In honor of Ron Howard's Fab Four documentary making its television debut on Nov. 25 at 8 p.m. on PBS, here's a detailed look at the Beatles' touring career
For those of us who weren’t lucky enough to attend a Beatles concert in the 1960s, Ron Howard’s Eight Days a Week just might be the next best thing. The 2016 documentary traces the band’s rise from a cramped and dank cellar in Liverpool to record-breaking television appearances, jam-packed stadiums, and—ultimately—rock immortality. Lovingly assembled through rare and often unseen fan home movie footage, Howard’s film also draws on more familiar material—restored to the highest echelons of HD— and new interviews with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. All told, it’s a joyous and stunningly visual representation of their unbelievable journey, and an unparalleled look at a time when the four Fabs roamed the Earth and made themselves available to see, live and in person, for just a few dollars.
In honor of Eight Days a Week‘s television debut this Saturday, Nov. 25, at 8 p.m. (7 p.m. central) on PBS, here’s a detailed look at the Beatles’ touring career, told through eight of their concerts.
1. The Cavern, Liverpool (Aug. 22, 1962)
Though hardly the first gig at their unofficial home base on Liverpool’s Mathew Street—it was actually their 218th session in the former fruit cellar—this set marks the group’s first ever television appearance. A camera crew from Grenada Television, a Manchester-based regional network, captured the band plowing through two takes of Richie Barrett’s latest R&B stomper, “Some Other Guy.” Extra stage lights were needed to provide suitable illumination in the subterranean venue, adding to the already sweltering summer heat. “It was really hot and we were asked to dress up properly,” George Harrison recalled in the Beatles Anthology documentary project. “We had shirts, and ties and little black pullovers. So we looked quite smart…It was big-time, a TV-company-coming-to-film-us excitement.” John Lennon might have had another cause for his excitement—he was scheduled to marry his girlfriend Cynthia Powell the following day.
Ringo Starr had played his first official show as a Beatle just four nights before at Hulme Hall in Port Sunlight, but some fans were still up in arms over the abrupt dismissal of previous stickman Pete Best, whose shy charm and matinee idol good looks made him a particular favorite with the ladies. As the final notes give way to applause on the Grenada recording, a dissenting male voice cuts through the crowd: “We want Pete!”
Initially filmed for the Know the North program, the grainy footage was deemed substandard for broadcast and shelved until the following year—by which point everything the Beatles touched became a surefire ratings draw. While its cameraman, the future documentarian Leslie Woodhead, later described the lo-fi film as looking “like something smuggled out of Eastern Europe,” its historical significance more than makes up for its questionable quality. The clip is the first moving image of the Beatles with synced sound, the first video with Starr, and the only film ever made of them performing at the Cavern.
2. The Palladium, London (Oct. 13, 1963)
For the Beatles in 1963, Val Parnell’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium was the absolute pinnacle of showbiz. Their appearance on the televised variety program was the British equivalent of their star-making turn on The Ed Sullivan Show across the Atlantic four months later, launching them into the highest echelon of the pop stratosphere. “There was nothing bigger in the world than making it to the Palladium,” Starr later recalled in the Anthology. “Anyone who knew you would say, ‘F—ing hell, hey, look at this!’”
Though the band’s reputation had been on the rise since releasing their first number one single, “Please Please Me,” and their debut album of the same name earlier that year, the show’s high viewership—regularly topping 15 million Britons—was enough to rattle even the steeliest of nerves. “Before the show, I was so nervous with craziness and tension that I spewed up into a bucket,” Starr later admitted. He had no need to worry: their performance was met with the rapturous response that would greet their shows until the end of their live concert career. Their appearance was teased at the start of the show, leading emcee Bruce Forsythe to advise the crowd, “If you want to see them again they’ll be back in 42 minutes!” They returned to play “From Me to You” and “I’ll Get You.” Their most recent hit, “She Loves You,” followed, drawing screams so deafening that Lennon (only half joking) yelled back at the audience to “Shut up!” They signed off with their current closer, a barnstorming version of the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout.”
However, it was the crowd outside that made the headlines. Several hundred fans began converging earlier that afternoon, but by the end of the performance, the venue had been swarmed by over 1,000 teenagers, whipped into a frenzy at the mere chance of seeing their musical idols. “Screaming girls launched themselves against the police—sending helmets flying and constables reeling,” read one account in the Daily Herald. The press soon came up with a new word for this strange phenomenon that had its grip on the nation’s youths: Beatlemania.
