With the signal exception of the band’s legend-making February 9, 1964 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, the Beatles’ August 29, 1966 concert at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park may have been the most significant moment in cementing their legacy for all time.
By the time that the Beatles alighted in New York City on February 7th, 1964, they had been irrevocably reduced to their image as the “mop-tops”—those four lads from Liverpool with the unusual hairstyle.
Of course, the mop-top story hadn’t made its way into the public consciousness by accident. Capitol Records had deployed a $40,000 promotional budget to great effect, with a few well-timed assists from NBC. On a November 18, 1963, episode of the Huntley-Brinkley Report, correspondent Edwin Newman presented the first images of British Beatlemania in full bloom, with the Beatles shaking their mop-tops with great abandon.
Things heated up considerably by January 3, 1964, with “I Want to Hold Your Hand” generating its own share of Stateside buzz, along with the much-ballyhooed upcoming appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. That evening, Jack Parr formally introduced the band to his talk show’s sizable American audience with a four-minute report, including images of the shaggy-haired Beatles performing “She Loves You” for ecstatic British teens. Paar described the group and their “crazy hairdos” as a “sociological phenomenon,” sarcastically concluding that “it’s nice to know that England has finally risen to our cultural level.”
But by the summer of 1966, the band’s mop-top personae would prove to be both the making and un-making of them. Before that fateful summer, they had enjoyed an incredibly favorable press. Yet as it turned out, the seeds of the Beatles’ final tour—and the end of their mostly untarnished media image—had been sewn back in March, when the London Evening Standard had published Maureen Cleave’s latest interview with John Lennon.
Having recently read Hugh J. Schonfield’s bestseller, The Passover Plot, John was anxious to share his views regarding the plight of contemporary religion. During their discussion, Lennon remarked that “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. . . . We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first—rock and roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”
John’s comments passed without notice in the British press, but on July 31st, the American magazine Datebook republished the interview. Within days, radio stations across the nation’s Bible Belt were sponsoring “Beatle-burnings” in which they invited the public to torch their Beatles records. As the group prepared to travel to the United States, John took to calling their upcoming spate of American concerts the “Jesus Christ Tour.” He had no idea how accurate his words would prove to be.
By the time that the Beatles landed in America in August, Lennon’s remarks to Cleave had set off a public-relations controversy that manager Brian Epstein and the group could scarcely have imagined. At a press conference in Chicago, John attempted to quell the storm: “I wasn’t saying whatever they’re saying I was saying,” he told the media. “I’m sorry I said it really. I never meant it to be a lousy anti-religious thing. I apologize if that will make you happy. I still don’t know quite what I’ve done. I’ve tried to tell you what I did do, but if you want me to apologize, if that will make you happy, then okay, I’m sorry.”
But the controversy didn’t ebb so easily, and neither did the group’s distaste for the relentless circus of Beatlemania. On August 19th, the band played a concert at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, Tennessee, where the Ku Klux Klan staged a protest, and a firecracker exploded on the stage. For a split second, they thought that they were under attack, that one of them had been assassinated. As Lennon remembered, “There had been threats to shoot us, the Klan were burning Beatle records outside, and a lot of the crew-cut kids were joining in with them. Somebody let off a firecracker and every one of us—I think it’s on film—look at each other, because each thought it was the other that had been shot. It was that bad.”
For the Beatles, enough was enough. On Monday, August 29th, the group performed at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park before some 25,000 fans, with the Ronettes, the Remains, and the Cyrkle as their trio of opening acts. As with numerous other venues on the calamitous “Jesus Christ Tour,” Candlestick Park hadn’t sold out—in fact, there were some 10,000 conspicuously empty seats that day. But for their part, the band mates hardly cared. With their mop-top image in tatters, they had nothing left to prove.
Having privately decided that Candlestick Park would be the scene of their last concert, the Beatles good-naturedly photographed themselves in order to commemorate the occasion. Meanwhile, Paul McCartney instructed the group’s press officer Tony Barrow to make a cassette recording of their final set. It was a blustery evening—complete with a full moon, no less—and the Beatles took the stage at 9:27 p.m., having been escorted onto the baseball diamond in an armored car with a security detail of some 200 police officers in tow. The stage itself was five-feet tall, with a six-foot high wire fence around the perimeter as an extra precautionary measure.
The Beatles opened the concert with a searing rendition of “Rock and Roll Music,” and Barrow held his cassette player’s tiny microphone aloft in front of the stage and recorded the show for posterity. Barrow’s tape of the Beatles’ 33-minute performance ran out of space less than a minute into “Long Tall Sally,” the group’s final number before a paying audience. After some 1,400 concerts, their lives as working rock-and-rollers were suddenly over.
But as history would show, the Beatles were only just getting started. With their debilitating final tour behind them, they were suddenly free to unleash their energies in the studio. Liberated from the attendant hoopla and traumas of the road, they could finally indulge their creative powers with great abandon. It was a steady progress that would take them from one masterwork to another—from “Strawberry Fields Forever” and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band through The White Album and Abbey Road.