Guide to British Music of the 1960s
Rhythm guitar/vocals - John Lennon, bass/vocals - Paul McCartney, drums/vocals - Ringo Starr, lead guitar/vocals - George Harrison
Even thirty years after their split the Beatles remain the most influential group of all time. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly there is the innovation in music that was mixed with being popular. The Beatles continued to experiment throughout their career but they never ceased being commercial. However, witness the musical difference between Please Please Me and Revolver. Just three years but a world apart. Today the Beatles regularly top best-ever album and best-ever single polls, usually with Revolver and Strawberry Fields Forever respectively. The second reason is that they had a career before they even had a record contract. This seems almost unheard of today when bands are developed by the marketing men and have hit singles before they have played live! The endless gigging around Liverpool and Hamburg honed not just their musical and singing skills but also enabled them to bring in diverse influences that coloured their later sounds. This meant that they were always able to bring in different musical styles from country to Indian sitar music.
The group started when Paul McCartney joined John Lennon's Quarrymen skiffle group on guitar. He had watched the group play at Wotton fete and was introduced. The fact that he knew all the words to Eddie Cochran's Twenty Flight Rock certainly impressed the others. George Harrison later joined the Quarrymen. He had been in the Liverpool Institute with Paul although in a different year. The band went through several mutations and names including Johnny & the Moondogs for one gig. The Silver Beatles stayed for a while before the name Beatles was chosen as a mix between crickets (from Buddy Holly & the Crickets) and beat music. The local music paper in Liverpool was called Mersey Beat and this name was later used to describe all the bands breaking from the North West of England. By this time Pete Best had joined on drums and Stu Sutcliffe, an art school friend of John's, was playing bass. Stu was not a natural musician but being in a group was the thing to do and thousands of teenagers across Liverpool were buying guitars. The band was getting gigs around Merseyside and supported Johnny Gentle on the Larry Parnes promoted tour of Scotland. The Beatles may have been nothing exceptional at this stage. Indeed, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes were probably the top Liverpool group and featured a certain Ringo Starr on drums.
The Beatles' first major break came when they were offered a residency at the Top Ten Club in Hamburg. They arrived in Hamburg in August 1960. Derry & the Seniors had been the first Mersey group to play Hamburg and the Beatles played long hours at the Top Ten, spending their few hours of sleep in a room behind a cinema screen. In their time they move to the Kaiserkeller and the Star Club, all on the Große Freiheit in the heart of the Reeperbahn district. The long hours playing the clubs meant that they required a large repertoire of songs and this is evident from the range of cover versions on their early LPs, many of which stemmed from their days in Hamburg. The diversity of the cover versions was also reflected later in their own songwriting. The five young lads from Liverpool learned a great deal during this time including their trade as musicians. Stu Sutcliffe left the group when they returned to Liverpool with McCartney switching to bass guitar. He died a short while later as a result of a brain haemorrhage, possibly sustained after being attacked in the street.
They had several stints in Hamburg, the last towards the end of 1962, interspersed with time in Liverpool including a lunchtime residency at the Cavern Club in Matthew Street. It was while they were in Liverpool that a young student entered the music section of North End Music Stores that was run by Brian Epstein. He asked for a copy of My Bonnie by the Beatles (where they backed singer Tony Sheridan). They had made the recording while in Germany, mostly backing Sheridan but also including a throaty Lennon version of Ain't She Sweet and the Harrison/Lennon instrumental Cry for a Shadow, a dig at England's most popular group of the time. Epstein had never heard of the Beatles but was told that they were playing just around the corner. After receiving several more requests, Epstein ventured into the dingy cellar and saw the Beatles normal stage act that had been perfected in Hamburg. He ended up signing to be their manager and organised a recording session at Decca in London. Decca's A&R manager Dick Rowe rejected the recordings, famously claiming that guitar groups were on the way out. A mistake was to play a series of standards while John and Paul were starting to write their own material. However, these were the days of Tin Pan Alley and it was virtually unheard of for a group to write its own songs. Epstein took the tape around all the London record companies and ended up with George Martin at Parlophone, a subsidiary of EMI that had concentrated on comedy records such as the Goons.
