It was fifty years ago this May when four working class lads from Liverpool were signed to a recording contract that would generate one billion record sales over five decades of ever changing popular music trends. Glam rock, punk rock, disco fever, new wave, Brit pop and more have all come and gone as youth culture moved on, but the one constant has been The Beatles and their music.
After their first UK number one single From Me To You in 1963, John Lennon (9/10/40 – 8/12/80); Paul McCartney (b. 18/06/42); George Harrison (25/02/43 – 29/11/01) and Richard Starkey (alias Ringo Starr, b. 7/07/40), were a band on the run. The Beatles (also known as The Fab Four, or The Mop Tops), were armed with a collective self belief, musical talent, originality, songs and a fresh sound that oozed rebellion, sex and energy, and they helped to shatter and change the culture of popular music not only in Britain and the US, but on a global scale.
For The Beatles it had been a long road that led them to what was in many ways the pivotal year for them. It was five years earlier on a sunny July day in 1957 when fifteen-year-old Paul McCartney met sixteen-year-old John Lennon, who was performing with his group The Quarrymen at a garden fete. It took a while, but perhaps with the help of the gods and foresight, John Lennon allowed the naturally gifted and strong willed McCartney to join the band. The legendary song writing partnership of Lennon & McCartney was born.
It was Paul who introduced a dubious and acid-tongued Lennon to his young friend George Harrison. After a bus top audition on the guitar, John finally agreed to let the youthful-looking Harrison join the group. For the next few years the nucleus of John, Paul and George would see new personality additions and band names come and go. By the time the tough and dangerous red light clubs of Hamburg came calling in 1960, the band had become a five piece. John, Paul and George had found themselves a drummer in Pete Best and (with the insistence of Lennon in spite of Paul’s furious disagreement) John’s close friend and artist Stuart Sutcliff joined as the bass player (even though he could barely play).
Unfortunately that first visit to Hamburg didn’t go particularly well for the leather wearing Liverpool rockers. Long stints with pittance for pay and atrocious living conditions took their toll on the young, hungry lads. After a run in with a German promoter, a seventeen-year-old George Harrison was deported for being under age (George had lied about his age to go with his buddies). Stuart then decided to leave the band (to the relief of Paul) and stay in Germany after falling in love with the girl who gave The Beatles their famous hair style, Astrid Kirchherr. Paul and Pete were arrested for arson after accidentally setting fire to their cramped accommodation and they too were deported. A virtually penniless John Lennon made his own way back to Liverpool. The relentless Beatles would return to Hamburg many times over the next two years. Over this period the group’s musicianship was getting better and better. Their popularity in Hamburg outgrew any standing they had back in Liverpool, to the extent that when they made their first appearance as The Beatles at The Cavern Club, the locals thought they were watching a band from Germany!
The Cavern Club opened in 1957 and this was the year that a rebellious John Lennon made his first appearance there with his band The Quarrymen. The seventeen-year-old rocker broke the club rules and forced his band to play Don’t Be Cruel in defiance of the jazz only club. Four years later John, with Paul, George and Pete, made his first appearance with The Beatles in February 1961. From that day The Cavern Club would become synonymous with them. Between 1961 and 1963, The Beatles made over 290 appearances, their last being a month after recording She Loves You.
1962 was the year when all the pieces of the jigsaw were to come together and mould them into the band that would conquer the world. They first signed up with Brian Epstein, a record store owner from Liverpool who saw them perform at the smoke and sweat filled Cavern Club. Epstein’s staunch belief in their ability to become bigger than Elvis Presley was unbreakable from the outset. 1962 was also the year that they finally passed an audition and were given a recording contract with the clever ear of George Martin at the helm. Finally and equally important was the recruitment of Ringo Starr, arguably the best drummer from Liverpool, after the somewhat sad and bitter sacking of their original man with the sticks, Pete Best.
