The Beatles (illustration by Andy Friedman)
John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr — the Beatles — were four lads from Liverpool, England who spearheaded an unparalleled musical and cultural revolution that still resonates today, more than five decades after the band released its debut album.
The seed that would grow into the phenomenon known as the Beatles was planted on July 6, 1957. On this day, at a garden fete at St. Peter’s Church in Woolton, Liverpool, a ragtag group of amateur teenage musicians who called themselves the Quarrymen performed. The Quarrymen were a local skiffle group led by 16-year-old John Lennon. During a break in their performance, Paul McCartney, then 15, was introduced to Lennon. The two boys talked briefly and McCartney demonstrated his proficiency on the guitar. Shortly after, McCartney was asked to join the group, beginning a musical partnership for the ages.
By early 1958, McCartney’s friend, George Harrison, also just 15, joined the group. By the 1960s, the young band transitioned away from skiffle and embraced electric rock and roll. They also welcomed two new members—music novice Stuart Sutcliffe and drummer Pete Best—and become known as the Beatles. They worked hard and honed their craft by playing the seedy clubs in Liverpool (like the Cavern Club) and Hamburg, Germany. In 1961 they also met the man that would ably steer their early years too, manager Brian Epstein.
In the spring of 1962, thanks to Epstein's diligence, EMI signed the scruffy young group to a recording contract and put them under the guidance of music executive and producer George Martin. With Sutcliffe long gone and Ringo Starr replacing Best, the Beatles stepped up to the mic. Throughout 1963, the Beatles’ influence swiftly spread from Britain to Europe and by early 1964, the States.
When the Beatles arrived at New York’s Kennedy Airport that year, on February 7, pandemonium ensued. On Sunday night, February 9, Americas stopped what they were doing to watch the Fab Four on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” A record television viewing audience of 73 million people, or an astonishing 34 percent of the American population, watched the global explosion known as Beatlemania.
By April 4, the Beatles held 12 slots on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, including the top five positions on that one astonishing day: "Can't Buy Me Love," "Twist and Shout," "She Loves You," "I Want To Hold Your Hand," and "Please Please Me." Their impact was affecting all of pop culture, from fashion to film, and even how young people began to wear their hair or the way they spoke.
The Beatles' first movie, the Richard Lester-directed “A Hard Day’s Night,” which opened in the summer of 1964, was a madcap, semi-autobiographical, day-in-the-life story that breezily presented the quartet as Liverpudlian Marx Brothers. The film influenced the way pop bands would be marketed and eventually created the template for the music video.
Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr also played a pivotal role in the advancement of the pop music concert. Their first appearance at New York’s Shea Stadium on August 15, 1965, set records for attendance and revenue generation, as the band performed in front of more than 55,000 passionate (and screaming) fans. It was an event that opened the eyes of the music industry, demonstrating that large scale music events could be immensely successful and profitable.
But a year after this historic concert, the Beatles decided to retire from live performance. They believed that their constant touring and performing in front of histrionic fans had become a detriment to their abilities as musicians (for one thing, they couldn't hear each other). The Beatles had reached such heights commercially that they no longer needed to rely on touring as a means of promoting themselves or their music. The group's final gig took place on August 29, 1966 at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. Four years of touring, which had taken a physical and mental toll on the band, had come to an end.
The Beatles were now poised to reach a new creative peak which would dwarf the staggering growth the band had displayed over their first three years. From 1963's With The Beatles (1963), their second UK release, through A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), the maturity level and complexity of the Beatles' music developed by leaps and bounds. By the end of 1965, their sixth British album, Rubber Soul, had placed the boys in a league all their own. No longer were they just the lovable mop tops who produced perfect guitar-based pop. They were now a serious musical entity that had no peers, regardless of genre.
On Revolver, their 1966 sonic tour de force, the band managed to go beyond brilliant songcraft, redefining the role of the recording studio in the artistic process. Under the leadership of producer Martin and the talent whiz-kid audio engineer Geoff Emerick, the Beatles altered the way music was recorded and mixed. With touring now a thing of the past, the Beatles were able to spend as much time as needed in the studio.
In November 1966, the quartet began the sessions that would ultimately result in the pop music masterpiece, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The album, which was bookended by the double A-side singles of “Strawberry Fields Forever"/“Penny Lane" and “All You Need Is Love”, became a major cultural force that defined a generation. Once again, the Beatles were on the cutting edge, right down to the album's artwork.
In the wake of Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles were about to enter a demanding period of both accomplishment and turmoil. The shocking death of Epstein in August 1967, coupled with the lackluster reception to a British television film that aired in December, “Magical Mystery Tour,” and later received worldwide cinema release, was the start of a dark period. Despite their efforts to find peace and solace in India with guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the four Beatles were starting to fall victim to the trials and stress of real life. Forced to grow up in the bright spotlight of fame, their friendship frayed. The self-discovery, outsized egos, arguments, and misunderstandings that came with their massive success contributed to a buildup of negative energy. But even as that pressure increased, exacerbated by their added role as businessmen handling their newly formed empire, Apple Corps, they still wrote and recorded timeless music that only furthered their legacy.
Released in late 1968, their 30-song epic, The Beatles, better known as “The White Album,” eschewed the flower power psychedelia of the previous year and became a time capsule of both the band's tumultuous personal times and the turbulent sociopolitical climate of the decade. Something had to give.
With all the internal indicators pointing to an inevitable breakup, the Beatles rallied and created their swan song, a masterpiece that could be regarded as their finest work, Abbey Road. The end for the Beatles came in September 1969, just before Abbey Road hit the shops, but a public declaration wasn’t made until the following year, April 1970, a month before the release of Let It Be. Although recorded before Abbey Road, that album, an indicator of the solo roads the band's members were taking, was released as the group's twelfth and last album (or its penultimate, if you're a stickler for Beatles history).
Lennon pulled no punches when he declared “The dream is over” in his song “God," also released in 1970 on his solo debut, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. But that harsh pronouncement, the chilly, discordant end of one of the most influential bands in all of pop history, was easier to accept via Harrison's more serene mantra that same year via his triple album: “All things must pass.”