Touring was killing the Beatles by 1966. Perhaps not literally, but that seemed like less of a guarantee with each passing day. A trip to Asia that July ended with a frightening incident in the Philippines, when an inadvertent snub of the dictatorial first family provoked a nationwide turn against the foursome. Their entire police detail was suddenly withdrawn and the Beatles were left to defend themselves against a hoard of angry nationalists who manhandled them all the way to the airport. Only after being stripped of concert proceeds were they permitted to leave the country.
Following the harrowing ordeal, no one was particularly thrilled about having to hit the road again for a U.S. tour the following month. "We're going to have a couple of weeks to recuperate before we go and get beaten up by the Americans," George Harrison cracked with more than a touch of resentment. The off-the-cuff joke turned to a horrifying reality when a supposedly anti-religious statement made my John Lennon ignited a firestorm among Bible-toting zealots south of the Mason-Dixon line. They torched Beatles albums, boycotted songs and unleashed a torrent of death threats. Fresh bullet holes on the fuselage of the band's plane cleared up any doubts: They were in harm's way.
But it wasn't just the physical danger. The Beatles were dying as musicians. Playing for a crowd had once been their lifeblood, but fame had robbed them of everything that made it joyful and fulfilling. The sporting arenas were too big and the screams of an adoring audience were too loud for the 100-watt Vox amplifiers to manage. Stadium rock was in its infancy, and even basic equipment like foldback speakers had yet to be invented. Unable to hear themselves, their musicianship began to atrophy.
"In 1966 the road was getting pretty boring," Ringo Starr recalled in the Beatles Anthology documentary. "It was coming to the end for me. Nobody was listening at the shows. That was OK at the beginning, but we were playing really bad." Perched in the back on his drum kit, he was reduced to following the three wiggling backsides at the front of the stage just to determine where they were in the song.
At least the audience couldn't hear how ragged they had become – not that they would have cared. "The sound at our concerts was always bad. We would be joking with each other on stage just to keep ourselves amused," remembered Harrison in the Anthology. Lennon took particular delight in making vaguely obscene alterations to their song lyrics ("I Wanna Hold Your Gland"), knowing full well that no one had any clue what he was saying. "It was just a sort of a freak show," he later said. "The Beatles were the show, and the music had nothing to do with it."
The boredom of playing the same dozen songs each day also began to grate on the group's notoriously short attention span. Making matters worse, most of the tunes were several years old. Much of their recent work was enhanced by backing musicians and innovative studio techniques, making it simply too challenging to perform given the technical limitations of a live setting. In fact, the Beatles would never play a single track off of their latest album, Revolver, released just days before they kicked off their dates.
Neither they nor the audience could hear anything, they weren't improving their skills, they weren't promoting their new music, and they weren't enjoying themselves. They certainly didn't need the money, so why were they doing this?
The question was on everyone's mind during the 1966 U.S. tour, a cursed excursion beset by a string of unmitigated disasters. The Klu Klux Klan, still outraged over Lennon's "bigger than Jesus" comment, picketed some gigs, while other shows competed with nearby race riots. A firecracker exploded during their Memphis concert, causing the band to momentarily believe that a gunman finally made good on the assassination threats.
Biblical rains at an open-air concert in Cincinnati put the band in the unenviable position of either canceling the show and potentially instigating a riot among the 35,000 expectant fans, or performing as scheduled amid the very real risk of electrocution. "It was really scary," Nat Weiss, the band's attorney, told author Philip Norman. "The crowd kept screaming, 'We want the Beatles!' and Paul grew so upset at the prospect of going out there that he was sick. The strain was too great. And he threw up in the dressing room." After roadie Mal Evans received a shock severe enough to throw him across the stage, the show was postponed until the next day. "The only gig we ever missed!" noted a proud Harrison.
After playing the makeup show that afternoon, the Beatles flew to St. Louis, where they were confronted with another rainy catastrophe. The makeshift shelter hastily constructed in the open-air Busch Stadium did little to guard against the elements. "They put bits of corrugated iron over the stage, so it felt like the worst little gig we'd ever played at even before we'd started as a band," remembered Paul McCartney. "We were having to worry about the rain getting in the amps and this took us right back to the Cavern days. It was worse than those early days."
Barry Tashian of the Remains, a support act on the tour, has a particularly vivid memory of the ramshackle setup. "Our roadie, Ed Freeman, was stationed at the main AC connection to watch the performance and unplug the whole stage if anyone showed signs of an electric shock," he wrote in his memoirs. "There were sparks flying all over the place," Freeman confirms. "I remember that every time Paul bumped into the mic, which was almost every beat, there were sparks."