3. Washington Coliseum, Washington D.C. (Feb. 11, 1964)
Yes, the Beatles’ debut appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show two days before completely changed history and its impact on popular culture reverberates to this day. Close your eyes and think of the Beatles, and chances are you will see them in stark black and white, launching into “All My Loving” before a live audience of just 728 in CBS Studio 50 on New York City’s Great White Way—and 74,000,000 elsewhere, watching on television screens across the country. It was the performance that launched a thousand bands and invented a new generation of teenagers.
That having been said, the Beatles’ first proper American concert took place on Feb. 11 at the Washington D.C.’s Coliseum. The venue was primarily used for boxing matches, and the group played their 35-minute, 12-song set in a ring at the center while nearly 8,100 fans enveloped them in screams—and jellybeans. In a then-recent interview, the Beatles had discussed their fondness for Jelly Babies, a squishy English candy similar to gummy bears. These treats were unknown to fans in America, who simply opted for the hard-shelled American cousins. “That night, we were absolutely pelted by the f—in’ things,” Harrison recalled. “Imagine waves of rock-hard little bullets raining down on your from the sky. It’s a bit dangerous, you know, ‘cos if a jellybean, traveling about 50 miles an hour through the air hits you in the eye, you’re finished. You’re blind, aren’t you?” The guitarist was already annoyed that his microphone had conked out during the first song, requiring a mid-show swap. The sugary assault was more than he could handle. “Every now and again, one would hit a string on my guitar and plonk off a bad note as I was trying to play.”
It would get worse. Performing “in the round” meant that they were only facing a quarter of the audience at any moment. The awkward solution was for the band to stop every third song and shift their equipment 90-degrees clockwise, which worked as well as could be expected until Starr’s drum riser got stuck. The Beatles’ trusty—and enormous—roadie, Mal Evans, was called upon to save the day. Despite the challenges, they rose to the occasion, giving their all in the land that had inspired them to make rock ‘n’ roll.
4. KB Hallen, Copenhagen (June 4, 1964)
John, Paul, George and….Jimmie? The Beatles’ world tour in the summer of 1964 was nearly derailed the day before it was due to begin after Starr collapsed in the midst of a photo-shoot. Diagnosed with tonsillitis and pharyngitis, doctors at London’s University College Hospital confined him to bed rest. At the suggestion of George Martin, the band brought in Jimmie Nichol, a 24-year-old session drummer who had previously worked with Martin on an album of Beatles covers. “I was having a bit of a lie down after lunch when the phone rang,” Nichol later recalled. “It was EMI asking if I could come down to the studio to rehearse with the Beatles.”
They spent a short time that afternoon running through six numbers from their stage set. Satisfied that he could handle the gig, the band called in manager Brian Epstein to work out payment. “When Brian talked of money in front of them, I got very, very nervous,” Nichol remembered in 1987. “They paid me £2,500 per gig and a £2,500 signing bonus. Now, that floored me. When John spoke up in a protest by saying ‘Good God, Brian, you’ll make the chap crazy!’ I thought it was over. But no sooner had he said that when he said, ‘Give him £10,000!’ Everyone laughed and I felt a hell of a lot better.” After being measured by a seamstress for some new stage clothes and having his hair cut in the prerequisite mop top, he was sent home to pack for the journey to Copenhagen the following day. “That night I couldn’t sleep a wink,” he later said. “I was a f—ing Beatle!”
The decision to replace Starr on the road was met with resistance from some within the group. Harrison, for one, very nearly refused to do the tour. “We shouldn’t have done it,” he complained later in the Anthology. “The point was, it was the Fabs. Can you imagine the Rolling Stones going on tour: ‘Oh, sorry, Mick can’t come.’—‘All right, we’ll just get somebody else to replace him for two weeks.’ It was silly, and I couldn’t understand it.” Though considerate of the situation, Starr himself wasn’t exactly thrilled with the way events had unfolded, either. “It was very strange, them going off without me. They’d taken Jimmie Nichol and I thought they didn’t love me anymore—all that stuff went through my head.” McCartney sent him a telegram after they arrived in Copenhagen reading, “Didn’t think we could miss you so much. Get well soon.”
The “Threetles” plus Nicol played 10 concerts with the band over the next 10 days, spanning Denmark, the Netherlands, Hong Kong and Australia before Starr rejoined his comrades in Melbourne on June 14. “That was a nice moment,” he remembered. “And they’d bought me presents in Hong Kong.” Epstein presented Nichol with a check and a wristwatch engraved with a message to him: “From The Beatles and Brian Epstein to Jimmy – with appreciation and gratitude.” Nicol crossed paths with the band just once more, when they shared a bill with his own band, the Shubdubs, at the Hippodrome Theatre in Brighton a month later. “The boys were very kind but I felt like an intruder,” he later reflected. “They accepted me but you can’t just go into a group like that – they have their own atmosphere, their own sense of humor. It’s a little clique and outsiders just can’t break in.”
