The Beatles, the Band, the Sex Pistols and the ‘Curse’ of San Francisco
When the burnt-out Black Keys played the last show of their 2015 tour in San Francisco, frontman Dan Auerbach had a suspicion it might be their last. His relationship with drummer Patrick Carney had hit an all-time low and the pair’s mental and emotional status was such that it took a hiatus of nearly four years to bring them back together.
“I realized, ‘Fuck, every band plays their last fucking show in San Francisco,'" Auerbach told Uncut in 2019. “‘The Sex Pistols. The Band. The Beatles.’ I was sitting there saying to myself, ‘This could be a curse.'"
To be fair, given the length and breadth of San Francisco’s music scene, the number of final shows played there is probably no more notable than in any other location. But that doesn't mean Auerbach's theory isn't worth exploring.
For instance, the Beatles' final tour certainly felt cursed. By the time they appeared in Aug. 29, 1966 at Candlestick Park, they had become completely disconnected from the world of playing live – something they’d loved up until they became famous. In those early days of stadium rock, the screams were louder than the best amplification systems money could buy, leaving the Fab Four’s music a joyless voice amongst an audience. “It was just a sort of a freak show,” John Lennon later told Rolling Stone. “The Beatles were the show, and the music had nothing to do with it.”
Recent mishaps included road manager Mal Evans receiving an electric shock from rain-soaked equipment and a full-scare riot in L.A. They were also in constant pursuit by those still infuriated by Lennon’s “bigger than Jesus” comment. So, the Beatles weren’t looking forward to Candlestick Part one bit. To make matters worse, the wind from San Francisco Bay was providing a cold chill to the already-foggy evening.
“It wasn’t fun anymore,” Paul McCartney recalled. “And that was the main point: We’d always tried to keep some fun in it for ourselves. In anything you do you have to do that, and we’d been pretty good at it. But even now America was beginning to pall because of the conditions of tour, and because we’d done it so many times. So by Candlestick Park it was like, ‘Don’t tell anyone, but this is probably our last gig.'”
He asked press officer Tony Barrow to tape the show – something McCartney had never done before. “There was a sort of end-of-term spirit thing going on,” he said later. “And there was also this kind of feeling amongst all of us around the Beatles, that this might just be the last concert that they will ever do.”
In the early part of their set, a small group of fans tried to rush the stage, which only encouraged others to attempt the same feat. As Beatlemaniacs outside the baseball park climbed fences to get in, while the band themselves appeared to be tempted to make a run for the armored truck that had its engine running nearby. At this point, George Harrison said, they all knew it was over. “We placed our cameras on the amplifiers and put them on a timer. We stopped between tunes, Ringo got down off the drums, and we stood facing the amplifiers with our back to the audience and took photographs. We knew: ‘This is it – we’re not going to do this again. This is the last concert.’ It was a unanimous decision.”
The show was a little longer than their usual 25-minute set, meaning that Barrow’s tape cut out before final song “Long Tall Sally.” And asides from an unannounced show on the top of their Apple Corps building in London three years later, the San Francisco show was indeed the Beatles' final performance.
Watch the Beatles at Candlestick Park
A decade after the Beatles’ bow-out, the Band delivered their Last Waltz on Nov. 6, 1976 in the Winterland Ballroom. The event is, of course, immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s movie of the same name, complete with the core musicians’ collaborations with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Neil Diamond, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters and others.
The show was a big risk for promoter Bill Graham. He’d decided not to announce the star-studded guest list, relying on the Band’s own reputation to sell the $25 ticket price at a time when the most expensive tickets usually cost around $7. “We were testing the waters as to see how much people would trust us,” Graham said in his 1992 memoir. “Because the ads said only, ‘Bill Graham presents the Last Waltz, the Band and Friends.’” (He had, however, authorized a journalist to leak the lineup in the San Francisco Chronicle.)
Almost everyone associated with the 5,400 Thanksgiving dinners, the ballet performers and the official coke-sniffing room backstage agree the night was a great success. Even Graham and Scorsese, who fought over how the show should be produced and filmed, were both happy with the results.
Guitarist Robbie Robertson hadn’t lost sight of why the Band were splitting, however, and the corporate reality of The Last Waltz only underlined his convictions. “Our rock ’n’ roll lifestyle was passing the point of no return,” he wrote in 2016. “The examples of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison – and more recently Gram Parsons, Nick Drake, and Tim Buckley – brought home the dangers of the road. We’d heard this story about so many musicians, it was almost part of the ritual. All around us, bands we knew were imploding, trying to live what they thought was the rock ’n’ roll high life.”
That had led him to suggest to his colleagues: “we needed to look out for one another and get out of the line of fire for a while. At every concert we played, packs of destructive influences showed up like they were in the business of helping you drown. Somewhere along the way we had lost our unity and our passion to reach higher. Self-destructiveness had become the power that ruled us.” He added: "'The end of an era' was how many people referred to the close of 1976. The dreams of the ‘60s and early ‘70s had faded, and we were ready for a revelation, a revolt, a changing of the guard.”
