Yesterday and Today: The Beatles at Washington Coliseum
57 years ago today, the Beatles played their first live concert in America. On the night of February 11, 1964 music and popular culture changed forever. Some 20 years after that historic event, I made a pilgrimage to the site of that first concert, and 50 years later (in 2014) I wrote about this realization that time never stands still. Here’s my remembrance of Washington Coliseum, within walking distance of Union Station.
There are places I remember,
all my life though some have changed.
Some forever not for better,
some have gone and some remain.
This is the story not so much of a band, as a building. A building with memories.
Take a ride on Amtrak’s Metroliner from New York City to Washington, D.C. After about a three-and-a-half-hour journey you’ll pull into Union Station, a short walk from the U.S. Capitol Building.
As the train begins to slow down and coasts into the depot, an ugly rust-colored structure barely comes into view on the north side of the tracks. It seems hardly worth noticing, except for the arches. Now blanketed in graffiti, it’s become an eyesore.
That shell of an old building along the eastern wall of the Washington rail yard deserves a better fate than it’s been given. Instead, it’s a victim of urban blight and gross neglect, forgotten a long time ago. Now it’s an empty tomb, barren except for the ghostly memories of what happened 57 years ago inside on the night of February 11, 1964.
Constructed prior to World War II, it was originally called Uline Arena.
The structure initially served as a military depot for the U.S. Army, conveniently adjacent to one of the busiest rail systems in the country. By war’s end, the building lacked any foreseeable government purpose. So, it was converted into a makeshift sports venue where it hosted basketball and hockey games.
Uline Arena enjoyed some memorable moments, especially for a venue of its size. The arena hosted President Harry S. Truman’s official inauguration ball in 1948. A year later, the building was the site of the 1949 NBA Finals. Many remarkable events would take place here over the next quarter-century, including a live performance by Bob Dylan, and several speeches by Elijah Muhammad.
When the popular Motown group, The Temptations played here in the mid-60s, it caused a riot. That was the last pop group ever to do a live performance, which took place in 1967. That triggered a downward spiral. But before that happened, one historic night stood out above all the rest.
Renamed Washington Coliseum in the late 1950s to attract more music and concert performances, the surrounding neighborhood became increasingly African-American. Most of the groups who played there during the ’60s were Motown acts. The building also hosted a fair number of gospel groups and even church revivals.
Towards the end of 1963, a few weeks following President Kennedy’s assassination, a music group from overseas with a strange-sounding name was booked for a one-time appearance which was to take place in early February. It was a band no one in Washington — or America for that matter — had ever heard of before. The group was to appear down on the bill somewhere with a number of other more popular groups at the time — including The Chiffons and The Righteous Brothers who were just about to make it big. They were little more than a warm-up act when the concert was being planned. One must have assumed this group with the name that sounded like an insect would hardly create any buzz at all.
The name of the musical group no one in America knew at the time was The Beatles.
Fast forward 20 years.
In 1984, I was on a student trip to Washington — a city not commonly associated with The Beatles, but a place certainly at the pinnacle of most American revolutions.
Indeed, it was Washington where The Beatles were first heard on this side of the Atlantic — not New York. Radio station WWDC was the first media outlet in the nation to play a recording by this new musical group from so far away. Keep in mind that no musical act from outside the U.S. had ever produced a hit recording, let alone been widely popular. No one knew if The Beatles had a shot at making it big in the U.S. It seemed impossible.
A week before Christmas in 1963, a teenage girl from Silver Spring, Maryland triggered the American twist on “Beatlemania” when she initially saw a news report about a new music group taking England by storm. She decided to call into the local radio station to request that one of their records be played. Trouble was, no one at WWDC had ever heard of them. Purely by luck, someone who worked at the station was returning from London a few days later and brought back a few of their recordings. Someone at WWDC recalled the listener request and played a few records over the airwaves. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The Beatles took the stage at Washington Coliseum about six weeks later. By mid-February, they had locked up the top five spots on the Billboard chart, an unheard-of phenomenon.
Added Note: Some evidence suggests the first Beatles’ record may have been played elsewhere. See LINK HERE.
I like seeing where history was made. I like standing in the footprints of the greats who inspired us. I like seeing the vision they once saw when they sang and made us happy. I like being there now and thinking about what it was like, back then.
And so on that student trip to Washington in the spring of 1984, just about 20 years after that historic night when the Fab Four performed, I ventured off in a different path. I wanted to see the place for myself where The Beatles had played their first American concert.
The site wasn’t what I expected.
People and places change.
Little stays the same, and nothing lasts forever.
