Saturday 19 June 2004

Forty years ago today

Forty years ago today I went to a Beatles concert, one of six shows the band gave in Sydney in June, 1964.

Nowadays I never listen to the Beatles. In Australia we got the British albums released by EMI on the Parlophone label and, looking at this complete discography, I realize I wouldn’t mind listening to one or two songs. But if I never again hear Yesterday, Michelle, or The Long and Winding Road, I’ll die a happy man. For a year or so, however, I loved their music. I was—until June 19, 1964—a Beatles fan.

Oddly, I was the only one in my high school who saw the Beatles live. All my classmates thought I was an idiot for going and a few of the Marist Brothers who taught me were openly hostile—I can’t recall whether the phrase “devil’s music” cropped up, though it probably did.

The Beatles concerts were staged at 6pm and 8pm on June 18, 19, and 20 at the Sydney Stadium in Rushcutters Bay. The Stadium was an old bloodhouse: originally built in the early 1900s to stage boxing and wrestling bouts, by the fifties the American expatriate promoter Lee Gordon had turned it into a popular entertainment venue. At that time the Opera House and the Sydney Entertainment Centre had yet to be built so the Stadium was the only arena that could hold enough fans to make shows by international acts financially viable.

As Greg Tingle explains,

It was built as a circular structure and was unlike any other, except a much smaller version in Newcastle. Every major entertainment act from [Abbot] and Costello, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra to all the Rockers except Elvis and Bing Crosby performed there to the 11,000 screaming fans sitting either on chairs or benches. Way up the back the benches were long and hard and that back area was called ‘The Bleachers’.

The whole place was made out of corrugated iron sheets without any linings and the natural echo was amazing. When the music turned up, the sound enveloped back on itself and was very hard to decipher although it suited the slap echo type of R’n’R! Once the audience started screaming it was impossible to hear anything, even on stage.

Dakota Staton performing at the Sydney StadiumThis photograph, one of a set of Stadium Jazz photographs from the Eric Child collection, shows a Dakota Staton practice session (which is why there’s no audience) and amply conveys how primitive the Stadium was. In Greg Tingle’s words,

The stage itself was circular and slowly rotated so the star could be seen by everyone as it turned, however it didn’t make a full rotation. Once it reached a certain point it went into reverse and started going back the other way. Many an act nearly fell at this point as the motion was anything but smooth. Bob Dillon [sic] had to ask one of his band to catch him.

I’d seen Hopalong Cassidy and Abbott & Costello at the Stadium when I was a kid and there I was, back again for the Beatles’ 8pm show, on a cold June night in 1964. I was too young to have a girlfriend and none of my friends had wanted to go with me so I took my seat in the bleachers and waited for the show to start. I was surrounded by girls: my own age, younger, older.

There probably was a support act but I can’t remember who it was and it didn’t matter anyway. At some point, long before the Beatles appeared, the screaming began. When the Fab Four finally hit the stage, it was impossible to hear a single note they were playing. Ten minutes or so into their half hour performance, I noticed a familiar though unexpected smell. I looked down at the concrete floor and saw a puddle of liquid. For a moment I thought the girl beside me had spilt a drink but then I realized she’d wet her pants in excitement.

(Years later, at a performance of the Peking Opera in Beijing, I was just as surprised to hear a splashing sound behind me and, looking down, to see a trickle of pungent liquid flowing between my feet. An old man behind me had decided to urinate, not out of excitement but because he couldn’t be bothered getting up to go to the washroom.)

Album cover: The Freewheelin Bob DylanThe Beatles finally left the stage, leaving in their wake ten thousand sobbing teenage girls and at least one disillusioned former fan. “What a waste of time and money”, I thought to myself. I switched my allegiance to the Rolling Stones and, more seriously, to Bob Dylan. Looking at the album covers on this 1962-1969 Dylan discography gives me goosebumps, and reading through the song titles brings back a rush of wonderful memories, making me recall to what an extent Bob Dylan’s music was the soundtrack for my late teens and early twenties. The cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, with Bob and Susie Rotolo walking down a snow-covered New York street says it all.

