The impact of the Beatles - not only on rock & roll but on all of Western culture - is simply incalculable. As musicians they proved that rock & roll could embrace a limitless variety of harmonies, structures, and sounds; virtually every rock experiment has some precedent on Beatles records. As a unit they were a musically synergistic combination: Paul McCartney
's melodic bass lines, Ringo Starr's slaphappy no-rolls drumming, George Harrison's rockabilly-style guitar leads, John Lennon
's assertive rhythm guitar - and their four fervent voices. One of the first rock groups to write most of its own material, they inaugurated the era of self-contained bands and forever contralized pop. And as personalities, they defined and incarnated '60s style: smart, idealistic, playful, irreverent, eclectic. Their music, from the not-so-simple love songs they started with to their later-perfectionistic studio extravaganzas, set new standards for both commercial and artistic success in pop. Although many of their sales and attendance records have since been surpassed, no group has so radically transformed the sound and significance of rock & roll. At the dawn of the 21st century, a chart-topping collection of their #1 hits, 1, was well on its way to becoming one of the best-selling albums of all time.
Lennon was performing with his amateur skiffle group the Quarrymen at a church picnic on July 5, 1957, in the Liverpool suburb of Woolton when he met McCartney, whom he later invited to join his group; soon they were writing songs together, such as "The One After 909." By the year's end McCartney had convinced Lennon to let Harrison join their group, the name of which was changed to Johnny and the Moondogs in 1958. In 1960 an art-school friend of Lennon's, Stu Sutcliffe, became their bassist. Sutcliffe couldn't play a note but had recently sold one of his paintings for a considerable sum, which the group, now rechristened the Silver Beatles (from which "Silver" was dropped a few months later, and "Beetles" amended to "Beatles"), used to upgrade its equipment. Tommy Moore was their drummer until Pete Best replaced him in August 1960. Once Best had joined, the band made its first of four trips to Hamburg, Germany. In December Harrison was deported back to England for being underage and lacking a work permit, but by then their 30-set weeks on the stages of Hamburg beer houses had honed and strengthened their repertoire (mostly Chuck Berry, Little Richard
, Carl Perkins, and Buddy Holly covers), and on February 21, 1961, they debuted at the Cavern club on Mathew Street in Liverpool, beginning a string of nearly 300 performances there over the next couple of years.
In April 1961 they again went to Hamburg, where Sutcliffe (the first of the Beatles to wear his hair in the long shaggy style that came to be known as the Beatle haircut) left the group to become a painter, while McCartney switched from rhythm guitar to bass. The Beatles returned to Liverpool as a quartet in July. Sutcliffe died from a brain hemorrhage in Hamburg less than a year later.
The Beatles had been playing regularly to packed houses at the Cavern when they were spotted on November 9 by Brian Epstein (b. Sep. 19, 1934, Liverpool). After being discharged from the British Army on medical grounds, Epstein had attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London for a year before returning to Liverpool to manage his father's record store.
The request he received for a German import single entitled "My Bonnie" (which the Beatles had recorded a few months earlier in Hamburg, backing singer Tony Sheridan and billed as the Beat Boys) convinced him to check out the group. Epstein was surprised to discover not only that the Beatles weren't German but that they were on of the most popular local bands in Liverpool. Within two months he became their manager. Epstein cleaned up their act, eventually replacing black leather jackets, tight jeans, and pompadours with collarless gray Pierre Cardin suits and mildly androgynous haircuts.
Epstein tried landing the Beatles a record contract, but nearly every label in Europe rejected the group. In May 1962, however, producer George Martin (b. Jan. 3, 1926, North London, Eng.) signed the group to EMI's Parlophone sebsidiary. Pete Best, then considered the group's undisputed sex symbol, was asked to leave the group on August 16, 1962, and Ringo Starr, drummer with a popular Liverpool group, Rory Storme and the Hurricanes, was added, just in time for the group's first recording session. On September 11 the Beatles cut two originals, "Love Me Do" b/w "P.S. I Love You," which became their first U.K. Top 20 hit in October. In early 1963 "Please Please Me" went to #2, and they recorded an album of the same name in one 10-hour session on February 11, 1963. With the success of their third English single, "From Me to You" (#1), the British record industry coined the term "Merseybeat" (after the river that runs through Liverpool) for groups such as the Beatles and Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, and the Searchers. By mid-year the Beatles were given billing over Roy Orbison on a national tour, and the hysterical outbreaks of Beatlemania had begun. Following their first tour of Europe in October, they moved to London with Epstein. Constantly mobbed by screaming fans, the Beatles required police protection almost any time they were seen in public. Late in the year "She Loves You" became the biggest-selling single in British history (in the years since, only six other singles have sold more copies there). In November 1963 the group performed before the Queen Mother at the Royal Command Variety Performance.
