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The Beatles

Without question The BEATLES were the greatest band/group to emerge out of the 20th century, iconic figures all, who have collectively and consequently individually, become heroes from everyone from all walks of life, whether young or old, rich or poor, girl or boy. Despite recent, unprecedented advances in global communication and increasing homogenization of entertainment, The BEATLES remain as universal a pop cultural phenomenon as the world has yet witnessed. In many ways, the fact that America’s roots music was transformed into as complex and readily, wondrously accessible a format by a group of working class lads from Liverpool can perhaps still be considered slightly surreal.
The swinging sixties was the Fab Four’s era, although as budding young BUDDY HOLLY fans, Liverpool lads John Lennon and Paul McCartney had cut their teeth as schoolboy combo The Quarrymen in 1957; fellow guitarist (and singer) George Harrison joined the following year although they’d split late ‘59. Re-formed in the spring of 1960 as The Silver Beatles (adding drummer Pete Best and bassist Stu Sutcliffe), the quintet dropped the “silver” part of their moniker and employed manager Alan Williams, who secured them steady local gigs.
Later that year, they toured Hamburg, West Germany, although they had to return when young Harrison was deported for being under eighteen and therefore under age. On the 21st March ‘61, The BEATLES debuted at Liverpool’s Cavern Club, followed by another three-month stint in the group’s now second home, Hamburg.
While there, they recorded for Polydor Records, backing cabaret-type pop singer Tony Sheridan; recordings were later released when the band were at the peak of their exploitative popularity. Around mid-‘61, Stu stayed on in Hamburg to get married and study art. There, he was to tragically die of a brain haemorrhage on the 10th April 1962.
With Paul now on bass and the enigmatic Brian Epstein secured as their new manager, the quartet laid down a demo for Decca Records, recordings that were duly discarded by Dick Rowe. Instead the man signed soon-to-be hit-makers BRIAN POOLE & THE TREMELOES, and of course a proper consolation prize when he contracted rivals-to-be The ROLLING STONES. Summer ‘62 brought sunshine when pop producer George Martin introduced them to EMI’s fledgling Parlophone imprint, but during rehearsals Best was fired and replaced by the more experienced drummer Ringo Starr, straight out of Rory Storm & The Hurricanes; by the end of 1962, the Fab Four’s debut single `Love Me Do’ was in the UK Top 20. When follow-up `Please Please Me’ reached No.2 in the opening weeks of ’63, The BEATLES had arrived, their breezy, fresh-faced pop striking a chord in a music scene that was crying out for a band with the effortless charisma of the cheeky Scousers. More so, their mop-topped, sharp-suited image (courtesy of Epstein) remains one of the most enduring impressions in the history of pop culture. And thus did that dog-eared cliche of a phenomenon “Beatlemania” tighten its grip as the band toured above ROY ORBISON later that year to unprecedented scenes of teenage delirium. The BEATLES also found time to knock out a debut album PLEASE PLEASE ME (1963) {*9}, a record produced by their mentor George Martin and featuring a heady cocktail of R&B covers and group originals. Of the eight Lennon-McCartney songs (including previous 45s and their B-sides `P.S. I Love You’ and `Ask Me Why’), their pop-craft was evident on raucous opener `I Saw Her Standing There’ to the delightful `Do You Want To Know A Secret’, `There’s A Place’ and `Misery’; the half-a-dozen takes were topped by Bert Russell’s `Twist And Shout’ (a hit for The ISLEY BROTHERS), Arthur Alexander’s `Anna (Go To Him)’, Luther Dixon & Wes Farrell’s `Boys’, Goffin-King’s `Chains’ (a hit for The Cookies), Bacharach-David’s `Baby It’s You’ (a hit for The SHIRELLES) and Bobby Scott (and Ric Marlow’s) `A Taste Of Honey’.
