The Boys With Bangs – Translation
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Welcome to Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Today we’re going to Argentina, in the early 1950s.
[Host]: In a very short time, all artistic, cultural, and sporting events in their most true-to-life expression will reach Argentinian homes via their television screens. Television is now a reality in the new Argentina.
[Daniel]: Television, that little square box that no one understood very well, or how it worked, gradually came into the daily life of Argentinians. But in those early years, the programming was very limited. Basically, what was already being done on radio was replicated on television: tele-theater and musical shows, sporting events and some political advertising.
For a decade, Argentina would have just one channel, Channel 7, the State-run channel. But private television channels came along in the sixties, and that’s when the industry started taking off.
[Hostess]: Stay on 13 to see it.
[Daniel]: Channel 9:
[Hostess]: Channel 9 wishes you New Year’s on 9 with the best of health and happiness.
[Daniel]: And channel 11:
[H]: TV Channel 11 Dicon, the family channel.
[Daniel]: Now viewers could choose from four channels. Of course, very few people had a television set in their homes yet. The device was very expensive; having one was a luxury. And if any family in the neighborhood had one, for sure all the neighbors would gather together at that house to watch their favorite shows.
[Roberto Monfort]: And the television of that time was a television of—of pioneers. It was wonderful. Black and white TV. Well, we had black and white TV until the eighties.
[Daniel]: He’s Roberto Monfort. In 1964, he was young 20-year-old, and he had been working as a videotape editor on Channel 9 since the age of 16, when he was finishing up school. His work at the time was quite unsophisticated.
[Roberto]: You had to remove reels, switch reels. In other words, on the same machine where you were recording a program, you had to broadcast a commercial, remove the reel from the—there were pretty incredible things, when in the rest of the world, for a channel with so many shows they had twelve, fifteen videotape machines. In ’64 we had three.
[Daniel]: They were huge machines, more than two meters high by three wide. It was the early days of videotape, which made it possible to record programs on reels of tape that weighed about ten kilos.
To edit these programs, Roberto used to cut the tapes using a scalpel and a microscope, and splice them with strong glue, the way it was done in cinema. That’s why at broadcast time he had to rush to switch between the reels that had the shows and the reels with commercials that lasted no more than forty seconds.
With this potential, television began to have not only live programs, but also recorded ones. And there was already that thing that keeps every TV channel awake to this day: ratings. The fiercest competition was between channels 9 and 13, which had managed to increase their audience levels in a very short time.
[Roberto]: You have no idea what competition was like at the time between 9 and 13. Everything, everything, everything was competition.
[Daniel]: Audience measurements were made by door-to-door surveys or by telephone. But of course, at that time few people even had a telephone. And the fight for ratings came hand in hand with another big battle: exclusivity of the performers.
Okay. So that’s the context where today’s story happens. You need to know one more thing. Early that same year, 1964, here’s what was happening on TV in the United States.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW)
[Host]: The Ed Sullivan Show!
[Ed Sullivan]: Right now and again on the second half of our show. Ladies and gentlemen: The Beatles (screaming).
[The Beatles]: Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you. Tomorrow I’ll miss you. Remember I’ll always be true.
[Daniel]: The Beatles. The British band sensation at that moment had set foot on American soil for the first time. They appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and broke audience records.
Having the Beatles on the screen was a guarantee of success for any channel in the world. And the television pioneers in Argentina were willing to do anything to achieve ratings like that.
Our producer, Aneris Casassus, continues.
[Aneris Casassus]: To better understand this story, I first have to tell you about Alejandro Romay, the owner of Channel 9, the channel where Roberto worked. Romay began as an announcer in his native province, Tucumán, and later moved to Buenos Aires, where he had his first radio station: Radio Libertad. But in ’63 he went one step further and dared try his luck on television by buying up most of the shares in Channel 9.
[Roberto]: By then, Channel 9 already had four studios. Then Romay built a really big one. You could smell the construction in the channel, because permanently—walls were being taken down, new equipment was brought in, cables were changed.
[Aneris]: It was a time of learning, of trial and error, of seeing how to go about doing television.
[Roberto]: Some people came over after starting on Channel 7 in the fifties, and others were learning on Channel 9. As was my case, right? That’s why I’m telling you that we were pioneers, in the sense that each of us was investigating more and more about it every day.
[Aneris]: The first thing Romay did when he bought the channel was to replicate his great radio success on television.
