This week, NPR's Scott Simon and photographer Mike Mitchell visited the site where Mitchell shot a historic evening 50 years ago. Hear their conversation at the audio link.
Now a humble parking lot, the Washington Coliseum has seen a lot in its days. Malcolm X once spoke there, circus lions jumped through hoops there — and on Feb. 11 1964, The Beatles played their first-ever U.S. concert there.
Photographer Mike Mitchell was photographing that day. He was 18 years old, he recalls in an interview with NPR's Scott Simon, and couldn't afford a flash for his camera. He took concert photos using only the available light.
"I had to take my cues from what the light was doing," Mitchell said. "And the light was very kind."
In the 50 years since that day, a lot has changed. The building fell into disrepair after being sold, and for 10 years was a transfer station for Waste Management.
Still, on any given day, beautiful shafts of light can been seen spilling through the circular windows in the vaulted ceilings onto the abandoned clusters of stadium seating lurking in dark corners along the walls.
Working without flash, like Mitchell, we set out to make long-exposure photographs showing what exists today of the crumbling structure that once played host to history.
This weekend, if you find yourself wandering in the D.C. neighborhood formerly known as Swampoodle, and into this parking lot formerly known as a music venue, you'll find a temporary exhibit of Mitchell's photos, commemorating the 50th anniversary of that night in Beatlemania.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Art, music, culture and hair changed utterly 50 years ago this week when the Beatles first arrived in America. They played their first live concert in the Washington Coliseum in Washington, D.C. and this week we paid a visit to the site where John, Paul, George and Ringo first faced their fans after shaking up America.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONCERT ANNOUNCEMENT)
CAROLL JAMES: This is Carroll James and now from the Washington, D.C. Coliseum, the world's most exciting group, Capital Recording stars, the Beatles.
SIMON: We're standing on the spot, and I mean the very spot, where the Beatles performed their first concert in America following the Ed Sullivan Show. It's as parking garage now. You hear trains rumbling behind us from Union Station that's not far away. You might hear the drip of water coming through the roof. You can see the gray sky coming in through holes that are in here.
Looks a little bit like an enormous concrete quonset hut that had been eaten by rats. But this is where The Beatles first played America. We're joined by Mike Mitchell. He was 18 when the Beatles came here in 1964 and he photographed their first gig.
Take us back to that night in 1964.
MIKE MITCHELL: It was very, very, very hot in here and you could tell that the kids in the audience were getting kind of impatient as the warm-up acts proceeded. And then bang, all of a sudden the Beatles hit the stage and the place just started screaming. It was like the whole place was screaming for an entire half an hour.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT TO HOLD YOUR HAND")
THE BEATLES: (Singing) Oh yeah I'll tell you something I think you'll understand. When I...
SIMON: How does an 18-year-old wind up being what amounts to the house photographer for this event?
MITCHELL: It goes back to a green '55 Chevrolet. When I was driving along and I heard the first song, heard "I Want to Hold Your Hand." It was, as may people say, it was unlike anything you'd ever heard before and it got to you immediately if you have the right receptors I think in your head, which I did. And I said I've got to be there.
SIMON: So what did they look like close up?
MITCHELL: I've said before that they kind of were an alien species to us.
SIMON: I mean, the mop-top hair was...
MITCHELL: All of that.
SIMON: We didn't see it so much in the U.S. then.
MITCHELL: Right. At that point they looked incredibly fresh, you know, like a fresh iteration of the human race.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEATLES CONCERT)
PAUL MCCARTNEY: Thank you very much everybody and good evening. How do you do? We love you. We'd like you, if you would, to sort of join in and clap your hands, you know, and stamp your feet.
MITCHELL: It's interesting because I found McCartney and Ringo Starr and George Harrison to be the ones who were pulling my camera toward them. Lennon didn't look compelling at that age. He really gained his gravitas later, I think. And most of the pictures of him are you can't really feel the depth that's inside the guy.
SIMON: Do you remember what their first number was?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROLL OVER BEETHOVEN")
MITCHELL: It as Chuck Berry, "Roll Over Beethoven."
SIMON: What you were expecting?
MITCHELL: No idea what to expect.
(SOUNDBITE OF "ROLL OVER BEETHOVEN")
BEATLES: (Singing) Roll over Beethoven gotta hit it again today. Now the temperature's rising, the jukebox blows a fuse. My heart beatin' rhythm, my soul keeps a-singing the blues. Roll over Beethoven, they're rocking it two by two.
MITCHELL: But I said this about the whole set list. There were 12 songs, eight of which were their own compositions and all of their own compositions had such a distinctive quality from the covers. And from what I learned about how they composed music, it was like they were drawing from the gene pool of all the rock 'n' roll that had ever been written. It's fascinating.
SIMON: What was it like when they turned into "I Saw Her Standing There," one of their signature songs?
MITCHELL: That's when you could feel how distinctive their own sound was.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I SAW HER STANDING THERE")
BEATLES: The song's called "I Saw Her Standing There." One, two, three four. (Singing) She was just 17, you know what I mean, and the way she looked was way beyond compare. How could I dance with another, ooh, when I saw her standing there?
MITCHELL: And that stuff, it still rings in my ears from that experience because it just, you know, made your heart stand up and pay attention. You know, the lyrics were the kind of lyrics that teenagers take for granted. They were all about love. Every one of those songs was about falling in love, or holding onto love, you know, the basic fare of the teenage awareness.
(SOUNDBITE OF "I SAW HER STANDING THERE.")
BEATLES: (Singing) Well, my heart went boom when I crossed that room and I held her hand in mine. Well, we danced through the night...
MITCHELL: But the music, it just catapulted you out of the life that other people were trying to get you to lead or, you know, the way things had been before they came along.
SIMON: Your photographs are going to be displayed this weekend.
SIMON: They're black and white.
SIMON: You didn't have a flash.
MITCHELL: I couldn't afford a flash.
SIMON: Well, but did it...
MITCHELL: It was fortuitous. If I shot it with a flash, the pictures would be dull and dumb.
MITCHELL: I had to take my cues from what the light was doing and the light was very kind.
SIMON: Did you have an idea that you were in the presence of history that night?
MITCHELL: Not so much history, but a mysterious force that you could feel the magnitude of even with your limited teenage senses. The thing that I've often said is it felt bigger than the room. There was a volume to the reaction. I've used different metaphors, but it was kind of like a generational wakeup call.
SIMON: Did you have a favorite song from that night?
MITCHELL: The song that rings most in my ears was apparently their first hit in England called, "Please Please Me."
(SOUNDBITE OF BEATLES CONCERT)
BEATLES: So we'd like to play for you now a song called "Please Please Me."
MITCHELL: And the opening notes of that song, I can still hear them in this room and how big they were.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLEASE PLEASE ME")
BEATLES: (Singing) Last night I said these words to my girl. I know you never even tried girl. Come on...
SIMON: "Please Please Me" and the songs you just heard were recorded that night 50 years ago. You can see Mike Mitchell's photographs of the Beatles at the former Washington Coliseum, now a parking garage, today and tomorrow. But if you miss it, we also have a few on our website at npr.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF "PLEASE PLEASE ME")
BEATLES: (Singing) Why do I always have to say, love? Come on, come on, come on, come on, come on, come on, come on, come on. Please please me whoa yeah, like I please you. I don't wanna sound pathetic but you know there's always... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.