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Historic Music Venues: Shea Stadium

Historic Music Venues: Shea Stadium


Aug. 15, 1965: The Beatles onstage at Shea Stadium—a historic and record-setting performance.
Photo credit: Getty Images

While most of the nation’s great historic ballparks past and present—Yankee Stadium, Ebbets Field, Comiskey Park, Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Candlestick Park, et al.—are beloved and remembered first and foremost for their intended purpose as the hallowed homes of the national pastime, there is one among them that will live on as something else entirely in the memories of many stretching back nearly half a century.

There is in fact a sizable subset of Western culture that regards New York’s venerable Shea Stadium not first and foremost as the longtime home of the Mets, but rather as the place where the Beatles played a historic and record-setting concert on Sunday, Aug. 15, 1965—the first major outdoor stadium concert.

It is thus that the once-imposing Queens edifice earned its enduring place in pop culture history for many as a historic rock ‘n’ roll venue first and a sports venue second. Certainly, sports history had been made there on more than one occasion, but that always seems to be eclipsed by the memory of one enormous, cacophonous and chaotic moment in music history. Shea Stadium stands (or stood, we should say; its “dismantling” having been completed in 2009) as such a landmark place in pop music history that, for better or worse, many consider it one of the great sacred altars of rock ‘n’ roll and, oh yeah, almost forgot, it was the home of the Mets for 44 years, too (and also, from 1964 to 1983, the New York Jets).

History can be funny that way, but there it is. The Mets spent the better part of half a century toiling mightily in Shea Stadium, season after season, punctuated by a few widely scattered moments of glory bur far more often for somewhat less. The Beatles spent a total of a couple delirious hours there over the course of two performances (the second a year later on Aug. 23, 1966) for which they easily set longstanding attendance and revenue records and irrevocably changed the business of presenting live music (although they did at least break a sweat in the stifling August heat, as the film footage shows).

The Beatles’ first appearance at Shea Stadium was then and is now one of the most famous concerts ever. It was immortalized in color footage that gives a good impression of what a truly massive event it was.

To recap, the Beatles’ 1965 North American tour consisted of 11 concert dates that started in New York on Aug. 15 at Shea Stadium and concluded two weeks later in San Francisco. Shea dwarfed every venue on the tour save Atlanta Stadium and Comiskey Park, but the Aug. 15 concert’s attendance exceeded the capacity of even those two venues. A concert of such size had never before been staged, and in hindsight seems audacious (if not foolhardy) given that the sound reinforcement technology of the era was not even remotely up to the task.


Promo posters for the Beatles 1965 (above) and 1966 (below) Shea Stadium concerts.

William A. Shea Municipal Stadium (its full name) had only opened barely a year earlier, in April 1964, rising over the streets of Flushing as a circular colossus bearing the name of the founder of baseball’s Continental League; the man who brought National League baseball back to New York in the form of expansion team the Mets. Conceived as a multi-use stadium, Shea was built to present other events too, and on the night of Sunday, Aug. 15, 1965, history was made as a record-setting 55,600 concertgoers packed the stadium to see the biggest rock ‘n’ roll act in the world.

Beatlemania was then at its height, and the group’s incendiary capacity to induce hysterical screaming in teenagers and females was in full force at Shea Stadium. Footage from a dozen film cameras there to capture the event (for the production companies of both the group and Ed Sullivan) shows teenagers and women screaming, crying and fainting. After opening sets by King Curtis, Cannibal and the Headhunters, Brenda Holloway and Sounds Incorporated, the tide of the crowd noise reached unheard-of levels as anticipation for the Beatles’ arrival reached fever pitch.

The Beatles were escorted from the Warwick Hotel to the Manhattan East River Heliport and flown by helicopter to the roof of the World’s Fair building in Flushing Meadows Park, not far from the Stadium. There they boarded a Wells Fargo armored truck and were driven to the stadium (the driver gave each Beatle a star-shaped Wells Fargo “agent” badge, which they all wore during the concert), where they dressed in the umpire room and entered the field from the visitor’s dugout at 9:17 p.m. More than 2,000 security personnel manned Shea to handle crowd control, and so deafening was the crowd noise when the Beatles arrived on the field that many of them instinctively covered their ears.

