At the height of Beatlemania, the Beatles performed at Shea Stadium in New York City on August 15, 1965. The sweltering summer night would rank as one of the most important in rock history, as over 55,000 screaming fans packed the stadium to see their heroes. Sounding like jets constantly flying over the stage, the audience nearly drowned out the group.
Their performance was recorded and eventually released as a TV film, The Beatles at Shea Stadium. A new book, The Beatles at Shea Stadium: The Story Behind Their Greatest Concert, allows readers to vicariously experience that often chaotic evening. Wisely letting fans, reporters, and other behind-the-scenes figures tell their stories, author Dave Schwensen presents a virtual minute-by-minute account of that fateful day.
Most people interviewed for the book do not possess famous names; their recollections, however, prove invaluable. For example, professional photographer George Orsino describes the group’s nervous state backstage and subsequent transformation once they began performing. Legendary New York DJ “Cousin Brucie” Morrow recalls his friendship with the group and the atmosphere surrounding the show. Scenes of Ringo Starr sitting alone on a bench signing autographs and George Harrison anxiously peeking out onto the stage to witness the ecstatic crowd are painted vividly here.
Schwensen follows the Beatles as they ran across the field to the stage, then leads readers through the concert song by song. He includes transcriptions of the Beatles’ introduction for each number (including Paul McCartney’s brief Lawrence Welk impersonation before launching into “Can’t Buy Me Love”) and how some set list choices remain curious, including the hitherto unknown “Act Naturally.”
A particular highlight is the author’s analysis of the night’s most infamous performance: John Lennon banging on the keyboards during “I’m Down.” While Starr later described the moment as “John going mad,” concertgoers counter that Lennon and the others simply seemed to be reveling in the song, the fans, and each other.
Throughout The Beatles at Shea Stadium, Schwensen inserts sidebars entitled “The Fans in the Stands.” Original attendees share their memories of that evening, and one can sense the excitement these fans still feel about the concert. Some of their comments can be a bit repetitive — how many times can one read sentences such as “it was one of the best nights of my life” and “you couldn’t really hear the music”? However, their insights provide context and a very different perspective than jaded journalists and music industry insiders.
Other points of interest include photos of original memorabilia and documents, rare backstage photographs, and details about the creation and later restoration of the television special. In short, the book reveals everything one would want to know about the historic concert, from the weather to the songs to the sound system and marketing. The Beatles at Shea Stadium: The Story Behind Their Greatest Concert makes a welcome addition to any Beatle fan’s library, as it fills in a significant knowledge gap.
As Schwensen writes, “The laughter, sweat, exhaustion, and joy radiating from their faces amid the screams of adoring fans will forever be an image of the height of Beatlemania,” as well as the concert itself. Reading The Beatles at Shea Stadium offers a virtual experience of the sights, sounds, and smells of that special night.