The Beatles recorded together for a little over seven years. Between October 1962 and May 1970, they released thirteen albums and a number of tracks issued on standalone singles. The catalogue created in that short period has sold more than that of any other group in history and its commercial success continues – the world’s best selling album during the first decade of the 21st century was a collection of The Beatles’ chart-topping singles called 1. But the group’s significance stems not just from huge sales figures. Their music has inspired generation upon generation of musicians, songwriters and pro-ducers. As Mark Ronson put it: ‘Everything we take for granted – they absolutely invented it.’ Tom Petty was a teenager during the years The Beatles’ records appeared in quick succession: ‘They were just out in front. There was The Beatles… and then there was everyone else. And everyone else could be great, but The Beatles were leading the way and that’s just irrefutably true.’
The Beatles’ story began in Liverpool in March 1957, when John Lennon (born 9 October 1940) formed a group named The Quarry Men. His life was changed by the excitement of rock ’n’ roll music – heralded by Bill Haley and His Comets, but taken to another level when Elvis Presley stormed the charts during 1956. The next year saw the arrival in the UK of hits by Little Richard, Buddy Holly and The Crickets, the Everly Brothers and, in movie theatres, the exciting rock film The Girl Can’t Help It!, featuring Eddie Cochran singing ‘Twenty Flight Rock’. Introduced to John on 6 July 1957 at a church fete in Woolton, Liverpool, Paul McCartney (born 18 June 1942) sang Eddie’s song word perfect. Impressed, John invited the fifteen year old to join his group. In February 1958, Paul’s younger school pal George Harrison (born 25 February 1943) won his place in The Quarry Men when he impressed the others with his guitar skills, especially on the current hit instrumental ‘Raunchy’ by Bill Justis. With a constant nucleus of John, Paul and George.
At this time, a group from Liverpool had the odds stacked against them when trying to gain a foothold in a record business focused on London. In early 1962, they had acquired an ambitious and rather refined manager, record shop boss Brian Epstein. He faced regular rejection from music companies until George Martin signed the group to EMI’s Parlophone label. By fate, The Beatles had found both the ideal manager and perfect producer. The last piece of the picture slotted into place just three weeks before recording their first single on 4 September 1962. Ringo Starr (born 7 July 1940) was asked to take over as drummer. He had been playing with Rory Storm & The Hurricanes – another Liverpool group who played long stints in the clubs of Hamburg. Ringo’s personality, sense of humour and rock solid, inventive drumming proved to be just right for The Beatles. Their first Parlophone single was released on 5 October 1962. Both sides of the disc were original compositions – a remarkable statement of intent from a group making their first steps in the music business. In fact, George Martin had urged them to record Mitch Murray’s ‘How Do You Do It?’, which he felt was a sure-fire hit. They had reluctantly agreed, but were able to persuade George to shelve the recording in favour of their own songs ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘P.S. I Love You’. Just one example of how The Beatles’ story might have been very different with a less open-minded record producer. George Martin’s faith in The Beatles, and in John and Paul as songwriters, was soon vindicated by the release of ‘Please Please Me’ in January 1963. The single reached the top of all but one of the UK charts.
It was followed by the number one ‘From Me To You’ and their first album Please Please Me, which topped the chart for 30 weeks until their next LP replaced it at number one. The debut album featured eight Lennon/McCartney compositions and six cover versions of recent American Rhythm and Blues records. The selection, a result of The Beatles’ constant search for the unusual, showed their impeccable taste. Compared to the sophisticated arrangement of an R&B original like ‘Twist And Shout’, their versions were stripped down reinventions for a four-piece beat group. George Martin has confirmed that ‘it was primarily the American Rhythm and Blues sound that was their inspiration. It’s probably what the so-called Beatles sound was, because all the black music was a tremendous influence on them.’ However, that source was unknown to the majority of their British fans. The super-confident second album With The Beatles was issued in November 1963 when the single ‘She Loves You’ was at number one. Once more, it featured eight original compositions – including ‘All My Loving’ and George Harrison’s first recorded song ‘Don’t Bother Me’ – and six cover versions. A week later, ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ was released and also reached number one. The group had become the biggest musical phenomenon in British show business – ever. Among the key factors that led to this success were the chemistry between the four personalities in the group, their immense charm and a daring image – nobody had worn their hair that long. Their interviews were funny and articulate, they had a charismatic presence when performing, and girls screamed and swooned over them. The term ‘Beatlemania’ was coined by the press to describe the hysteria aroused by the group but, as an appearance on The Royal Variety Show demonstrated, their popularity stretched way beyond the teenage market.
