It was 50 years ago that McCartney came to play.
To be exact, on Aug. 5, 1964, the 22-year-old moptop was enjoying a rare day off in between a lightning British tour and recording a new album. On Aug. 11, all four Beatles attended the London premiere of their movie “A Hard Day’s Night.” After the screening, the band went out to a party accompanied by just their families and the queen’s younger sister, Princess Margaret, who had recently announced herself “their biggest fan.” At midnight, Paul presented his widowed father, Jim, a belated 57th birthday gift – a racehorse named Drake’s Drum. Days later, it came home at 20-1 to win a prestigious English steeplechase. After the race, a delighted Jim told an interviewer that he was a “retired cotton salesman.” And then he added with a chuckle, “I just retired.”
On Aug. 19, the Beatles began their first full-scale American tour with a sold-out concert at the 17,000-seat Cow Palace in San Francisco. For their $6.50 ticket (roughly $48 today), the fans enjoyed a frantic, 30-minute pop party. The show was interrupted twice when over-enthusiastic spectators pelted the stage with Jelly Babies and 19 young girls fainted in the excitement. There were 86 arrests for public-order offenses. The Beatles themselves escaped in a hastily commandeered ambulance, since their limousine had been vandalized by souvenir hunters.
If today’s typical McCartney concert could be likened to an immaculately kept lawn, the comparison 50 years ago was a jungle.
It’s perhaps hard to imagine the sheer scale of the frenzy surrounding McCartney and his three identically dressed friends as they barnstormed around America. Backstage, they were regularly presented with children in wheelchairs whose hysterical parents shouted, “Make him walk again!” Outside many hotels, a brisk street trade was done in the band’s bed linen, as well as in hairs allegedly pulled from their combs.
McCartney was seen to pause for a moment before running on in front of 15,000 delirious customers at the Seattle Coliseum, of whom 400 quickly became stretcher cases. During the concert, the famous eyebrows repeatedly arched as he took in the chaos. For the next 22 minutes, frantic girls bounced up and down on their seats like popcorn. After nine songs, the Beatles were spirited away in an armored car, while several hundred fans finally managed to rush the stage, which they then kicked to matchsticks.
McCartney and company also set a peak commercially. If 1963 had been the year a mass market discovered the Beatles, 1964 was the year the Beatles discovered mass marketing. As well as the basic ticket sales, there would be a host of accessories, including badges, buttons, posters, programs, lunchboxes and other “exclusive merchandise” – everything from socks to wigs. If a teenager could carry it or wear it, Paul, John, George and Ringo were on it.
By late August, Beatlemania had seized even the White House, where President Lyndon B. Johnson himself got in on the act. Johnson watched the band on television, winced once or twice, but was astute enough to realize he could capitalize on their success in the run-up to that fall’s election. Before long, Johnson was discreetly enquiring if the “Cockroaches,” as he privately dubbed them, would care to join him in a televised prayer at the gravesite of the slain President John F. Kennedy. Paul politely turned the request down on behalf of the band, telling Johnson that they were honored, but didn’t do “official events.”
There were one or two other thrills along the way before the tour wound up with the band fleeing by helicopter from the roof of their New York hotel.
On Aug. 31, McCartney was excited to receive a phone call from Elvis Presley, but disappointed to find him “incoherent.” All the Beatles were nervous about playing in Dallas, and appalled to find certain public facilities in the South still marked “White” and “Colored.” McCartney refused to go on stage at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville until the concert promoter came backstage to personally assure him that the audience there wouldn’t be segregated.
After a final riotous show in Manhattan, the Beatles flew home with the rings of girlish shrieks and roughly $1.1 million in ticket and merchandise sales as the chief results of their monthlong tour.
Those lucky fans at Washington-Grizzly Stadium on Tuesday night are about to learn not only the secret of joyful, unstoppable youth, but also what it’s like to be in the presence of a living reminder of some of our nation’s most stirring history.
Christopher Sandford is the author of “McCartney.”