grade class who was good at things like that. He had big ears, a homely face and thick glasses, and the rest of us felt a protective affection for him. He died in a car accident years later in Colorado. But that night he was a god: He got tickets for six of us to see the Beatles at the Washington Coliseum, in what was their first live performance anywhere in the United States. It was Feb. 11, 1964.
Thirty years later, my sharpest memory is of walking past the empty stage on the way to our seats and seeing the gleaming drum set that said “Beatles” with the big “B” on the bass, just the way it had looked two nights before when they made their debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” When I saw those drums, I knew it was really them. I lingered by the stage as long as I could, savoring that moment of anticipation.
And then they were onstage in the blaze of the spotlight, rushed in by the cops under a shower of jelly beans. I don’t remember what they played first. Maybe it was “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” or “I Saw Her Standing There,” or “Twist and Shout.” You could barely hear the music above the screams. Everyone was screaming, not just the girls. It was all you could do: scream and throw jelly beans. That was what you were supposed to do, if you were in the grip of Beatlemania. But my God! They were up there onstage. Hank Blum had brought his father’s binoculars, and you could see John Lennon shake his Beatle-cut hair when he sang the “Ooooooo” part in “She Loves You.” It was really him. It was really all of them.
That night was the beginning. The Beatles were still the four mop-tops from Liverpool. They actually wore those cute little Beatle suits with the round velvet collars, and shoes with pointy toes. It was the beginning of the beginning, when the world was sweet and fresh, before the Beatles began taking LSD and growing their hair so they looked like Indian holy men; before John took up with the appalling Yoko Ono and Paul was overcome by terminal vanity. President Kennedy had been dead less than three months. It really was a long time ago.
Memory plays tricks on you. I remember the Washington Coliseum that night as vast, dimensionless. But it was tiny: Just 8,092 people saw the show, according to the next day’s Washington Post. That was part of what made it so incredible -- they were playing in this little bandbox that usually hosted acts like the circus or the Ice Capades. The place was so small that the screams filled it up and didn’t leave room for any more sound. It didn’t matter. You could feel the music through your skin, the way you feel the bass under your feet when you turn the stereo way up.
The “adult” reaction to the Beatles back then was that they were a bunch of losers. In Washington before the show, the band gave a news conference where they were asked incredibly stupid questions. According to a very arch news story in The Post, the “dialogue” went like this: “How do the Beatles react to criticism that they’re really not very good? ‘We’re not,’ said Paul McCartney. Did the Beatles come to America to get revenge -- perhaps for the Revolution? ‘No, no,’ said Ringo. ‘We just came for the money.’ “
No wonder every kid in the country thought that adults were fools in 1964. They were right.
The Post carried a sour review the next morning, mostly about how loud the screaming had been, terming the evening “Cacophony in B.” The reviewer observed: “While their voices are a bit thin, they possess the quality of semi-hysteria so necessary for this kind of performance. Also, they sweat and smile a lot.” The Post’s TV critic, Lawrence Laurent, described the group as “imported hillbillies who look like sheep dogs and sound like alley cats in agony.”
J. Edgar Hoover must have told him to write that. Hoover undoubtedly thought the Beatles were dangerous. And the funny thing is, the Beatles were dangerous, although most grown-ups didn’t know it at the time. They were the first sound of something coming unstuck. Every kid in Washington could hear it that night. They might not all have had a friend like Hank Blum who could score some tickets, but they knew that something big was happening, and that adults didn’t get it.
Washington was such a little city then. Southern politicians, and trolley tracks, and segregation. Adults drank a lot back then, martinis and Manhattans and dark highballs with a lot of Scotch and a little water. No wonder they were such idiots: They were all stewed to the gills.
But they were innocent too. Even the Vietnam War was innocent then. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution was passed later that year, but most people hadn’t an inkling as to what it would mean. The Post carried a front-page headline the morning after the concert -- “Terrorism Continues in Saigon” -- as if all we had to do was crack the whip over there and get those Vietcong boys into shape! Next to that story was another one headlined “Alarmists Reproved by Johnson,” in which the president “declared that the United States does not have as many problems as Russia.” Hmmm. A different time.
The Beatles went back to New York the next day for two performances at Carnegie Hall, with about 2,900 people at each. Ticket prices ranged from $3 to $5.50. Then they went to Miami Beach to do “The Ed Sullivan Show” again, this time live from the Deauville Hotel. They taped a third Sullivan performance too. And then they were gone, back to England.
But they had lit a fuse -- and then, before anyone knew what had happened, the bomb exploded. In a few months they were THE BEATLES, the biggest thing that had ever happened in the history of popular culture, and nobody was making jokes about sheep dogs and alley cats anymore.
“A Hard Day’s Night” was released that summer, a magnificent piece of mock cinema verite by British director Richard Lester that captured the Beatles so lovingly that the whole world suddenly felt on intimate terms with them. I can still remember almost every line in that movie, like John telling the reporters who ask him how he found America: “Turn left at Greenland.”
They were so cute, in their little suits and their bowl haircuts and their Liverpool accents. So utterly innocent. Their idea of being naughty was making silly faces at the camera. If Lawrence Laurent and the rest of the adults had had any idea of what was coming next in America, any notion of the forces of anarchy and sexual revolution that were just over the horizon, they would have embraced John, Paul, George and Ringo as the last best hope before the Eve of Destruction. But of course they didn’t have a clue.
In August 1966, the Beatles came back to Washington; this time the concert was an intimate gathering of 50,000 jelly-bean-throwers at D.C. Stadium, as it was then known. Robert F. Kennedy wasn’t dead yet. But it wasn’t the same. You could hear the music better this time, but the huge amplifiers made the band sound the way announcers do at a ballgame.
It was all different. It was real now. The movie had started to roll. Lyndon Johnson had more than 225,000 troops in Vietnam, and a group called SDS was mobilizing against him. The Beatles would soon be heading to the ashram with the Maharishi, and instead of puppy love, they were singing about tangerine trees and marmalade skies. Yoko Ono was standing just offstage. The world wasn’t sweet and fresh anymore. It was getting hot.