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A hard day’s night in Manila

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Aug 27, 2023 5:00 am

Among the more amusing details in Amador F. Brioso Jr.’s history, The Beatles in Manila is how the rumor mills went into hyperdrive well before the Fab Four even touched down in the Philippines for a pair of July 4, 1966 concerts: news reports had it that John, Paul, George, and Ringo would be arriving via submarine, or by a yacht owned by a friend of President Ferdinand Marcos, or that the U.S.S. Enterprise would deliver them to Manila Bay, and even that they would travel around Manila in a Sherman tank (delivered from US forces stationed in Vietnam) as part of their security measures.

Such protection was understandable, considering a group of long-haired Filipino protesters called the XO Gang had threatened to pelt the band members with “stinky” durian fruit when they traveled along their Manila motorcade.

If all of this sounds like an outtake from Help!, the 1965 movie in which the Beatles face murderous threats left and right and, at one point, take shelter in a field surrounded by British tanks, then you can see how imaginations were running wild when the Beatles visited that year.

Brioso, a National Book Award winner, has crafted what seems like the definitive account of the moptops’ ill-fated visit here, marshaling all the facts as we know them, shading in more subtle details, but also showing that “alternative facts” were very much in existence back in 1966.

Tickets at the Rizal Football Stadium were P50 for Patron Seats, P30 for Ringside, down to P2(!) for outermost seats. Some 80,000 fans showed up to watch the 4 and 7 p.m. shows.

The total number of people watching the Beatles perform at Rizal Stadium was estimated at 80,000. (Total time for each performance: 30 minutes.)

Upon arriving on a Cathay Pacific flight on July 3, the Beatles and manager Brian Epstein hit some snags—first, there was the matter of their hand-carry bags, containing marijuana, which an overzealous airport official wanted to search before they could head to their limo. After that, they found themselves ferried onto a private yacht in Manila Bay owned by—yes—a presidential friend, where they were “instructed” to stay overnight, as a security measure. The Beatles didn’t dig it, especially George, who hated mosquitoes—as well as the gun-wielding military types on board.

They eventually relocated to the Manila Hotel around 4 a.m., and after not much sleep, were roused by members of the Philippine Constabulary sent by Malancañang at 11 a.m. the next morning.

Filipina fans go wild for The Beatles at the July 4, 1966 concert.

You can probably guess why: The Beatles had blithely brushed off a proposed luncheon invite from First Lady Imelda Marcos before their 4 p.m. concert that day. The Beatles were sleeping in.

It’s difficult to sort out here the mental calculations of the world’s biggest pop band at the time: Were they simply exhausted, after being ferried to a yacht the previous night, making them edgy and cranky? Were they following their protocol in pointing out the absence of an official Malacañang invite? Was manager Brian Epstein’s heavy-handed dismissal of the presidential warranted? Were they turned off by the TV showing a stage setup, already at Malacañang, presumably where the Beatles were expected to give an impromptu concert—just like kids do at every family Christmas party in the Philippines? Or did they simply feel at that point they were—as John Lennon famously quipped— “Bigger than Jesus” and not beholden to state protocols?

As we know, feelings were hurt, snubs were announced to the media, and the Beatles obliviously went their way, preparing for their concerts the same day.

Back at Malacañang, one young luncheon guest—Bongbong Marcos—made his displeasure known, tearing up his Beatles tickets along with sister Imee and remarking, “I did not know these so-called knights could be so discourteous,” adding, “Well, I prefer the Rolling Stones, anyway.” (Incidentally, at Rizal Stadium, among the many opening acts were Eddie Reyes and D’Downbeats, whose singer-drummer Joey “Pepe” Smith did a mean Mick Jagger, covering the Stones’ Get Off of My Cloud.)

Run for your life: The Beatles look back briefly as they prepare to board a KLM flight leaving Manila.

Soon after the dust settled from the concerts, the mood turned ugly. The Beatles found no more security men left as they headed for their cars. Instead, fans, and possibly Marcos goons, hearing about the snub on TV and radio, had amassed and started shaking their cars.

Something else was going on here, which I’ve come to think of as “Beatlemania vs. Marcosmania.” The Marcoses had ascended to power less than a year previous and were rabidly popular. Mrs. Marcos, particularly, was a public darling with her kundimans and such. As Paul heard from a Filipino reporter after the incident, to turn down a meeting with the First Lady “amounted to an action against the Filipino people.” People took the Marcoses very personally, as representative of their national identity. This was no doubt by design.

Things went from bad to worse. No breakfast room service for the Beatles at the Manila Hotel. The staff ghosted them, refusing to help with bags. Hired transport cars suddenly disappeared.

Some memorable quotes from the limited-edition book

Eventually, they got to the local airport for their KLM flight. But snags continued, with gauntlets of Filipino men (either Marcos goons or fans, depending on who’s asked), screaming and punching them as the band entered the terminal. The Fab Four chose to take shelter behind a group of nuns in a corner of the lounge to avoid getting spat on and beaten.

Imagine the shock and horror of finally boarding the plane, then seeing your manager, then road staff, hauled off the cabin, and sent back to pay taxes on the concerts, along with other bureaucratic horseshit laid in their path before they could escape.

There was an effort by Malacañang at damage control a day or so later, Briones writes. President Marcos and Imelca made a statement that the manhandling of the band at the airport was “a breach of hospitality” and claimed the First Couple was “not insulted” by the no-show. The damage was done, though.

George Harrison, for one, would never forget the incident even decades later, speaking out on the American Today show in 1986 after the Marcoses were hastily allowed to “flee” the Philippines (oh, the irony!) and seclude themselves in Hawaii. “He tried to kill us, President Marcos,” George angrily recalled to host Rona Elliot. Giving the trademark British sign of disrespect to the camera: an inverted “V” sign.

The Beatles in Manila explores many other controversies about that ill-fated trip, such as who was actually to blame for the invite SNAFU, whether the band got paid, and if there was planned “retribution” at the airport by Marcos goons. (Spoiler: There was.) With dozens of pages of rare archival photos, a poster, and other doodads, Briones’ limited-edition volume is a fact-filled, if pricy, addition to Beatles literature, one that fans will probably not be able to resist.

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The Beatles in Manila is available at Solidaridad Bookstore, Popular Book Club.