The Beatles were the most influential popular music group of the rock era. They affected the post-war baby boom generation of Britain, the United States and many other countries during the 1960s. Certainly they are the most popular group in rock history, with global sales exceeding 1.1 billion records.
While they were originally famous for what some labelled light-weight pop music (and the extreme hysterical reaction they received from young women), their later works achieved a combination of popular and critical acclaim perhaps unequaled in the 20th century. Eventually, they became more than recording artists, branching out into film and — particularly in the case of John Lennon — political activism. They achieved an iconic status with far reaching effects.
The classic Beatles lineup consisted of John Lennon (guitar), (James) Paul McCartney (bass), George Harrison (guitar), and Ringo Starr (Richard Starkey) (drums), all from Liverpool, Merseyside, in England.
The Beatles' original bass player, Stuart Sutcliffe, left the band in 1962 so he could stay in Hamburg, Germany (where The Beatles had played a long engagement), and marry Astrid Kirchherr (who took many stylish photographs of The Beatles during their stay in Hamburg). Original drummer Pete Best was asked to leave the group just before it started recording at EMI Studios in January, 1963, and was quickly replaced by Starr.
Beatlemania began in Britain on 13 October 1963 with a televised appearance at the London Palladium, and then exploded in the United States following three appearances of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, on 9 February, 16 February, and 23 February 1964. The pop-music band became a worldwide phenomenon with worshipful fans, hysterical adulation, and denunciations by culture commentators and others such as Frank Sinatra. Some of this criticism arose from confusion over the sources of their music (a similar confusion was evinced in 1956 over Elvis Presley by commentators who were unaware of the tradition of blues, R&B, and Gospel out of which Presley emerged), and some of it was simply an incredulous reaction to the length of their hair. At any rate, it was regarded by the band members with both awe and resentment.
Main article: History of the Beatles
McCartney met Lennon at a garden fete on 6 July 1957, and joined his band, The Quarrymen, into which McCartney also recruited Harrison, his 15 year old school chum. The band briefly split before regrouping. After going through several changes in name and band members, it finally became the Beatles in 1960. In 1962 they joined the EMI's Parlophone label. The Beatles' first full-length album, Please Please Me, was recorded within twelve consecutive hours. In 1964 they held the top five places on Billboard's Top Pop Singles Chart, a feat which has never been repeated.
In 1965 they were instated as Members of the Order of the British Empire, but Lennon and Harrison also began experimenting with LSD in that year, and McCartney would do the same near the end of 1966. Lennon caused a great backlash against the Beatles the following year when in an interview he claimed that Christianity was dying and he lamented that the Beatles were 'more popular than Jesus.' Eventually he apologised, after being slammed by many religious groups, including the Holy See, having Beatles' records banned or burned across the American South, and receiving threats from groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.
The Beatles performed their last concert before paying fans in Candlestick Park in San Francisco, on 29 August 1966. They then concentrated on recording and their compositions and musical experiments raised their artistic reputations remarkably while still being tremendously popular. However, the Beatles' financial fortunes took a turn for the worse when their manager, Brian Epstein, passed away on 27 August 1967, and the band's affairs began to unravel. The various members began to pursue their individual interests and got together less often. Their actual 'last' concert is considered to be a live appearance on the roof at the Apple studios in London in January 1969, which was known as the 'Get Back' sessions and featured on the 'Let it Be' album. In 1969 they recorded their last album, Abbey Road (although in 1970 various songs recorded earlier were compiled into Let It Be). In the same year, the 'Paul Is Dead' hoax sprang up. The band officially broke up in 1970, and any hopes of a reunion were crushed when Lennon was murdered by Mark David Chapman in 1980. However, a virtual reunion occurred in 1995 with the release of two original Lennon recordings which had the additional contributions of the remaining Beatles mixed in to create two hit singles: 'Free as a Bird' and 'Real Love'. Three albums of unreleased material and studio outtakes were also released, as well as a documentary and television miniseries, in a project known as The Beatles Anthology.
Paul McCartney - guitar, bass, vocals (1957 - 1970)
John Lennon - guitar, vocals (1957 - 1970)
George Harrison - guitar, vocals (1958 - 1970)
Stu Sutcliffe - bass, vocals (1959 - 1961)
Pete Best - drums (1960 - 1962)
Ringo Starr - drums, vocals (1962 - 1970)
Studio style evolution
The role of producer George Martin was one of the crucial elements in the success of the Beatles. He used his experience to bring out the potential in the group, where a lesser producer would have imposed his views and inhibited the creativity he recognised and nurtured. His earlier experience of producing recordings by acts ranging from Jimmy Shand to the Goons prepared him for the open-minded, experimental approach to the studio which the group began to develop as they became more experienced. Martin's connection with the Goons had been impressive to the group, who were fans.
