Beatles: Still as collectible as ever
By Scott Garceau
The Philippine Star 04/20/2003
THE BEATLES as pacifists? Sure, they did sing "All you need is love" way back when. But they never spoke out against war. Or did they?
An exhibit of Beatles memorabilia on display at Shangri-La Plaza Mall sheds new light on this question, along with other persisting matters of Beatle trivia and gossip.
At issue is the infamous "Butcher cover" originally photographed and pressed for the bandís 1966 U.S. release, The BeatlesÖ Yesterday and Today. The extremely rare album is on display in all its gory glory. (The proud owner of the collection, Danee Samonte, says the controversial item is valued at $25,000.)
Dressed in butcher smocks, covered with raw meat and dismembered doll parts yet sporting the same youthful grins, the Beatles in the photo seem miles away from their "Fab Four" image.
Legend has it this was all Johnís ideaĖa bit of image reinvention for the band and a not-so-subtle comment on the then escalating Vietnam War. John was supposed to be the political one (remember "Give Peace A Chance" and "War Is Over [If You Want It]"?).
But like a lot of Beatle legends, thereís more to the story.
Originally shot as part of a "surrealist triptych" by photographer Robert Whitaker, the disturbing cover was meant to show how the world "sleepwalked through its idolization of the Beatles" and to demonstrate that "the Beatles were human, mortal and no different from the rest of us." (The rest of us who surround ourselves with raw meat and baby doll parts, presumably.) The contrast between the old "safe" Beatle image and the carnage around them was supposed to "wake up" the bandís fans.
Lennon loved the cover, in his mercurial way: "Itís as relevant as Vietnam," he quipped, and pushed for Capitol, the Beatlesí stateside label, to release the album cover, "just to break the image."
However, Beatle opinion was more evenly divided. Paul, ever striving for the avant-garde, commented later on: "It didnít seem too offensive to us. It was just dolls and meat." He acknowledged that lensman Whitaker "knew we liked black humor and sick jokes."
Ringo was unsure what message the Beatles were trying to convey, if any. "It was just one of those things we did as life went on." And George? "I thought it was gross, and I always thought it was stupidÖ What the bloody hell was that all about?"
The record label was less amused, especially after radio DJs in the U.S. started complaining and refused to play the record. Capitol ordered a recall (at a cost of $200,000), but then decided to simply paste over a new, non-offensive cover photo (the Beatles sitting in a steamer trunk) to replace the existing "butcher" shot. Thus, thousands of the original photos hit the market (once you steamed off the replacement photo) and it became a fanatical collectorsí item.
Samonte is one of those fanatical collectors. The former RJ100 DJ has been scouring Beatles conventions worldwide for decades, looking for pieces of the puzzle, a puzzle that will perhaps remain unsolved forever: Why did the Beatles leave such an impact on the world?
It could have something to do with the relative briefness of their existence as a band. At a time when the sexagenerian Rolling Stones are on yet another world tour, thereís something to be said for quitting before you go stale. The Beatles broke up in 1970 with bitterness and lawsuits against fellow members, but at least they left with their music and legend intact. (Who owns that music now is another matter: a nearly bankrupt Michael Jackson is said to be mulling whether to sell his half of the Beatles song catalog to raise some $300 million needed to pay his debts.)
It may also be that, in this age of ready-made performers whose ambition vastly outstretches their talent, the Beatles came across as all-around personalities. They wrote music, books, performed in films and had the media eating out of their hands. Plus they had that special something that canít be manufactured with hype: they had charisma. They (along with Elvis Presley, perhaps) invented pop iconhood, without even trying.
This is perhaps why people like Samonte still exist. His collection (said to be insured for P5 million) is visually pleasing, if not exactly encyclopedic. One proceeds to the right along a corridor whose walls are liberally loaded with Beatles artifacts. Copies of the Fab Fourís birth certificates. An original Beatles tour jacket from about 1965. A groovy Sgt. Pepper necktie. There are original fan letters, and copies of their fan club magazine, The Beatles Monthly. Thereís an actual business card from Alan Williams, the Beatles first manager, offering to book his band, "The Quarrymen," for local shindigs. All this stuff is strangely fascinating to Beatles fans.
A turn to the left brings you face-to-face with a corridor of rare album covers, some signed by band members. Posters also bearing the signatures of John, Paul, George and Ringo line the walls. Actual gold records for 45 singles of "Baby, Itís You", "Hey Jude" and "All You Need Is Love".
The Lennon material in this exhibit is rather interesting. In addition to some original "erotic lithographs" (mostly featuring close-ups of Yokoís plumbing) which were scrawled by John to raise money for peace, there is a white baby grand piano similar to the one on which he composed "Imagine." At least thatís the impression given. However, thereís no attribution given, so we canít know whether this item has any actual connection to a Beatle.
An original copy of the 1969 album Two Virgins is also on displayĖthe one on which John and Yoko pose, front and back, in all their morning glory. A quote from "Genesis" is inscribed: "And they were both naked, the man and the woman, and they were not afraid."
Turn the corner and you come to some original trinkets from the Beatlesí visit to Manila in 1966. Itís interesting to note that the July 4 concert at Rizal Memorial Football Stadium had many corporate sponsors, same as today: Pepsi and Cathay Pacific have their corporate logos plastered on one flyer for the show.
The program from the event shows that six other actsĖ including Shirley Bassey, Peter & Gordon, The Everly Brothers and The Dave Clark FiveĖpreceded the Beatles onstage in Manila. This was perhaps to beef up a live act by the Fab Four that generally lasted between 20-30 minutes. No wonder tickets were so cheap.
This was, of course, the infamous visit to the Philippines that resulted in the Beatlesí desperate dash for the airport. Having peeved Mrs. Marcos by snubbing a luncheon invite, Ringo and the lads had to fight off goons who tried to shear them with scissors before they could get onboard. It would be nice to see some of Ringoís scalped hair on display (now that would be a collectorís item), but instead Samonte has collected original souvenir programs and ticket stubs. Still quite interesting, for those interested in a piece of local history.
The final room is a grab-bag of glass cases showing a variety of toys, jewelry, bubble gum cards and other Beatles collectibles. Alarm clocks and plastic figurines (from the movie Yellow Submarine), comic books and Beatles pins. Everywhere from floor to ceiling, wall to wall, is covered with old LP covers by the Beatles and their solo offspring. If kids had known how much this stuff would be worth someday Ö
There is also one item of dubious parentage on display in this room: a suspiciously new-looking Rickenbacker with this typed-up legend: "Rumor has it this guitar was brought by John Lennon for their 1966 Manila concert and left it behind in their haste to leave." A fanciful story, but highly unlikely, unless the Beatles were used to lugging their own instruments around from hotel to airport.
But as we all know, Beatles myths die hard.
Samonte (who is still seeking the elusive, handwritten lyrics to the song "In My Life") has greater plans for his exbibit, which is on display through April and is well worth the P100 entrance fee: a fan convention, a Beatles lookalike/soundalike contest, a SMART Beatles Trivia Quiz, and hopefully a free concert featuring Englandís Bandit Beatles to wrap up the exhibition. Thereís word of holding a concert for peace featuring local musicians and performers, but thatís not confirmed yet.
For now, though, the Beatles at Shangri-La is another welcome magical mystery tour for Beatles fans, whose fascination with all things Liverpudlian never seems to diminish.