EMI's American label, Capital, had not released the group's 1963 records (which Martin licensed to independents like Vee-Jay and Swan with little success) but was finally persuaded to release its fourth single, "I Want to Hold Your Hand," and Meet the Beatles (identical to the Beatles' second British album, With the Beatles) in January 1964 and to invest $50,000 in promotion for the then unknown British act. The album and the single became the Beatles' first U.S. chart-toppers. On February 7 screaming mobs met them at New York City's Kennedy Airport, and more than 70 million people watched each of their appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9 and 16. In April 1964 "Can't Buy Me Love" became the first record to top American and British charts simultaneously and that same month the Beatles held the top five positions on Billboard singles chart ("Can't Buy Me Love," "Twist and Shout," "She Loves You," "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "Please Please Me").
Their first movie, A Hard Day's Night (directed by Richard Lester), opened in America in August; it grossed $1.3 million in its first week. The band was aggressively merchandised - Beatle wigs, Beatle clothes, Beatle dolls, lunch boxes, a cartoon series - from which, because of Epstein's ineptitude at business, the band made surprisingly little money. The Beatles also opened the American market to such British Invasion groups as the Dave Clark Five, the Rolling Stones
, and the Kinks.
By 1965 Lennon and McCartney rarely wrote songs together, although by contractual and personal agreement songs by either of them were credited to both. The Beatles toured Europe, North American, the Far East, and Australia that year. Their second movie, Help! (also directed by Lester), was filmed in England, Austria, and the Bahamas in the spring and opened in the U.S. in August. On August 15 they performed to 55,600 fans at New York's Shea Stadium, setting a record for largest concert audience. McCartney's "Yesterday" (#1, 1965) would become one of the most often covered songs ever written. In June the Queen of England had announced that the Beatles would be awarded the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire). The announcement sparked some controversy - some MBE holders returned their medals - but on October 26, 1965, the ceremony took place at Buckingham Palace. (Lennon returned his medal in 1969 as an antiwar gesture. Interestingly, even though he rejected the medal, the honor itself cannot be returned; Lennon technically remained an MBE.)
With 1965's Rubber Soul, the Beatles' ambitions began to extend beyond love songs and pop formulas. Their success led adults to consider them, along with Bob Dylan
, spokesmen for youth culture, and their lyrics grew more poetic and somewhat more political. In summer 1966 controversy erupted when a remark Lennon had made to a British newspaper reporter months before was widely reportd in the U.S. The quote - "Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue with that; I'm right and will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now" - incited denunciations and Beatles record bonfires. The anti-Beatles backlash was particularly intense in the U.S., where the group was set to begin a tour just two weeks after the controversy erupted, and included death threats against the group. Largely out of concern for the safety of his fellow band members, Lennon apologized at a Chicago press conference.
The Beatles gave up touring after an August 29, 1966, concert at San Francisco's Candlestick Park and made the rest of their music in the studio, wehre they had begun to experiment with exotic instrumentation ("Norwegian Wood," 1965, had featured sitar) and tape abstractions such as the reversed tracks on "Rain." Strawberry Fields Forever," part of a double-sided single released in February 1967 to fill the unusually long gap between albums, featured an astonishing display of electronically altered sounds and hinted at what was to come. With "Taxman" and "Love You To" on Revolver, Harrison began to emerge as a songwriter.
It took four months and $75,000 to record Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band using a then state-of-the-art four-track tape recorder and building each cut layer by layer. Released in June 1967, it was hailed as serious art for its "concept" and its range of styles and sounds, a lexicon of pop and electronic noises; such songs as "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" and "A Day in the Life" were carefully examined for hidden meanings. The album spent 15 weeks at #1 (longer than any of their others) and has sold over 8 million copies. On June 25, 1967, the Beatles recorded their new single, "All You Need Is Love," before an international television audience of 400 million, as part of a broadcast called Our World. On August 27, 1967 - while the four were in Wales beginning their six-month involvement with Transcendental Meditation and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (which took them to India for two months in early 1968) - Epstein died alone in his London flat form an overdose of sleeping pills, later ruled accidental. Shaken by Epstein's death, the Beatles retrenched under McCartney's leadership in the fall and filmed Magical Mystery Tour, which was aired by BBC-TV on December 26, 1967, and later released in the U.S. as a feature film. Although the telefilm was panned by British critics, fans, and Queen Elizabeth herself, the soundtrack album contained their most cryptic work yet in "I Am the Walrus," a Lennon composition.