Anyone curious about the myriad, unpredictable ways that enormous success can translate into enormous influence need look no further than Tokyo in the summer of 1964. There, in the city’s dankest music clubs, a group of skinny, mop-topped Japanese rock and rollers were driving their fans wild playing the music — and borrowing the name — of a group of skinny, mop-topped British rock and rollers who, a year earlier, had released their first full-length album: a 14-track marvel titled Please Please Me.
The Brits, of course, were the Beatles, who would go on to release a dozen or so records (every one of them a classic); alter the course of musical history and of popular culture in general; and, in 1970, would acrimoniously and publicly break up after seven world-changing years as a foursome. The quartet from Japan, meanwhile, were in a cover band that, by all accounts, recorded exactly one album, made around $85 a month in their heyday, and broke up at some point in the mid-1960s without too many people noticing they were gone.
And yet . . . when LIFE’s Michael Rougier photographed the Tokyo Beatles (for that was their name) and their highly energized fans while working on a larger story about disaffected, drug-addled Japanese youth in 1964, his pictures captured not a laughably bad rock act, but a group of charming, sincere musicians who, like millions of young people around the globe, were swept up in the earliest wave of Beatlemania and simply had to find a way to be a part of it all.
Here, LIFE.com pays tribute to John, Paul, George and Ringo by celebrating the unprecedented visceral effect they had on countless people around the world, as seen through the lens of one small cover band formed half a world away from the Fab Four’s native England. (It’s also worth noting that, by the time the Beatles came around, the likes of Sinatra and Elvis had already sparked cyclones of highly vocal, eroticized fan worship. But the scale and the duration of the pandemonium unleashed by the Beatles, especially among girls and young women, set it apart from previous outbreaks of pop-star hysteria.)
In the end, maybe it’s the very transience of an act like the Tokyo Beatles that contributes so much, all these years later, to their appeal. Who among us, after all, has not dreamed at one time or another of rock and roll (or R&B, or classical, or jazz or hip hop or country) immortality? Who has never imagined standing in a spotlight at Madison Square Garden and holding 20,000 fans in the palm of your hand with your voice, or a piano or a guitar? Michael Rougier’s pictures of the Tokyo Beatles and their fans are so engaging not merely because they are technically excellent and absolutely beautiful photos (although they are both of those things) but because they so empathetically chronicle young people striving for some sort of freedom, some sort of creative release, and making no apologies for their embrace of a new kind of force — pop music — that might get them there.