When the Beatles materialised at JFK airport in New York on February 7th 1964, they were met by the screams of teenage girls, hysterical to the point of fainting. It was a seismic event in American culture and the sound was appropriately explosive.
There’s not much of the squealing exuberance of old to be witnessed at Beatlefest 2014, the latest instalment in the world’s longest-running annual convention for Beatles fans. If anyone passes out it’s unlikely to be from excessive swooning. A commemorative salted caramel latte called “Let it Bean” is about as manic as the present-day incarnation of Beatlemania gets.
Celebrating its own 40th year as well as the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ arrival in America, this Manhattan-based shindig has taken over four floors of the Grand Hyatt on East 42nd Street, and the first thing I encounter is a man with his hand up Ringo doing a very shoddy Liverpudlian accent. (“What do you call a Beatle pizza? Sergeant Pepperoni.”) The puppet show reeks of poorly judged programming—it’s the evening and there are no children present—but a puppeteer trying to coax the effervescent spirit of the Beatles out of a felt doll for a small audience of Baby Boomers pretty much sums up the pathos of the whole convention.
Beatlefest isn’t an event for a mere fan. It’s an event for the type of fan willing to fork out $225 to revel in his own fanaticism, compete in Beatles trivia contests, and pore over the minutiae of Beatledom from every vantage. For these superfans, Beatlesfest is more than fun—it’s a glorious fantasy world up there with the hallucinogenic realm of “Yellow Submarine”.
Many attendees can remember the group’s first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show“, and how their initial liquescent joy subsequently hardened into a lifelong obsession. “This is my life,” one tells me. Another gives a site-by-site rundown of his upcoming pilgrimage to Liverpool.
Few attendees are content for their passion to be taken for granted. Sartorial declarations of Beatles love abound, including a veritable parade of mop-top doppelgangers and their associates. “I’m either Pattie Boyd or Linda McCartney,” says one blond-fringed lady. Tinted “John Lennon glasses” are going for $10. The replica “Hard Day’s Night” grey suits are considerably more expensive.
Among the mountain of merchandise on offer—one stall suggests “All you need is mugs”—relics from the original days of Beatlemania fetch staggering prices: $175 for a set of four inflatables (inflatable whats?), $1,500 for a set of Beatles buttons, $4,000 for a toy guitar.
But the real archaeology lies in the unearthing of tangential figures in the Beatles story who are present as special guests. Prudence Farrow of “Dear Prudence” fame poses for pictures. John Lennon’s half-sister Julia Baird sells her book. Billy J. Kramer, a Merseybeat singer, charges five dollars for an autograph.
The event is redeemed to an extent by the closing concert: a tribute band belting out note-for-note renditions of the Beatles’ most danceable numbers for a mostly seated, but delighted, audience. If you shut your eyes during “I Want to Hold Your Hand”—the rhythms and chord progressions that were so genuinely fresh and exciting 50 years ago—you just might be able to imagine it was 1964 all over again. As long as you can forget that in the lobby of the hotel, where cardboard cut-outs of the Fab Four stand idly by, the very same song is playing as background music.
The sniggering should not be overdone, of course. After all, it’s strangely heartening to find that, whatever form it takes, Beatlemania lives on. Perhaps I’m just a little bitter about my experience as a contestant in Beatlefest’s “Name That Tune” competition. I didn’t do too badly, but was upstaged by a five-year-old who identified “A Hard Day’s Night” from its opening chord.
This article originally appeared in The Economist in February 2014.