By 1966, as Beatlemania was whipped up beyond a frenzy and had now become an integrated part of the pop culture fabric, The Beatles knew that their touring days were coming to an end as the dangers of being John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr seemed closer than ever. If they weren’t being pelted with their favourite sweets, the group were being figuratively and literally chased down every street they went down.
The band, who had just endured a harrowing string of tour dates in Asia, a tour which had turned nasty in the Philippines after a handshake mishap, were forced to quickly put their issues behind them and hit the road again for a U.S. tour the following month. “We’re going to have a couple of weeks to recuperate before we go and get beaten up by the Americans,” George Harrison joked as John Lennon caused national chaos by apparently claiming that The Beatles were bigger than Jesus.
Lasting a total of 19 performances, with 17 shows in American venues and two in Canada, The Beatles’ fourth U.S. tour began in the summer of ’66 and, eventually, resulted in the Fab Four finally calling time on their extensive time on the road, after all, the group had been perennially bouncing across the maps of the world since the beginning of the decade.
Performing their songs for a paying audience had been the very essence of the band up until the final years, making a name for themselves in the smoky clubs of Europe. But by the end of their run, The Beatles were playing huge venues with little soul or heart, the crowds were so large that the screams of adoring fans made it near impossible to hear the music through the 100-watt Vox amplifiers.
“In 1966, the road was getting pretty boring,” Ringo Starr recalled in the Beatles Anthology documentary. “It was coming to the end for me. Nobody was listening at the shows. That was OK at the beginning, but we were playing really bad.”
“There was a big talk at Candlestick Park that this had got to end,” Starr added upon reflection. “At that San Francisco gig it seemed that this could possibly be the last time, but I never felt 100% certain till we got back to London.” Starr continued: “John wanted to give up more than the others. He said that he’d had enough.” It’s a statement Lennon would later renege on, suggesting he and Harrison had never wanted to stop playing live.
The band would go on to play one more time—their impromptu set on the rooftop of Apple Corps headquarters at 3 Savile Row, London in January of 1969—but The Beatles final paid and planned concert arrived on 29 August at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California, the home to baseball team the San Francisco Giants.
The capacity of the venue may have stretched to some 42,000 available spaces but the bitterly cold night resulted in just 25,000 tickets being sold. “I was the MC, and, as any Giants fans will know, Candlestick Park in August, at night, was cold, foggy and windy,” compère ‘Emperor’ Gene Nelson later recalled. “The funniest thing on this night was one of the warm-up acts, Bobby Hebb. He stood up on the stage at Candlestick Park, with the fog, and the wind blowing, and he was singing ‘Sunny’! It was tough anyway to work a ballpark as an MC, especially as The Beatles were taking their time to get out. I was trying to entertain a crowd that was shouting, ‘Beatles, Beatles, Beatles.’”
George Harrison later confirmed that the band knew, on some subconscious level, at least, that the show would be the last: “Before one of the last numbers, we actually set up this camera, I think it had a fisheye, a wide-angle lens,” he told Keith Badman as part of the Beatles Off The Record. “We set it up on the amplifier and Ringo came off the drums, and we stood with our backs to the audience and posed for a photograph, because we knew that was the last show.”
Harrison continued: “The sound at our concerts was always bad. We would be joking with each other on stage just to keep ourselves amused,” he remembered in the Anthology. The shows had become a tiresome formula and, with the sound so poor, a host of screaming fans drowning out what little they could hear and the constant fear of electrocution, professionalism dropped. “It was just a sort of a freak show,” Harrison later said. “The Beatles were the show, and the music had nothing to do with it.”
With more than a hint of nostalgia in the air, John, Paul, Ringo and George took to the stage armed with personal cameras to capture on-stage memories. McCartney had asked their press officer, Tony Barrow, to make a recording of the concert by using a hand-held recorder. “There was a sort of end of term spirit thing going on, and there was also this kind of feeling amongst all of us around The Beatles, that this might just be the last concert that they will ever do,” Barrow said of the show.
“I remember Paul, casually, at the very last minute, saying, ‘Have you got your cassette recorder with you?’ and I said, ‘Yes, of course.’ Paul then said, ‘Tape it, will you? Tape the show,’ which I did, literally just holding the microphone up in the middle of the field. As a personal souvenir of the occasion, it was a very nice thing to have and the only difference was that it wasn’t a spectacular occasion. It was nothing like Shea Stadium, there was nothing special about it at all, except that The Beatles did put in extra ad-libs and link material which they hadn’t put in before on any other occasion.”
The Beatles eventually took to the stage at 9.27 pm and performed 11 songs in total, opening with ‘Rock And Roll Music’ and ‘She’s A Woman, If I Needed Someone’ before rolling into Fab Four classics such as ‘Day Tripper’, ‘Baby’s In Black’, ‘I Feel Fine’. With the show drawing to a close, the band performed the likes of ‘Yesterday’, ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’, ‘Nowhere Man’, ‘Paperback Writer’ before finishing up, for good on the live circuit, with ‘Long Tall Sally’. It’s a jam-packed setlist even with half of the band’s most creative albums still to be released.
Barrow continued: “At San Francisco airport, as our plane prepared to take off, Paul’s head came over the top of my seat from the row behind: ‘Did you get anything on tape?’ I passed the cassette recorder back to him: ‘I got the lot, except that the tape ran out in the middle of Long Tall Sally.’ He asked if I had left the machine running between numbers to get all the announcements and the boys’ ad-lib remarks. I said: ‘It’s all there from the guitar feedback before the first number.’ Paul was clearly chuffed to have such a unique souvenir of what would prove to be a historic evening—the farewell stage show from the Fab Four.”
While it is unknown how bootleg recordings of Barrow’s tape managed to surface in the public, a number of samples of the show emerged and began being passed around Beatles fans. “Back in London. I kept the concert cassette under lock and key in a drawer of my office desk, making a single copy for my personal collection and passing the original to Paul for him to keep,” Barrow later said.
“Years later my Candlestick Park recording re-appeared in public as a bootleg album. If you hear a bootleg version of the final concert that finishes during ‘Long Tall Sally’ it must have come either from Paul’s copy or mine, but we never did identify the music thief!”
Stream the performance, below.