Nicol was to play one more role in the Beatles’ story. McCartney never forgot his pet phrase, “It’s getting better!”—usually uttered in reference to his drumming. In the spring of 1967, he wrote a song around the optimistic expression, becoming the third track on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
5. The Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles (Aug. 23, 1964)
When the Beatles returned to the United States for their first full-scale tour later that summer, they aimed to document the trek with a (highly lucrative) live album. Plans to record their set at New York City’s Carnegie Hall the previous February had fallen through due to problems with the American Federation of Musicians, so this time around they set their sights on an even glitzier venue: the Hollywood Bowl. All 18,700 seats at the iconic art deco amphitheater had sold out soon after going on sale, thus guaranteeing an electrifying display of Beatlemania, California style. The band took to the stage at 9:30 p.m., playing 12 songs over the course of half an hour before speeding off in a chauffeur-driven car.
“The Hollywood Bowl was marvelous,” Lennon said in 1964. “It was the one we all enjoyed most, I think, even though it wasn’t the largest crowd — because it seemed so important, and everybody was saying things. We got on, and it was a big stage, and it was great. We could be heard in a place like the Hollywood Bowl, even though the crowds was wild: good acoustics.” Starr was also taken in by the glamorous locale. “It was the Hollywood Bowl — these were impressive places to me,” he said during the Beatles Anthology. “I fell in love with Hollywood then, and I am still in love with Hollywood.”
The experience was less pleasant for Martin, who was on hand with Capitol Records producer Voyle Gilmore to oversee the recording process. While the music sounded fine, it was completely overpowered by the screams from the audience. “It was like putting a microphone at the tail of a 747 jet. It was one continual screaming sound, and it was very difficult to get a good recording.” They made a second attempt when the band played the venue on their American tour the following year, but they encountered the same technical problems. The Beatles would be one of the few major acts if the era who didn’t release a live album in the ‘60s. More than a decade later, technological advances allowed the tapes to be sufficiently sweetened and they finally saw release as The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl in 1977. After going out of print for many years, a remixed, remastered, and expanded version of the album was issued in 2016 to correspond to the premiere of Eight Days a Week.
6. Shea Stadium, New York City, (Aug. 15, 1965)
If the Beatles’ Palladium concert gave birth to Beatlemania, then their performance at Shea was the big bang of arena rock. The Mets’ newly completed home in the outer borough of Queens welcomed 56,000 fans who turned out to the first date of their 1965 American tour, shattering concert attendance records for years to come. “Now it’s quite commonplace for people to play Shea Stadium or Giants Stadium and all those big places, but this was the first time,” McCartney recalled during the Anthology. “It seemed like millions of people, but we were ready for it. They obviously felt we were popular enough to fill it.”
A flimsy stage was constructed just over second base, putting a seemingly insurmountable distance between the band and the crowd—which included future Beatle wives Linda McCartney (then Eastman) and Barbara Bach. (“I was shocked!” Starr recently told PEOPLE of this remarkable coincidence. “Who knew?”) For safety’s sake, the field was lined with a phalanx of NYPD officers and wooden barricades. After being transported from Manhattan to the roof of a World’s Fair office building in nearby Flushing, the Beatles were shuttled into the stadium via Walls Fargo armored van.
Following opening acts that included Brenda Holloway and the King Curtis Band, Cannibal & The Headhunters, Sounds Incorporated, and the Young Rascals, the headliners were introduced just before 9:15 p.m. by Ed Sullivan himself. It wasn’t a totally magnanimous gesture: Sullivan’s production team, coupled with the Beatles’ own NEMS Enterprises and Subafilms, hired a 12 camera crew to capture the colossal event for a television special which would later air the following year. As usual, the screams made it impossible for the band, let alone anyone else, to actually hear the music. Poor Starr was reduced to watching his bandmate’s rear-ends to discern where they were in the song. “Vox made special big 100-watt amplifiers for that tour,” Harrison remembered. “We went up from the 30-watt amp to the 100-watt amp and it obviously wasn’t enough; we just had the house PA.”
That didn’t stop the band from having a blast. They played their usual 12-song, 30-minute set with wild abandon, exchanging giddy grins as they shook their mop tops. A highlight of the show came when Lennon performed the organ solo on their incendiary closer; the Little Richard-tinged “I’m Down.” Feeling “naked” without his guitar, he went full Jerry Lee Lewis, playing the instrument with his elbows and leaping like a man possessed. “I was putting my foot on it and George couldn’t play for laughing,” he later said. “I was doing it for a laugh. The kids didn’t know what I was doing.”