The precocious songwriting partnership of John and Paul was entering its golden period as the band notched up an incredible string of successive UK chart-topping singles, namely `From Me To You’, `She Loves You’, `I Want To Hold Your Hand’ and their first of ’64 `Can’t Buy Me Love’. Of course, The BEATLES had finished the preceding annal in fine style via a No.1 sequel WITH THE BEATLES {*9} and a performance before the Queen Mother at the Royal Command Variety Performance. Relying on their R&B-ish covers and original song formula, the set comprised some of Lennon & McCartney greatest two-minute achievements in `It Won’t Be Long’, `All My Loving’ and `I Wanna Be Your Man’, while there was room for Harrison’s first contribution, `Don’t Bother Me’; standards came no better than Motown smashes `Please Mr. Postman’ (a hit for The MARVELETTES) and `Money (That’s What I Want)’ (a hit for Barrett Strong), SMOKEY ROBINSON’s `You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me’, CHUCK BERRY’s `Roll Over Beethoven’, Meredith Willson’s `Till There Was You’ and Richard Drapkin’s misplaced `Devil In Her Heart’.
With British domination well under way, The BEATLES flew to America in February 1964, droves of hysterical fans greeting them upon their landing at New York’s Kennedy Airport. They made a legendary appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show and by April, the group held the top five positions in the American Billboard singles charts: i.e. No.1:- `Can’t Buy Me Love’, 2:- `Twist And Shout’ (not released in Old Blighty), 3:- `She Loves You’, 4:- `I Want To Hold Your Hand’ and 5:- `Please Please Me’.
It must’ve seemed even more surreal, a sense at least partly conveyed by the Fab Four’s Richard Lester-directed screen debut A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (1964) {UK*9}{US*6}. Famously dubbed “the Citizen Kane of juke box movies” by American critic Andrew Sarris, the film’s visually and technically striking, whirlwind snapshot of a fantastical day and a half in the life, boasted an equally pioneering soundtrack which served as a surrogate third album. The band proved themselves as compelling on screen as on stage, and the film’s revolutionary shooting technique created the blueprint for decades of rockumentaries to come. As the sleevenotes understatedly made clear, it was “interesting to remember” that all the songs were Lennon-McCartney originals. The toothy harmonies, the infatuated melodies, Harrison’s breathless Rickenbacker jangle (soon adopted by The BYRDS); pop music had never had it so good, or seemingly so easy. `Can’t Buy Me Love’, `Tell Me Why’, `I Should Have Known Better’, the title track, all tripped off the vinyl like they’d been written in a lunch-break. Their energy and superficial simplicity endeared them to half the planet, and eventually forced the band to give up touring for the respite of the recording studio where, happily, they came up with more ballads in the haunted spirit of `And I Love Her’. The transition from mop-top to meditation moved a step closer only a month after this album’s release, when they had their first fateful encounter with BOB DYLAN and dope. Granted, only one side of the British album featured songs from the film (the American release was closer to the movie, featuring score material by George Martin), but this is where The BEATLES first predicted their own legend.
The same year also saw the release of the band’s fourth album BEATLES FOR SALE (1964) {*8}, a record which included some of the last genuine Lennon/McCartney collaborations, the pick of the bunch being `No Reply’, `I’m A Loser’, `Baby’s In Black’, `I’ll Follow The Sun’ and `Eight Days A Week’; the formulaic idolatry covers stemmed from CHUCK BERRY (`Rock & Roll Music’), BUDDY HOLLY (`Words Of Love’), two from CARL PERKINS’ (`Honey Don’t’ and `Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby’), Otis Johnson (`Mr. Moonlight’), and a medley of Leiber-Stoller’s `Kansas City’ and LITTLE RICHARD’s `Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey!’.  Developing their own particular style, John and Paul’s songs continued to be credited as joint efforts, but by the following year the pair seldom wrote together.
