The impact of the Beatles has often been noted but cannot be overstated. The “Fab Four” from Liverpool, England, startled the ears and energized the lives of virtually all who heard them. Their arrival triggered the musical revolution of the Sixties, introducing a modern sound and viewpoint that parted ways with the world of the previous decade. The pleasurable jolt at hearing “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” - given the doldrums into which rock and roll had fallen in recent years - was comparable to the collective fever induced by Presley’s “That’s All Right” and “Heartbreak Hotel” nearly 10 years earlier.
The Beatles’ music - with its simultaneous refinement (crisp harmonies, solid musicianship, canny pop instincts) and abandon (energetic singing and playing, much screaming and shaking of mop-topped locks) – ignited the latent energy of youth on both sides of the Atlantic. They helped confer self-identity upon a youthful, music-based culture that flexed its muscle in myriad ways - not just as music consumers but also as a force for political expression, social commentary and contemporary lifestyles.
Landing on American shores on February 7, 1964, they literally stood the world of pop culture on its head, setting the musical agenda for the remainder of the decade. The Beatles’ buoyant melodies, playful personalities and mop-topped charisma were just the tonic needed by a nation left reeling by the senseless assassination of its young president, John F. Kennedy, two months earlier. Even adults typically given to dismissing rock and roll conceded that there was substance in their music and cleverness in their quick-witted repartee. Between the lines, and without obvious disrespect, the Beatles announced the ascendancy of youth - and the inevitable coming of a generation gap as a result.
The long journey resulting in the mob scene that greeted the Beatles’ arrival at Kennedy Airport began in Liverpool. In 1958, John Lennon formed a skiffle group called the Quarrymen. Lennon was raised on Fifties rockabilly and was especially partial to Elvis Presley and Gene Vincent. He met a similarly rock-smitten schoolkid named Paul McCartney. Impressed by McCartney’s knowledge of song lyrics and ability to tune a guitar, Lennon recruited him into the Quarrymen. A schoolmate of McCartney’s, George Harrison, came next. The youthful Harrison’s mastery of guitar licks by Duane Eddy impressed the skeptical Lennon.
With a rhythm section consisting of bassist Stu Sutcliffe (a sharp-looking art student with negligible musical ability) and drummer Pete Best, the group eventually settled on the Beatles as their name. They became a fixture on the rough-and-tumble club scene in Hamburg, Germany, where their five-set-a-night marathons helped mold them into a tight performing unit. Their repertoire comprised well-chosen rock and roll, and rhythm & blues covers by such trailblazers as Chuck Berry and Little Richard. In April 1961, Sutcliffe left and McCartney switched from guitar to bass. On the local scene in their hometown of Liverpool, the group landed a lunchtime residency at a club called The Cavern, where they were discovered by a local record merchant and entrepreneur, Brian Epstein, who became their manager in December 1961. In January 1962, a fan poll in Mersey Beat declared them the top group in Liverpool.
Epstein helped polish the group’s appearance. He attired them in dapper collarless gray suits, which made them appear more accessible than the menacing leathers they’d worn in Hamburg. The Beatles signed with EMI-Parlophone in April 1962 after impressing producer George Martin. In August, fellow Liverpudlian Ringo Starr (born Richard Starkey), then a member of Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, replaced Pete Best. The group’s first single, “Love Me Do”/”P.S. I Love You,” briefly dented the U.K. Top 20 in October 1962, but their next 45, “Please Please Me,” formally ignited Beatlemania in their homeland, reaching the Number Two spot. It was followed in 1963 by three consecutive chart-topping British singles: “From Me to You” “She Loves You,” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
They conquered the U.K., even inducing a classical music critic from the Sunday Times to declare them “the greatest composers since Beethoven.” Moreover, they were the greatest rockers since the composer of “Roll Over, Beethoven” - i.e., Chuck Berry. The freshness and immediacy of the Beatles’ sound stemmed from the fact they assimilated and synthesized the most vital sources for rock and roll that preceded them.
Writing in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, Greil Marcus observed that “the form of the Beatles contained the forms of rock and roll itself. The Beatles combined the harmonic range and implicit equality of the Fifties vocal groups with the flash of a rockabilly band (the Crickets or Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps) with the aggressive and unique personalities of the classic rock stars (Elvis, Little Richard) with the homey, this-could-be-you manner of later rock stars (Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran) with the endlessly inventive songwriting touch of the Brill Building, and they delivered it all with the grace of the Miracles, the physicality of ‘Louie, Louie,’ and the absurd enthusiasm of Gary ‘U.S.’ Bonds.”
The Beatles’ success can be attributed to a combination of factors, including Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting genius, Harrison’s guitar playing prowess, Starr’s artful simplicity as a drummer, and the solid group harmonies that were a hallmark of their recordings. Personally, they had youthful high spirits, good looks, quick wit and refreshingly down-to-earth dispositions to commend them. George Martin’s production and Brian Epstein’s management were important elements as well.
The Beatles’ conquest of America early in 1964 launched “the British Invasion,” a torrent of rock & roll bands from Britain that overtook the pop charts. The Fab Four’s first Number One single in the U.S. was “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” released on Capitol Records, EMI’s American counterpart. This exuberant track was followed by 45 more Top 40 hits over the next six years. During the week of April 4, 1964, the Beatles set a record that is likely never to be broken when they occupied all five of the top positions on Billboard’s Top 40, with “Can’t Buy Me Love” ensconced at Number One. Their popularity soared still further with the release of their anarchic Marx Brothers-as-rock-stars documentary film, A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and its equally playful followup, Help! (1965).
