Early in 1964, as Beatlemania swept the world, newspaper headlines announced that The Beatles would be travelling to South America later that year. Millions awaited their arrival with bated breath – and in July, when four young moptops descended into Buenos Aires Airport, it seemed that teenage dreams were about to come true.
The Beatles were actually nowhere near Argentina at the time. The British group – who split 50 years ago this month – were back home in London, on a rare rest stop between concerts and recording. But with or without their knowledge, four young guys from Florida named Tom, Vic, Bill and Dave had taken their place.
There had been a terrible mix-up.
The American Beetles – complete with lookalike haircuts – arriving in Argentina
Previously a bar band called The Ardells, the quartet were now 'The American Beetles', or sometimes just 'The Beetles' for short. "When The Beatles got to be famous," their manager Bob Yorey recalls in The Day The Beatles Came To Argentina, a 2017 documentary directed by Fernando Pérez, "I said, 'You know what? They’re the English Beatles. I’m gonna make up a group…'
We wore our hair the same, we dressed the same, we wore suits. It was pretty good – Bill Ande
"I got these four guys and I said, 'Listen. Grow your hair and we’re gonna call you ‘The American Beetles'.’" They duly obliged. "We wore our hair the same, we dressed the same, we wore suits. It was pretty good", Bill Ande, their lead guitarist, tells BBC Culture, over the phone. Both a joke and a timely cash-grab, the group’s rebrand had won them big crowds and fresh attention from promoters back home.
An impresario named Rudy Duclós spotted them in a Miami club. He was from Argentina, he explained, and he was keen to book them on a tour of South America. Yet in selling the group to promoters and venues, Duclós hadn’t quite mentioned the 'American Beetles' part. He’d pitched them as the real thing. Contracts were signed, the press was primed, and teenagers anxiously awaited their arrival. The Beatles were coming.
Carlos Santino was a child in 1964. "I remember the moment when they announced that The Beatles [would] come to Argentina because of my cousin", Santino recalls in the Pérez documentary. "She was going nuts".
South American press coverage of the band was unforgiving (Credit: Fernando Perez)
In Peru, headlines in La Crónica and La Prensa declared that 'The Famous Beatles Would Come in May' and that 'Channel 4 is finalising the contract'.
Duclós soon conned the band a spot on Argentinian TV. "I was working at the video room, and we couldn't believe it ourselves that The Beatles would be coming here. Alejandro Romay [the media mogul]… claimed to have secured a fabulous deal", recalled Roberto Monfort, an employee of Channel 9 at the time.
'Between indignation and laughter'
Competition for The American Beetles had been so hot, in fact, that both Channel 13 and Channel 9 in Argentina had booked them for the same night, and a mediation was arranged on the band's arrival at Buenos Aires Airport. While Channel 9 held the upper hand through an enforceable contract, Channel 13's close ties to local authorities soon afforded them the winning ticket. But not for long. Alejandro Romay, Channel 9’s slick-haired chairman, had little time for such details. He called Karadajian, a star in a contemporary wrestling show called Titanes in el Ring (Titans in the Ring), and asked him to bring his "heavyweights" for an "unorthodox" solution. "The bouncers went right over to the five boys, and they practically hung them over their shoulders", Romay explained in a 1998 interview with Zoo TV.
When they went on air – the people realised that they were not the real Beatles, but the fake Beatles
"Everybody was chasing them: the police, the people from Channel 13, the judge", Romay added. "... Already in Palermo [a neighbourhood in Buenos Aires], I had the trucks and everything set up. We got there, "went to a hotel [in] the suburbs in San Telmo that nobody knew about and we locked them up."
More than 50 years later, though, details can get a little hazy. For all the swiftness of Romay's "unorthodox" capture, it seems that Channel 13 temporarily stole at least one member back. Bill Ande tells BBC Culture that "when we got off the plane, they took us to a TV station", where "[our] drummer was kidnapped by a different station and they went through a whole thing to get him back".
The Uruguay press wrote of the ‘lamentable confusion’ surrounding The American Beetles’ tour
'Kidnappings' and TV wrestlers aside, the band soon made it to Channel 9 in one piece. They were the main act booked on a programme called The Laughter Festival, and an excited assembly of wide-eyed teenagers filed neatly into the stands. The American Beetles waited behind the camera, guitars and sticks at the ready, as the host issued his opening proclamation. Carlos Santino’s cousin was, again, "going nuts". Then the camera turned towards the band. "When she saw it wasn’t Paul McCartney who was coming out from behind the curtain, she started to cry inconsolably" he said. Roberto Monfort, the Channel 9 employee who had been amazed at the first announcement, recalls that disillusionment set in fast. "When they went on air, yes – the people realised that they were not the real Beatles, but the fake Beatles."
"Between indignation and laughter" is how he summarised much of the night’s reception. "There were some people who were having fun. But others were waiting for the real Beatles, and they felt defrauded."
"No, people went crazy! They bought it!", the boss Romay claimed in the Zoo TV interview. Oddly enough, Romay himself was swept by a change of heart before the broadcast aired. "I want no part in this lie to the people. I’ll take a plane and go to Punta del Este [a beach resort]", Romay remembered telling staff. "I don’t want to know a thing about what’s going on." At the same time, though, his new-found conscience hadn’t stopped him reaping the rewards. "We had 63 rating points with The Beetles. I think it was the highest peak in the [channel’s] history."
