Emerging out of the Liverpool, England, rock scene of the 1950s, the Beatles became the most successful and best known band of the twentieth century. In 1956, a Liverpool local named John Lennon formed the Quarrymen. At one of their first performances, John met another guitarist, Paul McCartney. The two hit it off immediately: Paul was impressed by John's energetic performance, and John was impressed that Paul knew how to tune a guitar, knew more than three chords, and could memorize lyrics. John and Paul developed a close friendship based on their enthusiasm for rock'n'roll, their ambition to go "to the toppermost of the poppermost," and a creative rivalry which drove them to constant improvement and experimentation. The pair soon recruited Paul's friend George Harrison to play lead guitar and nabbed a friend of John's, Stu Sutcliffe, to play the bass (though he did not know how). The Quarrymen, eventually renamed the Beatles, developed a local reputation for their rousing, exuberant performances and the appeal of their vocals. John and Paul were both excellent singers; Paul had a phenomenal range and versatility, while John had an uncanny ability to convey emotion through his voice. The sweetness and clarity of Paul's voice was ideal for tender love songs, while John specialized in larynx-wrenching rockers like "Twist and Shout." Their voices complemented each other perfectly, both in unison and in harmony, and each enriched his own style by imitating the other. The inexplicable alchemy of their voices is one of the most appealing features of the Beatles' music.
In 1960 the band members recruited drummer Pete Best for a four-month engagement in Hamburg, Germany, where they perfected their stage act. In 1961, Sutcliffe quit the band, and Paul took up the bass, eager to distinguish himself from the other two guitarists. The Beatles procured a manager, Brian Epstein, who shared their conviction that they would become "bigger than Elvis." After many attempts to get a recording contract, they secured an audition with producer George Martin in July, 1962. Martin, who liked their performance and was charmed by their humor and group chemistry, offered the Beatles a contract, but requested that they abandon Pete Best for studio work, whom he found musically unsuitable to the group chemistry. The Beatles gladly consented, and recruited Ringo Starr, whom they had befriended in Hamburg. Their first single—"Love Me Do" (released October, 1962)—reached number 17 on the British charts. Their next single, "Please Please Me" (January, 1963), hit number one. Delighted with their success, they recorded their first album, Please Please Me (March, 1963), and it too reached the top of the charts.
In those days, rock albums were made to cash in on the success of a hit single, and were padded with filler material, usually covers of other people's songs. If the artists had any more decent material, it was saved for the next single. However, the Beatles included eight Lennon-McCartney originals, along with six cover songs from their stage repertoire on their debut album. This generosity marked the beginning of the album as the primary forum of rock music, displacing the single, and setting a new standard of quality and originality. Please Please Me may sound less impressive today, but it was far superior to the average rock album of 1963. The opening track, "I Saw Her Standing There," was a revelation, a rousing, energetic rocker teeming with hormonal energy. (Released in America as Introducing the Beatles, the album didn't sell well.)
Their third single, "From Me To You" (April, 1963), also hit number one in England, but it was their fourth, "She Loves You" (August, 1963), which brought "Beatlemania"—the name given to the wild form of excitement which the Beatles elicited from their fans—to a fever pitch around the world. Most of the Beatles' lyrics during this period were inane—the "yeah yeah yeah" of "She Loves You" being perhaps the silliest—but when delivered with the Beatles' delirious enthusiasm, they worked. Real Beatlemania seems to have begun in late 1963 (the term was coined in a London paper's concert review in October). Their second album, With the Beatles (November, 1963), was similar to the first, with six cover songs and eight originals. The American release of "She Loves You" in January 1964 ignited Beatlemania there, and the group's first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964, was viewed by an estimated 73 million people.
