The Beatles at Budokan in 1966: Tokyo Rocks

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Beatles onstage at Budokan

The Fab Four looking gear onstage in the Far East

After The Beatles dissolved as a working rock and 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.

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 55 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.

“When we came off the plane, we were put in little 1940s-type cars along with policemen dressed in metal helmets, like Second World War American soldiers’ helmets,” George Harrison recalled. “We were driven in convoy into town and taken to the Tokyo Hilton where we were put in our upstairs suite – and that was it. We were only allowed out of the room when it was time for the concert.”

(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.

Related:McCartney performed at Budokan in 2017

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.

Watch them perform “Day Tripper”

“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” (on which he plays splendidly).

Next they counter arguments that their growing studio sophistication wouldn’t translate to the concert stage with “Nowhere Man.” On “Paperback Writer” some of the lyrics on the third verse are muffed – 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 and 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: Our feature story on “I’m Down”

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 and 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.

Related:The Beatles: Live at the Hollywood Bowl review

Rob Patterson

4 Comments so far

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  1. JJK
    #1 JJK 2 July, 2018, 10:12

    Why can’t they release the remastered Shea concert? This is history man! And how about Let it Be???

    Reply this comment
    • Kaiser Keller
      Kaiser Keller 18 November, 2018, 11:01

      if you’ve ever heard the original soundtrack to the Shea concert (before they went back into the studio and rerecorded bits to fix it) you’d know why…mistakes and bad singing a’plenty (they couldnt hear a damn thing)

      Reply this comment
      • EoinDS
        EoinDS 1 July, 2023, 11:01

        According to Ringo, the only ‘sound system’ was the stadium PA system which explains why there’s no depth at all in the original recording.

        Reply this comment
  2. Brett Alan
    #2 Brett Alan 3 July, 2018, 00:52

    >>>Their distinctive harmonies arrive within the glistening circular chime of “If I Needed Someone” – interestingly, one of two Harrison compositions in the compact set <<<

    Um…no. It's the only George song in the set.

    Reply this comment

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