It would remain a fond memory for the remainder of his life. Years later, Lennon bumped into the show’s promoter, legendary New York impresario Sid Bernstein. Reminiscing about the night at Shea Stadium, he said, “We reached the top of the mountain, Sid.”
7. Rizal Memorial Football Stadium, Manila (July 4, 1966)
Once you’ve reached the mountaintop, the only place left to go is down. The continual waves of screams washed away any hope of the band ever hearing themselves onstage, and as a result their performance chops began to atrophy—not that the fans cared much. But even this blind devotion was growing tiresome. What had initially begun as a teenage hysterics, not dissimilar to outpouring of affection that greeted Elvis Presley or Frank Sinatra in prior decades, had evolved into something wholly other. Scenes akin to riots began to follow the band wherever they went. “It felt dangerous,” Harrison later said. “Everybody was out of hand. Even the cops were out of line. They were all just caught up in the mania. It was like they were in this big movie, and we were the ones trapped in the middle of it while everyone else was going mad.”
After closing 1965 with a short tour of the United Kingdom—ultimately the last in their homeland—the Beatles began to rethink their priorities. “By the end of 1965, the touring started to hit everybody,” says Starr. “I remember we had a meeting during which we all talked about how the musicianship was going downhill, never mind the boredom of doing it.” On their only trek through Japan the following June, an extensive security personnel (some 3,000 police for 10,000 fans) enforced strict silence among the crowds in Tokyo’s Budokan, rendering the Beatles’ rusty performance audible for the first time in years. “The band suddenly realized they were out of tune and they had to get their act together,” remembered their road manager (and future Apple Records President) Neil Aspinall.
But no event cemented their distaste for touring quite like their trip to the Philippines in July 1966. Ferdinand Marcos’ repressive regime made its brute strength known from the moment the Beatles’ plane touched down at Manila International Airport. “As soon as we go there it was bad news,” remembered Harrison. “There were tough guerillas—little men—who had short-sleeved shirts and acted very menacingly.” Starr, who later unequivocally said that he “hated” the experience, remembered, “everyone had guns and it was really like that hot/gun/Spanish Inquisition attitude.” They were forcibly taken onto a yacht owned by a wealthy local businessman, where they were held as “guests of honor” until 4 a.m.
The following morning they were awoken by loud bangs on the door. Unbeknownst to the band, they had been invited to attend a luncheon with first lady Imelda Marcos, and now government officials were there to collect them. “The officers spoke coldly: ‘This is not a request. We have our orders. The children who wish to meet the Beatles will assemble at 11,’” the Beatles’ press officer, Tony Barrow, wrote in his memoir. It was an offer the Beatles couldn’t refuse, but they refused it anyway. They played two back-to-back shows at the Rizal Memorial Football Stadium to significantly more seats than had been agreed upon. “We were thinking, ‘Well, the promoter is probably making a bit on the side out of this,’ said Harrison. “We went back to the hotel really tired and jet-lagged and pretty cheesed off.”
The Marcos’ were also pretty cheesed off when the group was a no-show at the lunch party. The entire country seemingly turned against them as the morning papers screamed “BEATLES SNUB FIRST FAMILY.” Security detail was withdrawn, and the band were forced to find their own way back to the airport to catch their departing flight. Lugging their own guitars and equipment, they braved through a furious crowd of shouting and spitting citizens hellbent on roughing up some Beatles. They made it through the melee with maximum difficulty, but their plane was forbidden to take off until the group handed over a great deal of money in “taxes.” Fearing that they’d wind up in prison as enemies of the state, they paid up. “Strangely enough, I think it came to the same amount as the receipts for the trip,” McCartney later said.
The prospect of going out on the road again just over a month later did not exactly appeal to any of the Beatles. “We’re going to have a couple of weeks to recuperate before we go and get beaten up by the Americans,” Harrison sarcastically told one reporter. It would prove scarily accurate.
8. Candlestick Park, San Francisco, (Aug. 29, 1966)
Still shaken from the Manila experience, the band was due to fly to Chicago within weeks to begin their third annual U.S. summer tour. The general stress of the road was compounded by the rising furor over a supposedly blasphemous comment Lennon had made to a columnist earlier in the year. “Christianity will go,” he had said while being interviewed by Maureen Cleave of the London Evening Standard that March. “It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I know I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first – rock & roll or Christianity.”