The phenomenon of Beatlemania wasn't just a matter of screaming girls; the madness took many forms. A music critic for the London Times declared the Beatles "the greatest composers since Beethoven," and another detected "Aeolian cadences" in "Not a Second Time," though none of the Beatles knew what these were. Beatlemania often seemed divorced from the music itself: everything from dolls to dinner trays bore the likeness of the Fab Four, who had by now become the most recognized faces in the world. Grown businessmen would wear Beatlesque "moptop" wigs to work on Wall Street. Soon the franchise led to film with A Hard Day's Night, a comedy which spotlighted the Beatles' charm and humor as much as their music. The soundtrack—released in July, 1964—was the best album of the Beatles' early phase. Side one contained the songs from the movie, and side two provided six more hits. It was their first album of all original material, an unheard of accomplishment in rock music. Unfortunately, Capitol Records ripped off American fans by including only the songs from the movie on their version of the soundtrack, and filled the rest of the album with instrumental versions of those same songs. The Beatles' popularity was so great at this point that American fans were willing to pay full price for albums that barely lasted a half hour. The first seven British albums were diluted into ten American albums by offering ten songs each instead of the usual thirteen or fourteen. (The situation was not rectified until the advent of the CD, when the British versions were finally released in America.)
The group's fourth album, Beatles For Sale (December, 1964), reverted to the earlier formula of originals songs mixed with covers. It was the weakest album of their career to date, but was still better than most pop albums of 1964, and hit number one. The album is important for John's improved lyrical efforts, beginning what he later called his "Dylan period." The Beatles had met Bob Dylan earlier that year, and he had introduced them to marijuana. John was impressed by Dylan's lyrics and decided to improve his own. The first tentative effort was the introspective "I'm a Loser." Help! (August 1965)—the soundtrack for their second movie—introduced the folkish "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" and Paul's acoustic "I've Just Seen a Face." Help! was also important for its expanded instrumentation, including flute and electric piano.
As the Beatles grew as composers, they became more receptive to producer Martin's sophistication. Martin had studied music theory, composition, and orchestration, and encouraged the Beatles to "think symphonically." A breakthrough in their collaboration with Martin came with "Yesterday." Paul had written it two years before, but had held it back since the song was incongruous with the band's sound and image. By 1965, the Beatles and the world were ready, and Paul's lovely guitar/vocal composition, graced with Martin's string arrangement, dazzled both Beatlemaniacs and their parents with its beauty and sophistication, and became one of the most popular songs in the world.
Their craftsmanship and experimentation reached new heights on Rubber Soul, one of their greatest albums. They returned to the all-original format of A Hard Day's Night (henceforth all of their albums featured entirely original material, with the exception of Let It Be, which included the sailor's ditty, "Maggie Mae"). John dabbled in social commentary with "Nowhere Man," a critique of conformity reminiscent of Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man." But John's song avoided Dylanesque superciliousness through his empathy with the character. John began to master understatement and poetic suggestion in the enigmatic "Norwegian Wood." This was also the first song to feature George's sitar. George had discovered the sitar while filming Help! and had been turned on to Indian music by the Byrds. The Byrds contributed to the artistry of Rubber Soul by providing the Beatles with serious competition on their own debut album earlier that year. Hailed as the American Beatles, the Byrds were the only American band who attained a comparable level of craftsmanship and commercial appeal without simply imitating the Beatles. Before then, the Beatles' only serious competitors were the Rolling Stones. Soon competitors would rise all around the Beatles like rivals to the throne. But the Beatles kept ahead, constantly growing and expanding, experimenting with fuzz bass, harmonium, and various recording effects. The most impressive thing about Rubber Soul was that such innovation and sophistication were achieved without any loss of the exuberance and inspiration that electrified their earlier albums. It was an impressive union of pop enthusiasm and artistic perfection. Few would have guessed that the Beatles could surpass such a triumph—but they did.
