In 1964, Beatlemania well and truly arrived in South America. However, there was one slight caveat, the band causing the mass hysteria were not actually The Beatles.
There was nothing bigger than The Beatles at this point. The decade was awash with the Fab Four and their sound was such a huge deal that ‘they’ were going to be bringing the Liverpudlian frenzy that followed them everywhere to South America. In July of 1964, millions of Argentinian fans eagerly anticipated their arrival at Buenos Aires Airport and, when four mop-topped popstars arrived on their soil, many thought their dreams had finally come true.
This, of course, was not The Beatles. The real band were actually holed up in London at the time of the incident, unaware of the doppelgangers on the gangway. Instead, four young guys from Florida named Tom, Vic, Bill and Dave were pretending to be The Beatles in South America. The four Floridians were previously a dive bar band called The Ardells. Without much success of their own they had renamed themselves as ‘The American Beetles’, or on occasions ‘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.”
South American chancer Rudy Duclós had seen the band in a Miami club and was wowed by their performance. The Argentinian impresario expressed his desire to book the four-piece on a groundbreaking tour of South America. Yet in selling the group to promoters and venues, Duclós thought it was best to leave out the ‘American Beetles’ part and decided to pitch them as the real thing. Contracts were then signed and the press was ready for Beatlemania and so were the teenage fans.
The press attention in Peru was wild, with titles La Crónica and La Prensa declaring that ‘The Famous Beatles Would Come in May’ and Duclós even managed to snag the band a coveted spot on Argentinian TV’s Channel 9.
Roberto Monfort, who worked for the station, recalled the incident to the BBC: “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.”
They were booked to feature as the main act on a programme called The Laughter Festival, with an excited cast of starry-eyed teenagers who thought they were about to see their idols in the flesh all waiting with bated breath. The American Beetles waited behind the camera, guitars and sticks at the ready, as the host introduced the quartet in his opening monologue. It only hyped the crowd up even further.
The atmosphere in the room turned on its head as quickly as the camera turned towards the band. It was then that their mask would fall firmly off. Monfort remembered the moment that the audience realised they weren’t actually The Fab Four: “When they went on air, yes — the people realised that they were not the real Beatles, but the fake Beatles. There were some people who were having fun. But others were waiting for the real Beatles, and they felt defrauded.”
The South American press felt like they had been treated as a laughing stock with headlines including: “They have hair in their vocal cords! They sing bad, but they act worse!”. Another said: “The Beetles showed that all the talent they have is in their hair!” and Crónica labelled the tour “a farce far greater than their disputed male presence”, and devoted column inches almost every day throughout the month attacking the band. They also deemed The American Beetles were ‘antimelodic’, ‘howling songwriters’, and likened them to Los Pelucones, the wig-wearing conservatives of 19th-Century Chile.
All the fanfare that The American Beetles had created actually conversely did lead to some adoration from South Americans. Their appearance on the show was still somewhat of a momentous cultural instant in Argentinian history as the band were the first men with long hair to be seen on a mainstream programme. The four-piece would also later appear on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand before changing their name in 1966 and returning to the dive bar circuit.
For a brief moment, before the curtain rose, they must’ve felt like The Beatles. And who can blame them for wanting that?