50 Years Ago The Beatles Played Shea and Started a Stadium Concert Revolution

The band’s epic concert at the Mets’ ballpark, 50 years ago Saturday, expanded the scale of popular music.

Paul McCartney's set two weeks ago at Lollapalooza drew throngs who cheered and sang along to “Live and Let Die,” “Let it Be” and “Hey Jude.” With a festival lineup that included Sam Smith, Metallica and Alabama Shakes, the show could have gone on without McCartney – but it might never have started without him.

Some 50 years ago this Saturday, McCartney and his fellow Beatles pulled off what at the time seemed impossible for a pop group: filling a major league ballpark with fans. The band’s Aug. 15, 1965 gig at Shea Stadium helped set the stage for all the Woodstocks and Lollapaloozas to follow – demonstrating the power of youth-driven music to rock the masses, in-person.

We’re now in a decade filled with 50th anniversaries stemming from the 1960s – offering Beatles fans and the media welcome excuses to recall the triumphs of the biggest pop culture force of the era.

Last year's celebration of the group’s 1964 arrival in U.S. electrified the Grammys, and there are more commemorations to come with golden anniversaries of landmark albums like "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” on the horizon. The Shea Stadium concert, though, represents one of the strongest examples of the band’s enduring influence, even if the performance isn’t highest on everybody’s list of Fab Four achievements.

The concert expanded the scale and reach of popular music: Summer now brings stadium tours from the likes of Bruce Springsteen, U2, the Rolling Stones and Foo Fighters, among others. The Beatles’ Shea show also changed the economics of the business – an impact that’s become more important in recent years as the digital era has cut down on royalties from song sales.

For many emerging acts, playing a stadium concert or a major outdoor festival can be as much a goal a No. 1 album. That means more live music from bands of all types, thanks to a group who honed their craft in the Cavern Club in Liverpool and the dive bars of Hamburg, and gave their final show for free, with a gritty set atop a London roof.

John Lennon famously declared that the Shea Stadium concert marked “the top of the mountain” for the Beatles. He wasn't talking about the quality of the performance, even if footage shows the band gave it their all as they ripped through a half-hour lineup that included, “Twist and Shout,” “Help!” and the finale, "I’m Down," during which a grinning Lennon repeatedly ran his right elbow across the keyboard.

Due in part to a lackluster sound system, the band couldn't be heard very well by the 55,000-plus crowd that packed the home of the Mets. But fans’ screams resounded well beyond the Queens ballpark.

McCartney's July 31 hour-long Lollapalooza sound check reportedly could be heard throughout downtown Chicago – providing a free show before the show from an unstoppable musical great whose band started a lollapalooza all their own, on a stage behind second base, all those years ago.

Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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