At the height of their fame in the mid-sixties, bolstered by the two films Help! and A Hard Day's Night, the band discontinued touring. The difficulty of performing to thousands of screaming fans who typically made so much noise that the music could not be heard had led to the disillusion with touring, and the group retired from live performance in 1966, to concentrate on making records. Their demands to create new sounds with every recording, the influence of psychedelic drugs and the studio techniques of recording engineer Geoff Emerick resulted in the albums Revolver (1966) and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), still widely regarded as classics. Particularly notable, along with the use of studio tricks such as sound processing, unconventional microphone placements, and vari-speed recording, was the Beatles' use of unconventional instruments for pop music, including string and brass elements, Indian instruments like the sitar, tape loops and early electronic instruments.
The group were increasingly taking charge of their own production, and Paul McCartney's increasing dominance in this role played its part in the tensions that eventually split the group.
The stress of their fame was beginning to tell and the band was on the verge of splitting at the time of the release of The Beatles ('The White Album'), with some tracks recorded by the band members individually, and Starr taking a two-week holiday — sometimes reported as a temporary break-up — in the middle of the recording session. By 1970, the band had split, with each of the members going on to solo careers with varying degrees of success.
The Beatles also had a limited film career, beginning with A Hard Day's Night (1964). It was a comic farce (often compared to the Marx Brothers) directed in a black-and-white documentary style by the up-and-coming Richard Lester, then known for directing the television version of the Goon Show. In 1965 came Help!, a Technicolor extravaganza shot in exotic locations in the style of a James Bond spoof. The Magical Mystery Tour (the concept of which was adapted from Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters LSD-oriented bus tour of the USA), was critically slammed when it aired on British television in 1967, but is now considered a cult classic.
The animated Yellow Submarine followed shortly after, but had little input from the Beatles themselves, save for a live-action epilogue at the film's conclusion, and the contribution of four new songs for the film, including a holdover from the Sgt. Pepper sessions, 'Only A Northern Song'. Nonetheless, it was acclaimed for its boldly innovative graphic style and clever humour as well as the soundtrack.
Finally, the documentary of a band in terminal decline, Let It Be was shot over an extended period in 1969; the music from this formed the album of the same name, which although recorded before Abbey Road, was (after much contractual to-ing and fro-ing and significant tinkering by producer Phil Spector) their final release.
Throughout their relatively short time recording and performing together, the Beatles set a number of world records — most of which have yet to be broken. The following is a partial list.
Unlike their contemporaries the Rolling Stones, the Beatles were seldom directly influenced by blues. Though they drew inspiration from an eclectic variety of sources, their home idiom was closer to pop music. Their distinctive vocal harmonies were influenced by early Motown artists in the U.S. Chuck Berry was perhaps the most fundamental progenitor of the Beatles' sound; the Beatles covered 'Roll Over Beethoven' and 'Rock And Roll Music' early in their careers on record (with most other Berry classics heard in their live repertoire). Chuck Berry's influence is also heard, in an altered form, in later songs such as 'Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me And My Monkey' (1968) and 'Come Together' (1969) (when 'Come Together' was released, Chuck Berry sued John Lennon for copyright infringement of his song 'You Can't Catch Me', after which the two reached an amicable settlement, the terms of which including that Lennon cover some Chuck Berry songs as a solo artist).
A significant and acknowledged musical influence was The Beach Boys, who were in turn spurred on by the work of the Beatles. Brian Wilson acknowledges that Rubber Soul challenged him to make Pet Sounds, the album which in turn inspired McCartney's vision of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Another example is the song 'Back in the USSR', which contains an overt allusion to the Beach Boys' 'California Girls'.
The song-writing of Gerry Goffin and Carole King was yet another influence upon the Beatles, and it could be said that one of the Beatles' many achievements was to marry the relative sophistication of Goffin and King's songs (which used major-seventh chords, for example) with the simplicity of Buddy Holly, Berry and the early rock-and-roll performers. Lennon and McCartney's songwriting partnership had initially been inspired by Goffin and King; Lennon and McCartney's goal when they started was to become the next Goffin and King.
Individually, the four Beatles drew further inspiration from different sources. John Lennon's early style owed a huge debt to Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison ('Misery' from 1963 and 'Please Please Me' from 1963). After becoming acquainted with the work of Bob Dylan, Lennon became influenced heavily by folk music ('You've Got To Hide Your Love Away' and 'Norwegian Wood' from 1965). Lennon played the major role in steering the group toward psychedelia 'Strawberry Fields Forever' and 'I Am the Walrus' from 1967), and renewed his interest in earlier rock forms at the close of the Beatles' career ('Don't Let Me Down' from 1969).