It was called, of course “Great Luminaries of Tango.”
The leading figures of the genre were presented live on the Channel 9 screen. And this was also a success on TV, just as it had been on the radio. Then Romay began to air other musical series such as “El Special” and “Tropicana.” And then came what became known as “omnibus programs,” eight or nine hours live on weekends with lots of musical content.
For those who know Don Francisco, picture “Sábado Gigante,” but three times as long. Soon the channel had its own orchestra with fifteen musicians.
[Roberto]: A lot of music and a lot—a lot of theater, a lot of tele-theater in this case. I mean, all the programming that made Romay famous. And a lot of commitment to the public and with to—to national production.
[Aneris]: Something was pretty clear for Romay: he wanted to create a channel for ordinary people.
Romay died in 2015, but I spoke to Omar, one of his four children.
[Omar Romay]: He held the belief that workers, middle-class and lower middle-class men, needed television much more than the upper class, because he felt that—that the frustrations of work, the daily struggle for life, made those men come home very tired and frustrated. And they needed something that would give them new hopes and expectations to help them face life the following day.
[Aneris]: That was the strategy to beat Channel 13, its main competitor and audience leader at that time.
[Host]: Channel 13 is first in the competition. Channel 13 is the leader in programs with the highest rating.
[Omar]: Competition was fierce. Especially the—the fight for performers. There was a famous saying of Goar Mestre, who was the general manager and president of Channel 13; he said, “When you can’t beat Romay, loosen one of his legs.” He understood that a—a table had four legs and when papa created some very successful content, you had to steal one leg of it.
[Aneris]: As time went by, Romay came to be known as “The Czar of Television.” And he started dreaming big. His channel would no longer be a platform just for the Argentinian musicians of the time.
[Roberto]: They also brought guests from abroad, many of them.
[Aneris]: We’re back with Roberto, the videotape editor.
[Roberto]: The ones from San Remo came—almost all of them.
(SOUNDBITE VIDEO ARCHIVE)
[Host]: July, month of international stars on Channel 9.
[Aneris]: San Remo, the famous Italian music festival. The most famous performers in that event came to Argentina to appear on Channel 9. And French musicians of the moment also came. Romay kept his eye on Europe.
And then, in 1964, a rumor spread like gunpowder in the company hallways: The Beatles were coming to Channel 9.
The Beatles. No less than the Beatles. That English band that had been to the United States for the first time just a few months ago would now perform in a Latin American country, and that country was Argentina. It seemed incredible.
[Roberto]: It was advertised with very little time; it was all very surprising and sudden.
[Aneris]: Roberto doesn’t have a clear memory of what the advertising was like or what it specifically said, but he does remember that . . .
[Roberto]: It was very important on the channel. Especially during the last three days, when the publicity and the advertising were boosted.
[Aneris]: After a lot of anticipation, the day finally arrived. They were going to appear on a program with an audience that had been especially arranged to receive them. Roberto remembers the crowd well.
[Roberto]: Rows and rows, from one side to the other. Two hundred, three hundred people can fit inside a television studio at the most, because they’re—they have stands, bleachers. Let’s say there were four hundred people. There were at least an extra hundred people. Plus the invasion by the press.
[Aneris]: It was crazy.
[Roberto]: It was overwhelming. They tried to get in anyway. Screaming, they wanted to see them, they wanted to touch them. It was chaotic, but also wonderful. It had, you know, the energy, the uniqueness of—of an internationally famous band at the time. It was also the beginning of the Beatles.
[Aneris]: And in that crowd was a 14-year-old boy; his name was Luis Rodríguez Corti.
[Luis Rodríguez]: Starting in the year 62, what people listened to were the Beatles.
[Aneris]: At that time, he loved the Beatles and the Beach Boys.
[Luis]: The two bands were, ah, let’s say, they—crossed paths with me in my life. It was the super-trend of the moment.
[Aneris]: And on July 8 of that year, Luis put on a suit and a tie, and together with three other friends, took a bus to go to the Channel 9 studio, in the Palermo neighborhood, in Buenos Aires.
[Luis]: We went in and they made us sit down—well, however we could. They were very uncomfortable, tight stands. And everyone waiting for those four celebrities to appear.
[Aneris]: Fans in the studio were eagerly awaiting the start of the show. And thousands of viewers followed Channel 9’s programming from their homes.
