The Beatles at Budokan 50+ Years Ago

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Technology can now make an 11-song bootleg from Japan’s Budokan in 1966 fit for official release
Beatles onstage at Budokan

The Fab Four looking gear onstage in the Far East

After The Beatles dissolved as a working rock ‘n’ roll group, only one live album truly captures their lightning in a bottle as a band performing before a crowd.

The Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl, which was collected from 1964 and ’65 shows at the iconic open-air amphitheater and was originally assembled by producer George Martin in 1977. In 2016, Martin’s son Giles went back to the original tapes and masterfully produced a far better and sonically pleasing release.

Related: The Beatles: Live at the Hollywood Bowl review

The Beatles had become energized, thrilling and tight during their 1960 to ’62 Hamburg residencies that forged them into a potent, fully interwoven and undeniable musical unit, playing for drunken crowds of sailors, whores and other lowlifes that would just as soon bottle the band onstage as listen. The Beatles then took that power back to The Cavern in Liverpool and sparked a musical revolution that continues to mightily reverberate today.

It’s their second performance over a three-day/five-show stand at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo (June 30 to July 2, 1966) in their last year of touring, now 50+ years ago. Despite the near-constant din of screaming girls and rather tinny and echo-y fidelity, it rocks.

The first two shows – the evening of the 30th and the following afternoon – were shot by Nippon Television, which later broadcast the first one. Which is a shame, as it’s a bit ragged and listless, both the audio and video best left in the vault.  It’s been circulated as a vinyl boot erroneaously titled Five Nights in a Judo Dome. Perhaps John, Paul, George and Ringo were jet-lagged on arrival for their first and only visit to Japan; even on the song intros the first two sound barely awake. Maybe the protests against Western rock music defiling the martial arts hall, built for the 1964 Summer Olympics, unnerved them.

(Ironically, Live at Budokan would later become all but a brand with Cheap Trick, Bob Dylan and Ozzy Osbourne releasing live albums with variations on that title. Some 50 major artists have also recorded shows at the hall, which has superior acoustics. Fittingly, The Beatles were the first musical act to appear there.)

The four had already grown weary of playing for crowds that would rather scream than listen, and due to that and the inadequate sound systems of the day, they also couldn’t hear themselves. Performing had lost its luster and become a grind. Five Nights is the sound of a once-great band that seems to have no interest in being there much less playing. Its only redeeming qualities are how Ringo’s on-the-money drumming holds the mess together along with a few cool guitar breaks by George.

But what a difference a day makes – to beg a pun, between night and day. Who but the surviving Beatles Paul and Ringo may know why, but on that second show known as Ultimate Live, the foursome launch into Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” like a band with something to prove: energetic as Thoroughbreds at a flat-out gallop, for the most part tight as a submarine hatch door. From the first note, the nuclear core of the Beatles’ sound is obvious: Lennon’s tough, sharp and propulsive rhythm guitar groove, too often overlooked when critics and analysts try to parse what made The Beatles not just tick but thrum with rocking verve.

As John’s six-string chording launches and propels “She’s A Woman,” Macca’s trademark high-register vocals soar and swirl like a stunt jet. Soon Harrison starts weaving splices of Chet Atkins/Carl Perkins-styled guitar lines with casual aplomb into the number, which quick steps with a seductive swing.

A shiny happy Lennon & McCartney in Tokyo

A shiny happy Lennon and McCartney in Tokyo

And on the show goes through nine more numbers, kicking, taut and lavish with teenage spirit seasoned into young men on a musical mission. Their distinctive harmonies arrive within the glistening circular chime of “If I Needed Someone” – interestingly, one of two Harrison compositions in the compact set – and bring a blue flame to the slightly raw but right-on-point “Day Tripper” (which John cheekily announces as being “a single back in 1948”), “Baby’s In Black” and “I Feel Fine.” Sure, there’s glitchy and pitchy bits here and there – hey, it’s live music played and sung under less than ideal conditions – but the sound they developed that felt so wondrous buffed up on records is still as verdant and magical played on the stage… at least in this aural document.

“Yesterday” proves just as affecting sans George Martin’s piquant classicist studio arrangements with just two guitars, bass and no drums because The Beatles had the goods that count even when stripped down to their barest elements. On Five Nights, Ringo played a minimal beat, revealing how the band were still perfecting arrangements from one show to the next. Then they give the drummer some as Starr sings a winningly zesty “I Wanna Be Your Man” (and as on the night before, he plays splendidly).

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Next they counter arguments that their growing studio sophistication wouldn’t translate to the concert stage with “Nowhere Man.” On “Paperback Writer” Lennon muffs some of the lyrics on the third verse – hey, it’s live, clams and all – but the zest of the performance is still infectious. On both songs McCartney’s bass work spotlights his stunningly imaginative instrumental skills.

The Fabs say farewell by bringing it all back home to the deep down rock ‘n’ roll roots they started the set with on the zesty, near-proto-punk rave-up of “I’m Down,” McCartney deep-mining Little Richard’s lusty and keening vocal yowl (nobody does it better), Lennon and Starr chugging along like pistons at full steam, and Harrison’s wiry guitar lines whipping up a sweaty frenzy.

Related: McCartney performs at Budokan in 2017

With current technology, Giles Martin can clean this sucker up, sharpen, polish and enrich its sound. Once that’s done, it would make one kick-ass platter of real deal rock ‘n’ roll. He needs to get a hold of the best extant recorded copy to be found and buff it up so that millions of fans can now finally meet The Beatles at their live-in-concert best.

Rob Patterson

Rob Patterson

Rob Patterson began writing about music in 1976. Since his first published record review in Crawdaddy he has contributed to numerous national popular music magazines such as Creem, Musician, Circus, Spin, Request, Tower Pulse!, CD Review, Acoustic Guitar, Harp and many others along with major country music, consumer audio, musical instrument and studio recording magazines plus international publications New Musical Express and Country Music People in the U.K. From 1977 to '84 he wrote a nationally syndicated music column as well as stories for Newspaper Enterprises Association/United Feature Syndicate that ran in more than 400 daily newspapers across the nation. His work has also appeared in many weekly newspapers, onlinepublications like Salon.com and The Huffington Post, such books as the Rolling Stone Record Guide & Revised Record Guide, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Rock History and The Year In Rock, 1980-81, plus liner notes for 20 album releases.
Rob Patterson
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