The first Beatles album released in the United States was 1964’s Meet the Beatles - and an Ottawa-born, Toronto-based 18-year-old photographer did just that, meeting Paul, George, John and Ringo at the height of Beatlemania as a freelancer working for Capitol Records. John Rowlands, who covered the band’s visits to Canada in 1965 and 1966, shares his memories of the photogenic foursome with The Globe and Mail.
Two-show stint in Toronto
On Aug. 17, 1965, the Beatles gave two concerts at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, their first since a three-city Canadian debut (Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal) in 1964.
“Between shows at the Gardens, I sat backstage with George Harrison and talked about how he almost emigrated to Canada prior to the Beatles, because his sister lived in Toronto for a while. … We also chit-chatted about cameras. Later, at the press conference, I didn’t like the photo formation, so I asked George if he minded asking John Lennon to stand up with him. I told him that I’d get a better grouping of faces that way. … He said ‘no problem.’ Years later, when I was on the road with George and Ravi Shankar in 1974, he asked me if I could bring a stack of 8x10s from the Maple Leaf Gardens shows, because it was all a blur to him. I brought them to him, and he thanked me and said he would look at them at his leisure. He just wanted to catch up on what had went on in Toronto.”
Screams at Shea
The Toronto concerts followed the tour-opening show at New York’s Shea Stadium. A typical set was comprised of a dozen short songs, played to a screaming throng.
“You really couldn’t believe the Beatles were here, in your town.There was a five-act startup to the show, and the Beatles themselves only played for 35 or 40 minutes. The expectation was longer-lasting than the actual show. As for the sound … you couldn’t really make out the lyrics. the way to hear the song was to go into a hallway or a dressing room, where you had three or four cinder blocks filtering out all the screams. That’s how you could best hear the Beatles – leave the room. For the fans in the seats … you were left more with a visual impact. it was all about seeing the Beatles in the same cavern you were in. When you left the Gardens, you couldn’t take a step without crunching on all these flash bulbs and cubes, from the fans who had taken snap shots.”
Meet the media
The Beatles held their press conference between shows, at a banquet room off the Hot Stove Lounge in Maple Leaf Gardens.
“They had fun at the press conferences. They kind of tongue-and-cheeked them. Also they would tap the tape-recorder microphones with their fingers, making it impossible for the journalists to transcribe the tapes. I had words with all of them, sitting in the suite at the King Edward Hotel. Killing time before heading to the concert, John would say, ‘You know, I’d rather go bowling than wait around.’ He was very dry, with stone-cold humour. Quite the sarcastic guy. George was very open and very friendly. McCartney was the teddy bear. He was the quiet one at the time. And Ringo Starr was just looking to jump in on any conversation where he could contribute something, because not a lot of people talked to him.”
On Aug. 17, 1966, at Maple Leaf Gardens, the Beatles gave their sixth and final Canadian concert, less than two years after their debut at Vancouver’s Empire Stadium.
“Their wardrobe was better. … The musical instruments had changed a bit. They went from Rickenbacker to Epiphone guitars. Their equpiment was better too: They were using [simpler but louder] Vox Super Beatles amplifiers, but still going through the house sound system. It was a much slicker show, with smoother segues. They would mention Canada in general, which was probably the safe thing to do, because in the turmoil of the day they might not remember what city they were in. They knew they were riding a wave. The attitude was ‘get it while you can grab it,’ because it might not be there to get next year. And certainly, after ’66, it wasn’t.” The Beatles retired from the road. The reaction from the fans and industry was basically, ‘How could they do this?’ ”