It would get worse. Fans rushed the field during their performance at Los Angeles' Dodger Stadium, leading to an ugly clash with billy-club-wielding police. Twenty-five were arrested and dozens more injured. It took two hours for authorities to restore some semblance of order, during which time the band were imprisoned in their dressing room. "The getaway car we hoped to use was severely damaged and put out of action," wrote Tony Barrow, the Beatles' press officer, in his book John, Paul, George, Ringo & Me. "All four boys were on the point of despair and we were discussing the possibility that our party might have to stay cooped up at the stadium overnight. Ringo broke the ensuing silence by saying in a small voice: 'Can I please go home to my mummy now, please can I?'"
Three attempts to ferry the superstars out of the premises using decoy limos and even ambulances failed before they were finally hustled into a tank-like armored car. For McCartney, the most gung-ho live performer, this was the last straw. "I remember us getting in a big empty steel-lined wagon, like a removal van. There was no furniture in there – nothing. We were sliding around trying to hold on to something, and at that moment everyone said, 'Oh, this bloody touring lark – I've had it up to here, man.'"
Luckily, they only had one show left. The next day, August 29th, 1966, they were scheduled to play San Francisco's Candlestick Park.
McCartney just wanted to get it over with. "It wasn't fun anymore. And that was the main point: We'd always tried to keep some fun in it for ourselves. In anything you do you have to do that, and we'd been pretty good at it. But even now America was beginning to pall because of the conditions of tour, and because we'd done it so many times. So by Candlestick Park it was like, 'Don't tell anyone, but this is probably our last gig.'"
The Beatles' chartered jet touched down at San Francisco International Airport at 5:30 the next evening. Rather than the familiar sight of screaming fans, only a police detail and unenthusiastic members of the local press were there to meet them. "The vibe from the boys was one of anticipation of the final show," said Tashian. "They looked visibly relieved to know they'd be on their way home soon."
A bus took the party straight to the stadium, home to San Francisco's Giants baseball team. Unfortunately, they found the gates bolted shut. "All of us on the bus were laughing like crazy," remembers Tashian. "The driver headed to the outermost perimeter of the parking lot and began driving faster and faster around the park to escape the fans. Suddenly, in an attempt to get away from a growing convoy of fans following the bus, he exited the parking lot and drove around the neighborhood near the park. We were cruising around residential streets, nearly getting lost."
Once safely inside, the Beatles descended into the locker rooms, which had been outfitted with minor luxuries to serve as their private dressing area. "There was a white tablecloth, a little bit of food, some beer and some soft drinks," says newspaper photographer Jim Marshall. Local KYA Radio DJ "Emperor" Gene Nelson, the show's master of ceremonies, describes a convivial scene. "The dressing room was chaos. There were loads of people there. The press tried to get passes for their kids and the singer Joan Baez was in there. Any local celebrity who was in town was in the dressing room. They were having a party in there."
Reporters able to sweet talk their way inside were given a brief audience with members of the band. One was heard to quiz Lennon about borrowing ideas from baroque composers. "I don't know what baroque is," he replied. "I wouldn't know a Handel from a Gretel."
The festivities began at 8 p.m., with the crowd rising to their feet while a local band played the National Anthem. Many rustled promotional flyers reading "The Monkees Are Here," which NBC-TV distributed by the thousands to trumpet their new show about a mop-topped band premiering September 12th.
Unusually, only 25,000 seats were sold in the 42,500-capacity stadium, with tickets retailing for between $4.50 and $6.50. The faithful who arrived early decorated the railings, front walls, and chain-link backstop with homemade posters honoring their heroes. One particularly irreverent Beatlemaniac hung a sign proclaiming "Lennon Saves."
There are few roles more thankless than an opening act at a Beatles concert in 1966, but the support bands struggled mightily to be heard against the fierce gusts of wind that blew in from San Francisco Bay, stirring up miniature dust storms across the infield. "It was not the sort of night you'd like to turn out for an outdoor concert," observed Barrow. "Emperor" Nelson concurred. "As any Giants fans will know, Candlestick Park in August, at night, was cold, foggy and windy."
The Remains were the first to take the stage. "A wild sea wind was blowing in every direction," wrote Tashian. "The audience was about 200 feet away – much farther than usual. It made us feel extremely isolated from the audience." According to Marshall, the setting was a long way off from today's flashy pyrotechnics and Jumbotron extravaganzas. "The sound was pretty primitive and the lighting was just baseball lights."
