Beatles were the most popular and influential rock act of all time, but
their significance cannot
solely be measured in sales records (as impressive as those are). They synthesized all that
was good about early rock and roll, and changed it into something original and even more exciting. They
established the prototype for the self-contained rock group that wrote and performed their own material.
As composers, their craft and melodic inventiveness were second to none, and key to the
evolution of rock from its blues/R&B-based forms into a style that was far more eclectic, but equally
visceral. As singers, both John Lennon and Paul McCartney were among the best and
most expressive vocalists in rock; the group's harmonies were intricate and exhilarating. As
performers, they were (at least until touring had ground them down) exciting and photogenic; when
they retreated into the studio, they were instrumental in pioneering advanced techniques and
multi-layered arrangements. They were also the first British rock group to achieve worldwide
prominence, launching a British Invasion that made rock truly an international phenomenon.
and teenage rebel John Lennon got hooked on rock 'n' roll in the mid-1950s,
and formed a
band, the Quarrymen, at his Liverpool high school. Around mid-1957, the Quarrymen were joined
by another guitarist, Paul McCartney, nearly two years Lennon's junior. A bit later they were joined
by another guitarist, George Harrison, a friend of McCartney's. The Quarrymen would change
lineups constantly in the late 1950s, eventually reducing to the core trio of guitarists.
Quarrymen changed their name to the Silver Beatles in 1960, quickly dropping
the "Silver" to
become just the Beatles. Lennon's art college friend Stuart Sutcliffe joined on bass, but finding a
permanent drummer was a vexing problem until Pete Best joined in the summer of 1960. He
successfully auditioned for the combo just before they left for a several-month stint in Hamburg,
Germany. When they returned to Liverpool at the end of 1960, the band--formerly also-rans on the
exploding Liverpudlian "beat" scene--were suddenly the most exciting act on the local circuit. They
consolidated their following in 1961 with constant gigging in the Merseyside area, most often at the
legendary Cavern Club.
also returned for engagements in Hamburg during 1961, although Sutcliffe
dropped out of the
band that year to concentrate on his art school studies there. McCartney took over on bass,
Harrison settled in as lead guitarist, and Lennon had rhythm guitar; everyone sang. In mid-1961 the
Beatles (minus Sutcliffe) made their first recordings in Germany, as a backup group to a British rock
guitarist-singer based in Hamburg, Tony Sheridan. (Sutcliffe, tragically, would die of a brain
hemorrhage in April 1962).
the end of 1961, the Beatles' exploding local popularity caught the attention
of local record
store manager Brian Epstein, who was soon managing the band as well. He used his contacts to
swiftly acquire a January 1, 1962 audition at Decca Records that has been heavily bootlegged (some
tracks were officially released in 1995). After weeks of deliberation, Decca turned them down, as
did several other British labels. Epstein's perseverance was finally rewarded with an audition for
producer George Martin at Parlophone, an EMI subsidiary; Martin signed the Beatles in mid-1962.
August 1962, drummer Pete Best was kicked out of the group, a controversial
decision that has
been the cause of much speculation since. He was replaced with Ringo Starr (born Richard
Starkey), drummer with another popular Merseyside outfit, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. Starr
had been in the Beatles for a few weeks when they recorded their first single, "Love Me Do"/"P.S. I
Love You," in September 1962. Both sides of the 45 were Lennon-McCartney originals, and the
songwriting team would be credited with most of the group's material throughout the Beatles' career.
Beatles phenomenon didn't truly kick in until "Please Please Me," which
topped the British
charts in early 1963. This was the prototype British Invasion single--an infectious melody, charging
guitars, and positively exuberant harmonies. The same traits were evident on their third 45, "From
Me to You" (a British #1), and their debut LP, Please Please Me. Although it was mostly recorded
in a single day, Please Please Me topped the British charts for an astonishing 30 weeks, establishing
the group as the most popular rock 'n' roll act ever seen in the UK.
Beatles had taken the best elements of the rock and pop they loved and
made them their own.