What The Beatles did next was extraordinary for a British act. In February 1964, they arrived in the USA to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show. They performed to 73 million viewers, the biggest television audience to date, and with ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ at the top of the charts, America was suddenly held spellbound by The Beatles. As their success spread across the world, almost everything the group did from then on was unprecedented. In addition to unparalleled success on record – they held all top five positions in the American chart in the first week of April – their first movie A Hard Day’s Night was a box office hit and acclaimed for its wit, invention and unbeatable self-composed songs. Premiered in July 1964, it was perfectly timed to capitalise on their international breakthrough. They rounded off the year with Beatles For Sale and the massive hit single ‘I Feel Fine’. In 1965, they starred in the film Help!. Like their first movie, it was directed by Richard Lester and featured a brilliant batch of songs on its accompanying album. Tucked away towards the end of the LP was a performance by Paul McCartney of his composition ‘Yesterday’. Not even released as a single in the UK, it was a number one in America. It quickly became – and remains – the most covered song of all time.
‘Yesterday’ is an example of how The Beatles and their producer did not compromise; whatever best served the song was always pursued. In the case of ‘Yesterday’, the bold choice was a classical arrangement for string quartet. For the next album Rubber Soul, more studio time was made available to try out unusual instrumentation and adventurous recording techniques. The words of the songs were more mature and the vocal blend, heard on tracks such as ‘Nowhere Man’ and ‘Michelle’, is one of the album’s most distinctive qualities. The Beatles’ sound is, of course, distinguished by the character of their voices. Few groups were blessed with two powerful lead singers as versatile as John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Furthermore, George Harrison not only contributed at least one lead vocal to every album, his voice was integral to the intricate harmony vocals on many Beatles tracks. Ringo Starr usually sang a solo on albums, making such Lennon /McCartney songs as Yellow Submarine and ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ unimaginable without his voice.
Released on the same day as Rubber Soul, 5 December 1965, ‘We Can Work It Out’/‘Day Tripper’ was the first of The Beatles’ double A-Sides. They ended another frantically busy year with their final British tour. There was a deadline to complete their next album, because concerts had been scheduled for the summer of 1966 all over the world. But this did not affect their approach to recording at all. The Revolver sessions saw the group reach a new peak of creativity in performance, songwriting and innovative studio techniques. In addition to the songwriting mastery displayed by John and Paul, the LP contained the biggest contribution to date from George with three songs. His caustic ‘Tax-man’ was given the status of the album’s opening track. ‘Eleanor Rigby’ is now regarded as a fully realised masterpiece, but when released in August 1966 on Revolver and as a single coupled with Yellow Submarine’, its solemn subject matter and stark arrangement were radically different. A year before, in August 1965, their appearance in front of 55,600 fans at Shea Stadium in New York had broken the record for concert attendance and box-office revenue. But live performance had become an unsatisfying charade…and dangerous too. Who cares how lucrative it was? That had to stop. The Beatles’ final concert for a paying audience took place at Candlestick Park, San Francisco on 29 August 1966.
At the end of 1966, The Beatles started work on ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. Its long evolution showed the musical imagination and technical experimentation heard on Revolver would be continued. To stop the long wait for new material, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane’ were released in February 1967. Although songs were always credited to Lennon and McCartney, it soon became clear that whoever sang the lead vocal was usually the main composer. The double A-sided single shows how their different stylistic approaches established a perfect counterbalance. Having set themselves a task of writing about their Liverpool childhoods, John’s song is dreamy and steeped in melancholy, while Paul’s is uplifting and brimming with brilliantly observed vignettes. Many were shocked when the unconventional promotional films for both songs were broadcast. Even their moustaches and John’s spectacles were considered to be evidence of how weird The Beatles had become. The square world worried. Everyone else listened over and over until they ‘got it’. Released on 1 June 1967, the immediate artistic and commercial success of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band vindicated the new approach taken by The Beatles. It was the album that provided the soundtrack to the so-called ‘summer of love’, but its appeal is ageless. The Beatles performed their next single ‘All You Need Is Love’ for the first time on the TV programme Our World broadcast live to an audience of 350 million around the globe. Their place at the top of contemporary pop music was indisputable. Sadly, soon afterwards, The Beatles were shaken by the sudden death of their manager Brian Epstein in August 1967. They rallied to write and direct Magical Mystery Tour – a film shown on television in the UK at Christmas. Some of the millions who saw it, did not like it. As Paul McCartney remembered: ‘They were looking for the plum pudding special. That’s what they were expecting, and they very much didn’t get it! We were giving it to the young kids. Why shouldn’t they see something far out?’ The music was as successful as ever. The six new songs in the film and the number one ‘Hello, Goodbye’ completed a momentous year of recording. Three more tracks from 1967 remained unreleased until they were heard in the movie Yellow Submarine premiered in 1968. The film’s imaginative animation evoked the ‘psychedelic’ spirit of Sgt. Pepper to reveal the triumph of Love over Evil.
