50 Years of Beatles: Oh, for a lock of hair!

Penn State Laureate Kenneth Womack’s essay series, “50 Years of Beatles,” continues with a look at some of the less glamourous moments of the Fab Four's first visit to America.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ triumphant arrival on American shores, it might surprise some readers to learn that the band mates’ U.S. visit was not without its share of strife.

On the evening of Feb. 11, 1964 — two nights after the Beatles’ legendary appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" — the group accepted their countrymen’s invitation to visit the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. The occasion was a benefit for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the favorite charity of Lady Ormsby-Gore. The Beatles arrived at around 1 a.m., having spent the evening performing in the round at the Washington Coliseum, where they were being filmed by CBS for a March closed-circuit telecast in American cinemas. After every third song, roadie Mal Evans shifted Ringo Starr’s drum riser so as to allow the group to face another quadrant of the audience. It was a maneuver that worked fairly well until the drum riser became stuck, thus causing an irritating delay in the otherwise festive proceedings. Nevertheless, it was an ecstatic, bravura performance in spite of the venue’s awful acoustics.

By the time that the Beatles arrived at the embassy, they were understandably exhausted. Ushered into a party room with some 300 guests, the group found themselves besieged by British glitterati. “We want autographs!” they shouted, with one woman asking aloud, “Can they really write?” As Canadian journalist Bruce Phillips remembered, “There was more than a hint of the master-servant relationship in one (embassy official’s) voice when he said: ‘Come along, you there, you’ve got to come and do your stuff.’” As if to make matters worse, one of the diplomat’s wives surprised Ringo by sneaking up behind him, and, with her nail scissors at the ready, snipping a sizable lock of his hair as a souvenir. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” the usually affable drummer demanded. Photographer Harry Benson was struck by the group’s reaction as they left the embassy. “They were very sad. They looked as if they wanted to cry, John, in particular. They weren’t pugnacious. They were humiliated.”

As a result of the British Embassy fiasco, the Beatles sternly rebuked manager Brian Epstein for accepting the invitation in the first place, and they insisted, moreover, that they would never submit themselves to such degradation ever again. It was a pledge that would prove, in time, to exact far-reaching consequences.

And that date with destiny proved to be July 3, 1966, when the Beatles’ Far East Tour brought them to the Philippines for the first time. After checking into a Manila Hotel, the Beatles were blissfully unaware of an invitation from President Ferdinand Marcos and first lady Imelda Marcos requesting their appearance at Malacañang Palace at 11 a.m. the following morning. But “since the British embassy fiasco,” the group’s assistant Peter Brown recalled, “the policy was never to go to those things.” The next morning, the Beatles’ entourage ignored further demands from Filipino officials that they go to the Palace, where the First Lady and some 200 children were now anxiously awaiting their appearance. After playing an afternoon concert for some 35,000 fans and an evening performance for another 50,000 spectators at José Rizal Memorial Stadium, the band started to realize that they were in dire straits when news reports began detailing their snubbing of the royal family.

Later that night, a genuinely contrite Epstein attempted to alleviate the situation by expressing his regrets to the first family on the "Channel 5 News," but a burst of suspicious static rendered his apology all but unintelligible. The next day, the Beatles were suddenly ordered to pay income tax on concert receipts that they still hadn’t received from Filipino promoter Ramon Ramos. Worse yet, their governmental security detail had been suspended, given their allegedly rude treatment of the first lady, and the group and their entourage were left to their own devices as they rushed to the Manila International Airport in order to make their KLM flight to New Delhi.

But their ordeal wasn’t over yet. The Beatles were jostled by an angry mob as they made their way to immigration, and things became even more dicey on the tarmac, when roadie Evans and press officer Tony Barrow were removed from the plane shortly before takeoff. The group had been declared “illegal immigrants” by the Filipino government, and Mal and Tony spent some 40 minutes negotiating the band’s way out of the country. When the pair finally returned to the plane, the Beatles hastily exited the country, relieved at having survived what they considered to be a near-death experience in the South Pacific.

Kenneth Womack is the author of numerous works of nonfiction, including "Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles" (2007). He has also written three novels: "John Doe No. 2 and the Dreamland Motel" (2010), "The Restaurant at the End of the World" (2012) and "Playing the Angel" (2013). A professor of English and integrative arts at Penn State Altoona, Womack was selected in April to serve as the sixth Penn State University Laureate.

Last Updated March 20, 2014