Everyone, Americans and Europeans alike, have heard-of, if not grown off of, a generation and culture started by an ensemble of four shaggy-haired Liverpool musicians that the world went mad over; no one can deny that no greater event impacted today’s pop culture than “Beatlemania”. But not everyone has heard the story behind the Beatles, who were they? How did they become the band and how did they make it big? What’s the story of their struggle?
Before researching, I already knew a lot about the Beatles. I knew that the band was made up of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr. They started the famous “British Invasion” of the 1960’s on American pop/rock music, and they started a craze that swept over the country and made the Beatles a name that would echo over the music industry and the future generations and cultures of the world for centuries to come.
Since the story of the Beatles could be researched for a lifetime, I decided only to seek out the general story behind their fame. What is the story behind each of the members and how did they meet? What was involved in their struggle to make it big? How did their music and fame affect the culture?
Before I began my search I had to make a research question, so I reviewed all the things I wanted to learn and formed the final question: Who were the Beatles? Well I already knew enough to vaguely answer my question. The Beatles were a band of musicians from Liverpool who shaped the face of popular music and culture of their time and all who came after, their fame was a phenomenon that threw American youth into a frenzy over long hair and guitar-laced beats. They also set an example for all rock acts to follow with a strong sense of autonomy, standing against their record company and management on many issues, even refusing to tour at the height of their popularity.
My research didn’t take too long, because I found a lot of information easily on the band. The first thing I did was go to the school library and check out two books on the Beatles. There were a lot more that seemed useful, but the two I picked seemed to best fit my inquiries. Then after doing a lot of print research I went online and did a search on “the Beatles biography”. The online results were long and not always trustworthy, but the discography and some other information seemed useful, so I book-marked the sites for later.
I decided then to go talk to a friend of my old teacher who works over at Daddy’s Junky Music, who I knew was a huge Beatles fan and would probably give me some good information since he was alive and a part of Beatlemania. So I called over there to see if I could interview him, and it turned out he was in New York and wouldn’t be back until the 24th, so that source was out.
Overall, I think my research went smoothly, and I was happy with my results.
The Results of My Search
Before the Beatles
Before 1955, popular music was a narrow expression of simple, pre-conformed melodies that had existed and created a calm, generally upbeat and sheltered youth. The Beatles came onto the scene in 1964 and slapped the world in the face with a new cult establishing an art form we would later call rock. The Beatles gave their contemporary generation of kids with misspent youths a hold onto something new – the sound was previously unheard and it enraptured the listener and made them really hear the music. The impressionable teenyboppers of the 60’s were addicted to the most outrageous and controversial thing to hit the shelves, a British, long-haired revolution that would “love to turn us on”.
The real stronghold beginning of the Beatles started in Liverpool on October 9, 1940 at 7:00 a.m. while the city was under heavy bombing by the Nazis and a tiny John Winston Lennon was born in a hospital on Oxford Street. Julia and Alfred Lennon gave birth to the soon-to-be prodigy only to divorce before he turned three, leaving him in the care of his Aunt Mimi. He first attended Dovedale Primary School where signs of his creative genius showed early on. After graduating from there, John started at Quarry Bank Grammar School, but soon switched to art school, but soon quit. There he met his first wife, Cynthia and Stuart Sutcliff. Although Sutcliff had very little good musical ability he bought a bass guitar and joined The Quarrymen (a pre-Beatle, Lennon creation).
Next came the co-genius of this phenomenon, Paul McCartney. Born on June 18, 1942 to Jim and Mary Patricia Monin, Paul was the eldest of two boys in a very close-knit family. He first attended Stockton Wood Road Primary School but was soon switched to Joseph Williams Primary School at Gateacre because their mother insisted on the best education for her boys. Paul used to love to listen to the radio and was very influenced by his dad who played in a little band but eventually had to give it up because he “got false teeth and couldn’t play the trumpet properly anymore.” John’s mother died of breast cancer when he was only fourteen, which devastated the family and launched John into spending some of his time writing songs, which would later be the pay off of his life.
George Harold Harrison was born to Harry and Louise French Harrison on February 25, 1943 in Wavertree as the youngest of four children. Like John, George’s first school was Dovedale Primary (John was three years his senior, so they never met). However, George and Paul shared the long bus ride home and soon became friends, both sharing a love for music. As a kid, George was often labeled by his teachers as “independent and very bright, but protective of his privacy and somewhat introverted”.