Nowadays, following a year as busy as The Beatles had in 1967, an artist would take an extended break. In fact, the group did allow themselves a little time off. The first music of 1968 came in March on their seventeenth single ‘Lady Madonna’. Soon after it was recorded, The Beatles flew to Rishikesh, India for several weeks of meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. At this remote and peaceful location, they enjoyed a prolific period of songwriting. As George Harrison explained: ‘When we came back, it became apparent that there were more songs than would make up a single album.’ Recorded in five months, the double LP The Beatles was soon known as ‘The White Album’ because of its plain white cover. ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Revolution’ were the first songs to be heard from the sessions when they were released as a single on 30 August 1968 – the first Beatles record to be pressed with the Apple label. Never interested in repeating themselves, The Beatles took a different approach in the studio in 1968. Ringo Starr remembered: ‘On “The White Album” we ended up being a band again and that’s what I always love. I love being in a band.’ Discussing his songwriting, John Lennon reflected: ‘It was a complete reversal from Sgt. Pepper. My songs on the double album were fairly simple and basic.’ It is still astonishing to hear The Beatles moving through every style of popular music imaginable, including a pastiche of a Hollywood musical number (‘Honey Pie’), an intense blues (‘Yer Blues’) and heavy rock (‘Helter Skelter’). As with Sgt. Pepper, no singles were released from ‘The White Album’ in the UK and USA during the 1960s. But it is full of tracks that could have been huge hits, such as ‘Back In The USSR’, ‘Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da’ and ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’.
In January 1969, while ‘The White Album’ was still at number one, The Beatles assembled to write and rehearse brand new songs for a televised live concert. The plan changed so that, in the end, their work was documented in a movie released over a year later. Its final scene showed The Beatles performing on the roof of their Apple office building in Savile Row, London with most of the audience gathered in the street below. ‘Get Back’, a number one single from the sessions at Apple, was swiftly followed by ‘The Ballad Of John And Yoko’ – a chronicle of John’s marriage to Yoko Ono and their honey-moon/‘Bed-In’ for peace in Amsterdam. Recorded mostly during the summer of 1969, the last album The Beatles made together was named after the street where EMI’s studios are located. It was a fitting tribute to the place where the majority of their songs had been recorded. The Beatles’ collaboration with producer George Martin and the engineers at Abbey Road had challenged the way that popular music was created. On many occasions this team re-wrote the rule book and set a new standard to which their contemporaries had to aspire. In contrast to the January recordings at Apple, which were ‘as live’ with no overdubs, their return to Abbey Road studios with George Martin resulted in carefully crafted tracks with ambitious musical arrangements. The album’s varied highlights include ‘Come Together’ and two songs that showed George Harrison’s songwriting had hit a peak – ‘Something’ and ‘Here Comes The Sun’. However, the character of Abbey Road is dominated by the sophisticated medley the group called ‘The Long One’. It brought the album, and The Beatles’ recording career, to an impressive conclusion. What a farewell. Measured in terms of its enormous popularity and musical ingenuity, Abbey Road now challenges the status of Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band as The Beatles’ greatest achievement. When the earlier set of recordings from 1969 was finally released as Let It Be in May 1970, news had already broken that the group had split up. The album’s title track and ‘The Long And Winding Road’ took the total of American number ones by The Beatles to twenty in six years – a feat unequalled by any other artist.
When The Beatles began making records, no one anticipated that they would be listened to far into the future. Pop music was regarded as disposable. But the timeless appeal of The Beatles’ catalogue ensured it was built to last and highly valued. In 1979, the distinguished conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein wrote: ‘Three bars of “A Day In The Life” still sustain me, rejuvenate me, inflame my senses and sensibilities.’ There is also another dimension to the seductive power of The Beatles’ music. Filled with the spirit of the era in which it was born, it is joyous and generous. ‘All You Need Is Love’. ‘With our love – we could save the world.’ ‘The love you take is equal to the love you make.’ Tom Petty felt it: ‘We grew up with The Beatles and grew up trusting them. They could have chosen to do anything and they chose to do good, which is a great example for the rest of us.’