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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