The final chapter in the first phase of The BEATLES’ career, HELP! (1965) {UK*9}{US *6} presaged the band’s inevitable move into more experimental territory, with both McCartney and Lennon contributing the best songs of their career to date. Shot in colour rather than black and white, and adding a convoluted plot to the established formula of Liverpudlian wit, slapstick gags and musical performance, the movie didn’t make quite as much of a splash. Lennon’s title track was possessed of a hitherto unwitnessed emotional urgency, while McCartney raised the creative bar with his plaintive `Yesterday’. Elsewhere `Ticket To Ride’, `You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ and `You’re Going To Lose That Girl’ were all enduring additions to the mushrooming BEATLES songbook, while Harrison contributed two tracks `I Need You’ and `You Like Me Too Much’; two covers included Johnny Russell’s `Act Naturally’ (lowlighting Ringo’s vox) and Larry Williams’ `Dizzy Miss Lizzy’. Again, only the US version of the album counted as a comprehensive soundtrack, featuring the songs actually heard in the film plus instrumental pieces composed by Ken Thorne.
The BEATLES performed before a record number of fans at New York’s Shea Stadium in August, by which point The BEATLES were undoubtedly the biggest pop/rock band in the world, unique in their ability to produce music that seemingly crossed all boundaries of age, race, class and gender. Even so, it was a shock to the rock world when the Queen announced in the summer of ‘65 that the band were each to receive an M.B.E. It was almost unthinkable that bad boy rivals The ROLLING STONES would be given such a (dubious) honour, and while the two bands were poles apart musically, LSD and the burgeoning psychedelic culture brought them together briefly.
RUBBER SOUL (1965) {*9}, written and recorded in just over a month, was the sound of The BEATLES in flux, shedding their clean-cut image and interpreting the influence of BOB DYLAN’s pioneering folk-rock experiments. Despite the transformation taking place, the sound was more fluid and assured, the songwriting more mature (example `Drive My Car’, `Nowhere Man’ and `Girl’. Lennon’s `In My Life’ was beautifully bittersweet while McCartney almost equalled `Yesterday’ through `Michelle’. The lilting `Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’ saw Harrison’s first forays into sitar work, while his own songwriting development shone via `If I Needed Someone’ and `Think For Yourself’; Ringo was co-credited with John and Paul on the countrified `What Goes On’. The album was also sandwiched between pioneering double A-sided singles `Day Tripper’ / `We Can Work It Out’ and `Paperback Writer / `Rain’. The latter was the first overtly psychedelic BEATLES record, innovative in its use of rhythm and featuring an undulating Lennon vocal (a style much mimicked by many of today’s crop of young bands). Its potential was fully realised on REVOLVER (1966) {*10}, oft cited as The BEATLES’ pinnacle achievement and as one of the best albums ever made. McCartney excelled himself with the string-cloaked melancholy of `Eleanor Rigby’ (another hit double A-side), while Harrison’s biting `Taxman’ kicked off the album in strident style; George also delivered `Love You To’ and `I Want To Tell You’. But it was the psychedelic numbers which made most impact. `She Said She Said’ was a swirling piece of trip-pop, while `Tomorrow Never Knows’ remains one of the most bizarre and enigmatic songs in The BEATLES’ canon. With a working title of `The Void’, the song was based on one of Lennon’s first profound acid trips and was partly inspired by the ancient religious text beloved of hippies at the time, The Tibetan Book Of The Dead. With a hypnotic drum sound that many have since tried and failed to recreate, backwards guitar that sounded like a flock of screeching pterodactyls and Lennon’s mantra-like vocals, the record set a precedent in psychedelic rock. At this stage The BEATLES were already preoccupied with the possibilities of the recording studio and significantly, the band played their last gig in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park the same month the album was released.