Finally, completing the fab-four, Ringo Starr. Born Richard Starkey on July 7, 1940 while air raid sirens were going off all around town. His parents, Elsie and Dickie Starkey were quite and peaceful folks. Ringo used to play drums in the Liverpool’s Orange Day Parade, then getting his start as the drummer for the best band to date. Ringo also played accordion, but never took it too seriously. As a child, Ringo was always called “scruffy” by surrounding adults, but it never fazed him much. Little did he know that it would be that “scruffiness” that would end up being his “ticket to ride”.
The Band is Born
John Lennon bought a guitar in March 1957 and formed a skiffle group called the Quarrymen, named after his high school, Quarry Bank. He invited in Paul McCartney after hearing him play. At first the band played mostly covers of already popular songs, but after Paul’s first live performance with the band he played some stuff that he had written to John, who, not wanting to be outdone, returned the favor, thus creating the best songwriting duo of the century. (The two decided to share all songwriting credits in their career, although they only actually co-wrote a few songs.) The lineup of the band was changing frequently, but by October 1959 it consisted of Lennon, McCartney, George Harrison and drummer Colin Hanton. By March of 1960, Lennon’s art school classmate Stuart Sutcliffe joined the band as a bassist and suggested the name the Beetles, as a creative response to the popular contemporary Buddy Holly’s group the Crickets. By that summer they were the Silver Beatles, settling on simply the Beatles in August.
That month the Beatles left for Hamburg, West Germany, with their new drummer Pete Best, to try to establish themselves in Europe. The band quickly became a very popular local act, performing at various clubs. They were expelled from the country in November because George Harrison was underage. The Beatles returned to Germany in early 1961, when Sutcliffe had left the band to pursue his art career and to continue his love with a girl he had met in Germany the year before. McCartney took over on bass, and Sutcliffe died of a brain hemorrhage the following year.
Coming back to Liverpool, the band became a widespread underground sensation, frequenting a local venue called the Cavern Club, where they played a total of 292 times.
The original Beatles had a fifth member, Stuart Sutcliffe. While in Germany, he met and fell in love with a girl, and wasn’t there for a lot of the band’s biggest times. The first full studio recording of the Beatles was made in late 1961 and had eight tracks including “My Bonnie” and “Cry For a Shadow”. Stuart was not there to record it. He died on April 10, 1962 from a severe brain hemorrhage.
The beginning of the Beatle’s fame came at the time in which a man named Brian Epstein heard the boys play at a club and signed them. Thus turning them from a scruffy street band of somewhat amateur beat musicians into a smart, professional ensemble of entertainers. Under his management, on New Year’s Day, 1962, the Beatles auditioned for a deal on Decca Records, performing a total of fifteen songs, twelve covers and three originals. Talent executive Mike Smith rejected the group and told them that “guitar groups are on their way out”. They perused, however, and were signed by George Martin of Parlophone on May 9, 1962.
After their first recording session, George Martin suggested that their current drummer be replaced, and soon well-known local, Ringo Starr, was signed. By October, the band released their first single, “P.S. I Love You”. It charted on the U.K. Top 20, and the band became regular guests on the BBC, performing on the channel over fifty times between 1962 and 1964.
The Rise to Fame
In February of 1963, the band was back in the studio recording their second album, Please Please Please Me, released in March. It was an overnight hit, and stayed at the top of the charts in Britain for thirty consecutive weeks. Beatlemania had begun. After a performance before the royal family, Parlophone released a second Beatles album in November, called With The Beatles. By the end of 1963, the Beatles had sold over 2.5 million albums in Britain, and had a succession of million-selling singles.
Soon, word of this new British sensation caught some attention in America. The first few Beatle singles were signed to Chicago-based label Vee Jay Records. Vee Jay helped the Beatles put all their new released singles onto one album, Introducing the Beatles, their first U.S. LP. During the later part of 1963 it was the only Beatles material available in America, therefore selling amazingly well. But in early 1964 the court awarded the rights to all Beatles recordings to Parlophone/Capitol Records, and the record went out of print, only to become one of the most counterfeited albums in music history.
The band went on to release a total of 13 albums in the U.S. alone between early 1964 and 1966, not to mention the two movie credits under their belt for A Hard Day’s Night and Help!.
A lot changed for the Beatles in 1966. First of all, Lennon was quoted in an interview where he predicted the end of Christianity as saying that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus”. As a result, 200 radio stations banned Beatles records and there were public burnings of records and memorabilia of the band. Finally, Lennon released a public apology. Then, after five years of relentless touring, recording, and constant media spotlighting, the Beatles decided to become solely a studio band. In November 1966, the band entered Abbey Road Studios, where they spent the next 129 days making undeniably the most creative rock album in history. No band before had put this much work into making an album, and it paid off.
