Christ! The Beatles In Memphis

The before-show press conference, backstage, Mid-South Coliseum.

The before-show press conference, backstage, Mid-South Coliseum.

DEVIN McKINNEY  •  I’m a bit ashamed to say it’s taken me this long to listen to something I’ve had on the shelf for a few years—the audience recordings of the Beatles’ afternoon and evening shows at Memphis’s Mid-South Coliseum, midway through their final tour. The evening show is the famous one: Near the end of “If I Needed Someone,” the third song, a cherry bomb was thrown onstage and exploded. I remember reading that three teenagers, adolescent mischief-makers with no malign intent beyond literally making a noise, were detained by security.

I needn’t rehearse the back-story to this legendary moment. Readers of this blog will know all about the “Christ” comment, the resultant backlash in America, and the threats of death or at least “a few surprises” from the local chapter of the KKK. Suffice it to say, nerves were wound tight all around in Memphis on August 19, 1966.

The existence of these recordings, made by teenage fans with primitive equipment, was first reported in Rolling Stone in 2007; Apple was said to be pursuing the reels, without doubt so that it could prevent them from ever being publicly heard. But the owners resisted all offers (or threats) and one way or another the shows were bootlegged within a year. They first appeared under the title The Cherry Bomb Tapes, because that is what everyone remembers about the Memphis visit, and what everyone wanted to hear.

Though you think you’re prepared for the sound, it comes as an absolute shock. First of all, it is LOUD. It doesn’t sound like a firecracker, or a car backfiring, or for that matter even a gunshot. It sounds, more than anything, like the moment in Help! when the windswept Beatles are miming “The Night Before” and a bunker full of dynamite explodes, blasting the song to bits. Several girls near the microphone scream and shout incomprehensibly at each other: clearly, the Beatles weren’t the only ones with feelers out for disaster that night.

In the video above, the sound comes at 1:12. But it’s more shocking to hear it in sequence, after “Rock and Roll Music” and “She’s a Woman” and most of “If I Needed Someone” have come and gone, when you’re beginning to think the sound won’t really be audible after all, or if it is, it’ll be a pipsqueak. And then, cutting through the crowd, the music, the distance of decades: BLAM. Big, dumb, brutal, hungry, it is the sound of what Beatlemania became.

The Beatles, they and others have said, looked around at the sound to see if one of them had been assassinated—not a foolish fear in America in 1966. (Let alone in Memphis itself: Just weeks earlier, civil rights activist James Meredith, walking from Memphis to Mississippi to register black voters, had been shot down in broad daylight by Aubrey James Norvell, a Memphis man; and two years later, Martin Luther King would be killed there.) But kudos to the group for not seeming to miss a beat of their performance, and especially to John Lennon, who despite the blood surely pounding in his heart and head takes the mic to jauntily introduce the next song, “Day Trippah!”

More on the Beatles in Memphis, 1966

Go here for a good article on the Beatles, Memphis, the last tour, and the cherry bomb tape as a prime instance of folklore made flesh. Though the writer and I disagree on a few points (the July 30 Tokyo show was pretty bad, but July 1 was a powerhouse), he makes a moving statement on the magic, sometimes frightening, rendered unto us by bootlegs that not only confirm legend but live up to it.

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  1. Great post, Devin. You know, you should really write a book about The Beatles. 🙂 (BTW, an emoticon is a set of symbols used to demarcate a lame joke.)

    My auntie (Mary, not Mimi) saw ’em in St. Lou in August of 1966, the day after that special Cincinnati concert. I assume Louise Harrison was there as well, given that she lived in downstate Illinois. Mary says it rained, and they were very small.

    I love it when Lennon apologizes to the monks–was there ever anybody more able to be himself, in the presence of the media? It’s uncanny.

    It’s taking everything I’ve got not to track down the other episodes of this film and spend the day watching them. Part of our plans for the new expanded site will be a page for video/audio sources, probably done chronologically. (I originally typed “chronically,” which is exactly how I’d do it.)

  2. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    Poor Brian during those new conferences. He looks miserable. The last thing he wanted was the lads discussing Vietnam or Christ or the threat of violence.

    In my younger days, I remember the “Christ comment” fallout. A classmate told me “I used to like the Beatles until they said they were better than God.” I tried to explain that wasn’t the case, but didn’t get very far.

    I’ve read journalists who compartmentalized the Christ comment controversy as something that blew over and died out in the late ’60s, but didn’t it contribute in a major way to John’s assassination? MDC (I don’t like spelling his name out) was a Jesus freak who sang “imagine Lennon dead” and the controversy stayed in his head long after more reasonable people had forgotten it.

    My siblings saw the Beatles in Forest Hills. They said the girls were screaming, and the girls’ boyfriends were throwing hard candy onstage. The Beatles actually had to duck the candy, the boyfriends were throwing as hard as they could.
    – Hologram Sam

  3. Avatar Craig wrote:

    I will now get nothing done this weekend as I am going to listen to all these tapes. Very cool.

    I would love for some hungry journalist to do a long, detailed piece about this show. Go back and interview as many spectators as possible. Find out of there is ANY way to track down who tossed the cherry bombs. See if the Beatles weren’t the only ones who looked over to their rhythm guitarist to make sure he was still standing.

    Thanks for the post.

  4. Avatar Craig wrote:

    I’m sorry, gotta say this. 1:55 into the video above is probably my favorite moment of any Beatle/John interview, ever. Check out Ringo laughing. I think I just watched that 9 times.

  5. No doubt you’re right, Hologram, about Brian’s misery being due in large part to his wish to avoid controversy. But when I look at his melancholy face in the background of the ’66 press conferences, all I can think of is the Dizz Gillespie business, which was going on at that very moment:

    This is particularly resonant with the NY press conference clip (Paul in the yellow jacket, John in the stripes), held at the Warwick Hotel before the return engagement at Shea — at which time, according to Peter Brown, Brian’s hustler-blackmailer was under lock and key in a guarded suite in the same hotel.

  6. Oops, I mixed the years up — the Warwick imprisonment was ’65, not ’66. It was a year later that Dizz showed up in LA for the big final scene: watch the Beatles’ August 28, 1966, Hollywood press conference, Brian lingering in the background, and wonder what’s going through his mind.

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