50 years ago: Before polio and dengue, Beatlemania gripped Karachi

There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be: The Beatles.

There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be: The Beatles. DESIGN: SAMRA AMIR


Exactly 50 years ago, in the early hours of June 8, 1964, certain guests from England arrived at Pakistan’s largest airport, their British Overseas Airways Corporation jet landing for a brief transit. The Beatles were in Karachi, their yellow submarine parked on Pakistani soil.

The Beatles started their first-ever world tour on June 4, 1964, in Copenhagen, soon after having taken England and America by the proverbial storm. After their next performance, which took place in the Netherlands, they made their way back to England. However, they were soon headed for Hong Kong. In order to cover the 5,967 miles from Heathrow Airport in London to Kai Tak Airport in Kowloon, the band members had to stop for a couple of hours at Jinnah International, known then as the Karachi Airport, with previous stops at Zurich and Beirut.

Tired of the rigorous travelling during the previous week, along with their two shows in Denmark and Netherlands, John Lennon and George Harrison opted to stay inside the aircraft. Their eccentric drummer, Ringo Starr, had not joined them yet on the tour - being treated in a London hospital for an illness that had caused him to become bedridden. Lennon’s and Harrison’s decision was easily understandable; the band was in the middle of a 73-day tour and even at the prime ages of 23 and 21 respectively, the gruelling tour schedule must have been taking its toll.

Paul McCartney, who was to later celebrate his 24th birthday in nine days with a performance at the Sydney Arena, always the adventurer, ventured out of the aircraft and into the airport bar.

Chaos ensued. Perhaps McCartney underestimated the popularity of The Beatles in Pakistan, or perhaps he was hoping no one would realise they were there or perhaps he was hoping that he would walk into a deserted bar at the ungodly hour of two in the morning. Wrong, wrong and definitely wrong.

Throngs of female fans reportedly forced their way into the bar despite the added security, just to see a glimpse of The Beatles member. Glasses and cutlery flew across as a stampede of young women ran over each other to get to McCartney. Pulled and dragged across the transit lounge by frisky women who wanted a piece of their heartthrob, the musician was forced to literally beg for his life.

The police and his manager intervened, trying to save him from the passionate fans, taking him behind a bar counter where they thought he would be safe. Undeterred, the women decided to take their chances and hurled themselves over the counter towards McCartney - shrieking torpedoes of excitement and teenage hysteria. The man, who would go on to become the most successful composer and recording artist in music history, was by now sitting in a corner, curled up and shivering. He had walked out of the aircraft sporting a sleek black coat and a neat white shirt. Now, he was now nowhere near as suave; his ruffled hair an even bigger mess, his clothing having visibly suffered from all the tugs and pulls.

Law enforcers somehow managed to bundle a shell-shocked McCartney into an airport mobile, from where he was taken to the plane. Back on board, the musician’s spirits lifted to the point that he and the other band members indulged the crowd, which had by now gathered outside the plane.

Less than 24 hours later in Hong Kong, McCartney, who was able to smoothen out his clothing and was now wearing a thin black tie along with his white shirt, was asked about being thronged by mobs of teenage girls. “It’s the same feeling as footballers must get when they come out onto a football field,” he said amidst Lennon’s interruptions from the back. “It’s a marvellous feeling inside, you know. And it’s the same every time.” When he was asked in retort if he got irritated by not being able to make himself heard over their shrieks, he replied, “No. Actually, you get irritated when the screams go down a bit.” Surely not the feeling he must have been having when he was frantically shouting ‘Don’t crush me! Don’t crush me!” to the swooning damsels of Karachi.

McCartney would also go on to reveal that the main reason he had disembarked the plane was not to grab a drink from the bar but to buy a souvenir. However, the only souvenir he was able to get was the memory of an overly warm welcome.

However, to do justice to these images - of McCartney fleeing from a gang of unruly young girls at the Karachi airport, of a Radio Pakistan head running after The Beatles, of the band singing ‘We like Karachi, yeah yeah yeah,’ to a crowd standing around their plane - it is vital to go back and revisit the culture of that time, to realise what this city once was and how far forward, or backwards, we have come since then.

The fashion

Fashion designer Feeha Jamshed, daughter of Tanveer Jamshed, when talking to The Express Tribune, was quick to say that fashion in the city has regressed considerably in the past 50 years, even going as far as to say that Karachi could have been dubbed the fashion hub of Asia at the time.

“Whatever was being worn in Paris and Milan was also being worn in Karachi [at that time],” revealed Jamshed. “We were stylish but still managed to keep our culture within our dresses. Sari was a popular choice and the shalwar kameez of that time were modern but never delved into vulgarity.”

Recalling the time when Jacqueline Onassis-Kennedy visited Pakistan, she claimed that Jackie pointed out the beauty and fashion-sense of the women in the country. “If a global fashion icon like Jackie praised us for our dressing sense then surely we must have been doing something right back then,” she added.

Jamshed pointed out that women in Karachi felt comfortable in wearing whatever they wanted. “Women wore skirts, they wore Western-style dresses and they wore traditional clothing in a modern manner - nobody judged them or made them feel awkward for wearing it.”

The airport

The Karachi Airport was much more modest back then. According to former Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) press relations department head Bashir Chaudhry, there was only one terminal at the airport at the time. “The second terminal was added more than a decade after The Beatles came,” he said.

Neither did the airport see as much traffic as it does now. “It wasn’t until the 1980s that the airport played host to major airlines,” he said. “Before, it was mainly PIA, Saudi Air and the Gulf Air that used the airport. The rest of the airlines only had a plane arrive at Karachi every now and then, so it is surprising that their [The Beatles’] plane stopped at Karachi.”

Present at the time

Musician Norman DeSouza was in his teens when The Beatles arrived in 1964. While he does not recall the event clearly, his wife’s uncle, Peter Anthony, was present at the airport. “He worked at the airport at the time and was refuelling their plane,” revealed DeSouza.

The musician, who has been performing now for nearly 50 years, also has a priceless souvenir of the time. “He knew how much I loved The Beatles back then, so he was able to get me a small eight-inch poster that was signed by them.”

The scene has been recreated using information from The Beatles Diary Volume 1: The Beatles Years by Barry Miles, the officials Beatles website, the official Beatles world tour schedule, transcriptions of Paul McCartney’s interviews and a Morning News article by Hameed Zaman

Published in The Express Tribune, June 8th, 2014.


Ahmed | 7 years ago | Reply

On the other hand, horrible headline ET! This article is positive, you really didn't have to include a derogatory headline for this beautiful article! What is the link between polio and beatles anyway?

Ahmed | 7 years ago | Reply

How my heart aches for these times to come back! Just incredibly beautiful to even read about that! Now my country has become a heaven for the extremists ready to kill in the name of religion like this is the only way to get to heaven, no heed given to real religion at all.

Other than that, the security situation he deteriorated to such a point that even international sports teams don't come which is a matter of great shame.

What great base we had to launch ourselves on the world map and look how far back we have come!

Thank you, thank you ET for sharing this piece.

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