[Channel 9 Host]: It exists all over the world, some call it anger; others, a new wave. We’ll simply call it youth.
[Aneris]: Until finally, the four celebrities came out on the stage:
[Channel 9 Host]: These young people who are now about to listen to the American Beetles.
[Luis]: Totally crazy, the—the noise, and you heard the guitars, of course. But everyone there was jumping, screaming. And suddenly I found myself jumping and screaming like everyone else.
[Aneris]: In the studio, the Channel 9 people with prompts were encouraging the public.
[Luis]: They tell you, “clap your hands, shout, sing.” I remember that, yes. They were there and had signs.
[Aneris]: And Roberto was focused on doing his job.
[Roberto]: Since I was on videotape, I was recording it, of course, using two machines. The excitement of the—of the beginning passed, when the girls were screaming, when girls were on the verge of fainting. And they began to say, while they were singing the second, the third song: “These are not the Beatles” (laughs).
[Aneris]: It wasn’t them. They didn’t even look much like John, Paul, George, or Ringo. Just remember how they were introduced just before going on stage:
[Channel 9 Host]: The American Beetles. The American Beetles.
[Aneris]: The AMERICAN Beetles. The drums of the supposed Ringo didn’t say “Beatles”, as it would be pronounced in Spanish, but “Beetles”, with double e. They were a Gringo copy of the English band.
A fairly well-done copy. They had even thought of certain details.
[Luis]: They did their best to dress them the same, with the famous Mao coats that the real Beatles were wearing at the time, you know? And the bangs and all that kind—and the little boots. They dressed them up somewhat like the real ones.
[Aneris]: Roberto remembers well what he felt.
[Roberto]: But the most shocking thing, what stays in your memory with the passing of time, is that feeling of frustration at being on the air and saying, “These aren’t the real Beatles.”
[Daniel]: But getting these American Beetles to the Channel 9 screen was the result of a plot that had included parallel contracts, an airport kidnapping, and even fighters from the wrestling world. And having them exclusively, even if they weren’t the real Beatles, was one more battle in the rating war between the two most powerful channels in the country.
How did all this happen?
We’ll return after a pause.
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[Daniel]: We’re back on Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Before the break, many Argentinian fans were eagerly awaiting the Beatles’ presentation on Channel 9. But the musicians who took the stage were not John, Paul, George and Ringo. They were an American copy of the most popular band at the time.
But getting the fake Beatles that day had been far from easy.
Aneris picks up the story.
[Aneris]: The American Beetles did not come from Liverpool, but from Florida, USA. They were four guys who had a doo wop band, a very popular vocal music genre at the time. They were called The Ardells.
(SOUNDBITE OF “SEVEN LONELY NIGHTS” BY THE ARDELLS)
[Aneris]: And, in the middle of Beatlemania, a rather clever manager had an idea . . .
[Fernando Pérez]: This guy sees the opportunity, the manager, and he says, “Let your hair grow, we’ll dress you up like the Beatles and—and we’ll call you the American Beetles. Learn to play a couple of songs, rehearse and—and we’ll go out and play here in Miami as the American Beetles, taking advantage of it, and we’ll get on this bus to success.
[Aneris]: He is Fernando Pérez, director of the documentary “The day the Beatles came to Argentina.” Fernando spoke with the representative and with one of the members of the American Beetles. And they told him that everything had begun almost as a joke. But the joke got a little out of hand because soon they started playing in Miami casinos and one day, a television producer saw them there and offered to take them on a South American tour.
[Fernando]: And the band were 18-year-old kids, who suddenly found themselves on that adventure of traveling through South America; how can you not do it?
[Aneris]: According to what Omar Romay, the son of Alexander, the TV czar, was able to piece together, a producer came to Channel 9 one day offering them the “American Beetles.” He apparently did not sell them as the originals but . . .
[Omar]: They say they sing the same songs and are very similar.
[Aneris]: And Romay’s eyes were opened. English or American, he didn’t care. He knew this would be a success. They came to an agreement: he would pay them for the performance when they came and he also promised to pay for the tickets for the band to fly from Miami to Buenos Aires. But a few days after closing the contract . . .
[Omar]: Dad gets the surprise news that the Beatles are beginning to be announced on Channel 13. And then naturally, the first thing was to find that representative again and see what had happened.