After the Remains finished their set, they stayed on the field to back Bobby Hebb, who sang his recent hit "Sunny" into the bitter cold and fog. Then came the Cyrkle, a band represented by the Beatles' own manager, Brian Epstein. They were riding high in the charts with "Red Rubber Ball," a tune co-written by Paul Simon. And finally there were the Ronettes, who had been friends with the Beatles since before their first trip to America. Although they hadn't had a Top 20 hit in three years, the two bands enjoyed each other's company and the Beatles brought them along. Lead singer Veronica Bennett was barred from the tour by her increasingly jealous boyfriend (and future Beatles producer) Phil Spector, who was paranoid that she would revive her dormant fling with Lennon. Bennett's cousin Elaine Mayes took her place.
The Beatles kept the pre-show reverie going in their dressing room, but Tony Barrow detected something different in the air as they changed into their dark green Edwardian suits and silk floral shirts. He'd spent many years in their inner circle – in fact, it was he who coined the "Fab Four" moniker – but this was something he'd never felt before. "There was a sort of end-of-term spirit thing going on," he said decades later. "And there was also this kind of feeling amongst all of us around the Beatles, that this might just be the last concert that they will ever do."
His suspicions were confirmed when McCartney sidled up to him just before show time. "I remember Paul, casually, at the very last minute saying, 'Have you got your cassette recorder with you?' I said, 'Yes, of course.' Paul then said, 'Tape it, will you? Tape the show.'" That had certainly never happened before.
At 9:27, after the Ronettes had finished, four tiny figures bounded out of the Giants dugout and across the baseball diamond. They ushered in a wave of screams that an attending Joan Baez later described as "like clouds bursting." The Beatles were surrounded by a 200-member police guard, as well as a Loomis armored car, which was kept running behind the stage in case they had to make a quick get-away. They clutched cameras as well as guitars and drumsticks, snapping pictures of the grandstand for posterity.
The elevated stage had been constructed at the edge of the infield over second base. As an added security measure, a chain-link fence surrounded the perimeter of the stage. Fittingly, the Beatles would quite literally play their 11-song, 33-minute set in a cage.
As they plugged in their guitars and did a quick tune-up, Barrow got in position by the stage and held his tape recorder aloft. "Although I didn't fancy my chances of making a brilliant recording of the concert, one thing in my favor was the great distance between the stage and the stands at this particular venue," he explained. "Because of this, I guessed I might be able to capture sound from the stage without picking up too much of the nonstop screams and shouts of the fans coming from the stands."
A quick shouted hello and the band were off into an abbreviated version of Chuck Berry's "Rock 'n' Roll Music," a mainstay of their set since their days (or rather, nights) as a club band playing the red-light Reeperbahn district of Hamburg, Germany, at the beginning of their career. Though lacking the energy they had then – they couldn't possibly be that hungry again – the Beatles attacked the old favorite with a bite that had largely been absent on the tour. Just this last time, they resolved to make an effort.
Without stopping they launched into their funky B side, "She's a Woman," allowing McCartney to go into his finest soul-shouter routine before pausing to deliver one of his charmingly halting stage greetings. "Hello, good evening. We'd like to carry on with a song, not surprisingly, by, er, written by George. And this song was on our Rubber Soul LP. And the song is called 'If I Needed, er, Someone!'"
Beyond contending with the wind, the band fought to be heard above their familiar nemesis: screams. It was like standing on a crowded runway with jets taking off on all sides. Along with guns, security guards had been issued cotton balls to stick in their ears in an attempt to ward off headaches. One concert attendee, Ellie Segal, watched a pair of clearly annoyed adults ask a shrieking teen if she'd like to be quiet and actually listen to the music. "She looked at them disdainfully and said, 'If I wanted to hear them I would buy their album.'" Another fan recalled seeing reporters ask a young girl why she was sobbing. "Because I love Paul and I can't tell him."
The mania swelled as the show progressed. Five boys rushed the stage in the middle of "Baby's in Black," and more fans followed during "Nowhere Man." Still more invaded the stadium by climbing the enormously high centerfield fence. Clearly annoyed, the band eyed the armored truck. Just in case.
