The Beatles’ beat down in Marcos’s Manila
As one-half of Asia’s greatest kleptocracy, Imelda Marcos is notorious for owning 3000 pairs of shoes. But she has a greater claim to fame: she changed rock music history,
It would be a memorable day, even for four young men by then living remarkable redletter lives. Fifty years ago, on July 4, 1966, the Beatles were to play before 100,000 fans in Manila during a lightning stopover hurriedly tacked on to a series of Tokyo dates. Tokyo had been tense for the band; they received death threats for daring to play the Nippon Budokan centre. To Japanese conservatives a Western rock band playing at Budokan was disrespectful to the country’s war dead, for whom services are conducted there.
The Japanese government mobilised 30,000 men in uniform to line the road from the airport to the Beatles’ hotel — including sharpshooters on the overpasses — at which they were essentially imprisoned, albeit with five stars.
The boys were glad to leave Tokyo to make their way to The Philippines, via a refuelling stop in Hong Kong.
The combined one-day audience for the Beatles in Manila would be their biggest, and for many years the world record for any band.
The venue was the Rizal Memorial Football Stadium. Jose Rizal, a national hero, paved the way for Philippines independence and was executed by Spanish colonialists.
By 1966 a much less noble man ran The Philippines. Ferdinand Marcos had become president six months earlier. He was already a murderer and would evolve into a vicious dictator, killing and jailing his enemies and, with wife Imelda, would steal billions and impoverish his nation. Imelda, a former Miss Manila, had yet to secure her infamous reputation but the Beatles were to get a taste of what Filipinos had coming.
The trouble started early. When the Beatles’ party arrived at Manila airport, armed soldiers boarded the plane to remove the musicians.
“As soon as we got there it was bad news,” George Harrison remembered towards the end of his life. “There were tough gorillas — little men — who had short-sleeved shirts and acted very menacingly.”
The band, but not Brian Epstein, nor others of their entourage, were taken to the Philippines Navy Headquarters for a press conference. The band members were concerned to be separated from what they called their “diplomatic” bags. This was personal luggage in which they kept marijuana.
The Beatles, for the first time in a foreign land without the steady hand of Epstein and with no control over events, were transferred by launch, again by military officers, to a luxury yacht in Manila Bay owned by Marcos associate and industrialist Don Manolo Elizalde. His family controlled large media assets among a vast portfolio of businesses. He had arranged a party of Manila’s elite on his big boat and the Beatles were his prize trophies. It had even been arranged for the boys to sleep on another boat anchored nearby.
Meanwhile, Epstein, who had cleared Customs, was told of these arrangements. He hit the phones to arrange a launch to return the band to shore, where he booked rooms in the Manila Hotel. By 4am the English entourage was reunited in the capital. They were relieved to be together again, but within hours things would take a serious turn for the worse.
Local promoter Ramon Ramos had agreed to a request from the Malacanang Palace for the Beatles to attend an official function there. Imedla Marcos wished to meet the most famous young men on the planet and, in doing so, impress government ministers and senior defence forces officers. The plan was for a lunch at the palace with 200 children of Manila’s most influential families.
Unknown to the band, it had already been reported that they would attend. But when Epstein spotted it as a suggestion on the itinerary he had scratched it. Ramos chose not to tell the palace.
The brief afternoon concert went without a hitch, the 10 songs taking fewer than 30 minutes. But, resting back at the Manila Hotel before the later show, the Beatles watched in disbelief as the evening news reported they had snubbed the Marcoses and the children who had waited three hours for the Beatles. “The children have all the time in the world, but we are busy people,” Imelda told a reporter as the band’s place cards were removed.
Alarmed at the inadvertent slight, Epstein prepared a statement he read out on air but, at the point he began to talk a strategic burst of static rendered him inaudible. Before the band left the hotel for the second show, a well-organised hate campaign was under way, starting with the Manila Hotel and British embassy receiving bomb threats.
The show went ahead and its thrilled young audience of up to 70,000 fans seemed oblivious to developments elsewhere. But after the show the band found their police escort had withdrawn and the stadium gates had been locked. While they tried to negotiate their way out dozens of men surrounded their cars, pressing their faces against the windows, banging on the vehicles and rocking them.
Beatlemania was a youth phenomenon. T These were adults and organised.
At the hotel the stars were told to lock their doors. A minder was taken to police headquarters and questioned for hours about why the Beatles had embarrassed the first family.
In the morning no limos arrived to take the Beatles to the airport. They hurriedly grabbed cabs. Once there, so-called tax inspectors demanded Epstein pay tax on the previous day’s takings, a contracted obligation of the local promoter. Epstein paid anyway.
The airport’s escalators were turned off and the band struggled with their suitcases and equipment to get to the departure lounge, where thugs set upon them, even firing guns into the ceiling. Epstein and the band’s road manager, Mal Evans, were badly bashed. Chauffeur Alf Bicknall suffered a fractured rib and damaged spine.
A triumphant Manila Times reported that “drummer Ringo Starr was floored by an uppercut. As he crawled away the mob kicked him. George Harrison and John Lennon received kicks and blows as they ran to the customs zone.”
All four Beatles vowed never to return to The Philippines. None ever has.
The youngest of them, Harrison, who had just turned 23 and was recently married, was deeply shaken. He declared he would never tour again and quickly brought Starr and John Lennon on board. Paul McCartney, though, wanted to continue and talked them in to completing the final dates of the following month’s US tour. History records that the Beatles’ last ticketed concert took place at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park on August 29 that year, after which Harrison sat back in his first-class seat and declared: “That’s it, then. I’m no longer a Beatle.”
Imelda, who turns 87 on July 2 and still has a seat in the Philippines House of Representatives, has, on occasion, implausibly denied involvement in this thriller in Manila. But there’s little doubt the Marcoses ended the touring life of the world’s most popular band. Yet in doing so they unleashed an unforeseen revolution.
With no tours, and three of them married, it was a very different band that approached the next Beatles’ album. Their first had been recorded in 12 hours at London’s Abbey Road studios on February 11, 1963, costing just £400. This one, their eighth, would take a leisurely halfyear — and change the course of 20th-century music.
The Beatles gathered at Abbey Road at 7pm on November 24, 1966, and began to record what McCartney would describe as “a collection of northern songs”. That was the name of their publishing company; these songs would celebrate themes of northern English life.
Knowing they would never be required to recreate any of the music live on stage, an unprecedented long and complex journey using the studio as an instrument began with work on a Lennon song about a Liverpool Salvation Army home for children. The first take of Strawberry Fields Forever was finished by 2.30am. Inspired by similar boyhood memories, McCartney returned days later with his new song — Penny Lane.
A Beatles’ concept album was under way, although EMI soon ruined the idea by forcing the band to issue those two songs as a potboiler single, often rated the best of the rock era. It was the last time the band yielded to anyone.
Seven months later, after 700 studio hours, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band turned up on June 1, 1967. Its breadth of vision — a fabulous marriage of rock, music hall, Indian and folk music — was a shock. The distant rumble was ground being broken: the album era had arrived. Bands would control their music and their destiny. Sgt Pepper’s extravagantly illustrated gatefold cover — with the lyrics on the back — was a first. There were no gaps between songs. There would be no singles from it, which was unheard of. Obviously there would be no tour to promote it.
The final song on Sgt Pepper runs almost six minutes and its last dissonant chord features four violins, two violas, two cellos, two clarinets, one double bass and three pianos. Fifty seconds later rock’s most influential album — Imelda Marcos’s greatest achievement — is over.
The Beatles at the height of their fame, left; Imelda Marcos, top; a ticket to the Beatles show in Manila in 1966, above