[Aneris]: And of course, the representative was nowhere to be found. Everything indicated that he had betrayed that contract with Romay and had signed another one with Channel 13 for more money. I consulted with some people from Channel 13 who worked there at the time, but they have no recollection of this episode.
In the meantime, the arrival of the supposed Beatles had aroused a lot of interest in the press. Again here’s Fernando, the director of the documentary.
[Fernando]: The two weeks before their arrival, it was all over the newspapers. There were stories about the subject every day.
[Aneris]: They published very informative headlines such as “The Beatles are coming,” Beatles with an a, not a double e. And others were more speculative such as . . .
[Man]: “Twenty-five women had to be hospitalized in Scotland after a Beatles performance. Will the same thing happen here?”
[Aneris]: But as the date approached, they no longer talked about the “Beatles,” but the “Beetles”, with double e. Of course, not everyone would pay much attention to that. Imagine, 1964, a world without internet. People saw black and white photos in the press, of four young guys with long hair, dressed like the originals, and for many, as in the case of Roberto, the videotape editor, the Beatles were simply coming.
And many viewers thought the same when they tuned into Channel 9 that day in their homes.
[Fernando]: And a lot of people didn’t even know the face of the English Beatles. So it was somehow, also pretty easy to—to deceive.
[Aneris]: But others who were more attentive, such as Luis, the 14-year-old boy who went to the studio with his friends, knew in advance they were not the real ones. But even so, they were very excited. Whatever, British or American, the arrival of this group generated a lot of excitement.
Soon the media began to report on the dispute between Channel 9 and Channel 13 for the band’s exclusivity. Stories came out with headlines like . . .
[Man]: “Despite Channel 9’s Announcements, the Beetles Will Perform on 13.”
[Aneris]: Or . . .
[Man]: “Nobody Moves the Beetles away from 9.”
[Aneris]: And this one, which is my favorite . . .
[Man]: “Will Justice Intervene in the Battle of the Bangs?”
It seemed that channels 9 and 13 were going to trial to determine where the American Beetles would perform.
Romay began to find out from the channel’s lawyers what he could do to enforce his contract. Here again the son, Omar.
[Omar]: What the lawyers said was, “Look, Romay. If 13 gave them money, the performers belong to Channel 13. Unless the performers use your tickets. But if they use your tickets, the performers are yours.”
[Aneris]: In other words, if the American Beetles used those plane tickets which Romay had bought for them, he could consider that the contract they had signed with him was formally initiated.
He didn’t know if the band was going to use his tickets, but what he was sure of was that, if they did, the Beetles would perform on his channel.
So he devised a plan. A less orthodox plan rather than pursuing the war with 13 in the courts of law. The tickets Romay had paid for were on a Pan American flight that made a stop in Montevideo.
[Omar]: The only way was to wait for them in Montevideo and see if they would arrive on that Pan American flight. Of course, Pan American wouldn’t give you information about the—the passengers who were on board.
[Aneris]: So, there was no other way. He had to go to Montevideo and wait for the plane to arrive. But to make sure the plan worked . . .
[Omar]: Dad decided at that point to call a group of wrestlers he had on a show called “Titans in the Ring.”
(VIDEO ARCHIVE OF TITANES EN EL RING)
[Titanes en el ring]: Titanes en el ring. A blazing competition. With their weapons, each one will seek . . .
[Aneris]: Titanes en el Ring, a wrestling show that had been on Channel 9 for two years and where wrestlers such as The Mummy or the Red Knight fought.
(SOUNDBITE OF TITANES EN EL RING)
[Host]: For the title of World Champion . . .
[Voices]: The Avenger Mummy!
[Host]: Facing the Armenian, the current world champion, Martín Karadagian!
[Man]: Martín is the titan, he is the titan of all the Titans in the Ring.
[Aneris]: Martín Karadagian was the director of the Titans. So Romay called him into his office and said:
[Omar]: “Listen, Martín I have a serious issue. These gentlemen might use the tickets. They might not. If they use the tickets, they belong to Channel 9. So I’d like you to go with two or three big boys. I’m going to get you a plane from Aeroparque so that you can go to—Montevideo.”
[Aneris]: That’s how far Romay was willing to go. Send the Titans on a private plane from Aeroparque, the airport for national and regional flights in Buenos Aires.
The order came from the television czar, and it was impossible not to comply. They were to wait at the Montevideo airport, and once the Pan American flight landed, go to the staircase where the passengers get off . . .