The Beatle’s spent a total of over 700 hours making Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, whereas their first album, Please Please Please Me, was recorded in only 585 minutes. Epstein was extremely worried about the release of the album, however. He was already concerned about the constant differing opinions between himself and the band, and he thought that the numerous drug references in the record would cause further controversy over the band and tarnish their clean image that he had worked so hard to create. Paul came up with the title and concept: an old-fashioned band playing a concert in “the summer of love.” Most songs were also written by Paul, since John had become so lazy at this point that he hardly left his house. The US version was almost identical as the UK version – except that the “inner groove” track was not included and the disc was banded, and the British version was not.
The album was a huge success. It went on to win four Grammy’s, including best album. The record was an earth-shattering opus. The incredibly varied sound effects and “studio tricks” not only changed the way pop/rock music is recorded, but it also opened a new door for cover art and put focus on an album as a whole, as opposed to only the released singles.
The Downfall of the Beatles
As John became progressively lazier, things began working against the fame of the Beatles. On August 27, 1967, the Beatles manager, Brian Epstein, died of a drug overdose, possibly intentional. The band was saddened, but refused to hire a new manager, taking complete control over their own career. Their first project out from under Epstein’s management was the BBC television series and related album Magical Mystery Tour. Critics attacked both and the Beatles were heavily criticized for their attempts. This is pinpointed as the beginning of the end of the Beatle reign.
By early 1968, the group had managed to form their own record label, Apple Records, and had begun work on a double record set. Allegedly there was constant tension during the recording sessions though, and band members would stomp out and hand in individual recordings instead of recording as a band together. The result of these sessions was the White Album, correctly titled The Beatles, released in November 1968, and featuring a guest track with Eric Clapton titled “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”.
That month, Lennon released his own first solo album, recorded with his new love interest, Yoko Ono (a relationship extremely controversial in its time), Unfinished Music No. 1 – Two Virgins. Late in 1968 a short animated film was released with inspiration credited to the song “Yellow Submarine”. Under the upbeat nature of the film, the real band was hardly speaking.
In January 1969, the band began work on a new album live in the studio (without overdubs) tentatively titled Get Back. For a film to go along with it, the Beatles performed on the roof of their studio; their last public appearance ever. While working on the album the band had enough creative differences to completely shelve the project.
On March 12, Paul McCartney married American photographer Linda Eastman, and soon after Lennon formally married Yoko Ono. By May the situation had worsened. The band hired Allen Klein as their new business manager, despite opposition by McCartney. Although the band’s conflict progressively intensified, the band returned once more to the studio to record Abbey Road, an amazingly cooperative and refreshingly cohesive album.
In September 1969, Lennon told his bandmates that he wanted to leave the group, but because of renegotiations with Parlophone/EMI Records, the breakup was put on hold. Meanwhile, rumors that Paul McCartney had died in a motorcycle crash several years before had spread like wildfire over America, people claiming of the “clues” put in Beatle’s albums. (see attached page for story). The Beatles’ reign over America and Europe continued as a steady downfall, not lasting much longer past the acid-soaked 60’s.
Then, on December 8, 1980, John Ono Lennon was shot to death just outside his apartment by Mark David Chapman, after a night of working on new recordings. His death marked the end of an era when love and peace were respected and voracity and envy were denounced. A generation was forced to realize and contemplate the outlook of its own unsubstantiated ethics, and a defined end was put to a decade of music that changed the world.
Even after the end of Beatlemania and the greatly mourned death of an amazing creative mastermind, the Beatles backcatalog continues to sell millions, providing Capitol records with a high percentage of its income. Rights to all Lennon-McCartney compositions were sold during the 80’s for hundreds of millions of dollars, at one point passing through the hands of Michael Jackson.
Overall, the Beatles created something unimaginably sensational and caused a revolution in music that has left its mark on the world, a mark that will stay with generations who pass over it and will be carried in every note of every song produced in every pop culture.
Reflections on My Search
Doing my research was harder than I expected, but it was also fun. I learned a lot of things about the Beatles and the story of controversy behind them and all the trouble that went along with their success. I appreciate the band even more than before now, and I now know really how big of an impact they are on the world.
Davies, Hunter. The Beatles. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1996.
Futura, Kevin. “The Beatles Biography.” VH1: Artists A-Z 2001. 13 Oct. 2002.
Gerber, Louis. “The Beatles.” The Beatles. 2002. 12 Oct. 2002.
Giuliano, Geoffrey. The Beatles: A Celebration. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986.
“The Sgt. Pepper Story.” With the Beatles: The Complete Guide to the Beatles. Ed. Peter Blake. 12 Oct. 2002.