Their next album, Revolver (August, 1966), is widely regarded as the Beatles' masterpiece, and some consider it the greatest album ever made, featuring fourteen flawless compositions. George's "Taxman" was the hardest rock song on the album, featuring a blistering, eastern-sounding guitar solo reminiscent of the Yardbirds' "Heart Full of Soul" and the Byrds' "Eight Miles High." But George's masterpiece was "Love You To." He had previously used the sitar to add an exotic coloring to songs, but here he built the entire composition around the sitar, and expressed his growing immersion in Eastern spirituality. John was even spacier in the acid-drenched "She Said She Said" and "Tomorrow Never Knows," full of backwards-recorded guitar, tape loops, and countless studio effects to enhance the mind-boggling lyrics. John, George, and Ringo had experimented with LSD by this time, and John and George were tripping regularly and importing their visions into their music. (Paul did not sample LSD until February 1967). Paul's experiments were more conventional, but equally rewarding. He followed up the achievement of "Yesterday" with the beautiful "Eleanor Rigby." The poignant lyrics marked the beginning of Paul's knack for creating vivid character portraits in a few deft verses. "Here, There, and Everywhere" was another beauty, containing the sweetest vocal of Paul's career, and the bright, bouncing melody of "Good Day Sunshine" showed Paul's increasing sophistication on the bass. Revolver set a new standard in rock music, and became the masterpiece against which all subsequent albums were measured.
The achievement of Revolver was due partially to the Beatles' decision to stop performing concerts after the current tour, which would free their music from the restrictions of live performability. They played their last concert on August 29, 1966, without playing any songs from the new album. Exhausted, they withdrew from public life, took a brief break, then began work on a new album. The silence between Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band lasted ten months—the longest interval between albums thus far, but ended with a stunning single, "Strawberry Fields Forever"/"Penny Lane," which revealed the growing individuality of the composers' styles. John was visionary, introspective, and cryptic in "Strawberry Fields Forever;" while Paul was sentimental, suburban, and witty in "Penny Lane." John was abstract, questioning his role in the human riddle; Paul was concrete, using odd little details to bring his characters to life. The two songs complemented each other perfectly, and hinted at the variegated brilliance of the album to come.
Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band (June, 1967) has been hailed as the quintessential album of the sixties, and especially of the famous Summer of Love of 1967. It was the most esoteric and ambitious work ever attempted. To enumerate its charms, innovations, and influence would fill volumes, but special mention must be made of "A Day in the Life," one of the last great Lennon-McCartney collaborations, and one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs of their careers. Weaving together the story of a wealthy heir who dies in a car crash, an estimate of potholes in Blackburn, Lancashire, and a vignette of a young man on his way to work, the song is an ironic montage of the quotidian and the universal, sleeping and waking, complacency and consciousness, establishment and counterculture, and an orgasmic union of high and low art, all rolled into one five-minute, three-second song.
Although "A Day in the Life" is the highlight of a bold, brilliant, stunning album, Sgt. Pepper is probably not the Beatles' greatest work, and has not aged as well as Revolver. If Revolver is a 14-course meal which delights, satisfies, and nourishes, Sgt. Pepper is an extravagant dessert for surfeited guests—overrich, decadent, fattening. Lavish and baroque, it did not maintain the energetic, youthful exuberance that shines through the complexities of Revolver. Many will agree with Martin's judgment that Revolver is the Beatles' best album, while Sgt. Pepper is their most significant work. It was also the last truly influential work by the Beatles. Although they continued to evolve and experiment, they would no longer monopolize centerstage, for 1967 saw a trend toward instrumental virtuosity and improvisation led by Cream and Jimi Hendrix.
The Beatles' next project, Magical Mystery Tour (December, 1967), coasted along on the plateau established by Sgt. Pepper. Magical Mystery Tour was a pointless film following the Beatles on a bus trip around England. Paul got the idea from the Merry Pranksters, a counterculture group traveling across America. The film was a flop, and the Beatles' first real failure. The soundtrack featured a mix of good and mediocre songs, but some recent singles gathered onto side two strengthened the album.
In 1968 the Beatles went to India to study meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, during which they learned of Epstein's death from an overdose of sleeping pills. Eventually disenchanted with the Maharishi, the Beatles returned with a potpourri of songs. They proposed to release a double album to accommodate the abundance. Martin was unimpressed with the material however, and recommended releasing a potent single album like Revolver. But the rivalry among the band members was so intense that all four Beatles favored the double album to get their songs included. The result was one of the Beatles' strangest albums, The Beatles (November, 1968). The blank white cover and simple title reflected the minimalist nature of much of the material, which had been composed on acoustic guitars in India. Most of the 30 songs were individual efforts, often sung and played solo. McCartney played every instrument on some of his songs. The bewildering array of styles seemed like a history (or perhaps a parody) of western music.
