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The Beatles, the Watts Riots, and America in transition, August 1965

Fifty years ago during their North American tour, The Beatles played to the largest audience in their career against the backdrop of a nation shattering along economic, ethnic, and political lines. Although on the surface the events of August 1965 would seem unconnected, they nevertheless illustrate how the world was changing and how music reflected that chaotic cultural evolution. In the space of a few weeks, American society pivoted in ways that still echo today, and The Beatles provided part of the soundtrack.

Washington, D.C., Friday 6 August 1965. Under the gaze of Lincoln’s statue in the rotunda of the Capitol Building, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law after years of protests led by Dr. Martin Luther King and others in response to state and local limitations on the constitutional rights of African Americans. When the US Congress—politically in shock from the Kennedy assassination and from the media’s coverage of events in the American south—passed the legislation, some thought America had solved its race problem. Of course, Congress had done nothing of the kind and had once again applied a bandage to a concussion, reintroducing America’s race tragedy to a new generation on the anniversary of the Civil War.

In 1965, the oldest baby boomers were just coming of an age, were beginning to develop a social consciousness, and were questioning how adults saw the world. For many (but not all), the views of their parents felt incongruous with the world unfolding before them. Some questioned the privileges granted to them by the contexts of their birth, while others questioned why they had no privileges for the very same reasons.

Los Angeles, Wednesday 11 August 1965. Less than a week later, but after years of real estate practices that discriminated against non-whites, all it took was one spark on a hot afternoon to start a fire. The previous summer, Martha and the Vandellas had encouraged everyone to dance in the streets. Now the streets of Watts filled with smoke and debris as residents reacted to word that police had arrested a family after a traffic stop. For six days, America watched the evening news to see businesses and homes burning, leaving even Martin Luther King flummoxed by the violence. Four days later, soldiers patrolled the streets of south central Los Angeles.

Underlying these images were the long-established divides of class, ethnicity, and politics that had been buried during the war years, but that now surfaced under the gaze of television cameras. The economic disparities between white and non-white America provided the social seams that would burst in the summer heat. As it emerged, the Watts riots were the harbinger of the urban unrest that would engulf neighborhoods in Detroit, Chicago, and other American centers in the coming years. They had been preceded the previous year by riots in Harlem. Would the violence of Watts spread back to New York City?

Beatles press conference, Friday evening, Hotel Warwick, 6th Ave. & W. 54th St. / World Telegram & Sun photo by Stanley Wolfson. August 1965. Library of Congress.
Beatles press conference, Friday evening, Hotel Warwick, 6th Ave. & W. 54th St. / World Telegram & Sun photo by Stanley Wolfson. August 1965. Library of Congress.

New York City, Sunday 15 August 1965. A little after 9:00 p.m., The Beatles took the stage at Shea Stadium in Queens and performed a short set for about 55,600 mostly white middle-class female fans. The size of the audience set a world record and earned the band around $160,000, but the screaming rendered the concert nearly inaudible to many in attendance. The technology that would allow bands just a few years later to play such venues was still in development and The Beatles as a band would never benefit from it. Instead, they drilled through a set that they themselves could barely hear. Indeed, they were so unhappy with their performance that they would later visit a London soundstage to overdub parts for a television special.

George Harrison later commented that the world had used The Beatles as an excuse to go mad. The collective ecstasy surrounding Beatles (and other) performances has been the subject of much speculation, with explanations including women’s empowerment, adolescent psychological release, etc. Ultimately, we don’t really know, but perhaps metaphorically the roar was the sound of America fracturing. The economic and social disparities that underlay everyday reality had found articulation in John Lennon’s plea for “Help!”

Los Angeles, Tuesday 17 August 1965. With the streets of Watts now quiet, the state lifted the curfew and the clean up began. The contrasts and parallels between the crowd frenzy in Queens and the frustrated rioters in Watts could not be more dramatic and telling: the white middle class reveled as John Lennon cried that his independence from the world had “vanished in the haze,” while the neighbors of South Central seethed behind their doors as military trucks rolled past. A little under two weeks later, The Beatles would be in Los Angeles, playing at the Hollywood Bowl, sixteen miles and significant money away from Watts. The wealthiest patrons occupied the boxes at the front, while general admission filled the remainder of the hillside. The concert might as well have been in a different country, let alone the same county.

The Beatles had burst onto the American scene in early 1964, winning affection with apparent innocence, candor, self-deprecating humor, youth, and energy. In the American context of racial tensions, what could be more reassuringly white than four Englishmen with little-boy haircuts playing rockabilly interpretations of African-American music? When they weren’t covering or imitating Motown tunes (e.g., “You Really Got a Hold on Me”), they were singing harmonies they had learned from recordings by the Shirelles and others (e.g., “Baby It’s You”).

As successful as that image might have been, The Beatles too were changing along with the first wave of baby boomers starting college and/or families. The Shea concert probably marked the highpoint of Beatlemania. The band had already abandoned the innocent mop-top image crafted by their manager; the world was changing and they knew it.

Vietnam, 18 August 1965. A decade or more of white migration from cities to suburbs had revealed that the inequalities addressed by the Voting Rights Act were not limited to Mississippi and Alabama. While Herman’s Hermits and soon The Monkees would provide diversions for white teens, this comfort zone was about to be breached. Within days of the Shea Stadium concert and the end of the Watts riots, Operation Starlite would mark the first ground offensive by the US military in Vietnam and the beginnings of a war that would draft the leading edge of mostly the poorest boomers, both black and white.

Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” would ring truer than he could have imagined.

Recent Comments

  1. Joan Adams Sesma

    Dr. Thompson, Hello and thank you.
    I’ve been trying to write about August 1965 from my own memories as a 12 year old female Beatle fan, who watched the smoke from the Watts fires from the end of her driveway. I haven’t been able to finish my attempt to write about Watts, and now I’m trying to write about seeing the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl on August 30, 1965.
    Anyway, your piece is the first place I’ve seen someone connect the events of that summer in way that felt real to me. For me, they’re all part of the same memory. Of course, for a 12 year old, memories center on family and during that summer there was so much going on in my family and in our little part of Lost Angeles. The changes occurring in the larger world felt really personal I think. My life was being turned upside down too, so maybe it’s not a surprise I’m having trouble writing about it!
    Thanks again. So glad my Google search found this piece.

  2. Gordon

    Joan,

    At first, the alignment of the Voting Rights Act, the Watts riots, The Beatles’ Shea and Hollywood Bowl concerts, and the first ground offensive in Vietnam struck me as coincidence. But the more I have reflected on that constellation of events, the more I have come to believe that they were connected. For me, the common denominator lies in fundamental American values that privilege affluence and, for want of a better word, “whiteness.” I do not mean to take away from the achievement of the VRA or the excitement of the concerts, but we would be negligent to ignore core issues that continue to haunt us as a culture.

    Gordon

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