There were few reasons given at the time as to why Pete Best was replaced soon after signing that record deal. Best was the most popular with the girls that crammed into the legendary Cavern Club and this may not have set well with the jealous mind of John Lennon. Pete was deemed as the outsider and seemed to hold back when the other three grew their hair long and combed it forward, mop top style. Allegedly Pete Best could be unreliable and simply not turn up for gigs, this would result in Ringo Starr, who was at the time drummer for popular Liverpool group Rory Storm & Hurricanes, having to sit in for the absent Best, thus cementing a friendship between the three guitarists and the more affable Ringo. However, the main reason why Pete Best was sacked was simply that George Martin didn’t feel he was a good enough drummer for the recording studio. On a personal note, I had the pleasure of meeting Pete Best on the steps of Buxton Opera House many years ago after watching him play live with his band. When he shook my hand, it was like shaking the hand of a god. I had shaken the hand of a Beatle. Justice was served in some ways when Pete finally got his financial reward after the release of The Beatles Anthology One in 1995 which included tracks he had played on before his demise as a Beatle.
For the next eight years – 1963 to 1970 – The Beatles took the world by storm. Or as the four Liverpudlians put it, they were the calming eye at the centre of a global-sized hurricane of frenzy. A panoramic whirlwind of consumer and media activity never seen before followed The Beatles with every step they took on their journey to iconic status. 1963 saw the rise of “Beatlemania” – the term given to the global, ground breaking music and cultural phenomenon.
From Me To You was their first of seventeen number one singles. Their albums sold in their millions from the release of their first single in 1963, Please Please Me. Every one of their original studio albums went to number one. Seven of those were released between 1963 and 1966. She Loves You was their second number one and with nearly two million sales was the UK’s biggest selling single for fourteen years until Paul McCartney – with his band Wings – came up with Mull Of Kintyre. I Want To Hold Your Hand, their third UK number one of 1963, went on to sell over 15 million copies worldwide. While in the album market, the Fab Four’s psychedelic masterpiece, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (often shorted to Sgt. Pepper), of 1967 stood for over thirty years as the UK’s biggest selling album. The group’s ability to produce album tracks of the quality of Yesterday, one of the most covered and radio played songs of all time, and yet not release it as a single in the UK was remarkable to say the least.
Every live appearance from 1963 until The Beatles retired from touring in 1966 was accompanied by thousands of hysterical fans. The volume of noise was so loud that it simply drowned out the music. The girls would scream out the name of their favourite Beatle, as the male fans watched admiringly with their adopted mop top hair styles. When the group returned from their first trip to the US, they were welcomed home by thousands of adoring fans who had descended on Liverpool airport.
The world’s royalty, head of states, politicians and people of that ilk would request and sometimes command an audience with the boys from Liverpool. Even the British Prime Minister of the time, Labour’s Harold Wilson, bestowed an MBE in 1965 upon arguably Britain’s greatest source of export diplomacy and revenue income. The Beatles were the first celebrities to be awarded such an honour even though they hadn’t killed anyone in battle. Many past recipients of these awards handed their medals back in protest. John Lennon was to return the favour four years later in protest at his solo single Cold Turkey, slipping down the charts!
Television and film played a major role in The Beatles phenomenon. On The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, they were watched by a record breaking television audience of over seventy million. This show was a massive boost to the group from England, who went on to dominate the music charts for the whole of 1964 and most of 1965. During the American Beatlemania of 1964, The Beatles held the top five positions in the singles chart, a feat that has never been repeated. The Beatles would go on to have a record twenty number one singles in the US and twenty or more number one singles in many other countries around the world.
Despite of EMI’s persistent probing during the British Beatlemania of 1963, it took a while before its US subsidiary Capitol Records woke up to the commercial power of The Beatles in America. When they did Capitol Records certainly made up for lost ground. During the mania of 1964 and 1965 The Beatles had their original seven UK albums altered to make eleven US versions. Between 1964 and the group’s split in 1970, Capitol Records had released twenty albums, fifteen of which went to number one!