It’s blasphemy to write this, but The Beatles weren’t great live performers. They very well might have been had studio technology, ancient in those days compared to what’s done now, been able to fill a live stage in the manner all those songs were first imagined, written, recorded, and ultimately grooved into vinyl.
It’s also heresy to write The Beatles’ earliest hits — the songs they performed back in early in 1964 when they first arrived in America — were catchy in a “yeah, yeah. yeah” sort of way. But the songs were hardly innovative, either musically or lyrically. We weren’t ready for that yet. They needed time. We needed even more time. The greatness would come later.
Indeed, that’s the bailiwick of greatness. The ones who get there before us, and then lead there — to where we need to go. They envision a different way and then blaze a new path. That’s what The Beatles did.
Walking north from Union Station, I had no idea what the building where it all began looked like. Before windows to the world were opened by the Internet, we are all led by blind curiosity.
I continued walking. Then after passing a few more blocks, the rust-colored arches came into view. I saw her standing there.
Like a once-fair maiden that had weathered by many storms, the silhouette of Washington Coliseum could still be recognized both within and without. Time doesn’t extinguish an aura. Perhaps it even enhances it.
The front entrance pretty much looked like this. Note this photo (below) was taken much more recently. There’s no indication of the memories that once took place inside when we were all so much younger than today.
Two nights before the February 11th concert, The Beatles had performed on the Ed Sullivan Show on CBS, which was watched by an estimated 73 million people — at the time the most in television history. Beatlemania had struck America. Within hours, organizers of the Washington concert knew they had lightning in a bottle. The Beatles were hastily promoted into the night’s headliners, with their name on the marquee.
The following day, the band and their small entourage took a train from New York’s Penn Station to Union Station, arriving in Washington where they were scheduled to play their first full-length U.S. concert. After that, the group was scheduled to travel to Miami Beach, where they would eventually meet then-challenger Muhammad Ali, who was training for his heavyweight prizefight against Sonny Liston.
The Beatles were able to enjoy the nation’s capital, at least for a couple of hours. Washington has been buried by a snowstorm the previous week. A famous series of still photographs show them on the Mall playing around in the snow in front of the Capitol Building.
The night before The Beatles were to play their first actual paid gig on U.S. soil, they were invited to an official reception at the British Embassy. Several written biographies of the group have recounted the bizarre story of the four lads, all in their early 20’s, being treated like circus animals by the diplomatic corps. One English staffer even went so far as to try cutting one of The Beatles’ hair with a pair of scissors. John Lennon later explained that the incident was a major turning point for the group. They vowed never again to be used as a publicity stunt or be performers in a freak show. Sticking strictly to this policy created a riot in The Philippines two years later on their 1966 World Tour (their last) when they allegedly snubbed the dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos by not showing up for an official government function. The point is — not only was this their first concert, the seeds of The Beatles’ discontent with touring as a live band oddly enough were first sewn in Washington, as well.
Correction: The embassy party actually took place after the show on Feb. 11th, not the night before on Feb. 10th.
The Beatles first became popular in the provincial city of Liverpool when they played regularly at a local club called the Cavern Club.
Today, all that remains of the Washington Coliseum is its cave-like outer shell, which resembles a cavern. It’s a hollow place, now empty except for dust and a few floodlights that feign off the darkness.
The Beatles played for only 36 minutes. Over the years, after the tours ended and the music acts stopped being booked, Washington Coliseum fell into disrepair. The Beatles divided and then dissolved. It bears repeating that people and places change. Little stays the same, and nothing lasts forever. Even the Beatles. And certainly Washington Coliseum.
Later, it became a parking garage. Then, it was turned into a trash depot. For several years, garbage trucks rumbled in and out carrying rubbish around and around, oblivious to the spot where John, Paul, George, and Ringo once stood and played, launching a musical and cultural revolution.
The 50-year and 60-year anniversary of that historic night will come and go, just as all things come and go. Whether we chose to remember them at all, and the way we honor them defines not only what they did back then, but who were are now.
I believe in yesterday. Otherwise, tomorrow never knows.
Note: Watch how primitive live performing was at the time. The Beatles have to come out on their own and set up the stage themselves. In the first song, George Harrison has lead vocals on the Chuck Berry song “Roll Over Beethoven,” and his microphone doesn’t work!
If that first American concert marked a beginning, then there was the bitter end just five years later. The last time The Beatles played together live in public, took place atop Apple Studios on a blustery late January afternoon in London in 1969. So much would change in those five years.
PHOTO SOURCES: CLICK HERE