50 Years Later: The Greatest Beatles Performance of All Time

Months before the The Ed Sullivan Show, the band played a seven-song set for Swedish radio that settles any doubt about their electrifying live presence.
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The Beatles in London in October of 1963. (AP)

One of the most pervasive misconceptions about the Beatles is that they were awful as an in-concert act. The myth, as I recall my eighth-grade music teacher putting it, says the Beatles weren’t even playing up there on stage most of the time. They were only pretending to because no one could hear them anyway. And then when they did play, they weren’t much good, relying as they did on on studio time and trickery to make their records sound nice.

These lines are often parrotted even by Beatles fans. The band's own record label didn’t see fit to release any live material until seven years after the group had broken up, and that set has been out of print for an age. 

I believed the cliché myself—until I started collecting Beatles bootlegs and hit upon one performance in particular that remains one of the five or six best shows I’ve ever heard by anyone. In October 1963, the Beatles were superstars in Britain and completely unknown in America. “Love Me Do,” “Please Please Me,” a debut LP, “From Me to You,” and “She Loves You” had all happened; mega-single “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and With the Beatles were about to. By this point, teenyboppers were screaming wildly at the band’s shows, but not 50 years ago on October 24 at Stockholm’s Karlaplansstudion, where the band would tape a seven-song concert, in front of 100 people, to be broadcast over the radio. (And eventually, luckily for us, on YouTube.)

With their last club residency in Hamburg’s boozed-up Reeperbahn district less than a year in the past, the Beatles were still one kickass bar band: adrenaline junkies with something punkish about them, though that punk vibe was shot through with rhythm and blues. But unlike when the band played Hamburg, now they had their own formidable compositions to perform.

They open with Paul McCartney’s “I Saw Her Standing There,” and they immediately make clear that this is going to be a full-speed affair. The sound isn’t just loud; it’s over-loud, possibly the loudest rock and roll anyone had ever cut to date. The guitars distort, adding abraded edges that make the song sound more lascivious than it is, the lines of “She was just 17 / If you know what I mean” now sufficiently scabrous to get the likes of Humbert Humbert up and dancing. The four guys sound thrilled, maybe over the fact that for once hardly anyone is screaming back at them.

“From Me to You is served up with more fervor than the single version. By this point in their career, the Beatles already could best just about any band in chops, synergy, and that all-encompassing beat, but now they had their ultimate weapon: some seriously accomplished songs, with chords and modulations that no one else had the audacity—or invention—to attempt to bring off. Onlookers remarked that to watch Dickens read from A Christmas Carol was to experience the story even more convincingly brought to life. Same kind of deal here with the Beatles ripping through “From Me to You.” Its shift to the bridge (“I got arms that long to hold you”) must have jarred listeners into the awareness that here is a very new way for pop music to be written and played.

If you’re a connoisseur of live recordings, you want one thing above all else: energy. Ballads can have it, death metal songs can have it, pop numbers, folk tunes, anything, potentially. It’s what binds material as disparate as Eric Dolphy and Booker Little’s Five Spot dates, Böhm’s Tristan und Isolde, and Jerry Lee Lewis’s Live at the Star Club. But what’s neat about this Beatles gig is that the band members themselves seem, in the very moments of their music-making, to clock on to this same idea—energy is the thing—and tease it out.

There are only two surviving Beatles concert recordings that feature the band playing both “Money” and “Twist and Shout,” conceivably their two most intense numbers. One reason is that singing both songs in a single session was no easy feat, as John Lennon absolutely screamed both of them. But we’re definitely getting “Money” here, and Lennon can’t wait to offer some input as the intro begins, letting loose a “Yeahhhh Yeahhhhh!” off-mike. The dual-guitar attack has what would become the Velvet Underground’s trademark fuzz to it, only sped up.

A version of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” follows, and it bests the Beatles’ studio version—the faster pace helps. Then it’s on into “You Really Got a Hold on Me” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, rhythmically complex black music that gawky British white kids aren’t supposed to be able to play well. Lennon isn’t fazed, though. He gives the song a jokey intro, telling everyone who it’s by in a slowed-down, take-some-notes-class kind of voice. The song itself is pure, bottomless groove, with Lennon letting his voice simply skip atop it, easy peasy, save that none of it is. 

Still, none of that prepares you for “She Loves You.” There is no more orgastic sound in all of rock and roll than when the opening chorus of “She Loves You” segues into Ringo’s cymbal explosion—a most tingly explosion—as the first verse begins. This is the sound of release, and on stage, here in Sweden, release is communal and energy palpable.

After “She Loves You,” there could be but one conclusion to the gig, one possible way of upping the energy further. The guitars are out of tune on “Twist and Shout,” but it’s easy to like them that way, and you get a deeper appreciation for the part they played in giving the studio version its rhythmic foundation. George Harrison—always a volume buff—and Lennon are clearly having a blast with throttling away on their guitars, and McCartney’s madman scream eggs Lennon on further on the final vocal pass. Nutso, unhinged, intense—and yet, controlled—stuff. 

A few months later, people would be talking about the singular vigor of the Beatles’ performances on The Ed Sullivan Show. Fair enough, provided you haven’t heard this gig by way of comparison. It’s the one that doubles as a trump against those “they suck as a live act” claims and serves notice that in anything approaching halfway decent conditions, the in-concert Beatles would be primed to dominate just about any battle of the bands you can imagine. 

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Colin Fleming is the author of Dark March: Stories for When the Rest of the World Is Asleep and Between Cloud and Horizon: A Relationship Casebook in Stories. He also writes for Rolling Stone, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Boston Globe.

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