George Martin was not experienced in the pop music field but recognised their potential. However, they would need a better drummer than Pete Best. He may have attracted the girls but he was not seen to be good enough. Ringo Starr was brought in as replacement. Just in case, George Martin had a session drummer standing by the first single recording Love Me Do. It is believed that Ringo drummed on the single although the album version of the song may be the Andy White version. The single reached number 17 in the charts and they were looking for a follow-up. Martin had the track How Do You Do It which the band recorded but did not want released. They favoured their own track Please Please Me. Gerry & the Pacemakers recorded the former track and reached number 1. The Beatles' version was released on Anthology 1.Please Please Me gave the group their first number 1 single. The number 1 hits kept coming through 1963, all Lennon & McCartney songs: From Me to You, She Loves You, I Want to Hold Your Hand. The albums Please Please Me and With The Beatles topped the album charts but also reached the singles charts due to their high levels of sales. At the time the group toured the UK, gradually moving towards the top of the bill. This was the era of package tours of different chart artists. The touring was not as lucrative as it could have been, though, as Epstein had signed the contracts well in advance when the Beatles were commanding lower appearance fees. While the two albums showcased new Lennon & McCartney songs, they also contained a number of cover versions that the Beatles had been playing since their early days. Nowadays covers such as Twist and Shout and Roll Over Beethoven are as well known as the singles. The same applies to album tracks like I Saw Her Standing There and All My Loving that are well-known despite not being released as singles.
In 1964 Epstein was approached to make a Beatles film. Dick Lester was the producer and he was popular with the band because he had worked with Peter Sellers. The filming had to fitted in with the band's already busy schedule but it was not too taxing as they played themselves going about their everyday lives with a small plot added in. Lennon & McCartney had to quickly write some new songs for the soundtrack and they accomplished this while staying at the George V hotel in Paris. The title A Hard Day's Night came from a phrase that Ringo was fond of using. The film was a huge success and its première led to the term "Beatlemania" when the Daily Mirror photographed the hoards of fans outside the cinema in Leicester Square. The accompanying album was the first that did not include any cover versions although only side one contained songs from the film. Beatles for Sale was also released during this year. While it contained the classic opener in Eight Days a Week. Half of the tracks were covers and suggested that even the prolific John Lennon and Paul McCartney could not produce the number of quality tracks demanded of them.
1964 was also the year that the Beatles conquered America. The singles had been released but without much success. There had been no stable record company and little if any promotion. However, the hype generated by their visit was enough to ensure that they entered the charts simultaneously and dominated the top ten. Beatlemania took over the US very quickly.
The film follow-up to A Hard Day's Night came in 1965 and was also produced by Dick Lester. Help was in colour and had a bigger budget than the previous film outing. There was more of a plot this time although the film was still a vehicle to showcase Beatles songs and, importantly, Beatle humour. Nevertheless, the two Beatles films were stronger as films that much of what was being made for Elvis and Cliff Richard.
Rubber Soul was the first of the three mid-period Beatles albums that represented pop music being overturned. Here the introduction of different influences such as the sitar on Norwegian Wood helped to create some unique sounds. Like other earlier Beatles albums, Rubber Soul contained no singles and stood on its own merits. Singles released about this time included the double-A side Day Tripper / We Can Work It Out. Rubber Soul does gain the recognition of Revolver and Sergeant Pepper but it can be strongly argued that it remains the most enduring of the mid-'60s trilogy. It contains songs that are very well-known despite not being released as singles: Norwegian Wood, Michelle and Drive My Car.
After Rubber Soul, the Beatles ceased touring. Not only had concerts become difficult as they were unable to hear what they were playing but there had also been a number of high profile difficulties for the group. In the Philippines the group had been accused of boycotting the president. In the US John Lennon had been misunderstood or misquoted as saying the Beatles were bigger than god. This led to a backlash against the group including death threats against Lennon himself. He had in fact said that the Beatles were having a bigger influence on young people than Jesus and this was taken as meaning that they were better than Jesus by the small-minded religious community. Although his intentions had been misunderstood and thereafter misrepresented, he was in fact correct and the Beatles were and are more important than religion. The Beatles help to unite people while religion is used to set people against each other. It was a pity that some remain constantly in denial of the truth.
From this point the Beatles became a studio band and spent much time in EMI's Abbey Road studio. The result of this started to become apparent in 1966. The single Paperback Writer / Rain showed signs of a new direction. Rain, in particular, was a highly innovative track using backwards taping and allowed the Beatles to experiment outside the A-side single format. What followed though is possibly the high point of the Beatles' recorded output.
Revolver is widely regarded as the Beatles' greatest album. It spawned the single Yellow Submarine / Eleanor Rigby. The difference between these two tracks really highlights the diversity of musical styles that Revolver encapsulated. The cover did not need to state that the record was by the Beatles. Furthermore, its black and white stood out at a time when colour was becoming all the rage. The album starts with George's tirade against the Inland Revenue with Taxman. By the end of side two the listener has been taken on a musical journey that encompasses children's music (Yellow Submarine), Indian music (Love You To) and the Tibetan Book of the Dead (She Said She Said). The final track Tomorrow Never Knows was one of the most unusual. Based around a repetitive drum pattern, it also explored the theme of being dead. George Martin had to use all his means to achieve Lennon's desire to sound like a Tibetan monk calling from a mountain top.
