When evil guitars desecrated the Budokan


Long before the ‘hoorigans’ descended on Japan last summer, the arrival of another group of Englishmen was giving Japanese officials sleepless nights.

Within hours of putting the final touches to their groundbreaking album “Revolver,” the Beatles had boarded a plane for Germany, from where they made their to Japan for the second leg of what was to be their final ever tour.

Among other things, physical assault, boot camp scheduling, a raft of restrictions, and, in Japan, audiences so politely quiet that the band could hear how musically poor they’d become live, helped convince the Fab Four that this tour would be their last.

The band was predictably huge in Japan. One political cartoon of the time showed then Prime Minister Sato appealing for votes at a hustings sporting a mop top wig.

But long before the Liverpudlians arrived at Haneda airport on June 26, 1966, their visit had become mired in controversy.

The band was scheduled to play five shows at the Budokan arena in Tokyo, the only indoor venue in the capital (it was rainy season) capable of playing host to a group of their size, and to the number of fans seeking tickets (120,000).

The “Hall of the Martial Arts” had been built for the Tokyo Olympics two years previously, and was revered as the home of traditional Japanese sports.

Misgivings over its use for something as low brow as an “electric guitar concert” grew into a chorus of opposition from nationalists and right-wing groups, who railed against the “desecration” of the venue, and the threat of violence grew as extremists vowed to protect it, by force if necessary.

Even the Japanese tour promoters, the Yomiuri Shimbun, whose proprietor at the time, Shoriki Matsutaro, was a leading Buddhist figure, began to get cold feet as opposition to the gigs from government members grew.

The possibility of the tour being canceled loomed large.

Eventually, the chairman of the Budokan board was compelled to intervene, arguing in a letter printed in the paper that since the band had recently been knighted by the queen of England, they were beyond reproach, their respectability beyond doubt.

Fears were assuaged, only the most hardcore of extremists mollified and preparations for the show went on.

Those preparations were immense.

With up to a hundred thousand fans of the group expected to descend on Tokyo during their stay, as well as threats from nationalists groups, and even assassination threats from fanatical opponents of the band, a massive security operation was undertaken.

When the Beatles eventually arrived in Tokyo, police arrested several carloads of members of the Greater Japan Patriotic Society, screaming “Beatles Go Home! Have a Haircut,” who were attempting to block the band’s way to Tokyo.

“Operation Biitoruzu” was on almost the same scale as that for the 1964 Olympic Games, and thirty-five thousand police officers were mobilized for the concerts.

Fears of trouble ultimately proved unfounded.

In fact, according to the British ambassador to Japan at the time, “the greatest burden which the police had to bear was to comfort sobbing teenage girls, who found that the physical presence of John, Paul, George, and Ringo was more than they could take.”

No less stringent than security for the concerts was the regime put in place to protect the Beatles themselves.

During their stay, the group was supervised by self-styled Japanese tour manager ‘Mike’ Nakamura, who imposed military-like restrictions on their movements.

As George Harrison recalled, the band was told: “At 5:30 precisely we will knock on your door. At 5:32 you will leave the room. At 5:33 we will be in the elevator. At 5:35 we will be in the car park.”

The band was not allowed to wander the streets of Tokyo freely. When John Lennon and friend Neil Aspinall escaped to the Oriental Market and Asahi Gallery in Harajuku, they were promptly “arrested” and brought straight back to their hotel, the Tokyo Hilton.

The chief complaints about the visits concerned security.

Fans at the gigs complained that there were too many police, while the band was kept far away from spectators.

Moreover, the gigs themselves were short — just 30-minutes-long.

The British ambassador remarked in a letter home after the gigs that a “profound feeling of ‘unfulfilment’ was held to exist among fans,” who felt shortchanged by the shows.

“As value for money,” he wrote, “(the shows) do not seem to compare at all well, for instance, with a whole evening’s recital by Rubinstein, which could be heard in Tokyo the previous week for the same price.” Quite.

The concerts themselves were musically shambolic.

Before arriving in Japan, the Beatles had played in Germany, where at one gig, support act The Rattles occupied the wings to watch the band in action. Lennon advised them: “Don’t listen to us; we’re lousy these days.”

The band’s shows were usually played through amps the size of which made it impossible to hear the music under the usual hail of screams. In Tokyo, unusually, the Beatles were actually able to hear themselves perform.

At the Budokan, where the crowd, in parts at least, sat in relatively polite silence, the deterioration in their live musicianship was painfully obvious. They really were lousy.

After their shows in Japan, the band traveled to the Philippines, where they were verbally and physically attacked after failing to show up for a reception with pint-sized President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda.

The band had reached breaking point as a live group.

On the way back to the hotel after their final gig in Candlestick Park, San Francisco, on Aug. 29, 1966, an unspecified Beatle spoke up.

“Right,” he said to manager Brian Epstein, “that’s enough.”

The Beatles never toured again.