On February 9th, 1964, 73 million Americans watched The Beatles launch into the opening notes of ‘All My Loving’ while performing on The Ed Sullivan Show. For nearly every single one of those viewers, this was the first time any of them had seen The Beatles play music live and, although ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ was the number one song in the country at the time, there was a sizable chunk of the audience for whom this was the first time they were introduced to the four mop topped musicians from Liverpool.
That makes ‘All My Loving’ the first song that The Beatles had ever performed in the US, but it wasn’t an official concert setting. Two days later, the band made their first concert appearance in the United States at the Washington Coliseum in Washington D.C., which you can still visit today. If you happen to ride the D.C. Metro on the red line, as I do, it’s visible from the NoMA-Gallaudet stop. It’s now an REI store.
The Beatles arrived in the middle of a snowstorm, still very much caught up in the first wave of Beatlemania that was sweeping over the country at the time. They arrived to find their equipment set up on a rickety elevated boxing ring platform. Throughout the show, frequent calls to roadie Mal Evans to fix various problems that the band were encountering.
Even more surprising was the fact that the band were playing in the round. The promoters had made the decision in order to maximise the amount of customers they could fit into the venue. Every few songs, the band were forced to move their equipment 90 degrees and play for a different side of the audience.
George Harrison was still recovering from strep throat at the time, and the decision was made for him to take on the first song of the set, likely in order to get it out of the way. Harrison was no stranger to occasionally getting the lead off song in a set: the band’s 1963 winter tour with Helen Shapiro usually opened with Harrison singing ‘Chains’. By that winter, the band had usually started songs with either John Lennon’s lead on ‘Some Other Guy’ or Paul McCartney’s ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, which was the opening song to their debut LP Please Please Me.
In any case, the band had no specific setlist order and had a fluid mix of openers throughout their concerts. As the 1964 American tour continued on, ‘Twist and Shout’ became the standard opener, and the band started off their concerts with the song for 102 of their 231 concerts that year according to setlist.com. But for that first concert in Washington D.C., the first song that The Beatles played for a paying audience was a cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Roll Over Beethoven’.