We’ve become so accustomed to thinking of the Beatles as Serious Artists™ that it’s easy to forget—at least for those of us who weren’t there—how highly commercial a franchise they were in the mid-sixties. It’s no wonder Joe Strummer’s line about “phony Beatlemania” in the Clash’s “London Calling” resonated so strongly for those disaffected with the reign of the Fab Four. The real thing was overwhelming enough, but the slew of official, unofficial, and bootleg merchandising that followed it, much of it aimed at children, makes the band’s dominance seem, well, kinda juvenile. Before they escaped pop stardom and retreated to the studio to record their psychedelic masterpieces, the Beatles received every possible commercial treatment, from lunchboxes and cereal bowls to jigsaw puzzles, lampshades, and a Ringo Starr bubble bath. Perusing an online auction of Beatles merch is a bit like touring Graceland.
There’s one artifact from the height of Beatlemania that you won’t find, however. Instead, you can watch it for free on Youtube. I refer to The Beatles, a half-hour Saturday morning cartoon show that ran on ABC from September, 1965 to September 1969 and produced a total of 39 episodes. The band themselves had almost nothing to do with the show, other than appearing in an odd promotion. Trading entirely in broad slapstick comedy of the Scooby-Doo variety, the show saw the four mates tumble into one goofy situation after another, some supernatural, some musical, some theatrical. Although all natural performers themselves, no Beatle ever voiced his character on the show. Instead, American actor Paul Frees, as John and George, and British actor Lance Percival, as Paul and Ringo, imitated them, very badly. The Beatles cartoon show aired at a time when the kids TV landscape was just beginning to resemble the one we have today, with ABC competitor CBS running superhero shows like Space Ghost, Superman, and Mighty Mouse, but the surreal plots and musical numbers on The Beatles were an attempt to reach adults as well. Watch the first episode at the top, and see this playlist for the rest.