FROM THE UNRELEASED BEATLES: MUSIC AND FILM:  The complete film of the Beatles' first US concert on February 11, 1964 at Washington Coliseum, as well as footage of their dress rehearsal at for The Ed Sullivan Show on February 16, 1964, which was filmed but not broadcast.

February 11, 1964

Washington Coliseum, Washington, DC

Roll Over Beethoven

From Me to You
I Saw Her Standing There
This Boy
All My Loving
I Wanna Be Your Man
Please Please Me
Till There Was You
She Loves You
I Want to Hold Your Hand
Twist and Shout
Long Tall Sally

Ask most people to name the Beatles’ first American concert, and they’d probably say it was their February 12 appearance (at which they actually gave two shows) at Carnegie Hall in New York. However, it actually took place the day before in Washington, DC, at the Washington Coliseum, though the group had already played before a nationwide television audience on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9. So big a phenomenon were the Beatles already in the United States—though they’d been virtually unknown in the country only about six weeks before—that the performance was filmed by CBS television on black-and-white video, with Brian Epstein’s permission. On March 14 and 15, the film CBS made from what they shot—together with separate footage from Beach Boys and Lesley Gore concerts—was shown in movie theaters as a closed-circuit broadcast. (The Beach Boys and Gore did not play on the Coliseum bill, though it’s sometimes been mistakenly reported that they did, due to all three acts’ appearance in the same telecast.)

    Excerpts from the film have shown up in numerous video compilations, including The Beatles Anthology. What’s more, in 2003, Passport released a DVD entitled The Beatles in Washington D.C., February 11, 1964. So what makes this qualify as an entry in an overview of unissued Beatles footage?

    Plenty, actually. For as happens way too often when historically important films are repackaged for video and DVD release, that disc neither contains the whole concert, nor can it help breaking what doesn’t need to be fixed, by adding audio interview snippets over some of the between-song passages. Yes, it does add a few clips from press conferences and promo ads for the event. But really, an event as momentous as this should be experienced start to finish, without unnecessary editing and overdubs. It’s fortunate that the original film does exist, not only because it’s the straight historical record, but also because it might just be the most exciting on-screen, genuinely live Beatlemania of all.

    There are things to be said against the video of this concert. The image quality is dark, grainy, and flickery; the audio imperfect, particularly in the instrumental balance; and the camera angles few and basic. The stage setup was surprisingly primitive in some respects, with vocal microphone failures and rudimentary amplification that barely stood a fighting chance against eight thousand hysterical fans. But guess what? It doesn’t really matter. For here are the early Beatles at their onstage best. They’re more visibly delighted, indeed almost overwhelmed, by the crowd’s enthusiasm here than at any time before or since. Despite the seeming overnight success of their invasion of America, it had in reality been a long hard climb to the top, taking about seven years of diligent work and numerous excruciating setbacks, and also a year or so where they’d made virtually no inroads into the US market despite their mushrooming British superstardom. This was the payoff, and though the group would get fed up with touring before screaming teenagers within a couple of years, at the Washington Coliseum they were if anything having an even greater time than their admirers. They said as much in a few comments directly after the concert (as quoted in Bruce Spizer’s The Beatles Are Coming!), Paul calling the gig their “most exciting yet,” and Ringo adding, “Some of them even threw jelly babies in bags and they hurt like hailstones, but they could have ripped me apart and I couldn’t have cared less. What an audience! I could have played all night!”

    The first thing most viewers notice about the concert is how almost shockingly amateur the conditions are considering this is a show in a large facility for the biggest entertainment phenomenon going. As the Beatles were playing in a boxing ring, they needed to rotate their instruments every few minutes, so that each section of the audience had at least one chance to see the group head-on. Despite their status as kings of the hill, there wasn’t a big crew of roadies on hand to do the heavy lifting; they had to do some of the lugging of mikes around themselves, Ringo tugging his drums around the circle on a large, revolving platform all on his own at times. (“The man told us to keep movin’ round, y’see, so . . . we’re keepin’ movin’ ” states McCartney, almost apologetically and begrudgingly, into the mike at one point.) If there was a sound check done before the band came on, it’s certainly not evident. For when the boys finally launched into “Roll Over Beethoven” after a few tense minutes of tuning up and getting everything in place, George Harrison’s lead vocal could hardly be heard due to an apparent malfunctioning microphone, though he coolly moved over a few steps to a better one near the end of the first verse without breaking a sweat or missing a beat.

    In spite of the handicaps, the Beatles played with tremendous energy. If that meant that many of the songs got sped up a tad—and, in the cases of “Please Please Me” and “Till There Was You” more than a tad—they certainly didn’t let it affect their playing or their vocals, which are amazingly spot-on, even in the complex three-part harmonies of “This Boy” (itself a challenge in this environment, where ballads couldn’t combat the audience noise with as much volume as the rockers). Here, too, is the only place where you get to hear an entire 12-song set from their first American visit, as opposed to the piecemeal extracts doled out over the course of their three Ed Sullivan programs. And what a set it is, including all four of their first British chart-topping singles, three of which were riding high on the American hit parade at the moment; “All My Loving,” the best of the non-45 originals from Meet the Beatles, then resting at No. 1 on the LP charts; “I Saw Her Standing There,” the B-side of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and a big hit under its own steam; another ballad with “Till There Was You,” which like “This Boy” helped enormously in varying the pace; and the all-out rockers of “Roll Over Beethoven,” “I Wanna Be Your Man,” and “Twist and Shout.” Too, you get to hear all four of the Beatles on lead vocals, not just Lennon and McCartney, with Ringo Starr taking his turn for “I Wanna Be Your Man,” though his bum mike unfortunately made his singing all but inaudible.