Yellow Submarine was a cartoon made to fulfill the Beatles' film contract with United Artists (although Let It Be would actually fulfill this obligation a year later). The Beatles were not interested in the project, and contributed several older, unused songs to the soundtrack. The cartoon was entertaining, but the album Yellow Submarine (January, 1969) is the biggest ripoff of the Beatles' catalog, featuring only four original songs. Side two was padded with Martin's orchestral soundtrack. Still, Lennon's great rock song "Hey Bulldog" makes the album a must-have.
These odd albums of the late 1960s marked the beginning of the end of the Beatles. Musically, their individual styles were drifting apart, but the real sources of strife were more mundane. First, they had difficulty in agreeing on a manager to replace Epstein. Secondly, John had become smitten with avant-garde artist Yoko Ono, and insisted on bringing her into the Abbey Road Studios with him. Paul, too, had married and the creative core of the group began to feel the need to have a family life. This caused tension because as a band the Beatles had always been an inviolable unit, forbidding outsiders to intrude upon their creative process. But John had invited Yoko to recording sessions simply because he wanted to be constantly by her side. The tensions mounted so high that Ringo and George each briefly quit the band. These ill-feelings persisted on their next project, another McCartney-driven plan to film the Beatles, this time while at work in the studio. The documentary of their creative process (released the following year as Let It Be) was all the more awkward because of the tensions within the band. Martin became fed up with their bickering and quit, and the "Get Back" project was indefinitely canned.
Eventually Paul persuaded Martin to return, and the Beatles produced Abbey Road (September, 1969), one of their best-selling and all-time favorite albums. They once again aimed to "get back" to rock'n'roll, and recovered the enthusiasm and spontaneity of their pre-Pepper period, producing a solid performance that stood up to Revolver. George outdid himself with two of the greatest compositions of his career, "Something" and "Here Comes the Sun." The main attraction of the album was the suite of interconnected songs on side two, culminating in the Beatles' only released jam session, a raunchy guitar stomp between Paul, George, and John. It was a brilliant ending to a brilliant album. Unfortunately, it was also the end of the Beatles as well, for the band broke up in June, 1970, due to insurmountable conflicts. Producer Phil Spector was summoned to salvage the "Get Back" project. He added lavish strings and horns to the patched-together recordings, and it was released as Let It Be (May, 1970) along with a film of the same name. Somewhat of an anticlimax after the perfection of Abbey Road, and marred by Spector's suffocating production, it was nevertheless a fine collection of songs, made all the more poignant by alternating moods of regret and resignation in Paul's songs, "Two of Us" and "Let It Be."
Her Majesty the Queen inducted the Beatles as Members of the British Order on October 26, 1965. This was not only the climax of Beatlemania, but a symbolic moment in history, bridging the realms of high and low culture. The other great honor of the Beatles' career was the invitation to appear on the world's first global broadcast, on June 25, 1967. The Beatles wrote "All You Need Is Love" for the occasion, and played it live for an estimated 350 million viewers. It is remarkable that they were allowed to represent England for the world when Paul had announced a week earlier that he had taken LSD, the BBC had recently banned radio play of "A Day in the Life," and the whole world was scouring Sgt. Pepper for subversive messages. These two honors reveal the Beatles as unifiers, not dividers. One of their greatest achievements was to resonate across boundaries and appeal to multiple generations and classes, to represent the counter-culture while winning the respect of the establishment. Although they started as tough, leatherclad teddy boys, they achieved much more by working within the mainstream, creating rather than tearing down, combining meticulous skill with daring innovation. This was achieved by a blessed union: the reckless irreverence of John Lennon and the diplomacy, dedication, and craftsmanship of Paul McCartney.
Hertsgaard, Mark. A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. New York, Delacorte Press, 1995.
Martin, George, and Jeremy Hornsby. All You Need Is Ears. London, MacMillan, 1979.
Norman, Philip. Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation. New York, Warner Books, 1982.
Robertson, John, with Chris Charlesworth, editor. The Complete Guide to the Music of the Beatles. New York, Omnibus Press, 1994.