Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Pepe Smith on the Beatles in Manila: Part 2

Part 2

Aside from the fact that Pepe’s life is the stuff of movies, there are the pivotal events in music history in which he was directly involved. The Beatles’ disastrous concert in Manila on July 4, 1966, for instance. The date is significant not just because of the Beatles concert but because of what did not happen.


According to an interview, The Fab Four gave in London a few days after their Manila concert, as documented in the Ultimate Beatles Experience website, then-First Lady Imelda Marcos invited the lads for a lunch at Malacanan with the First Family and about 300 children of the country’s prominent politicians and military officials. The group failed to show up.

The snub made banner headlines in all the country’s leading newspapers and news programs. Pepe, then a member of Eddie Reyes and D’Downbeats, one of the front acts of that fateful concert, recalls the incident in amazing technicolor detail.

“They didn’t snub her at all!” he insists. “There was a miscommunication somewhere. I don’t think the band even knew about the invitation—or there might not have been any invitation.” Versions of the story vary, but the Beatles themselves said that their manager Brian Epstein failed to tell them about the lunch, which Pepe says is the most likely explanation.

“I remember waking up at around 11:30 AM, the day after the concert, and watching the news. They showed the presidential table all set up with no Beatles in sight,” he recalled. Because of the ensuing embarrassment, especially to the First Family, the Beatles reportedly had to beat a hasty retreat from Manila.

The serious business of bringing geisha to Manila from Japan.
Two seats have been reserved on JAL, just for their intricate headpieces,
which cannot be packed in luggage and checked in.


Pepe, who, together with some band members, escorted the Beatles to the airport, said things were pretty tense before John, Paul, George, and Ringo boarded the plane. “One of the members of the Presidential Security Battalion pointed a .44 at one of the guys—I think it was George—and, if I remember right, even confiscated an attaché case of money from them,” he says. “It was a bad moment. They were even made to walk to their plane instead of being provided with a shuttle.”

The Beatles concert was also significant for Pepe because that was the first time he got to perform Stones covers in such a big venue. D’Downbeats opened with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” to impress the audience and, most importantly, to impress The Fab Four. Eventually, Pepe would become known for his Jaggeresque strut and sneers onstage.


Precious are his little stories about the Beatles.

“Before the concert, George and Paul took a peek at the audience," he told us. "At the time, musicians didn’t check what the house was like, it just wasn’t done, but I guess they were curious. And each time they did, the audience went wild.” In true rock-star form, the girls couldn’t be far away.


The arrival of the 1970s saw Pepe in Tokyo. It was a period of experiments -- musical and otherwise. Pepe loved Japan and some of his tastes in food (“I love uni sushi!”) and music were formed there.

“The energy of Tokyo was fantastic," he recalled. "There were lots of people and I remember the bars. Some were really small and one on top of each other in a building, so musicians, after finishing their set, would either go up or down to listen to another band play.” This cheek- by-jowl existence resulted in some surprising encounters.

“We were playing in Shinjuku, and one night we went to watch this band. One of its members was this unassuming whitey who would just play the most kickass guitar. Wally [Gonzalez, guitarist for Juan dela Cruz] later told me that that was Andy Summers of The Police. Andy Summers, man!”

Even after all this time, his incredulity is unfeigned. The world was certainly different then.


“The first time I went to Japan, I took a ship, the American President Cleveland. It took us five days to get to Tokyo,” he recalls. “I was in Japan because Wally had met a promoter who invited him to play there.” At one point, Filipino musicians -- even then recognized as the best in the region -- were playing gigs in Tokyo’s best-known bars.

The very proper Japanese audience probably didn’t know what hit them when Pepe Smith started playing. By then, Pepe was already a seasoned musician, even a famous one for his stint as the manic drummer for D’Downbeats (think Animal in The Muppet Show).

He recalls one gig in particular. “We were in B&B in Shinjuku and I was watching D’Swooners,” he says, lighting up another cigarette, “...and the manager asked me if I wanted to play. So I did.” Pepe would eventually team up with Wally and Mike Hanopol to form Zero History, playing covers by The Doors, The Grateful Dead, and Jimi Hendrix for six months.

After their contract expired, Pepe and Mike joined up with Speed, Glue, and Shinki, a bluesy, rough and ready psych/acid rock & roll outfit that would presage the sound of Juan dela Cruz by several years. The band put out two albums and also highlighted Pepe’s growth as a musician—and chronicled a habit for which he’d be known for years.

“I was Speed, in the band’s name,” he says somewhat sheepishly. By this time, Pepe had developed a taste for nice clothes and money earned from gigs would go towards this, among other things.

“I met Gorro, a designer who liked to work in leather,” he recounts. “He’d make these really nice leather outfits that I’d wear. Really prime stuff.” When asked what happened to the clothes, which in today’s vintage-obsessed world would probably fetch a fortune, he replies, “Man, I don’t know...”


What his clotheshorse tendencies did get him, though, was a trip to London. “I accompanied my girlfriend at the time to London," he said. "She was going there to try to sell Gorro’s creations and model as well.” In London, proving that rock & roll is its own nationality, he hung out with legends.

Tetsu, a musician I knew in Tokyo, played for Free to fill in for Andy Fraser. And we even crashed at Paul Rodgers’ house who at that time was married to a Japanese model.” Even more significant for any musician, Pepe got to jam at The Speakeasy Club, London’s infamous rock venue, where he saw Ten Years After and Jethro Tull.


“It was at The Speak that I smelled the beginnings of the punk movement,” says Pepe of the time.

Change was definitely in the air. As the 60s merged into the 70s, rock & roll became more raucous with long-haired bands, like Free, Ten Years After, Led Zeppelin, a rawer Rolling Stones, and other acts. In the Philippines, the arrival of the 1970s brought the First Quarter Storm, a series of mass protests by students that eventually led to President Marcos declaring martial law in 1972.

Pepe was based in the Philippines by then and on his way to Japan for another gig when martial law was imposed, thus paving the way for him to join Juan dela Cruz instead. “I wrote that in a toilet, 20 minutes before going onstage. I was on acid at the time,” says Pepe about “Ang Himig Natin,” the de facto anthem of Filipino rock. It was December 5, 1972 and the history of Philippine rock & roll was about to change forever.

This appeared in a previous issue of TRAVELIFE Magazine.

* * *

To commemorate the resilience of the Japanese people
one year after the Great Earthquake,
and to celebrate the beauty of Japanese culture.




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