Since the Quarrymen days, they had been steeped in the classic early rock of Elvis, Buddy Holly,
Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, and the Everly Brothers; they'd also kept an ear open to
the early '60s sounds of Motown, Phil Spector, and the girl groups. They added an unmatched
songwriting savvy (inspired by Brill Building teams such as Gerry Goffin and Carole King), a brash
guitar-oriented attack, wildly enthusiastic vocals, and the embodiment of the youthful flair of their
generation, ready to dispense with post-war austerity and claim a culture of their own. They were
also unsurpassed in their eclecticism, willing to borrow from blues, popular standards, gospel, folk,
or whatever seemed suitable for their musical vision. Producer George Martin was the perfect foil for
the group, refining their ideas without tinkering with their essence. During the last half of their career,
he was indispensable for his ability to translate their concepts into arrangements that required
complex orchestration, innovative applications of recording technology, and an ever-widening array
as crucially, the Beatles were never ones to stand still and milk formulas.
All of their subsequent
albums and singles would show remarkable artistic progression (though never at the expense of a
damn catchy tune). Even on their second LP, With the Beatles (1963), it was evident that their
talents as composers and instrumentalists were expanding furiously, as they devised ever more
inventive melodies and harmonies, and boosted the fullness of their arrangements. The 1963 singles
"She Loves You" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand" established the group not just as a successful
pop act, but as a phenomenon never before seen in the British entertainment business, as each single
sold over a million copies in the UK. After some celebrated national TV appearances, Beatlemania
broke out across the British Isles in late 1963, the group generating screams and hysteria at all of
their public appearances, musical or otherwise.
which had first refusal of the Beatles' recordings in the United States,
had declined to issue
the group's first few singles, which ended up appearing on relatively small American independents.
Capitol took up its option on "I Want to Hold Your Hand," which stormed to the top of the US
charts within weeks of its release on December 26, 1963. The Beatles' television appearances on
"The Ed Sullivan Show" in February of 1964 launched Beatlemania (and the entire British Invasion)
on an even bigger scale than it had reached in Britain. In the first week of April 1964, the Beatles
had the top five best-selling singles in the US; they also had the top two slots on the album charts, as
well as other entries throughout the Billboard Top 100. No one had ever dominated the market for
popular music so heavily; it's doubtful than anyone ever will again. The Beatles themselves would
continue to reach #1 with most of their singles and albums until their 1970 breakup.
A Hard Day's Night, a cinema verite-style motion picture comedy/musical,
image as the Fab Four--happy-go-lucky, individualistic, cheeky, funny lads with nonstop energy.
The soundtrack was also a triumph, consisting entirely of Lennon-McCartney tunes, including such
standards as the title tune, "And I Love Her," "If I Fell," "Can't Buy Me Love," and "Things We Said
Today." Between riotous international tours in 1964 and 1965, the Beatles continued to pump out
more chart-topping albums and singles. (Until 1967, the group's British albums were often truncated
for release in the States; when their catalog was transferred to CD, the albums were released
worldwide in their British configurations.) In retrospect, critics have judged Beatles for Sale (late
1964) and Help! (mid-1965) as the band's least impressive efforts. To some degree, that's true.
Touring and an insatiable market placed heavy demands upon their songwriting, and some of the
originals and covers on these records, while brilliant by many groups' standards, were filler in the
context of the Beatles' best work. The best songs from this period, however, show the group
continuing to move forward, especially the singles "I Feel Fine," "She's a Woman," "Ticket to Ride,"
and "Help!," which boast increasingly intricate guitar sounds and clever lyrics.
the Beatles' second film, Help!, was a much sillier and less sophisticated
affair than their
first feature, it too was a huge commercial success. By this time, though, the Beatles had nothing to
prove in commercial terms; the remaining frontiers were artistic challenges that could only be met in
the studio. They rose to the occasion at the end of 1965 with Rubber Soul, one of the classic
folk-rock records. Lyrically, Lennon, McCartney, and even Harrison (who was now writing some
tunes on his own) were evolving beyond boy-girl scenarios into complex, personal feelings. They
were also pushing the limits of studio rock by devising new guitar and bass textures, experimenting
with distortion and multi-tracking, and using unconventional (for rock) instruments like the sitar.