By this stage the Beatles had kick-started a new musical revolution and were pushing the entire industry from pop to rock. The next single was another double A-side Strawberry Fields Forever / Penny Lane. The former track is often cited as the best single of all time but, strangely, it was the only Beatles single since Love Me Do not to make number 1 in the UK, having been held off the spot by Englebert Humperdink's Please Release Me. Both of the tracks refer to the Beatles' home town of Liverpool. John's Strawberry Fields Forever is the most unusual of the two and its construction is available on Anthology 2. There were two versions of the song, one with normal instruments and one with an orchestra. In order to mix the two together, George Martin speeded one up and slowed the other down as they had been recorded in different keys. The single was recorded during the same sessions that spawned the following LP and it highlighted what was to come. The Beatles had changed from being a touring band that recorded in the studio to a studio band. They were able to spend large amounts of time at Abbey Road, developing ideas and trying things never done before. Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band redefined how music was made with many of the innovations now commonplace. This was another album that shifted the perceptions of popular music. Like Revolver there was a mix of musical styles but Pepper was more of a concept album though not fully. It starts with the title track which is a McCartney composition. This introduces the idea of the band who are supposed to be singing the remaining songs. The thinking was they were "fed up" being Beatles so why not be someone else? The track is reprised as the penultimate track, effectively topping and tailing the album. However, the finest track follows the reprise and, perhaps, this suggests that it lies outside any concept. A Day in the Life is mostly a Lennon song. It is a song that builds to an almighty climax. The musicians had been given an ending note and the number of bars to lead up to it. Other than that, it was totally free-form. With hindsight it appears that Rubber Soul and Revolver were greater albums but the impact of Sergeant Pepper, especially in 1967, cannot be underestimated.
The next single was premiered live on television as part of the Our World telecast in June 1967. All You Need is Love was performed in a crowded Abbey Road studio and included Mick Jagger and Keith Richard in the crowd. However, this time was a watershed in the Beatles' career. While the Beatles were the Mahirishi Yogi in Bangor they received that Brian Epstein had died in London. This was a major blow as Epstein was far more than a manager and a motivator but he was the glue that held the band together. Without him they started to show a lack of cohesion. the first project after Epstein's death was Magical Mystery Tour. This was a film made for BBC Television and was met with critical disapproval. The single Hello Goodbye that came out around the same time was another number one though.
The Beatles, released in 1968 and usually known as The White Album, attracts differing views. It is either a great album or a mess. A personal view is that it would have been a great single album but was weak as a double. It contained some classic songs such as George Harrison's While My Guitar Gently Weeps and Piggies. This showed that George was truly coming into his own as a songwriter on a par with Lennon and McCartney. By this time the Beatles were running Apple, a highly innovative multimedia empire, way ahead of its time but dramatically unfocused.
Yellow Submarine was released as a film. This has also met with much criticism but does stand up in its own right many years later. The accompanying album included new material from the film as well as an instrumental score by George Martin. The Yellow Submarine album released in 1999 collected all the songs from the film, many of which had been included on other Beatles' albums. the film was a cartoon which only featured the Beatles towards the very end. their voices in the film had been played by actors.
By this time Apple had become somewhat of a shambles despite good intentions. It was leaking cash like a sieve. The Beatles were also being pulled in different directions, not just by wives but also by lawyers and accountants. The tensions came to the fore during the filming of Let It Be. This showed the band at each others' throats, Paul trying to keep the band together and John more interested in Yoko than the Beatles. The film and the Beatles "live" career culminated in an impromptu concert on the roof of Apple. This included I've Got A Feeling and Get Back before the police called a halt.
While the Let It Be album was later released though not to the full satisfaction of the band, the Beatles did return to record again, producing the superb Abbey Road. This was a true band effort unlike Let It Be and The Beatles. The highlights were two further George Harrison classics, Something and Here Comes the Sun, and it was not surprise when he had the first solo number one single after the Beatles split.
But the Beatles had become too removed from each other to carry on. Accountants and lawyers stood in the way of everything and they decided to call it a day. John Lennon had already established the Plastic Ono Band and the individual members had highly successful solo careers.
Everything comes full circle and when the Anthology albums were being prepared in the late 1990s, the surviving Beatles started to work on some tapes made by the late John Lennon. The result was Free as a Bird and Real Love, both of which took the band back to number one in the charts.
A second volume of tracks recorded for the BBC was released in November 2013. It was followed a month later by an iTunes-only release that brought together 1963 live tracks and studio outtakes called The Beatles Bootleg Recordings 1963. Due to a change in EC legislation these tracks would have lost their copyright protection if they were not issued.
George Harrison died on 29 November 2001 after a long battle against cancer.
It is doubtful whether the Beatles will ever be equalled. While there were a lot of great bands in the 1960s, the Beatles were on a level way above everyone else. Their influence remains as strong today as it has always been.
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