This sheer volume of crowd noise is even more remarkable when considering that the Beatles and those that surrounded them most closely at the event, even once on the premises, were in fact nowhere near the enormous audience there to see them. The crowd was confined to the Shea Stadium’s spectator areas, while the Beatles took a stage situated just beyond second base. Only the band and its entourage and security personnel were allowed on the field, on which there was no seating (as there would be today), making for a considerable distance between the small stage and the massive audience.

After Sullivan introduced them, the Beatles launched into a 12-song set. Fans broke onto the field throughout the performance; all were chased down and restrained as the group looked on and made their way through their set.

So deafening was the crowd that the Beatles could barely hear themselves—a phenomenon they were accustomed to—despite the fact that they were using specially designed 100-watt Vox amplifiers and Shea Stadium’s own in-line public address system (which was designed for ball games, not concerts). All proved woefully inadequate.

The Beatles dutifully presented their stage act—at moments seemingly somewhat nervously—and tried to appear to enjoy themselves, but they knew they were performing largely unheard; their brief set devoured by a sheer wall of screams. John Lennon in particular seemed to undergo a sort of mini-crackup during the set—addressing the crowd in gibberish and playing keyboards on set-closer “I’m Down” with his elbows as he and the other Beatles laughed hysterically.

It was over in 30 minutes. But what a 30 minutes—the Beatles shattered whatever previous concert attendance record existed, and as promoter Sid Bernstein noted, “We took $304,000, the greatest gross ever in the history of show business.” Further, the group earned a record $160,000 payout (not a bad return on a half-hour performance).

The show was Bernstein’s idea in the first place. Thousands of fans were turned away when the Beatles played Carnegie Hall during their first U.S. visit in February 1964, and talk of a larger venue for 1965 had turned to Madison Square Garden, but Bernstein suggesting Shea Stadium instead to Beatles manager Brian Epstein. When Epstein asked if he thought they could sell it out, Bernstein replied, “I’ll give you $10 for every unsold seat.” Epstein shortly thereafter agreed. It was a sold-out show.


Shea Stadium in 1964, the year it opened (above), and in 2007 (below).

Technical issues aside, the Beatles demonstrated at Shea Stadium that large outdoor concerts could be successful and profitable. Indeed, well before Woodstock and the other great festival and arena performances of subsequent years, the Beatles played Shea Stadium. They did it first.

The Beatles returned to Shea Stadium almost exactly a year later, on Aug. 23, 1966, playing 11 songs to an audience of 45,000. They would only play three more concert dates after this show, making their final concert touring appearance ever a week later at yet another baseball stadium, San Francisco’s Candlestick Park.

Nearly half a decade passed before the next big concert event at Shea Stadium. This was the Summer Festival For Peace, held Aug. 6, 1970—the 25th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. Janis Joplin, in New York to appear on The Dick Cavett Show, performed there with her old band, Big Brother and the Holding Company. Other acts on the bill included Creedence Clearwater Revival, Paul Simon, Poco, Johnny Winter, the James Gang, Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. The event raised $300,000 for anti-war political candidates. Joplin died two months later at age 27.

Grand Funk Railroad became the second act to sell out Shea Stadium; all the tickets for the band’s July 9, 1971, concert sold in less than 72 hours—faster than tickets sold for the Beatles concerts. Stadium engineers were concerned that the excited crowd might actually damage the stadium, and Grand Funk leader Mark Farner later noted that when flying into the stadium by helicopter, he saw the actual structure of the building “bouncing up and down” under the weight of fans excited by the music of opening act Humble Pie.

Other 1970s concerts at Shea Stadium included the Newport Jazz Festival, which left Rhode Island for Flushing on July 3, 1973, and featured Stevie Wonder and Ella Fitzgerald, and a July 23, 1976, performance by Jethro Tull with opener Robin Trower.

The Who came to Shea Stadium in 1982 for two shows on Oct. 12 and 13 during what the group called its farewell tour. The Who made quite a display of “passing the torch” to opening act the Clash; Pete Townshend, 37 at the time and the man who penned the lyric “Hope I die before I get old,” called it “the end” of the Who and told the press that it was time for them to “step aside; time for the new people to come in.” At the Oct. 13 show, the Who paid affectionate tribute to the Beatles with rare performances of “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Twist and Shout,” both sung by bassist John Entwistle. Farewell talk aside, the Who subsequently reunited in various incarnations throughout the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.