"Paperback Writer"/"Rain" single found the group abandoning romantic themes
the bass to previously unknown levels, and fooling around with psychedelic imagery and backwards
tapes on the B-side. Drugs (psychedelic and otherwise) were fueling their already fertile
imaginations, but they felt creatively hindered by their touring obligations. Revolver, released in the
summer of 1966, proved what the group could be capable of when allotted months of time in the
studio. Hazy hard guitars and thicker vocal arrangements formed the bed of these increasingly
imagistic, ambitious lyrics; the group's eclecticism now encompassed everything from singalong
novelties ("Yellow Submarine") and string quartet-backed character sketches ("Eleanor Rigby") to
Indian-influenced swirls of echo and backwards tapes ("Tomorrow Never Knows").
the past couple of years, live performance had become a rote exercise for
the group, tired of
competing with thousands of screaming fans that drowned out most of their vocals and instruments.
The final concert of their 1966 American tour (in San Francisco on August 29, 1966) would be their
last in front of a paying audience, as the group decided to stop playing live in order to concentrate on
their studio recordings. This was a radical (indeed, unprecedented) step in 1966, and the media was
rife with speculation that the act was breaking up, especially after all four Beatles spent late 1966
engaged in separate personal and artistic pursuits. The appearance of the "Penny Lane"/"Strawberry
Fields Forever" single in February 1967 squelched these concerns. Frequently cited as the strongest
double-A-side ever, the Beatles were now pushing forward into unabashedly psychedelic territory in
their use of orchestral arrangements and mellotron, without abandoning their grasp of memorable
melody and immediately accessible lyrical messages.
Pepper, released in June 1967 as the Summer of Love dawned, was the definitive
soundtrack. Or, at least, so it was perceived at the time: subsequent critics have painted the album as
an uneven affair, given a conceptual unity via its brilliant multi-tracked overdubs, singalong melodies,
and fairy tale-ish lyrics. Others remain convinced, as millions did at the time, that it represented pop's
greatest triumph, or indeed an evolution of pop into art with a capital A. In addition to mining all
manner of roots influences, the musicians were also picking up vibes from Indian music, avant-garde
electronics, classical, music hall, and more. When the Beatles premiered their hippie anthem "All You
Need Is Love" as part of a worldwide TV broadcast, they had been truly anointed as
spokespersons for their generation (a role they had not actively sought), and it seemed they could do
that would usually continue to be the case, but the group's strength began
to unravel at a
surprisingly quick pace. In August 1967, Brian Epstein--prone to suicidal depression over the past
year--died of a drug overdose, leaving them without a manager. The group pressed on with their
next film project, Magical Mystery Tour, directed by themselves; lacking focus or even basic
professionalism, the picture bombed when it was premiered on BBC television in December 1967,
giving the media the first real chance it had ever had to roast the Beatles over a flame. (Another film,
the animated feature Yellow Submarine, would appear in 1968, although the Beatles had little
involvement with the project, either in terms of the movie or the soundtrack.)
solely on musical merit, The White Album, a double LP released in late
1968, was a
triumph. While largely abandoning their psychedelic instruments to return to guitar-based rock, they
maintained their whimsical eclecticism, proving themselves masters of everything from blues rock to
vaudeville. As individual songwriters, too, it contains some of their finest work (as does the brilliant
non-LP single from this era, "Hey Jude"/"Revolution").
by the White Album, it was clear (if only in retrospect) that each member
was more concerned
with his own expression than that of the collective group. In addition, George Harrison was
becoming a more prolific and skilled composer as well, imbuing his own melodies (which were
nearly the equal of those of his more celebrated colleagues) with a cosmic lightness. Harrison was
beginning to resent his junior status, and the group began to bicker more openly in the studio. Ringo,
whose solid drumming and good nature could usually be counted upon (as was evident in his
infrequent lead vocals), actually quit for a couple of weeks in the midst of the White Album sessions.
Apple Records, started by the group earlier in 1968 as a sort of utopian commercial enterprise, was
becoming a financial and organizational nightmare.
weren't the ideal conditions under which to record a new album in January
when McCartney was pushing the group to return to live performing, although none of the others
seemed especially keen on the idea. They did agree to try and record a "back-to-basics,"
live-in-the-studio-type LP, the sessions being filmed for a television special. Harrison enlisted
American soul keyboardist Billy Preston as kind of a fifth member on the sessions, both to beef up
the arrangements and to alleviate the uncomfortable atmosphere. In order to provide a suitable
concert-like experience for the film, the group did climb the roof of their Apple headquarters in
London to deliver an impromptu performance on January 30, 1969, before the police stopped it; this
was their last live concert of any sort.
dissatisfied with these early 1969 sessions, the album and film--at first
titled Get Back,
and later to emerge as Let It Be--remained in the can as the group tried to figure out how the
projects should be mixed, packaged, and distributed. A couple of the best tracks, "Get Back"/"Don't
Let Me Down," were issued as a single in the spring of 1969. By this time, the Beatles' quarrels were
intensifying in a dispute over management: McCartney wanted their affairs to be handled by his new
father-in-law, Lee Eastman, while the other members of the group favored a tough American
businessman, Allen Klein.
was something of a miracle, then, that the final album recorded by the
group, Abbey Road, was
one of their most unified efforts (even if, by this time, the musicians were recording many of their
parts separately). It certainly boasted some of their most intricate melodies, harmonies, and
instrumental arrangements. It also heralded the arrival of Harrison as a composer of equal talent to
Lennon and McCartney, as George wrote the album's two most popular tunes, "Something" and
"Here Comes the Sun." The Beatles were still progressing, but it turned out to be the end of the
road, as their business disputes continued to magnify. Lennon, who had begun releasing solo singles
and performing with friends as the Plastic Ono Band, threatened to resign in late 1969, although he
was dissuaded from making a public announcement.
of the early 1969 tapes remained unreleased, partially because the footage
for the planned
television broadcast of these sessions was now going to be produced as a documentary movie. For
the accompanying soundtrack album, Let It Be, Lennon, Harrison, and Allen Klein decided to have
celebrated American producer Phil Spector record some additional instrumentation and do some
mixing. By that time it was released, the Beatles were no more.
fact, there had been no recording done by the group as a four-man unit
since August 1969, and
each member of the band had begun to pursue serious outside professional interests independently
via the Plastic Ono Band, Harrison's tour with Delaney and Bonnie, Starr's starring role in the Magic
Christian film, and McCartney's first solo album. The outside world for the most part remained
almost wholly unaware of the seriousness of the group's friction, making it a devastating shock for
much of the world's youth when McCartney announced that he was leaving the Beatles on April 10,
1970. At the end of 1970, McCartney sued the rest of the Beatles in order to dissolve their
partnership; the battle dragged through the courts for years, scotching any prospects of a group
any case, each member of the band quickly established viable solo careers.
Within a short time, it
became apparent both that the Beatles were not going to settle their differences and reunite, and that
their solo work could not compare with what they were capable of creating together. Despite
periodic rumors of reunions throughout the 1970s, no group projects came close to materializing.
Any hopes of a reunion vanished when Lennon was assassinated in New York City in December
1980. The Beatles continued their solo careers throughout the 1980s, but their releases became less
frequent, and their commercial success gradually diminished, as listeners without first-hand memories
of the combo created their own idols.
Legal wrangles at Apple prevented the official issue of previously unreleased Beatles material for
over two decades (although much of it was frequently bootlegged). The situation finally changed in
the 1990s, after McCartney, Harrison, Starr, and Lennon's widow Yoko Ono settled their principal
business disagreements. In 1994, this resulted in a double CD of BBC sessions from the early and
mid-'60s. The following year, a much more ambitious project was undertaken: a multi-part film
documentary, broadcast on network television in 1995, and then released (with double the length)
for the home video market in 1996, with the active participation of the surviving Beatles.
To coincide with the Anthology documentary, three double CDs of previously unreleased/rare
material were issued in 1995 and 1996. Additionally, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr (with some
assistance from Jeff Lynne) embellished a couple of John Lennon demos from the 1970s with
overdubs to create two new tracks ("Free as a Bird" and "Real Love") that were billed as actual
Beatles recordings. Whether this constitutes the actual long-awaited "reunion" is the subject of much
debate. Still, the massive commercial success of outtakes that had, after all, been recorded 25 to 30
years ago, spoke volumes about the unabated appeal and fascination the Beatles continue to exert