by James Miller
The British musical quartet the Beatles came to symbolize the hopes and dreams of a global generation that came of age in the 1960s.
Formed around the nucleus of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who first performed together in Liverpool in 1957, the group grew out of a shared enthusiasm for American rock and roll. Like most early rock-and-roll figures, Lennon, a guitarist and singer, and McCartney, a bassist and singer, were largely self-taught as musicians. Precocious composers, they gathered around themselves a changing cast of accompanists, adding by the end of 1957 George Harrison, a lead guitarist, and then in 1960, for several formative months, Stuart Sutcliffe, a promising young painter who brought into the band a brooding sense of bohemian style. After dabbling in skiffle, a jaunty sort of folk music popular in Britain in the late 1950s, and assuming several different names (the Quarrymen, the Silver Beetles, and finally, the Beatles), the band added a drummer, Pete Best, and joined a small but booming "beat music" scene, first in Liverpool and then, during several long visits between 1960 and 1962, in Hamburg--another seaport full of sailors thirsty for American rock and roll as a backdrop for their whiskey and womanizing.
In autumn of 1961 Brian Epstein, a local Liverpool record store manager, saw the band and fell in love. Unshakably convinced of their commercial potential, Epstein became their manager and proceeded to bombard the major British music companies with letters and tape recordings of the band, finally winning a contract with Parlophone, a subsidiary of the giant EMI group of music labels. The man in charge of their career at Parlophone was George Martin, a classically trained musician who from the start put his stamp on the Beatles, first by suggesting the band hire a more polished drummer (they chose Ringo Starr) and then by rearranging their second recorded song (and first big British hit), "Please Please Me," changing it from a slow dirge into an up-tempo romp.
Throughout the winter and into the spring of 1963, the Beatles continued their rise to fame in England by producing spirited recordings of original tunes and also by playing classic American rock and roll on a variety of British Broadcasting Corporation radio programs. In these months, fascination with the Beatles--at first confined to young British fans of popular music--breached the normal barriers of taste, class, and age, transforming their recordings and live performances into matters of widespread public comment. In the fall of that year, when the group belatedly made a couple of appearances on British television, the evidence of popular frenzy prompted British newspapermen to coin a new word for the phenomenon: Beatlemania. In early 1964, after equally tumultuous appearances on American television, the same phenomenon erupted in the United States and provoked a so-called British Invasion of Beatles imitators from the United Kingdom.
Beatlemania was something new. Musicians performing in the 19th century certainly excited a frenzy--one thinks of Franz Liszt--but that was before the modern mass media created the possibility of collective frenzy. Later pop music idols, like Michael Jackson in the mid-1980s or Garth Brooks in the '90s, have sold similarly large numbers of records without provoking anything approaching the hysteria caused by the Beatles. By the summer of 1964, when the Beatles appeared in A Hard Day's Night, a movie that dramatized the phenomenon of Beatlemania, the band's effect was evident around the world, as countless young people emulated the band members' characteristic long hair, flip humor, and whimsical displays of devil-may-care abandon.
The popular hubbub proved to be a spur, convincing Lennon and McCartney of their songwriting abilities and sparking an outpouring of creative experimentation all but unprecedented in the history of rock music, which until then had been widely regarded, with some justification, as essentially a genre for juveniles. Between 1965 and 1967 the music of the Beatles rapidly changed and evolved, becoming ever more subtle, sophisticated, and varied. Their repertoire in these years ranged from the chamber pop ballad "Yesterday" and the enigmatic folk tune "Norwegian Wood" (both in 1965) to the hallucinatory hard rock song "Tomorrow Never Knows" (1966), with a lyric inspired by Timothy Leary's handbook The Psychedelic Experience (1964). It also included the carnivalesque soundscape of "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" (1967), which featured stream-of-consciousness lyrics by Lennon and a typically imaginative arrangement (by George Martin) built around randomly spliced-together snippets of recorded steam organs--a tour de force of technological legerdemain quite typical of the band's studio work in this era.
