50 Years Ago: The Beatles Play Their Final Scheduled U.K. Concert
The Beatles were a few weeks into recording Revolver when they appeared at the New Musical Express (NME) Annual Poll Winners concert on May 1, 1966. Wembley's Empire Pool arena was packed with 10,000 screaming fans to see what NME called "The Line-Up of the Century." The Beatles were joined by the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Yardbirds and the Small Faces, among others. Fans didn't know that it would be the Beatles' final scheduled concert in the U.K.
After much wrangling between NME, Beatles' manager Brian Epstein and Stones' manager Andrew Loog Oldham, an agreement was reached: The Stones would open the show, the awards would be presented, and then the Beatles would perform. Oldham did not want his band to immediately precede the Beatles, because he thought fans might consider the Stones to be the Beatles' warm-up group. But John Lennon, who wore dark glasses throughout the show, decided to disrupt the plans.
"Halfway through the Stones’ set, the four Beatles arrived at the foot of the stage, with their guitars in hand," NME owner Maurice Kinn recalled in The Beatles: Off the Record. "I told them they were 25 minutes early, but Lennon insisted that they were going on. I said they couldn’t and John shouted, 'Didn’t you hear me the first time? We’re going on now, or we’re not going on at all.'"
Kinn warned Epstein that if the Beatles didn't perform, the fans would riot and destroy the stadium – and NME would sue Epstein.
"Brian conveyed this to the Beatles and John absolutely exploded! He gave me abuse like you’ve never heard before in all your life. You could hear him all over the backstage area. He said, 'We’ll never play for you again!' But he knew he had no choice. Fifteen minutes later, the Beatles went on stage, collected their awards and played the show."
In a 15-minute set, the Beatles performed "I Feel Fine," "Nowhere Man," "Day Tripper," "If I Needed Someone" and "I'm Down." The Beatles didn't permit Britain's ABC-TV to film their performance. The presentation of the award to the Beatles as Top British Vocal Group was allowed to be recorded.
"The Beatles offered an anticlimactic finish to this particular tradition," wrote Robert Rodriguez in Revolver: How the Beatles Re-Imagined Rock 'n' Roll. "By now viewing such occasions as a chore, the Beatles phoned in their performance, even opening with the same 1964 hit – "I Feel Fine" – that they'd played at the same event a year earlier. To those in attendance the Beatles could do no wrong, but on this evening they seemed under-rehearsed, and looked as if they didn't want to be there."
Later in 1966 the Beatles appeared in Germany, the Far East, and the U.S., the last of their live performances. The band surprised Londoners when they played on the rooftop of Apple in January 1969, but the NME show was the Beatles' last scheduled performance in the U.K.
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