After they’d played the final chorus of “Baby Don’t You Do It,” Robertson recalled feeling like “there were only the five of us in the world. No audience. No celebration. Nobody. Just the sound of the Band ringing in my ears. This can’t be the final anything. This cannot be the end. What we have can never die, never fade away. We all raised our arms in the air and thanked the crowd. I adjusted the hat on my head, stepped to the microphone with what little strength I had left, and said, ‘Good night – good-bye’.” While the Band were to rise again, the original five-member lineup would never perform together after The Last Waltz.
Watch the Band Perform During 'The Last Waltz'
On Jan. 14, 1978, a leading light of the new guard that Robertson felt behind him imploded as spectacularly as everything else they’d ever done. The Sex Pistols’ first and only U.S. tour had been a disaster from the start, and its final night – which brought down the curtain on their brief but bright first run – was no exception.
That show also took place at Graham’s Winterland Ballroom, and manager Malcolm McLaren planned it that way, taking advantage of the venue’s association with the hippie era to present another culture clash effect to the world at large. In fact, he made sure the Pistols played in places they were unlikely to receive a warm welcome – particularly the Deep South.
The show wasn’t a complete disaster, but it was performed within the limitations of bassist Sid Vicious’s abilities, which were already compromised by his addiction issues. “At Winterland, I had a cold,” guitarist Steve Jones later told Rolling Stone. “Sid wasn’t playing a note, and he wasn’t even plugged in half the time. Me and Paul [Cook] just wanted to play. I kept cutting out, strings breaking left, right and center.”
Frontman Johnny Rotten was delivering a convincing performance despite a terrible sound until, it seems, his feelings about how McLaren had manipulated the band began to pour out into the show. During the last song, a cover of the Stooges’ “No Fun,” his delivery of the phrase “this is no fun at all” seemed to change as he stopped playing the role of Rotten and allowed the real John Lydon to express himself. “I felt cheated,” he wrote in his memoir later, “and I wasn't going on with it any longer. It was a ridiculous farce. The whole thing was a joke at that point.”
He then uttered one of the most iconic phrases of the punk-rock era, heard by the crowd in the room and those listening live on radio: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
By the time Vicious left the stage he’d left the Sex Pistols, and Vicious was dead just over a year later. There was a 1996 reunion, and a memorable rejection of induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but the Sex Pistols effectively ended that night in San Francisco.
Watch the Sex Pistols Perform ‘No Fun’ at Final Show
When Steve Perry decided to quit Journey in 1987, he told bandmates Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain near San Francisco’s Richardson Bay. “Guys, we’re done,” Cain recalled Perry telling him. “We can’t get any bigger. If we keep going, we’re going to end up some classic-rock nostalgia band. We’ll end up just being a memory – a shadow of what we used to be.”
His words led to the break-up of the band – but four years later, things had changed. Perry returned to the fold on Nov. 3, 1991 for a performance in Golden Gate Park to mark the passing of promoter Graham, who'd died in a helicopter crash the previous month. Their set consisted of just three songs – “Faithfully,” “Lonely Road Without You” and “Lights” – but it inspired fans, who hoped it marked a full-time return. And in fact, it did – Perry came back to record 1996’s Trial By Fire album. However, plans to tour were trashed after Perry suffered a serious injury in a hiking accident. After a disagreement fueled by his refusal to undergo a corrective medical procedure, he was dismissed.
Journey continued with Steve Augeri before finally settling on Arnel Pineda, while Perry disappeared from the music scene for nearly a quarter of a century. He finally resurfaced with the 2018 comeback album Traces, but refused every suggestion of another reunion. “I left the band 31 fucking years ago, my friend,” he fired back. “You can still love someone, but not want to work with them. And if they only love you because they want to work with you, that doesn’t feel good to me.”
Journey’s 1991 San Francisco show remains their last with Perry.
Watch Journey Perform at Golden Gate Park
The Who also survived their brush with the “curse” at the Cow Palace on Nov. 20, 1973, when drummer Keith Moon’s state of intoxication meant he was incapable of completing the show. He collapsed toward the end of the performance, was revived and then passed out again. Guitarist Pete Townshend asked if there were any drummers in the audience, leading to a memorable moment for then-19-year-old Scott Halpin, who joined the Who for three songs, was given a tour jacket that was later stolen, and promised $1,000 which never arrived.
Of course, the San Francisco appearance didn’t mark the end of the Who, but it certainly signaled the tragedy that was to follow when Moon died in 1978.
Watch the Who Play Without Keith Moon in San Francisco
In the end, there probably isn’t a curse of San Francisco per se. Still, history suggests that it might be advisable for bands with interpersonal issues to avoid the area – or address those issues before they arrive.