When all was said and done, the Beatles charted 20 Number One singles in the States – two more than runner-up Elvis Presley. It is estimated by EMI, their British record company, that the Beatles have sold more than 600 million units worldwide. For feats of sales and airplay alone, the Beatles are unquestionably the top group in rock and roll history. Yet their significance extends well beyond numbers to encompass their innovations in the recording studio. The Beatles’ legacy as a concert attraction, during their harried passage from nightclubs to baseball stadiums, is distinguished primarily by the deafening screams of female fans more overcome by their appearance than the music they played.
Consequently, the Beatles began to indulge their creative energies in the studio, layering sounds and crafting songs in a way that was experimental yet still accessible. This retreat from the ceaseless mayhem of pop celebrity yielded such musically expansive and lyrically sophisticated albums as Rubber Soul (1965) and Revolver (1966). The former, with its acoustic leanings and thoughtful lyrics, betrayed the influence of Bob Dylan upon the band, while the latter stands as a tour de force of tuneful, concise pop psychedelia.
The Beatles retired from touring for good after a San Francisco concert on August 29, 1966. Like Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, who abandoned touring to focus on his music, the Beatles thereafter became creatures of the studio. Ten months later, they released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album that has almost universally been cited as the creative apotheosis of rock and roll, a watershed event in which rock became “serious art” without losing its sense of humor - or, in Lennon’s case, sense of the absurd. Realizing the band members’ collective ambitions took four months and all the technical wiles of producer George Martin could muster. A completely self-contained album meant to be played and experienced from start to finish, Sgt. Pepper broke the mold in that no singles were released.
The album’s artistic reach further cemented the notion of a viable counterculture in the minds of youthful dropouts everywhere. Anyone who was alive in the summer of 1967 can remember the pleasant shock of hearing it and the reverberations it sent outward into the world of rock and roll and beyond. As writer Langdon Winner observed, “For a brief moment, the irreparably fractured consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young.” Sgt. Pepper was preceded by perhaps the greatest two-sided single in rock history, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane,” which exhibited the creative sensibilities of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, respectively, at their zenith.
In the wake of Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles began to splinter in ways that were initially subtle but gradually grew more pronounced. Subsequent events included the death of manager Epstein due to an overdose of sleeping pills; the release of the TV film Magical Mystery Tour, which earned the Beatles some of their first negative reviews; a trip to India to meditate with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, about whom Lennon wrote “Sexy Sadie;” and the launching in January 1968 of Apple Corps, Ltd., a well-intentioned but ultimately mismanaged entertainment empire that helped bring down the Beatles.
Through all the chaotic events of the late Sixties, however, the Beatles retained their ingenuity and focus as recording artists. Released in August 1968, the single “Hey Jude"/"Revolution" became their most popular single. The Beatles (1968), a double-LP popularly referred to as "the White Album," found the group refracting into four estimably talented individuals. This 30-song tour de force included such Beatles classics as “Back in the U.S.S.R,” “”While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Blackbird,” “Birthday” and “Helter Skelter.”
The album and film Let It Be, recorded in 1969 but shelved until 1970, documented the Beatles’ dissolution. Internal squabbles and the discomfiting presence of John Lennon’s new soulmate, Yoko Ono, revealed widening cracks within the group. Even in this tense atmosphere, the Beatles playfully harked back to their origins with impromptu performances of early rock and R&B classics in the studio.
The Beatles exited on a high note, coming together in the summer of 1969 to record a fitting swan song, Abbey Road. That album included numerous highlights: a playful pastiche of short songs, with Paul McCartney as chief instigator, on the second side; a pair of John Lennon’s most emotionally unguarded songs ("Come Together,” “I Want You [She's So Heavy]"); and impressive contributions from George Harrison ("Here Comes the Sun,” “Something").
On April 10, 1970, Paul McCartney announced his departure from the Beatles, and the group quietly came to an end. Throughout the Seventies, fans hoped for an eventual reunion, while the group members pursued solo careers with varying degrees of artistic and commercial success. Those hopes were dashed by the senseless murder of John Lennon in New York City on December 8, 1980.
The Beatles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. Paul McCartney did not attend the ceremony, leaving surviving Beatles Harrison and Starr, and Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, to be inducted by fellow British Invasion legend Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. McCartney released a brief statement that read: ‘’After 20 years, the Beatles still have some business differences, which I had hoped would have been settled by now. Unfortunately, they haven’t been, so I would feel like a complete hypocrite waving and smiling with them at a fake reunion.’’
In 1995, the three ex-Beatles regrouped harmoniously for The Beatles Anthology, which produced a six-hour video documentary aired over the course of three nights on ABC-TV; three double-disc anthologies of Beatles music, including much rare and unreleased material; and a massive coffee table book with new and archival pictures and interviews. Yoko Ono provided home demos of several unreleased Lennon songs for the project, and McCartney, Harrison and Starr completed two of them under the guiding hand of singer/multi-instrumentalist/ composer/producer Jeff Lynne, most famous for his lead role in Eletric Light Orchestra and Harrison's bandmate in the Traveling Wilburys. This resulted in the first new Beatles singles in 25 years: “Free as a Bird” (Number Six) and “Real Love” (Number 11). It was the closest the group came to a reunion since their breakup in 1970.
One of the latest eruptions of Beatlemania occurred in 2005 with the release of 1, a single-disc collection of 27 songs that topped the American and/or British charts. In July 2006, LOVE – an elaborate Cirque de Soleil production that pays tribute to the Beatles - opened at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas.
Although popular music has changed considerably in the decades since the Beatles’ demise, their music continues to reach and inspire new generations of listeners. Half a century after their humble origins in Liverpool, the Beatles remain the most enduring phenomenon in the history of popular music.