In 1966 the Beatles announced their retirement from public performing to concentrate on exploiting the full resources of the recording studio. A year later, in June 1967, this period of widely watched creative renewal was climaxed by the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album avidly greeted by young people around the world as indisputable evidence not only of the band's genius but also of the era's utopian promise. More than a band of musicians, the Beatles had come to personify, certainly in the minds of millions of young listeners, the joys of a new counterculture of hedonism and uninhibited experimentation--with music and with new ways of life. (Various members of the band in these years flirted with mind-expanding drugs like LSD and also with exotic spiritual exercises like transcendental meditation, a technique taught to them by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a barnstorming guru from India.)
In those years the Beatles effectively reinvented the meaning of rock and roll as a cultural form. The American artists they admired and chose to emulate--Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, the pioneering rock composers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the influential soul songwriter Smokey Robinson, and, after 1964, folksinger and topical songwriter Bob Dylan--became widely regarded as canonic sources of inspiration, offering "classical" models for aspiring younger rock musicians. At the same time, the original songs the Beatles wrote and recorded dramatically expanded the musical range and expressive scope of the genre they had inherited. Their close vocal harmonies, subtle arrangements, and clever production touches, combined with an elemental rhythm section anchored by Starr's no-nonsense drumming, created a uniquely sophisticated brand of rock.
After 1968 and the eruption of student protest movements in countries as different as Mexico and France, the Beatles insensibly surrendered their role as de facto leaders of an inchoate global youth culture. They nevertheless continued for several more years to record and release new music and maintained a level of popularity rarely rivaled before or since. In 1968 they launched their own record label, Apple; hoping to create a home for experimental pop artists, they instead produced chaos and commercial failure, apart from the work of the Beatles themselves. The band continued to enjoy widespread popularity. The following year Abbey Road went on to become one of the band's best-loved and biggest-selling albums.
Meanwhile, personal disagreements, magnified by the stress of symbolizing the dreams of a generation, had begun to tear the band apart. Once the collaborative heart and soul of the band, Lennon and McCartney fell into bickering and mutual accusations of ill will. By now millions of dollars were at stake, and the utopian aura of the performers was in jeopardy, given the discrepancy between the band's symbolic stature as idols of a carefree youth culture and their newfound real status as pampered plutocrats.
In the spring of 1970 the Beatles formally disbanded. In the years that followed, all four members went on to produce solo albums of variable quality and popularity. Lennon released a corrosive set of songs with his new wife, Yoko Ono, while McCartney went on to form a band, Wings, that turned out a fair number of commercially successful recordings in the 1970s. Starr and Harrison, too, initially had some success as solo artists. But, as time went by, the Beatles became as much of a historical curio as Al Jolson or Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley before them.
In 1980 Lennon was murdered by a demented fan outside his New York City apartment, an event that provoked a global outpouring of grief. In the years that followed, McCartney was the only former member of the band to remain musically active, both in the pop field producing new albums every few years and in the field of classical music: in 1991 he completed Liverpool Oratorio, and in 1997 he supervised the recording of another symphonic work of large ambition, Standing Stone.
Earlier in that decade, McCartney had joined the other surviving Beatles to add harmonies to two previously unreleased vocal recordings by Lennon. These new songs by "the Beatles" became heavily promoted highlights of an ambitious new set of archival recordings assembled under the supervision of the band and released in 1995 and 1996 as The Beatles Anthology, a collection of six compact discs that supplemented a 10-hour-long authorized video documentary of the same name. The afterglow of Beatlemania may have disappeared, but the iconography of an era of youthful tumult had been reverently preserved for posterity.
(byname of James Paul McCartney), bass and vocals
guitar and vocals
guitar and vocals
(byname of Richard Starkey), drums and vocals
Pete Best, drums
Cavern Club days..with Pete Best on drums
The QuarryMen....Where it all began!
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