Ensconced in Abbey Road Studios, the quartet came up with the double A-side `Penny Lane’ / `Strawberry Fields Forever’. Released in February ‘67, the single’s effects-laden innovation was a taster for The BEATLES’ much heralded psychedelic concept album SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND (1967) {*10}. Its release coinciding perfectly with the fabled 1967 “Summer Of Love”, the record was a landmark in new studio technique. Utilising the (then) pioneering four-track recording process, the band painstakingly pieced together ornate pieces of sonic intricacy that set new standards. It contained many classics such as `Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds (misguidedly thought by many to be about l.s.d.), `She’s Leaving Home’ and the enduring `A Day In The Life’, the latter piece complete with prolonged intentionally stuck-in-the-groove outro. Fans and critics alike made it “their greatest album of all time”, although many others thought it too overblown as well as over-produced. George Martin seemed intent on encapsulating the talents of McCartney (on the vaudevillian `When I’m Sixty-Four’), Harrison (via his sitar-friendly `Within You Without You’) and Starr in his inimitable monotone vocal style for `With A Little Help From My Friends’ (soon-to-be a massive hit for JOE COCKER).
A month later, the anthemic `All You Need Is Love’ gave The BEATLES another No.1, helped no doubt by its simultaneous worldwide TV broadcast. The death of guru/manager Epstein cast a shadow over the celebrations but the band moved on, filming/recording MAGICAL MYTERY TOUR (1967) {*7}, a trippy film and soundtrack UK-EP/US-LP. It contained the infamous Lennon-penned surrealism of `I Am The Walrus’ and in the wake of the group’s narcotic experimentation and definitive, all conquering contribution to psychedelia `Sgt. Pepper’, they attempted to apply their expanded consciousness to the art of filmmaking. The result was an amateurish mini road movie inspired by Ken Kesey’s crusading vagabonds, the Merry Pranksters. While the mini-movie remains a muddled relic of its era, again the accompanying soundtrack has weathered the vagaries of time as an occasionally brilliant companion piece to the said Sgt. Pepper; `The Fool On The Hill’ was indeed awe-inspiring. It was also the last BEATLES album to display any sense of a unified entity as personal friction began to undo their collective spirit. Screened on British TV on Boxing Day 1967, the film was almost universally panned.
Unbowed, The BEATLES decamped to India for spiritual retreat with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, during which time they accumulated much of the material that would form the “White Album”. Upon their return to English shores, they set about forming their Apple Corporation, which would handle all the business dealings of the band as well as functioning as an independent outlet for The BEATLES and some likeminded talent and proteges.
The first release was double-header `Hey Jude’ / `Revolution’, the former a rousing torch song, the latter a stinging attack by Lennon on would-be radicals. Eventually released in November ‘68,THE BEATLES “White Album”{*10} was a sprawling double set recorded in an environment of tension and breakdown of inter-band communications. Yet it contained some of The BEATLES finest songs, including Harrison’s solemn `While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, McCartney’s `Helter Skelter’ and `Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ (procured by Marmalade for a chart-topper), Lennon’s gorgeous `Dear Prudence’ and `Julia’, a moving tribute to his mother. The album also included the cryptic genius of John’s `Happiness Is A Warm Gun’, while `Revolution #9’ was The BEATLES at their most defiantly avant-experimental. George would also contribute three other tunes to this epic set, `Piggies’, `Long, Long, Long’ and `Savoy Truffle’, and Ringo too soulfully delivered country-carny song `Don’t Pass Me By’.
Nevertheless, the recording had strained relationships within the band to breaking point and the subsequent back to basics sessions in 1969 (eventually emerging as the `Let It Be’ OST album) broke down in disarray. Another soundtrack timepiece (however incidental) saw The BEATLES fit themselves into the film YELLOW SUBMARINE (1969) {*6}, a garish, contract-filling exercise in animated surrealism to which the band contributed little save for the soundtrack and a brief live-action scene. Of the four new songs, only two `Hey Bulldog’ (a great, winding semi-snarl traceable in Oasis), and the `Sesame Street’-style `All Together Now’) were credited to Lennon-McCartney. The other two were down to Harrison: `It’s All Too Much’, a convincing an excuse for its existence and a six-minute splurge using most of the psychedelic tricks in the band’s book and some more besides. The less exuberant, equally lysergic `Only A Northern Song’ stands as the only BEATLES track to reference free jazz. Together with the whimsical title song, `All You Need Is Love’, and George Martin’s makeweight score, they constitute what is still universally regarded as the weakest album in the band’s canon.
