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50 Years Ago: The Beatles’ First U.S. Concert – and the Trouble Afterwards

On Feb. 11, 1964, only two days after their first appearance on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ the Beatles made their American concert debut in Washington, D. C. Earlier that day, they had arrived from New York by train at Union Station in the middle of a snowstorm.

The show took place at the Washington Coliseum, about a mile north of the U.S. Capitol building. The seating plan for the arena was in its configuration for boxing, with the Beatles setting up on the unroped ring in the middle. This meant that the group were only facing 25 percent of the 8,092 fans in attendance at any given time. In between songs, they moved the amplifiers, microphones and Ringo Starr‘s drum riser one-quarter turn clockwise.

Former Vice President Al Gore, who was 15 years old and the son of a U.S. Senator, attended the concert. “The acoustics in the arena combined with the absolute frenzy of enthusiasm made it virtually impossible to understand a single word that they sang,” he told the Washington Post. “You had to listen carefully to get the general flow of the song, and of course everybody knew all the words prior to the concert. We all loved their music, but clearly there were a lot of people in that crowd who loved it even more than I did because they couldn’t stop screaming.”

But it wasn’t just the screaming of the fans that affected the group. “We had been asked somewhere what is your favorite sweet, and we said jelly babies,” said Paul McCartney. “So the fans took to throwing them onstage, and this had reached Washington. In England, they’re soft and always in the shape of babies. What do you call them? Jelly beans. They’re hard. They stung, and we’re playing in the round, and they’re being thrown from everywhere. It was very unsettling. After that, we said the time has come for us to tell people we hate these damn things. They were only trying to be cute; throw the cute bits at the cute boys, that will be fun. But if you caught one of those in the eye, that was none too pleasant.”

In the 35-minute set, the Beatles played 12 songs: ‘Roll Over, Beethoven,’ ‘From Me to You,’ ‘I Saw Her Standing There,’ ‘This Boy,’ ‘All My Loving,’ ‘I Wanna Be Your Man,’ ‘Please Please Me,’ ‘Till There Was You,’ ‘She Loves You,’ ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’ ‘Twist and Shout’ and ‘Long Tall Sally.’ Footage of ‘I Saw Her Standing There,’ ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ and She Loves You’ — were featured in the Maysles’ documentary, ‘The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit.’

Following the concert, they attended a reception thrown in their honor at the British Embassy that didn’t go particularly well. “In the early-’60s there was still a huge disparity between people from the North of England and ‘people from Embassies,’ Ringo said in ‘Anthology.’ “But we went. God knows why. Maybe because we’d suddenly become ambassadors and they wanted to see us, and I think Brian [Epstein] liked the idea that it was big time.”

Tensions between the upper-crust diplomats and the working class Beatles got even worse when an attendee cut off a piece of Ringo’s hair. “I walked out, swearing at all of them,” John Lennon said. “I just left in the middle of it.” As they were leaving, the ambassdor’s wife apologized for the behavior of the guests.

Tickets ranged from $2-4, which, in today’s dollars, would be between $15-30. Opening acts were the Caravelles, Tommy Roe and the Chiffons.

Next: Top 10 Underrated Beatles Songs, 1963-65

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