It was the oddest gig the Beatles ever played. A precocious son of Liverpool’s wealthy Moores family booked the group to play at Stowe, his boarding school in Buckinghamshire, on 4 April 1963, just as they were ascending to national fame. And this week Samira Ahmed, presenter of the BBC’s Front Row, announced that, improbably, she’d uncovered a previously unknown tape of the concert.
The Stowe gig took place two weeks after the release of the Beatles’ debut album, Please Please Me. It’s often been said the album was basically a recording of the live set they’d been touring that year, but this isn’t really true. The track listing prioritises the Beatles’ own songwriting, and the covers are an eclectic selection, favouring American girl groups and soul – but they had a huge live repertoire, with different sets for different occasions.
In December 1962 they played their final Hamburg residency, and recordings reveal they were then sticking to their well-honed club act, with barely any originals making the cut. Please Please Me was recorded midway through their tour supporting Helen Shapiro in February 1963: this was a package affair typical of Sixties pop, and the Beatles were low down the bill, playing just four songs. But they had another version of their act, which they played at ballrooms. This ran for about an hour and mixed the album material with some choice covers – and it’s this Beatles that turned up and played for the pupils of Stowe.
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This is one of the things that makes the tape such an exciting find, because this version of the Beatles would soon vanish. As their schedule became more relentless and the demand to see them increased, they would only play half-hour sets comprising eleven or twelve songs. To a modern eye, the Stowe gig setlist looks much more like a satisfying headline show, with more than 22 songs played (the full list is yet to be disclosed).
And crucially, this audience of public schoolboys (and a few girls watching from the back) behaved differently to the Beatles’ other audiences. They sat down and listened attentively. So although the recording is primitive, we can hear the group clearly – which means they could also hear themselves. As they became bona fide pop stars, the power and charisma that had propelled them to the front of the Merseybeat scene struck audiences so profoundly that their music was drowned out by screaming at every show.
This was the last time they’d enjoy that for a while. Listen to recordings of their shows over subsequent years and you can hear the deterioration: some stand up surprisingly well, but the film of their legendary 1965 Shea Stadium gig required a lot of sneaky overdubs to get it up to scratch. The Beatles next encountered a hushed audience at Budokan Hall, Tokyo, in 1966 – the crowd there only cheered between songs – and realised just how poorly they were playing, which undoubtedly contributed to their retirement from live work three months later.
So the Stowe school gig has a strong claim on being the last gasp of the Beatles as a great live band. It might not have the crackling atmosphere of the Cavern Club, but if you wanted go back in time and see the Beatles live, playing their own songs, playing well, and be able to hear them, this is where you’d go. For most of us, the tape is as close as we’re ever going to get.
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