[Omar]: “And if you see four boys with long hair and bangs, ah—arriving, tell them there’s a lot of commotion in Argentina over their presence. There is—there is a lot of concern for their safety, and that the channel had sent these people to take care of them so they could get to their hotel without any kind of problems or inconveniences.”
[Aneris]: The Titans followed orders to the letter. And the plan was carried out perfectly. The American Beetles did come on that Pan American flight, and as soon as they saw them, the Titans, who didn’t even give them time to breathe, were hustling them off to the private jet that Romay had hired.
Meanwhile, Channel 13, having no idea what was happening, had its ground transportation ready to receive its exclusive performers in Ezeiza, the airport for international flights, about 35 kilometers from Buenos Aires. And, Channel 9, for its part, had its ground transportation at Aeroparque, the other airport, because that’s where the private plane was due to land.
[Omar]: Channel 13 realizes they had lost them when Channel 9 goes live from Aeroparque with the arrival of the American Beetles, and then, well, they bring them to the channel, they have a big party, they had them—they had a big party prepared for them with the public waiting for them .
[Aneris]: And when they got to the Channel 9 studio, the American Beetles couldn’t believe what they found.
[Omar]: People were desperate for—for the music. They were desperate to meet them.
[Aneris]: For the impact of the music. Because of what they represented: rebellion, youth, transgression. They didn’t have to be from Liverpool to embody that energy. Ultimately, that’s what the channel wanted to sell.
[Omar]: People—as a result of the confusion or simply for the love of that music—came to the Channel 9 studio.
[Aneris]: Now, we must clarify that no, the music wasn’t the Beatles music either.
[Fernando]: They played a single Beatles song, which is not really by the Beatles and that’s why they could play it, which is “Twist and Shout,” and they played it because they actually didn’t have the—the rights to the Beatles songs. So they played rock songs from the—from the sixties which sounded pretty similar and which were the beat music of the time.
[Aneris]: But, as improbable as it sounds, the public didn’t care.
[Public]: More, more!
[Aneris]: Four gringo kids, from Florida, playing songs that weren’t even by the Beatles and the public still asked for more.
[Public]: More, more!
[The American Beetles]: Para bailar La bamba. Para bailar La bamba se necesita una poca de gracia.
[Fernando]: They end up playing La Bamba, I don’t think the Beatles ever played La Bamba. It’s a chain of—jokes, let’s say.
[Aneris]: Omar Romay was eight years old that day he was at the channel. He doesn’t quite remember whether he watched the show from the control room or from his dad’s office.
[Omar]: But it was a very, very special moment. Like—like every time an important performer arrived, right? Only in this case it wasn’t true. It is one of the anecdotes, I would say, one of the more bizarre ones, in Argentinian television, in the history of Argentinian television.
[Aneris]: This is how Alejandro Romay, the television czar, recalled it in an interview in 1998.
(ARCHIVE SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)
[Alejandro Romay]: The frenzied crowd bought it, they bought it. They bought, they bought the Beatles. They were The Beetles—American Beetles. They were five losers. It was a success. We got a rating of 63 points with the Beetles. I think it was the highest rating on television.
[Aneris]: The fake Beatles had broken audience records. And then, just as now, that was the only thing that mattered.
[Daniel]: After that presentation on Channel 9, the American Beetles continued to profit from the fervor of the Argentinian public. They had different performances, and the press followed them every minute. It no longer mattered whether it was the English Beatles or the Americans. That was the closest Argentinians could get to their idols.
If you want to know more about this story, you can find the documentary on YouTube: “The day the Beatles came to Argentina.”
Aneris Casassus is a producer of Radio Ambulante and lives in Buenos Aires.
This story was edited by Camila Segura and me. The Sound Design is by Andrés Azpiri and Rémy Lozano, with music by Rémy. Desirée Yépez did the fact-checking. Thanks to Rodrigo Peón for lending us his voice to hear this episode. And a special thank you to Pablo Iragorri for bringing us this story.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Lisette Arévalo, Jorge Caraballo, Victoria Estrada, Xochitl Fabián, Rémy Lozano, Miranda Mazariegos, Patrick Moseley, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo and Elsa Liliana Ulloa.
Fernanda Guzmán is out editorial intern.
Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is a podcast of Radio Ambulante Estudios, and is produced and mixed using Hindenburg PRO software.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thank you for listening.
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