While the remark passed unnoticed in the U.K., it ignited a firestorm south of the Mason-Dixon line. The Beatles’ music was boycotted, their albums were burned—along with crosses—and their concerts were picketed by Klansmen making unsubtle death threats. Their show in Memphis was interrupted by a loud bang that reverberated through the auditorium. “Every one of us … look[ed] at each other,” Lennon remembered, “because each of us thought the other had been shot. It was that bad.” It was just a cherry bomb, thrown as a prank by some kids, but the fresh bullet holes in the fuselage of their plane were no joke.
The problems continued days later when Biblical rains drenched several open-air concerts. The Beatles rescheduled one, risking a riot in the process, but gamely played another, making due with the sparks flying off their soaked electrical equipment. Mal Evans was tasked with unplugging the main AC connection as soon as the first Beatle collapsed from electric shock, but thankfully that was never necessary.
Even safety measures had a disheartening effect on the group’s morale. After decoy limos proved ineffectual against the cunning fans, the Beatles were shuttled into venues in a military-like armored car. “I remember us getting in a big empty steel-lined wagon, like a removal van,” remembered McCartney. “There was no furniture in there – nothing. We were sliding around trying to hold on to something, and at that moment everyone said, ‘Oh, this bloody touring lark – I’ve had it up to here, man.'” His bandmates were in total agreement. “It was just a sort of a freak show,” Lennon also recalled. “The Beatles were the show, and the music had nothing to do with it.”
The tour was due to wrap on Aug. 29 at Candlestick Park, a windswept baseball field on the outskirts of San Francisco. Before they played a note, the Beatles came to an understanding: this was the end of the road. “It wasn’t fun anymore. And that was the main point: We’d always tried to keep some fun in it for ourselves,” McCartney during the Anthology. “So by Candlestick Park it was like, ‘Don’t tell anyone, but this is probably our last gig.'”
Twenty-five thousand fans paid between $4.50 and $6.50 to watch their heroes sprint to the elevated stage constructed over second base just after 9:30 p.m. In a fitting touch, a chain-link fence enveloped the platform—ensuring that the Beatles would play their 11-song set in what was effectively a cage. Particularly eagle-eyed spectators might have noticed that the foursome were clutching something in addition to their instruments: cameras. Like students on their graduation day, they were determined to document what they knew to be a historic occasion. “We placed our cameras on the amplifiers and put them on a timer,” says Harrison. “We stopped between tunes, Ringo got down off the drums, and we stood facing the amplifiers with our back to the audience and took photographs. We knew: ‘This is it – we’re not going to do this again. This is the last concert.’ It was a unanimous decision.”
Just before taking the stage, McCartney asked Tony Barrow a favor. “I remember Paul, casually, at the very last-minute saying, ‘Have you got your cassette recorder with you?’ I said, ‘Yes, of course.’ Paul then said, ‘Tape it, will you? Tape the show.'” True to his word, Barrow held his recorder aloft, capturing everything up to McCartney’s mumbled final stage announcement. “We’d like to ask you to join in and, er, clap, sing, talk, do anything. Anyway, the song is … good night.” He makes up for his lack of enthusiasm by summoning an unholy shriek to kick off the band’s closer, Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally.” It’s a song that had been in the Beatles’ repertoire since their earliest shows in 1960, and it was still clearly a favorite. For a single verse, the band can be heard giving it all they have—more for themselves than for anyone else. No one in the crowd can hear them anyway.
Then the tape runs out. Cassettes only held 30-minutes per side in 1966—a technical quirk that robbed history of the very last strains from a live Beatles concert. But in the end, maybe it’s best to remember them playing.
NUMBER 9 BONUS: Karlaplansstudion Radio Studio, Stockholm, Sweden (Oct. 24, 1963)
From the Palladium gig onwards, nearly all of the Beatles concerts were drowned out by the screams of adoring fans. One rare exception is this set for Swedish radio, during which the band blows through seven songs with all the force of a cyclone. Recorded for Klas Burling’s Sveriges Radio (Swedish National Radio) show Pop ’63, the audience consisted of 100 lucky winners of a ticket giveaway.
The Beatles blast off with a particularly explosive version of “I Saw Her Standing There,” offering perhaps the best glimpse of the band’s rough and raw days as a nocturnal bar band on in the Red Light District of Hamburg, Germany, less than a year earlier. Forgoing a rehearsal, and even a sound check, their cranked up guitars pushed the radio sound meters into the red zone. The distorted sound horrified engineer Hans Westman, who called it “the worst recording I’ve ever made.” The Beatles, on the other hand, loved it.