    Entertaining in their own right are the constant cutaways to the reactions of the crowd, from the proud moms escorting their teenage daughters to one 13-year-old-looking boy in a mock Beatles collarless suit, grinning ear to ear, delightedly sporting what might have been the first American Beatle haircut ever caught on film. Also amusing is the band’s own between-song patter, with their onstage personas already set: McCartney Mr. Smooth as the master of ceremonies, Lennon threatening to lapse into comic bad taste with his mock-spastic clapping. Paul does get off a line worthy of Lennon when introducing “Please Please Me,” though: “This song was released in America, it didn’t do anything. It was released later again, and . . . well, it’s doing something, you know?” (Even Lennon laughed hard at that.)
    While they were playing the songs they rarely looked more animated, Ringo shaking his head like mad behind the drums, Paul bouncing up and down with joy, and even the less habitually ebullient John and George unable to contain their smiles or jiggling dance steps. Some highlights: the way the audience spontaneously erupts into screams when Lennon hits the anguished high note at the end of “This Boy”; McCartney yelping to kick off the instrumental break to “All My Loving,” he and Harrison quick-stepping back to the mikes at just the right moment to resume the vocal; the nearly-out-of-tune instrumental intro to “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” negated by the almost raw grittiness with which they lean into the riffs; Paul taking care to acknowledge the Isley Brothers in his spoken preface for “Twist and Shout”; and Paul and George singing some of their backup lines in the wrong order during the same tune. Alas, in the original film you don’t get to hear or see the last half of “Twist and Shout” or anything from the finale, “Long Tall Sally.” (The appearance of “Long Tall Sally” on the electronic press kit for the Anthology project in 1995, however, helped lead to confirmation that the entire concert videotape, complete with the full “Twist and Shout,” does exist at Apple.)
    Do you really miss a lot of the original film—even besides the missing half of “Twist and Shout” and entirety of “Long Tall Sally”—if you opt for Passport’s The Beatles in Washington D.C., February 11, 1964 DVD? Not really—only “Twist and Shout,” “This Boy,” and “All My Loving” are missing, though all of those are great songs and performances. And if you want the entire film as originally telecast on closed-circuit TV, it’s on the not-wholly-kosher-looking DVD compilation Beatles Around the World, complete with the original overexcited theatrical trailer. That trailer, incidentally, is most amusing for a simulated conversation between a teenage boy and his date, part of whose hilariously dated hipster lingo follows:

Boy: “ Like, wow, the Beatles! Aren’t they the swingin’, livin’ end! You dig, chick?”

Girl: “I dig, Chuck!”

Boy: “That’s one scene I gotta make!”

Girl: “Me too, Chuck!”

Boy: “Great! We’ll make it together! . . . Chick, you got the date! I’ll borrow wheels, and we’ll go girl go!”
Girl: “Crazy!”
    However, you can tell Beatles Around the World is a “gray market” release, in spite of it sneaking into some wholly above-board retail outlets, by the absence of chapter markers for each individual song (which are usually standard in commercial concert DVDs), as well as somewhat iffy transfer quality. The original film—sound and image cleaned up as much as current technology allows, with the missing one-and-a-half songs from the end added, if available—is another to add to the list of Beatles videos that should be released in their entirety, the way they were meant to be seen.

February 16, 1964

US television program
The Ed Sullivan Show (rehearsal, not broadcast)

Deauville Hotel, Miami Beach

She Loves You
This Boy
All My Loving
I Saw Her Standing There
From Me to You
I Want to Hold Your Hand

The Beatles’ three 1964 Ed Sullivan Show appearances—taped on February 7 (in New York) and February 16 (in Miami)—were not only superb performances, but monumental milestones of popular culture. All of their 1964 clips, as well as their August 1965 Ed Sullivan spot, have been officially released on the two-DVD set The Four Historic Ed Sullivan Shows Featuring the Beatles. This also includes the entire episodes, multiple fellow guests and commercials intact, should you want to experience or revisit them as they were originally broadcast. It’s an essential video document for any committed Beatles fan.
    It’s not so well known, however, that yet more Ed Sullivan footage exists that was never broadcast. Prior to the live broadcast from Miami on the evening of February 16, the Beatles did a dress rehearsal of the same six numbers used in the final show. So these clips, naturally, are similar to what you see in the February 16 Ed Sullivan episode, except that the sound and image are worse. But it’s hardly a waste of time—the sound and image are still decent, the performances are just as spirited as the broadcast version, and there are some amusing technical foul-ups. Even considering that network television was far less slick in 1964 than it is today, it’s still surprising to see a mike set up at such a low height that John (to his visible chagrin) almost has to squat to sing into it during “She Loves You.” The problem is not satisfactorily fixed during the dress rehearsal, and what’s worse, Paul’s vocal mike gives out entirely for the first part of “I Saw Her Standing There,” leaving John’s harmony as the sole singing to be heard. John’s mike, too, remains considerably louder than Paul’s for the rest of the show.
    Perhaps knowing it was a dress rehearsal, John seems to be taking more liberties than usual during the between-song patter, slurring, “Shut up while he’s talkin’!” when Paul’s preamble to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is interrupted by screams. Then comes the usual Lennon cripple imitations (conspicuously not attempted in the live set that was broadcast later that day), as McCartney urges the audience to clap their hands and stamp their feet. Paul even shoots John a (scripted?) dirty look at one point, adding a disapproving shake of the head to the audience. But the Beatles still look like they’re enjoying themselves mightily through all the snafus, and none of their clowning changes Ed Sullivan’s glowing assessment of the foursome as “four of the nicest youngsters we’ve ever had on our stage” at the set’s finish.

There's much more on the unreleased music of the Beatles, from all phases of their career, in The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film.


contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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