11/19/2010 03:04 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Beatles At Washington Colosseum Puts Shea To Shame

Their movies and countless still images are proof that they were the most photogenic foursome in history. Their records speak for themselves, possessing a magic that contemporary artists still seek to capture. But very little evidence exists to effectively convey the experience of the Beatles as a live act, which is one cause for the oft-repeated assertion by cynics that the Beatles were little more than an over-hyped phenomenon manufactured in the studio by producers and managers. But the release this week of the complete Beatles digital catalog on iTunes offers something never before available: a Beatles concert in it's entirety.

The Beatles: Live At Washington Colosseum 1964 is the definitive document of the best gig the band ever played. By January of that year, having conquered Britain and northern Europe, the Beatles had become accustomed to frenzied audiences greeting them wherever they performed. This wasn't so, however, in Paris, where the band played a three-week residency before French crowds that were difficult to win over. The universal power of their mojo now in question, their next scheduled stop was the U.S., where an indie label album and three singles had all flopped. Things were beginning to look up after a media blitz by Capitol Records helped push their newest single up to number one. Still, after a month-long slog in Paris, they had no idea what kind of audience reaction they could expect across the pond from the world's leading exporter of pop culture. But on February 11th, 1964, they were pleased to find waiting for them a massive crowd that had already worn out the grooves on their brand new Meet The Beatles LP and knew their songs as well as they themselves did. The result was a 35 minute, adrenaline-fueled, ecstatic rocket ride for all.

Film footage of the concert, videotaped in black and white for closed circuit broadcast, has been floating around in bootleg form for decades. But it was never complete and the sound and picture resembled an ancient newsreel from World War ll. For the first time, the complete concert has been restored and enhanced from the original broadcast tape, giving the picture an almost HD depth not seen even in the best clips on The Beatles Anthology. The audio mix is not perfect, mind you. The sound engineer was constantly chasing guitar and vocal solos while recording from the house system feed straight to a mono soundtrack. But the overall energy of the band never suffers. The chiming tone of John and George's amps, the booming authority of Paul's bass, the highs and lows of Ringo's drums and cymbals, are all present here, crisper and deeper than ever before. And of course there are the voices, right on pitch without the aid of monitors. With only two microphones visible onstage, It's a bit of a mystery how everything shows up in such detail under such primitive conditions.

For most Beatles fans and casual onlookers, the official paradigm of the Beatles in concert has previously been the first Shea Stadium gig, filmed in color in August 1965. But this footage, while both beautiful and thrilling, is more a testimony to the grand spectacle of Beatlemania than it is to the Beatles as a band. The music by this time had taken a back seat to the madness. The Beatles had given up trying to hear each other onstage and surrendered to the screaming throng, goosing them at every turn just for laughs. "We were fed up with touring," Ringo later recalled, "because we were becoming such bad musicians." Sure enough, every song recorded at Shea Stadium was either overdubbed in post production, replaced with a different performance or cut from the film altogether. In Washington, D.C., though, every note of the original performance is on display, and, with the exception of one bum chord, flawless. The Beatles are visibly in sync with one another right out of the gate like jockeys on thoroughbreds. Two nights earlier they had made television history on The Ed Sullivan Show. But the performances there were a mixed bag of nervousness, bad sound mixing and low-volume restraint. In the unbridled atmosphere of the Colosseum, however, the band is simply on fire. Especially Ringo, who is arguably the star of the show (he's the only Beatle singled out by the emcee just before the band's opening number). His incredible playing that night ought to lay to rest forever the ignorant notion that he was a mediocre drummer that just got lucky. Paul is our tour guide, but Ringo drives the limo at 100 mph on a rickety rotating platform, his cymbal stands threatening to topple over with every beat. It would've driven anyone else crazy, but he seems to thrive on it.

Although it would be another three and a half years before they reached their artistic zenith, it was at the Washington Colosseum that the Beatles peaked as a live band. They would go on to play far bigger gigs, some of them legendary for their prestige or record-setting attendance. But none would ever be this electrifying. The concert can be viewed for free on iTunes through the end of this year.