Incredibly, The BEATLES got it together one last time for ABBEY ROAD (1969) {*9}, a breath-taking sweep through the diverse styles of each of the songwriters. Harrison (who just completed his “Wonderwall Music” project) contributed two of his best tracks, `Something’ and the pastoral beauty of `Here Comes The Sun’. McCartney penned most of the medley which formed a sizeable chunk of the album and which included one of his most heartbreakingly lovely songs `Golden Slumbers’; the whimsy and buoyancy was provided by `Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ and Ringo’s `Octopus’s Garden’, the heavy mood via `Come Together’.
The BEATLES’ final, drawn out demise was captured in unforgiving detail by Michael Lindsay-Hogg in LET IT BE (1970) {*8}, an Oscar-winning document of the sessions for the Fab Four’s last album. But it was hardly a fitting epitaph for The BEATLES, Phil Spector’s production coming in for some flak. It did, however, contain such definitive BEATLES moments as the deeply reflective title track, the sleepy `Across The Universe’, the beguiling `The Long And Winding Road’ and rooftop rock’n’roller `Get Back’; Harrison bowed out with `I Me Mine’ and `For You Blue’, while both Starr and the guitarist were tagged on for minute ditty `Dig It’.
The BEATLES had officially split a couple of months before the album’s release in April 1970, estranged amid personal rows and more serious business disagreements. JOHN LENNON, his new wife, Yoko Ono and their Plastic Ono Band branched out into further rock’n’roll-meets-avant-garde territory, while PAUL McCARTNEY (his wife Linda and Wings), GEORGE HARRISON and RINGO STARR all went on to respectable solo careers, although subsequent recordings never quite produced the same impact as The BEATLES’ material.
Come the 90s, there was still a voracious market for anything BEATLES-related and fans were treated to successive live and outtakes sets, most of which topped the charts in both America and Britain. 1994’s LIVE AT THE BBC was the first of these monster doubles, showcasing the band’s early, rock’n’roll-influenced years with a slew of previously unissued material including many incendiary covers of both well known and more obscure songs. The three mid-90s volumes of ANTHOLOGY meanwhile, trawled the archives for alternate takes, rough demos, live cuts and other odds ’n’ sods, releasing them chronologically with each covering a distinct phase of the group’s 60s career. Pick of the bunch was probably the third and final one, if for no other reason than the sheer experimentalism of their latter years and the inevitable, fascinating cast-offs which that produced (including acoustic demos from the “White Album” sessions and the semi-legendary string-less version of `The Long And Winding Road’).
The rather unnecessary 1 (2000) collected the complete sweep of the band’s “No.1” singles in both America and the States while LET IT BE… NAKED (2003) {*6} offered an alternate take on the controversial original. While the record purported to be the finished article as originally envisioned, it certainly wasn’t a warts ’n’ all release of the abandoned “Get Back” sessions and, in dispensing with the banter and asides of `Let It Be’, sacrificed some of the original’s spontaneity.
Another to tie in with a BEATLES film’s re-release, the good folks at E.M.I. dreamed up the concept of a “Songtrack” version of YELLOW SUBMARINE {*6}, substituting George Martin’s score for the rest of the previously released BEATLES material originally heard in the movie, and subtly remixing the original part-mono recordings. What you get, then, is a halfway house between a spruced-up, alternative best of and a soundtrack. Dandy for BEATLES beginners and novice Submariners, less than essential for fans, unless you really must hear those `Eleanor Rigby’ strings in stereo. A minor quibble indeed.
Sadly (having lost JL in December 1980 to a maniacal gunman), another chapter in the BEATLES saga drew to a close when George finally succumbed to cancer on the 29th November 2001. A star-studded concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall paying tribute to perhaps the greatest and most underrated Beatle of them all. The band remain one of the greatest cultural icons of the 20th Century with a back catalogue that even OASIS will never be able to match. For further details for each Beatle, see their individual solo catalogue/entries.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-LCS/BG/MCS // rev-up MCS Dec2011

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