Paul McCartney is perhaps best known as the group's romantic balladeer: beginning with 'Yesterday' (1965), he pioneered a modern form of art song, exemplified by 'Eleanor Rigby' (1966) and 'She's Leaving Home' (1967). Meanwhile, McCartney maintained an affection for the driving R&B of Little Richard in a series of songs which John Lennon dubbed 'potboilers', from 'I Saw Her Standing There' (1963) to 'Lady Madonna' (1968). 'Helter Skelter' (1968) — arguably an early heavy metal song — is a McCartney composition.
George Harrison derived his early guitar style from 1950s rockabilly greats such as Carl Perkins, Scotty Moore (who worked with Elvis Presley), and Duane Eddy. 'All My Loving' (1963) and 'She's A Woman' (1964) are prime examples of Harrison's early rockabilly guitar work.
In 1965, George Harrison broke new ground in the West by recording with an Indian sitar on 'Norwegian Wood'. A result of his long and continued collaboration with Sri Ravi Shankar, a famous Hindustani musician, many of his following compositions were based on Hindustani forms, most notably 'Love You To' (1966), 'Within You, Without You' (1967), and 'The Inner Light' (1968). Indian music and culture also influenced the band as a whole, with the use of swirling tape loops, droning bass lines, and mantra-like vocals on 'Tomorrow Never Knows' (1966) and 'Dear Prudence' (1968). Harrison retained Western musical forms in his later compositions, where he emerged as a significant pop composer in his own right, occasionally reprising major themes that indicated his new relationship with Hindustani music and the Hindu god Krishna. His later guitar style, while not displaying the virtuosity of Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, became distinctive with its use of clear melodic lines and subtle fills ('Something' 1969, 'Let It Be' 1970) in contrast to the increasingly distorted riffs and rapid-fire guitar solo work of his contemporaries.
Ringo Starr's contributions to The Beatles' sound are less known compared to the other Beatles, as Starr himself rarely actually wrote songs. While he is mostly appreciated for his gentle comic baritone ('Yellow Submarine' 1966, 'Octopus's Garden' 1969), steady drumming, and everyman image, he was likely responsible for the group's occasional interest in surprisingly authentic country sounds ('What Goes On' 1965; 'Don't Pass Me By' 1968) and his own performance on Buck Owens' 'Act Naturally'.
In the Beatles' later music, the pace of the songs tends to be moderate, with more of the interest usually (but not always) coming from the melody and the orchestration than the rhythm. 'Penny Lane' (1967) is a good example of this style. Their earlier songs were often a bit faster paced. Throughout their career, their songs were rarely riff-driven. 'Day Tripper' (1965) and 'Hey Bulldog' (1969, recorded 1968) are among the exceptions.
There was an abrupt change in direction due to the Beatles' decision to stop touring in 1966. Reportedly stung by criticism of 'Paperback Writer', the Beatles poured their creative energies into the recording studio in a determined attempt to produce material they could be proud of. There had already been a clear trend towards progressively greater complexity both in technique and style, but this now accelerated noticeably, as was evident on 'Revolver'. The subject matter of the post-touring songs was no longer you, I, love, boy meets girl, etc., and this took them very far from the days in 1963 when their material had shown some similarity with, say, the work of The Hollies. Now all manner of subjects were introduced, from home repair and circuses to nonsense songs and others that defied description.
The extreme complication evident on Sgt. Pepper's reached its height on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack album. Parts of this, specifically 'It's All Too Much' and 'Only A Northern Song', were left over from 1967 and ended up being used only on Yellow Submarine in January 1969 apparently because the Beatles themselves weren't much interested in this as a project and didn't feel inclined to greatly exert themselves producing a lot of new material for it.
After the Revolver/Sgt. Pepper's phase, the creative surge seemed to exhaust itself, and their self-titled double album, largely written in India, reverted to a much simpler style and sometimes to simpler subjects (for example 'Birthday'). Some of it (for example 'Why Don't We Do It In The Road' and 'Wild Honey Pie') were far less complex than much of their material from just a year or two before, and in 1969, the band began to disintegrate during sessions for the abortive Get Back project (which eventually emerged in 1970, much altered, as Let It Be) which had been intended to be a return to more basic songs, avoiding massive editing or otherwise artificial influences on the final output (ironically Let It Be was heavily overdubbed and edited by producer Phil Spector's wall of sound technique). Not wanting to leave things like that, the last album the Beatles recorded, Abbey Road, represented a mature attempt to integrate what they knew, and use recording studio techniques only to improve the songs, rather than to experiment to see what happened. It represented one final effort, as McCartney once put it, to 'leave 'em laughing'.
To many their real musical power was in the contrasting styles of John and Paul. A whole album of just John's music would be seen as too sarcastic and schizophrenic to tolerate for 45 minutes, and a whole album of Paul would come off as too sappy. However, when intertwined, the balance is like nothing else. Throw in a little Harrison style to spice it up even more, and the whole is greater than the sum of their parts.
For a detailed discography, see: Beatles discography
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