From 1963 until 1966, The Beatles had given blood, sweat and tears to their cause. Two original albums per year, plus the in-group pressure to produce at least three original number one singles, having to perform on the media circus of television shows, and making two feature films finally took its toll. There was also the controversy over remarks made by John Lennon on the eve of their US tour of 1966 – the outspoken Beatle caused death threat level controversy when he unwittingly remarked to a reporter friend that he thought that The Beatles were bigger than Jesus, which upset many from the US bible belt. These forgiving souls held ritual bonfires fuelled by Beatle records and some issued death threats to all of the band’s members. John was forced to go on television and apologise to those that may have been upset by his remarks.
On August 29th 1966 at Candlestick Park in the US, The Beatles put a stop to all the madness and retired from live performances. The zany loveable Mop Tops were no more.
The Beatles shedded their former image and began to make a series of studio albums and singles of iconic proportions. This musical progression had started with their last album of 1965: Rubber Soul. Containing all Beatle originals, including the sitar backed Norwegian Wood, this album showed that they were on the move to experiment with different musical sounds. The album which showed the four Beatles on the front cover with exageratedly long tired faces, marked the end of those amazing Beatle vocal harmonies.
Revolver, an album full of drug induced, Indian flavoured, reverse looped and beautiful ballads, followed in 1966. By now, John and Paul were mostly writing apart, all though still under the Lennon & McCartney banner.
Sergeant Pepper and His Lonely Hearts Club Band, arguably the greatest album of their career, emerged in the middle of the summer of love and flower power. Released in June of 1967, the album was the first to have all its lyrics printed on the album cover. The album included Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds and With a Little Help From My Friends, and became the UK’s biggest selling album. It remained so for over thirty years. 1967 also saw them fail to get to number one (after a run of eleven stretching back to 1963) with the double-A sided Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever.
1967 proved to be another pivotal year for The Beatles. Sadly Brian Epstein, a major factor in their success, died due to an accidental overdose. His death was to prove the beginning of the end for his beloved Beatles. The Fab Four received their first critical back lash after the showing of their self-produced Magical Mystery Tour television film. If you were expecting the zany humour of A Hard Day’s Night you were sadly disappointed. The Beatle released five films: A Hard Day’s Night (1964), Help! (’65), Magical Mystery Tour (’67), Yellow Submarine (1968) and Let It Be (1970). A Hard Day’s Night and Help shows the Fab Four at the height of Beatlemania and mop top best. Magical Mystery Tour captures them shorn of their mop tops and zany humour with a touch of psychedelia peppered in. Perhaps the cartoon film Yellow Submarine succeeded in capturing the Beatles at their psychedelic best, since the soundtrack was predominantly from their Sgt. Pepper period. Let It Be was a film documentary from 1970, showing them at the end of their road.
The troubled White Album was released in late 1968. Paul had assumed unofficial leadership of the group, and his bossiness aggravated both Ringo and George so much that they had temporary walk outs. They had also become argumentative businessmen with the set up of their Apple Company in 1968. Squabbles over what songs to record and leave out was another blow to the group’s harmony.
Somehow they all managed to get back together for one last album, to correct the debacle of Let It Be. What emerged from Abbey Road studio was one of their most well-known creations - Abbey Road. Released in 1969, their tenth studio album contained two of their finest songs: Something and Here Comes The Sun. They were written by the dark horse of the group, George Harrison, who for the first time had equalled, if not bettered, Lennon and McCartney songs on the same album.
Let It Be was officially their last album release as a band and it was the only Beatles album not produced by George Martin. John Lennon called in Phil Spector to add a heavier sound to the tracks, much to the distaste of Paul McCartney. Released in 1970, a year after it had been dumped to gather dust, the album made it to number one. By that time The Beatles were no longer a band.
1980 and 2001 saw the sad deaths of John Lennon and George Harrison. After John’s assassination in 1980, the dreams of Beatle fans died that day too. There would and could never be a Beatles reunion. The closest fans will ever become to a reunion is a Beatles version of Harmonix’s popular Rock Band game.
The Beatles and their catalogue of music is still selling by the millions. Their album 1, which contains all 27 of their UK or US number one hits, has sold over thirty one million since its release in 2000 and holds the record for the fastest selling CD ever.