- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 4, 2004

The Beatles came to town on Feb. 11, 1964, to play at the old Washington Coliseum, their first U.S. show ever. . I was at that debut, as well as at the band’s press conference earlier that day at the Coliseum.

That week Washington’s Top 40 AM radio stations were still blaring such hits as Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” on WEAM, Diane Renay’s “Navy Blue” on WEEL, Andy Williams’ “A Fool Never Learns” on WPGC, the Rip Chords’ “Hey Little Cobra” on WWDC, and Dionne Warwick’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart” on WINX.

At the same time, “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had already begun making inroads on radio stations throughout the metropolitan area.

As the new sensations from England hit the stage at the Coliseum on that cold Tuesday night in February, they should have felt right at home: The venue was no more than a large version of the famed Cavern Club in Liverpool, where they got their start.

The Coliseum was dark, dank, and equipped with a primitive sound system. The group’s amplified vocals and instruments fought to be heard over the fans’ frenzied screams. The frenzied screams won, hands down.

Still, here was a band unlike any I had ever seen. They were four distinct personalities. They looked like emissaries from the future: You could not take your eyes off their haircuts and clothing. Most important, they wrote their own songs, music unlike that of any rock ‘n’ roll act I had ever heard. It was pure musical magic.

At the time, I was a 20-year-old who wrote the weekly music column, “Top Tunes,” in the “Teen” section of the Washington Evening Star. Each Friday, I would write about a hot act on the music scene.

When it was announced that the Beatles would be doing a press conference prior to their show at the Coliseum, I approached one of the city editors at the Star and asked if I could cover the event for the daily paper, as opposed to waiting until my music column came out. I was bigfooted: A more senior writer had already been assigned to chronicle the Beatles’ whirlwind visit to Washington.

Naturally, I was disappointed, but I understood. I was still in school at the University of Maryland and only working part time at the Star as a dictationist (who, before computers, sat at a bank of typewriters and, using a headphone, transcribed stories phoned in by reporters). I was glad just to be going to the press conference and the concert.

Not wanting to wait until the last minute to pick up my press credentials, I rose early on the day of the concert and headed for the Coliseum at 3rd and M streets in Northwest. It had been snowing that day and, in my haste and excitement to get there, I skidded on some ice a block from the hall, and rear-ended another car.

So you see, the inability of D.C. drivers to operate motor vehicles in the snow is no laughing matter: It almost made me miss the Beatles’ first U.S. concert.

Fortunately, in this case the damage was minor: I made it to the Coliseum a few minutes after exchanging information with the other driver. Oh, and nobody was injured. Now I live in Southern California, where I can’t hurt anybody.

Arriving late for their pre-show press conference, the Beatles strode into a boxing ring in the center of the Coliseum, unleashing sheer media frenzy. Flashes were popping constantly, and the group was barraged with questions.

I had a several-minute conversation with John Lennon. I asked him how he and Paul McCartney write the group’s songs. “Generally, we like off-tempo, happy songs,” he said, little anticipating the sophistication and universal appeal of so many of their more mature later efforts. “We just sit down, bang them out and hum the tunes.”

Throughout the approximately 20-minute press meeting, the band was polite and characteristically impish. I recall asking George Harrison, “Do you currently have a girlfriend.” His reply? “Yes, love, you.”

As showtime neared, the foursome’s road manager halted the questioning so they could rest for a couple hours in their hotel rooms. Mr. Lennon was in the middle of answering a question of mine and, as the manager towed him by the arm up the stairs of the Coliseum, he continued to shout back the answer until I was out of hearing range. I never did hear the rest of his reply.

The Beatles took the stage at about 9:30 p.m. and played for about 45 minutes, a short, 12-song set by today’s standards. I saw the performance, but I can’t say I heard it.

It’s a safe assumption that they played “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” but the dozens of police, security and ushers working the event just wanted to plug their ears. Unprepared for the deafening roar of the crowd packed inside the Coliseum, many of them resorted to stuffing Kleenex or cotton — anything they could find — in their ears.

I later covered Beatles shows for the Star in Baltimore, Atlantic City, Los Angeles, and another in the District. The second Washington show, attended by about 30,000, was held on Aug. 15, 1966, at the old D.C. (later RFK) Stadium. It was immediately preceded by a press conference held inside the locker room of the Washington Senators baseball team.

The questions at this press conference were more knowing than those from the Coliseum more than a year previously (a long time in the increasingly short cycles of pop culture), and the band, although not as witty and playful this time around, was gracious and respectful of the press in attendance.

A sample question: Have the Beatles thought much about eventually breaking up? “We’ve realized the possibility of breaking up,” Mr. McCartney admitted, quickly adding that it would come as part of the “natural progression” of any group.

Amid some of the tightest security ever seen at an event in Washington, the Beatles came on at 9:35 p.m. and performed 11 songs in 35 minutes. It’s hard to believe that this was just a few years before 35-minute drum solos became commonplace at rock concerts.

It wouldn’t be the last time I saw the Beatles. Prior to their concert at the Baltimore Civic Center concert on Sept. 13, 1964, I waited for an hour outside their rooms at the Holiday Inn with Carroll James, the late WWDC disc jockey who was the first to play the Beatles music in Washington. Eventually, all four came out and schmoozed with us and posed for pictures for several minutes.

But nothing could compare to that very first U.S. date on Feb. 11, 1964, when four young Englishmen took the stage at the Washington Coliseum — then took the nation and the world and never let go.

I still wish I knew what the rest of John Lennon’s answer to my question was. Hope it wasn’t anything important.

After leaving the Washington Star in 1967, Ron Oberman spent more than 25 years in the record industry. He was director of publicity for Mercury Records, vice president of West Coast A&R; for Columbia Records and executive vice president of A&R; for MCA Records. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Amber, a songwriter, and their two Great Danes.

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