VIP pass for the massive Aug. 18, 1983, Police concert at Shea (above); Police guitarist Andy Summers onstage at the show (below).


Photo credit: Getty Images

The enormously successful fall 1981 reunion of Simon and Garfunkel (Newark, N.J. and Queens natives, respectively) at a free concert in Central Park morphed into a 1982-1983 tour that pulled into Shea Stadium on Aug. 6, 1983.

One of the biggest and most famous concerts of the 1980s took place when the Police played Shea Stadium on Aug. 18, 1983. The famously blonde trio eclipsed all attendance records at Shea—even that of the Beatles—by playing to a sold-out audience of 70,000, supported by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and an up-and-coming band from Georgia called R.E.M.

“We’d like to thank the Beatles for lending us their stadium,” Police bassist and vocalist Sting said near the end of the performance.

The Police were at the height of their world- and chart-dominating success, but, unbeknownst to most, were also on the verge of dissolution. At the end of the massive Synchronicity tour seven months later in March 1984, the band members went their separate ways, and the Shea Stadium show had more than a little to do with it. The way Sting saw it, playing there was “like playing the top of Mount Everest,” with nothing left for the Police to accomplish afterward.

“During the performance I thought, ‘This is it; you can’t do any better than this,’” Sting later said. “That’s the point I decided to stop.”

Musically, the 1980s closed out at Shea when the Rolling Stones brought their Steel Wheels tour there for six shows in 1989 on Oct. 10, 11, 25, 26, 28 and 29. Eric Clapton joined them onstage during the first show for a rendition of “Little Red Rooster.” Clapton returned to Shea Stadium for a two-night double-bill appearance with Elton John on Aug. 21-22, 1992. Clapton closed the show on the first night and opened it on the second.

Post Sept. 11, 2001—during which Shea served as a rescue/relief staging area filled with food, supplies and lodging—music eventually returned to the great stadium. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band concluded their tour for The Rising at Shea with three shows on Oct. 1, 3 and 4, 2003. Surprise guests at the Oct. 4 show included Bob Dylan, who joined Springsteen for a rendition of Dylan’s classic “Highway 61 Revisited” and Mets pitcher Al Leiter, who played tambourine on early-Springsteen classic “Rosalita.”

Live music would only reverberate throughout Shea Stadium one more time. In the late 2000s, the great building was scheduled for demolition in order to make way for additional parking for the adjacent Citi Field, which was scheduled to open in March 2009 as the new home of the Mets.

A final concert event, Billy Joel’s “Last Play at Shea,” took place on July 16 and 18, 2008, mere weeks before the final Mets game there on Sept. 28. Bronx-native Joel—wearing the Wells Fargo agent badge worn by Ringo Starr at the Aug. 15, 1965, Beatles concert—threw a pair of send-off concert celebrations for Shea Stadium, inviting a number of special guests. These included Tony Bennett, Don Henley, John Mayer, John Mellencamp, Garth Brooks, Steven Tyler, Roger Daltrey and, most fittingly, Paul McCartney, who closed the second show with an emotional performance of “Let It Be.” The shows were the subject of 2010 documentary film The Last Play at Shea.

In accordance with New York City law, Shea Stadium was dismantled rather than destroyed with explosives, a process that was completed on Feb. 18, 2009, after much of the seating, signage and other memorabilia was sold off. A plaque commemorating the location of the stadium’s home plate is embedded in the asphalt of Citi Field’s parking lot; the other bases and the pitcher’s mound are marked there, too. Mets fans now park in the spot just past second base where the Beatles so memorably took the stage in 1965.

 

Clockwise from upper left: Demolition proceeds at Shea in the late 2000s, present-day plaque in the Citi Field parking lot commemorating the site of Shea’s second base (where the stage was placed for both Beatles concerts), ad for 2010 documentary film The Last Play at Shea, and Shea logo commemorating the stadium’s final year.

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