The Beatles - Biography
By Chris Morris
“This isn’t show business,” John Lennon said at the height of The Beatles’ success. “This is something else.”
Strictly in show business terms, the quartet from Liverpool, England rewrote the book on rock ‘n’ roll, which prior to the group’s 1962 recording debut was considered nothing more than disposable music for idle teens. While The Beatles were initially embraced by throngs of young fans (most of them female) -- in a phenomenon dubbed “Beatlemania” by the press -- with the same fervor previously accorded Frank Sinatra in the ‘40s and Elvis Presley in the ‘50s, the depth of their work quickly transcended their teen-idol genesis.
The songs penned by singer-guitarist Lennon and his collaborator, vocalist-bassist Paul McCartney – and, to a lesser extent, those authored by guitarist-vocalist George Harrison – expanded rock’s expressive capabilities, and broadened the audience for the music beyond its youthful base. Their producer George Martin transmuted The Beatles’ bold imaginative leaps in the studio, bringing theretofore unimaginable musical and technical textures to their recorded music. After sensationally announcing themselves with a string of irresistible hit singles that were greeted with unprecedented sales (which persisted until the end of the group’s existence), The Beatles established the long-playing album as the principal commercial format, and as a forum for artistic expression. And their massive popularity on a global scale inaugurated the era of the stadium concert. In sheer magnitude, their achievement remains unrivaled to this day.
But The Beatles’ accomplishment was, as Lennon noted, something else again; their import extends far beyond their status as the bestselling group of all time, a title they have held, against all comers, for nearly 40 years.
During their seven years of popular supremacy between 1963 and 1969, there was virtually no social arena that remained untouched by their presence. Their music and their public persona affected art, fashion, literature, journalism, film, theatre, business, politics, spirituality, even religion. They midwifed a global youth counterculture. Both catalysts and reflectors of their time, they suffused world culture long after they disbanded, with McCartney’s departure, in April 1970.
Worlds of meaning and feeling were inspired by the collective profile of these four distinctive young men from Northern England, who were so universally well-known and personally individuated that they were identified by their first names – invariably ordered, rhythmically and almost hierarchically, as John, Paul, George, and Ringo. They sparked intense love and equally abiding scorn among the young and the old; their every move was scrutinized for import.
They were the news of the day in their era; today, The Beatles’ dramatic story defines the rock ‘n’ roll myth as much as Presley’s does.
The band that slowly morphed into The Beatles was founded by John Winston Lennon, who was born on October 9, 1940, in Liverpool. His parents split up when he was five; his footloose mother Julia placed young John in the care of her sister Mimi Smith. