Probably the most popular, influential and enduring rock group of all time, the Beatles almost single-handedly reshaped rock ‘n’ roll from a genre of throwaway singles by faceless stars to an artistic medium with memorable images and idols. The Beatles placed the emphasis on a group, rather than a single individual, like Frank Sinatra or Elvis. They also set an example for all rock n roll bands to follow with their strong sense of self-determination, going against their record company and management on many issues, even refusing to tour at the height of their popularity.
Of course, their countless hit singles have become modern-day folk songs, covered by hundreds of individuals and groups and inspiring countless more, and have sold more copies than those of any other band in history. The roots of the Beatles date back to Liverpool, England in the late 1950s. Inspired by the growing skiffle craze, John Lennon bought a guitar in March 1957 and formed a skiffle group called the Quarrymen, named after his high school, Quarry Bank. The lineup changed frequently, but by October 1959 it consisted of Lennon, his younger classmate Paul McCartney, George Harrison and drummer Colin Hanton. By March of 1960, Lennon’s art school classmate Stuart Sutcliffe joined the band on bass and suggested the name the Beetles, a play on Buddy Holly’s group the Crickets. By that summer they were the Silver Beatles, settling on 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 became a popular local act, performing at various clubs until they were expelled from the country in November because George Harrison was underage. The Beatles returned to Germany in early 1961 to record as a backup band for singer Tony Sheridan; these sessions were later released during the mid-’60s as “new” Beatles material, taking advantage of unsuspecting fans. Meanwhile Sutcliffe had left the band to pursue his art career and relationship with German photographer Astrid Kircherr. Paul took over on bass. Ironically, Stu died of a brain hemorrhage the following year, right before the Beatle’s third Hamburg visit. Throughout 1961 the Beatles played clubs in Britain, becoming an underground sensation; they were particularly famous at the Cavern Club in Liverpool. Though they played mostly covers, Lennon and McCartney began writing original songs together, agreeing to forever share songwriting credits, even though they only co-wrote a handful of tunes during their entire career as the Beatles. By the end of the year, Liverpool record store owner Brian Epstein had become the band’s manager, and quickly began trying to find them a record contract. On January 1, 1962 the Beatles auditioned for Decca Records, performing 12 covers and three originals for A&R assistant Mike Smith. The group was rejected, however, and told that “guitar groups are on the way out.” Undaunted, Epstein got the group an audition at Parlophone, an EMI subsidiary, with producer George Martin, who signed the Beatles on May 9, 1962. After one recording session, Martin suggested that drummer Pete Best be replaced, and the Beatles brought in Ringo Starr (born Richard Starkey), a well-known local drummer, as his replacement. By October 1962 their first single, Love Me Do” b/w “P.S. I Love You, was a U.K. Top 20 hit, allegedly because Epstein bought 10,000 copies himself to ensure that it would chart. The band became regular guests on the BBC, performing over fifty times between 1962 and 1964. In February of 1963 the Beatles returned to the studio to record 10 songs (in one day!) for their first album, Please Please Me, which was released the following month.
It became an instant hit, staying at No. 1 in Britain for 30 weeks and by October, female fans were screaming at their performances , the start of “Beatlemania.” Following an early November performance before the royal family, Parlophone released a second Beatles album, With The Beatles. By the end of the year the group had sold over 2.5 million albums in Britain, and had a string of million-selling singles. Naturally, word about this amazing new act soon spread to America. Yet, ignoring the British success of the Fab Four, EMI’s U.S. partner, Capitol, refused to issue the first few Beatles singles, which were instead picked up by the Chicago-based indie label Vee Jay Records. Vee Jay packaged the early singles as Introducing the Beatles, their first U.S. LP. During the second half of 1963 it was the only Beatles material available in America, and sold incredibly well; by 1964 a court awarded the rights to all Beatles recordings to EMI/Capitol, and the record went out of print, only to become one of the most counterfeited albums in music history. In January of 1964 Capitol released their first U.S. Beatles LP, Meet the Beatles, containing remixed material from their two British albums. Following a landmark three weekend stint on the Ed Sullivan show in February of 1964 (viewed by over 73 million people), the Beatles were the biggest band in America, “Beatlemania” had taken hold of the U.S., also paving the way for other “British Invasion” groups. To capitalize on their incredible popularity, the Fab Four were made the stars of a comedy film, “A Hard Days Night”, which, surprisingly, earned good reviews and, not surprisingly, produced a hit soundtrack album. Following the release of the movie in July, the band left for their first North American tour, performing 25 stadium dates in the U.S. and Canada. By the end of the year Beatles For Sale was in British stores, part of EMI’s plan to have a new Beatles album out every six months, while their previous albums and singles still clogged the U.S. and U.K Top 10. In 1965 the band appeared in a second movie, the James Bond spoof “Help!”, which also spawned a soundtrack album. Another huge U.S. tour followed. Not content with their unprecedented commercial success, the Beatles began to take their music more seriously, shifting from covers and upbeat pop love songs to more thoughtful, experimental material, highlighted on December 1965’s Rubber Soul.
The next U.S. Beatles album, Yesterday…And Today, was released on June 15, 1966 and featured a shocking cover featuring the handsome Fab Four surrounded by raw meat and butchered baby dolls, a protest against Capitol’s “butchery” of their albums in the U.S.. Complaints from retailers immediately rolled in, and the album was withdrawn, reissued the following week with a new, mundane cover of a steamer trunk. (Today copies of the album with the original cover are worth thousands of dollars.) Further controversy plagued the group when John Lennon claimed in a newspaper interview that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” Many radio stations stopped playing their songs, and protesters appeared outside their concerts. Meanwhile the group was increasingly under the influence of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, an Indian guru; this flirtation with Eastern religion soon became common among ’60s rock stars, and, more interestingly, lead the Beatles to experiment with Indian sitar music on their next few albums. The band also began using large amounts of psychedelic drugs, foreshadowing the “flower children” of the next few years. Following the release of Revolver, their most mature effort to date, in August 1966, the Beatles embarked on their final U.S. tour, playing their last live show at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park on August 29th. From then on, the band announced, they were going to keep away from live performances to concentrate on more elaborate studio productions. Rumors were spread in the media as the band disappeared from the public. The Beatles spent much of early 1967 in the studio, recording their amazing, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This groundbreaking concept album completely changed the way rock albums were created. It used numerous studio effects, placed the emphasis on the album as a whole rather than on singles, and rewrote the standard for cover art with its famous cardboard cutout-based photo collage. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band later won four Grammys, including Best Album. On August 27, 1967 Beatles manger Brian Epstein was found dead of a drug overdose, possibly intentional. The band was shaken, but decided not to hire a new manager, assuming complete control over their own career. Their first project without Epstein’s guidance, the concept album and BBC TV special Magical Mystery Tour, was attacked by critics, and was probably the beginning of the end for the Beatles. By 1968 the group had formed its own record label, Apple, and they were recording tracks for a new double album. Sessions were filled with tension as members of the group periodically stormed out and often failed to record together, turning in tracks recorded independently.
The bizarre result, popularly referred to as The White Album but officially called The Beatles, was released in November of 1968, and featured a guest appearance by Eric Clapton on the single “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” That same month John Lennon released a solo album recorded with his controversial new lover, Japanese artist Yoko Ono, entitled Unfinished Music No. 1 – Two Virgins. Late in 1968 an animated film inspired by the song “Yellow Submarine” was released in theaters. Despite the cheery tone of the film, created with little band involvement, the real Beatles were hardly speaking, spending more time on their personal lives and their own musical projects than on the group. In January 1969 the weary band began preparing to record a new album live in the studio, without any overdubs, tentatively entitled Get Back. For an accompanying film, the Beatles performed on the roof of their studio, their last public appearance ever. While preparing the album, the group began to fight over creative issues, and the project was shelved, while the group continued to deteriorate. On March 12, McCartney married American photographer Linda Eastman; several days later Lennon formally married Yoko Ono. By May the Beatles’ situation worsened when the group appointed Allen Klein as their new business manager, despite objections by Paul McCartney, who wanted to give the job to his new father-in-law. Though conflict continued to haunt the group, the Beatles returned one last time to EMI Studios to record Abbey Road with George Martin, an amazingly together album. By early 1970 each of the four Beatles was working on a solo album, but each publicly denied rumors of a split. In September 1969, Lennon told his bandmates that he wanted to quit, but because the group was renegotiating with EMI at the time, the breakup was temporarily put aside. Meanwhile, rampant rumors spread across America that Paul McCartney had died in an auto accident several years earlier and had been secretly replaced by a look-alike; the alleged “clues” hidden in lyrics and cover art were quickly proved to be the product of overactive imaginations. Sadly, internal tension resurfaced in the Beatles when Allen Klein brought in Phil Spector to produce and overdub Get Back (released in May 1970 as Let It Be) against Paul’s wishes, also demanding that Paul delay the release of McCartney, his solo debut, in order to avoid detracting from sales of Let It Be. In anger, McCartney released his album in April, before Let It Be, and publicly announced that he was quitting the group.
On December 31, 1970 McCartney filed suit against Klein to break up the Beatles, which upset the other three, who had considered periodically recording as a group while continuing their solo careers — now any chance of a reunion was gone, at least for quite a while. Apple Records became a financial and legal mess. During the 1970s each of the Beatles released solo albums. Paul, performing with wife Linda in the group Wings, was the most commercially successful. John recorded on and off with Yoko Ono, and continued to attract attention for his radical politics (though he semi-retired from music in 1975 to spend time with his newborn son, Sean). Throughout the decade there was idle talk of a reunion, peaking around 1976 when a Beatlesque Australian group named Klaatu was rumored to be the Fab Four under a false name (they weren’t, though their manager and record company encouraged the rumor) and Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels half-seriously offered the Beatles $3,000 to perform on his show. Though all four Beatles did contribute to the 1973 Ring Starr song “I’m the Greatest,” no real reunion ever took place. On December 8, 1980 all chances of that happening were ended when a deranged fan, Mark David Chapman shot and killed John Lennon outside his New York apartment. Although the Beatles had not released any new albums since 1970, interest in the group remained high into the ’90s, their backcatalog selling millions of copies a year and providing Capitol with a large part of their annual income. Publishing rights to all Lennon-McCartney compositions were sold during the ’80s for hundreds of millions of dollars, at one point passing through the hands of Michael Jackson.
Though Capitol issued singles/out-takes compilations such as Past Masters and Rarities, a lot more unreleased material remained unavailable due to ongoing legal problems, and ended up on illegal bootlegs. By the early ’90s Paul, George, Ringo and Yoko Ono settled their disagreements about contracts, permitting the re-release of long unavailable recordings. In 1994 Capitol issued a double CD of early Beatles recordings for the BBC. Phenomenal sales of Live at the BBC inspired more exploitation of the Beatles legacy. In 1995 the surviving Beatles came together to contribute to a TV documentary about the group and select material for a planned rarities anthology of out-takes and demos. While together, Paul, George and Ringo laid down music for two John Lennon demo out-takes, “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love.” Though the sound quality was often abysmal, the material inferior, and the surrounding hype insulting, America’s aging Beatles’ fans ate up the three 1996 double-album releases, Beatles Anthology 1, 2, and 3, which sold over 15 million copies in less than a year. Capitol once again insists that there is no more Beatles material that will be released. Even though one of the Fab Four has broken up, they live on, almost vividly, in the hearts of the youth in the world. Nothing before or since the Beatles has affected people in such a huge way. Forty years ago, four young lads from Liverpool, England got together and grew and grew until they were bigger than anything that’s ever been seen in the music industry
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