For one introduction, McCartney took a playful, and un-PC, jab at Brian Epstein. "We'd like to do the next number now, which is a special request from all the backroom boys on this tour … 'I Wanna Be Your Man!'" ("Backroom boy" was slang for "gay man," which Epstein was.) The band was likely unaware that their manager was still in Los Angeles at that very moment dealing with a major personal crisis: An ex-lover had stolen his briefcase filled with legally questionable pills, explicit homosexual love letters, steamy Polaroid photos of his young male friends and more than $20,000 in cash skimmed from concert proceeds to be handed out as a bonus to the band. If news of any one of these items leaked to the press, it would be more than enough to torpedo his reputation. So, to his lasting regret, the man who discovered the Beatles in a dank Liverpool cellar five years earlier missed what he knew would be their final show.
The Beatles knew it too, and they decided to memorialize the occasion with a kind of graduation photo. "We placed our cameras on the amplifiers and put them on a timer," says Harrison. "We stopped between tunes, Ringo got down off the drums, and we stood facing the amplifiers with our back to the audience and took photographs. We knew: 'This is it – we're not going to do this again. This is the last concert.' It was a unanimous decision."
As the final notes from "Paperback Writer" drifted past the crowd and into the bay, McCartney blurted out his final stage announcement with the mechanical mumble of a man who just turned in his notice. He doesn't even bother with the title. "We'd like to ask you to join in and, er, clap, sing, talk, do anything. Anyway, the song is … good night."
No one was listening, so they played the last number for themselves. It was a song that had made the journey with them from teenage social clubs to stadiums: Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally." It was their showpiece, remaining in their set list almost constantly throughout their career. It had been their opening song when they played the Litherland Town Hall in December 1960, later enshrined as ground zero for Beatlemania. Nearly six years later, it would bookend their touring life.
They held nothing back. They had no reason to. McCartney begins the song with an otherworldly shriek in an upper register usually reserved for later verses. This night he started in high gear, and there was nowhere to go but up. In his voice you could hear traces of a teenage boy bewitched by the sound of flamboyant pianist from Macon, Georgia. You could hear traces of the long nights in Hamburg. You could hear the weariness of years on the road. It was probably a performance for the ages.
But we'll never be sure, because Barrow's tape cut out. Cassettes contained 30 minutes per side in 1966, and he was unable to flip it over to catch the end. Though devastating for Beatle fans not to have the final live song preserved in entirety, it's oddly poetic – like a cinematic cutaway that spares us the hero's final fall. It's best to remember them still playing.
The song eventually ended and they were free. It was over. But the end of their touring career didn't offer the unbridled ecstasy they had anticipated. In fact, it was undeniably sad. Playing music for people was something the Beatles loved. It was what had brought them together all those years ago. Long before they became studio pioneers, performance was the band's ultimate joy. And now it was gone, taken from them by their fame.
Lennon, the most vocal about quitting all this touring nonsense, paused on the stage for a moment, taking it all in. Those who were there that night insist they heard him play the delicate guitar riff from "In My Life," the introspective ballad about all he'd experienced and loved in his incredibly young life. The moment passed, and he ducked into the armored car bound for the airport, where the band was to fly back to Los Angeles. They had been in San Francisco for a grand total of five hours that day.
"Right – that's it, I'm not a Beatle anymore!" George Harrison was heard to gleefully exclaim as he sank into his airplane seat and tossed back a well-deserved drink. "I didn't really project into the future," he recalled of his mindset three decades later. "I was just thinking, 'This is going to be such a relief – not to have to go through this madness anymore.'"
McCartney was a little sunnier in his outlook. While speaking to Teen Set reporter Judy Sims, he outlined what he saw as the band's future. "We're not very good performers, actually. We're better in a recording studio where we can control things and work on it until it's right. With performing there's so much that can go wrong, and you can't go back over it and do it right." Their next release, 1967's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, took five months to record. It was the longest they had ever spent on a project – but they got it right.
As the Beatles' plane soared into the night sky, McCartney popped his head over the back of Tony Barrow's seat. "Did you get anything on tape?" he asked. Barrow handed him the cassette. "I got the lot, except that the tape ran out in the middle of 'Long Tall Sally.'" The Cute One was unconcerned. "Paul was clearly chuffed to have such a unique souvenir of what would prove to be an historic evening," said Barrow.
"Back in London I kept the concert cassette under lock and key in a drawer of my office desk, making a single copy for my personal collection and passing the original to Paul for him to keep. Years later my Candlestick Park recording re-appeared in public as a bootleg album. If you hear a bootleg version of the final concert that finishes during 'Long Tall Sally' it must have come either from Paul's copy or mine, but we never did identify the music thief!"
Barrow died in May 2016, just a few months before the 50th anniversary of the Candlestick Park concert. Thanks to his efforts, everyone can enjoy this historic show. It's guaranteed to raise a smile, and well worth the price of admission.