Entertainment·Analysis

It was 50 years ago today: Anniversary of Beatles' last show in Canada a bittersweet affair

Exhibitions, concerts and even fashion shows are celebrating the Beatles' special relationship with Toronto. But one event - a concert on Aug. 17, 1966, at Maple Leaf Gardens - was particularly significant and ushered in the last phase of Fab Four's career.

Toronto hosts exhibitions, concerts that reveal its special connection to the Fab Four

The Beatles, from left: Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and John Lennon at the BBC Television Studios in London before the start of their world tour on June 17, 1966. They played their last show in Toronto two months later. (Central Press/Getty Images)

They say that if you remember the 1960s, you weren't really there. A similar thing could be said of the Beatles' last concert in Canada, which took place at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto on Aug.17, 1966: if you remember hearing the music clearly, you probably weren't there.

The Beatles played at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto on Aug. 17, 1966. (Bernard Weil/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Toronto Mayor John Tory was there: only 12 years old, younger sister in tow, tickets procured by their grandfather

"The volume of the screaming was such that you could just barely hear the music," Tory said in an interview with CBC News, recalling his excitement.

"To be in that environment was quite an experience. But if you said you went for the clarity of music, to hear every song, that would be an untruth, because you could hardly hear anything."

Unbeknownst to Tory and other Beatles fans at the time, that very thing — the noise that drowned out the music — was one of the factors that led the Fab Four to stop touring and conclude that their musical mission was better carried out in the studio producing albums.

Their last major concert took place just 12 days after the Toronto stop. Several studio albums later, in 1970, they broke up. 

And that's why this week's celebration of all things Beatles in Toronto is a bittersweet moment. It sheds light on the rarely explored importance of Canada and Toronto to the Beatles' career and also serves as a reminder that the concert-goers at Maple Leaf Gardens witnessed the beginning of the end of one of rock's greatest bands.

Toronto police officers hold back the fans as they try to catch a glimpse of the Beatles in 1966. (CBC News)

As John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr touched down in Toronto that August day, the band had reasons to be tense.

Lennon's "the Beatles are bigger than Jesus" comment had just reached North American media — he said it in a U.K interview months earlier — and religious communities, especially in the United States, were outraged. Ticket sales at some U.S. tour stops were down, with some newspaper headlines suggesting that Beatlemania was over.

One reporter alluded to it at the Beatles' Toronto news conference, only to have Harrison snap back at him.

The Beatles face the press in Toronto on August 17, 1966, with Harrison delivering a tart response to a reporter's question. 0:27

"For the start, there's no signs as far as we're concerned of diminishing. Our records and our shows are still selling. It's only really your opinion. And if our popularity does diminish, we'll be the last to worry," said Harrison in that 1966 conference, captured by the CBC.

Still, Toronto was probably a safer place to get the tour started on a positive note. It was one of the North American cities they played most frequently, appearing there during their 1964, 1965 and 1966 tours. Capitol Music Canada released the Beatles' early singles before they were released south of the border.

Tory remembers the influential Top 40 station 1050 CHUM telling its listeners that they were the first to hear a number of the Beatles singles. 

Emotions ran high for Beatles fans with the Fab Four played in Toronto on Aug. 17. 1966. (Toronto Star via Getty Images)

"I think it makes a difference to people here feeling hyped up about it but it also makes a difference for the band, thinking they're coming to a place where you know, you've created this much more enthusiastic reception for them or their music."

And certainly, there were no signs of the Beatles' fame diminishing if you were looking at fan pandemonium in Toronto.

Thousands of kids were on the street, crowding in front of Maple Leaf Gardens or the King Edward Hotel, with police trying to hold them back.

That kind of electricity would be hard to reproduce, but the musical ensemble Classic Albums Live says it's up to the task. Tonight, it will play an extended version of the Beatles' 1966 concert at the same venue the Beatles played, now called the Ryerson Mattamy Centre.

Founder and producer Craig Martin sees the 1966 concert as a watershed moment for not just musical but social change in Canada.

"From what I understand, I was a kid at the time, the '60s happened the day after this concert ended. It is like the '60s finally hit Toronto and we were getting ready for the Summer of Love," said Martin.

The ensemble Classic Albums Live will recreate the last Beatles concert in Canada, taking place at the former Maple Leaf Gardens, for the 50th anniversary of the historic performance. 2:00

Indeed, whether by the Beatles boosting Toronto's image of itself as a cool place, or by coincidence, the city's youth culture and music scene exploded after that concert. 

A young singer named Joni Mitchell performed her song Both Sides Now for the first time just months later at the Riverboat Café, the already operating folkie epicentre in the city's Yorkville neighbourhood.

Martin says that confidence or knowledge that you don't need to leave Toronto to see world-class acts hasn't left the city since.

"During the 1980s ... going to all the clubs downtown: Blue Rodeo was around, the Tragically Hip was around. We've always had great acts. We have this flourishing hip-hop scene now, and looking back now, the Beatles kind of set that ball rolling with this show."

About the Author

Deana Sumanac-Johnson is a national CBC News reporter for the entertainment unit. She appears regularly on The National and CBC News radio programs, specializing in stories on music and literature/publishing. Before joining the arts unit, she was an award-winning current affairs producer for CBC News: Sunday.

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