As for the Beatles, all I recall is sitting in the Sydney Stadium after the concert was over, gazing at the glistening wooden benches all around me and breathing in the acrid stench of fresh piss.

“Whatever happens to a boy during the winter he’s 16 can mark him for life.”

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reading it reminded me of my own disillusioning experience with one of my favorite musicians, elliott smith

Posted by randomchaos: weblog on 20 June 2004


Sorta gives that whole "Yellow Submarine" thing a new meaning...

Posted by Dave Rogers on 19 June 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Ah, yes, I was wondering the other day what there was about youth that permanently affected our musical tastes.

Being a little older, only Elvis' music had, and, to a certain extent, still does have this effect on me.

The Beattles seemed like a "kids's band" to me, though I'll admit I had a certain affection for John Lennon later.

If Bob Dylan could have carried a tune, I would have admired his music more. As it was, I generally admired his songs after they had been released by someone else.

Posted by loren on 20 June 2004 (Comment Permalink)

So you decided not to like the Beatles because the screaming teenage girls made the concert unbearable?

Posted by Scott Johnson on 20 June 2004 (Comment Permalink)

I changed my name from Michelle to Shelley because of that damn song. But I do like the Beatles. I also like the Stones and Dylan. Dylan, though, reads better than he sounds at times.

Yes, nothing like blind, screaming, out of control fans to destroy the good of the music, eh, Jonathon? Always works this way.

Posted by Shelley on 20 June 2004 (Comment Permalink)

I went to the (somewhat tamer) Peter Paul and Mary concert at the Stadium in 1967. The place looked (and smelt) like an outback dunny then too, But I loved the concert, although not as much as the Pete Seeger concert at the town hall a few years later.

Posted by Marius on 20 June 2004 (Comment Permalink)

I share Scott's bemusement that a bad concert experience would cause you to stop liking the band. I myself got bored with much of the Beatles' output long ago (particularly the songs you mention), and there's not a single album I can listen all the way through with pleasure (unlike the Stones, for which there are only one or two albums where I have to skip songs), but at their best they were peerless. Dylan I go through phases with, but hell, he goes through phases himself, so that's OK.

Anyway, I guess as a New Yorker I'm so accustomed to the smell of piss I hardly register it...

Posted by language hat on 22 June 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Your reason for going off the Beatles is about the same reason the Beatles went off 'The Beatles'...

Posted by Rory on 22 June 2004 (Comment Permalink)

They couldn't take the piss?

Posted by language hat on 23 June 2004 (Comment Permalink)

40 years ago this Sunday coming The Beatles were approved of by my mother & The Stones had 'gone commercial'. Meanwhile, I queued in my grey Shetland wool crew-neck & pink 1.5" deep tab collar shirt outside the social centre at Richmond Athletic Ground, home of the legendary Crawdaddy Club. Picking up my purple ticket at the door (from the divine Julie Driscoll, as it goes), I inserted myself into the crowd & sideslipped to the edge of the tiny stage. Within seconds The Yardbirds were in that coupe de ville with Maybelline, mods were hanging from the roof beams & the second wave of British R&B was breaking across the land.

Posted by Dick Jones on 25 June 2004 (Comment Permalink)

languagehat: the Fabs got sick of not being able to hear themselves play for all of the screaming.

Posted by Rory on 30 June 2004 (Comment Permalink)

I know -- just takin' the piss myself.

Posted by language hat on 1 July 2004 (Comment Permalink)

I came in a little later, I was 9 when I bought mny first record - Rubber Soul. We got 3 Sound of Music records for Christmas, and I turned one in for it. it was a stretch, but pretty 'cool.' My sister returned hers for a Wayne Newton record ("Danke schon"), which is still a joke between us.
By the time I was in high school Id made the switche dto Bob Dylan too. Love that album cover.

Posted by John on 8 July 2004 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour