On a hot August night 50 years ago this Saturday, 55,000 boomers experienced what many describe as the thrill of a lifetime when The Beatles played New York’s Shea Stadium.
More than just a concert, this event, now part of our collective memory of the sixties, drew the largest audience ever assembled for a concert up to that point. As I explain in my book Beatleness: How The Beatles and Their Fans Remade the World, it also foreshadowed the era of arena rock, and, more importantly, foreshadowed the youth movement and cultural upheavals of the next five years.
Boomers — the first generation to come of age in a media-saturated culture — have a strong generational identity. The media’s obsession with teenagers, hippies, the generation gap, and student protestors between 1964 and 1970 ensured that people who came of age during this period would be aware of themselves as a cohesive group with a unique experience.
Generational identity was further enhanced by exposure to unique historical events and circumstances within a very narrow time frame: political assassinations that quickly gave rise to conspiracy theories in an increasingly cynical age; a military policy of mutual assured destruction that fueled the arms race and threatened nuclear annihilation; an unpopular war; the violence of the civil rights movement; the personal possibilities of the so-called sexual revolution and the proud achievement of the moon landing .
But the experience that most defined us, that informed our identities and soothed our souls, was growing up with The Beatles and experiencing the pop music renaissance of the 1960s. For the first time in history, young people had music of their own, created and performed by young people, with sounds and words that spoke to us directly and deeply.
Time For A Cultural Reboot
A year and a half before Shea Stadium, on their TV debut on The Ed Sullivan Show — just 79 days after the Kennedy assassination — The Beatles communicated something to young people that was for the most part imperceptible to “the Establishment.” They suggested it was time for a cultural reboot. With infectious energy that seeped through the TV screen, they invited us to feel free.
The Beatles challenged us emotionally and intellectually, appealing to heart and mind, dazzling us with each new release.
A half-century later, “Beatlemania” may not seem so important. But consider that never before in history were so many people, for six years, enthusiastically awaiting and responding to the same communication, at the same time, from a single source. And the recipients of this communication were children and adolescents at critical stages of development. Looked at in this way, Beatlemania can be seen for the important sociocultural phenomenon that it was. The Beatles impact on boomers in the U.S., and worldwide, was of great historic significance.
Beatlemania, so much about freedom and self-expression, may be best exemplified by the Shea Stadium show on Aug. 15, 1965. Those in attendance told me they “had never seen anything like it” and knew they were “part of history.”
A female fan I interviewed for Beatleness, now 60, recalls, “I didn’t realize how much they meant to so many people until I saw it. People were elated; the excitement was overwhelming. Women were in tears; girls were taking their clothes off. And after, the streets were electrified: the honking, the mobs, the singing.” One female fan, age 12 at the time, still feels gratitude toward the stranger who cheerfully shared her binoculars.
What the Screaming Really Meant
Then and now, observers couldn’t understand the screaming. “Didn’t those girls want to hear the music?”
But the fan experience was not the same for boys and girls.
Girls screamed at Beatles shows because it was expected and because it was allowed. It was the only public place where girls could feel that free and uninhibited. They screamed because they were thrilled to be there, in closer proximity to The Beatles, accepting The Beatles’ invitation to leave madras, loafers, crew cuts, and white gloves behind. They screamed because they allowed themselves to feel that mysterious sensation they felt when they heard these songs on the transistor radio under the covers before falling asleep. They screamed because it made them part of the show; it was a happening.
Each boomer girl may have had her own reason for screaming, but that collective, piercing din sent a unified and powerful message: girls like men who look and act like The Beatles.
Given that The Beatles were a focal point during our formative years, it’s no wonder that the approximately one million boomers who saw The Beatles perform live between 1964 and 1966 look back on it as among the happiest moments of their lives. One fan who saw the Shea concert speaks for many: “When I recall my childhood, it’s one of the first things I think of. It was a privilege to be there.”
The Mountaintop Experience
The Shea show was particularly special because of its unprecedented scale. Observing the massive, frenzied crowd, John Lennon went momentarily mad, and later told promoter Sid Bernstein that he’d “seen the mountaintop.” Not surprisingly, several fans said the experience and memory of The Beatles at Shea have become even more special with the passage of time. It’s one of those important concerts of the sixties — like Dylan at Newport, or Woodstock — that imparts an invisible badge of boomer honor on those who were there as witnesses to history.
Four months after Shea Stadium, The Beatles delighted fans and critics with Rubber Soul and the era of close listening began. Less “boy meets girl” and more “man meets woman,” these songs, and those that followed over the next five years, helped us understand ourselves and the world around us. The Beatles challenged us emotionally and intellectually, appealing to heart and mind, dazzling us with each new release.
Today, we share this music with our children and grandchildren. We can see Paul and Ringo in concert, in huge venues, and it is still thrilling, albeit in a different way.
But looking at the Shea footage, or watching The Beatles’ second film Help! — also celebrating a 50th anniversary this month — still lights up our hearts and minds. Yet, it’s hard not to feel like a wise time traveler, watching it through the filter of our experiential knowledge of what happened over the next few years.
Late ‘65 is an important pivot point in the story of “the sixties,” and thus a pivot point in each of our own stories. Shea still captures our imagination because — like the iconic photo of The Beatles with their MBEs taken later that fall, or the release of the Stones’ “Satisfaction” earlier that summer — it sits on that pivot point.