A country had been conned. But while their Channel 9 appearance had avoided outright hostility, The American Beetles’ later concerts were a different story altogether. "I remember in some of the soccer auditoriums, you had a few guys throwing coins", says Bob, the band’s manager. "Mostly everybody really liked our music and what we were doing. It was usually a certain element of people – jealous guys, you know", remembers Bill. "Sometimes they’d throw coins. Maybe rocks. We’d do a concert and have to get the hell out!"
The South American press were less forgiving. 'They have hair in their vocal cords! They sing bad, but they act worse!' went one headline. 'The Beetles showed that all the talent they have is in their hair!' screamed another. Crónica called the tour 'a farce far greater than their disputed male presence', and devoted column inches throughout the month to their attacks. The American Beetles were 'antimelodic', 'howling songwriters', and drew comparisons to los pelucones, the wig-wearing conservatives of 19th-Century Chile. As for their singing, reporters claimed bluntly, '…they are awful'.
The state media criticism was so intense that the band gained about the same quantity of coverage as The Beatles themselves by the end of 1964
The press response was about far more than music, though, and more than likely reflected the continent’s troubled political situation. Argentina and Brazil particularly were governed by right-wing juntas intent on total control. All aspects of public life – from music and politics to education – were purged and monitored for liberal influence. Buenos Aires’ Radio Freedom banned The American Beetles’ music for being "sexually ambiguous" – as described by The Administrative Commission, an Orwellian state organ that regulated the press. The state media criticism was so intense, in fact, that the band gained about the same quantity of coverage as The Beatles themselves by the end of 1964.
In Spain – likewise caught up in fascism, under Franco – The American Beetles even formed the scapegoat for an episode of false state propaganda. Pueblo, a conservative newspaper, wrote salaciously of a frenzied outburst of vandalism following the band’s performance in Madrid, with young crowds apparently driven to a deranged violence by the music. Yet their lead guitarist has no recollection of any such events having occurred.
La Crónica called the tour ‘a farce’, and described the band as ‘anti-melodic’
Tensions were rumbling. For every song they censored, a counterculture was growing apace beneath autocrats’ noses. And since the real band never came, for a new breed of longhairs The American Beetles would hold a strangely powerful significance. They inspired competitors to make their own Beatle-posing bands. One Argentine group, Los Buhos, made headlines that summer. With a name translating as The Owls, the group’s membership consisted of the parodic Juan, Yusti, Jorge and Rango, and claimed to Antena magazine that they were "more Beatles than The Beetles".
Most crucially, a TV performance in Uruguay inspired the formation of a genuinely nation-shifting band. Led by frontman Hugh Fattoruso, Los Shakers were a vanguard in the later 'Uruguayan Invasion' in Argentina, a movement that helped to birth the country’s revolutionary rock nacional music scene.
"The first time we saw guys with long hair making music was The American Beetles on TV", Fattoruso said in a 1993 interview with Página 30 magazine. "A week after seeing these guys, news arrives in Montevideo that there is a group like this in England, and that women go crazy and the cities stop when they talk about them on the radio." Like thousands of others, Fattoruso and his brothers soon watched A Hard Day’s Night at the cinema, and their lives were changed forever.
'A scam with mixed returns'
Even to this day, The Beatles hold a potent spell over much of Latin America, with Beatle engagement on YouTube in Argentina, Mexico and Uruguay as high as in the UK. You might wonder, then, why the real Beatles never made an appearance. As well as housing some of their most enthusiastic fans, Latin America’s American Beetles’ ruse had created a clear imperative to dull the confusion. The Beatles machine had already made important moves in this direction anyway. The label issued an emergency press release to confirm the falsity of The Beetles’ persona; merchandise was upgraded to emphasise their English roots; signs, movie posters and album covers were recast. And when scores of money could be made, too, why not just make the trip?
In a word: poverty. In 1964, South American markets formed but a fraction of those in the US, Australia and Europe. Peru, one of the stop-offs for The American Beetles, had an economy the size of the UK’s in the aftermath of World War One. The average Brazilian had an annual income 13 times less than the average American. Venues, promoters and agents simply couldn’t afford The Beatles’ fee, and the result was a shortage of supply that The American Beetles were more than willing to fill.
Originally called The Ardells, the band re-branded themselves The American Beetles
The American Beetles isn’t just a story of poverty, though. It’s also a story of deception. It’s a band formed with jokey – if not slightly grifting – intentions, only to be sucked into a scam with mixed returns. But whatever the lessons of The American Beetles, one thing is for sure: they were a silly rock 'n' roll band taking a chance. And once the tour concluded, the presence of both 'American' and 'Beetles' in their name made getting any radio airplay a challenge. DJs apparently prioritised British groups, and the explicit parodic element made it hard to take them seriously as recorded artists.
They changed their name again to The Razor’s Edge and cut a single for Pow! Records in 1966. Success eluded them, however, and the band would go their separate ways by the end of the decade. Following the recent deaths of Tom Condra and Dave Hieronymus, the band’s drummer and rhythm guitarist, it’s up to Bill Ande, Vic Gray and their manager Bob Yorey to carry the legacy.
But for thousands of now-elderly Beatlemaniacos, The American Beetles will hold an enduring – and no doubt bizarre – place in their hearts.
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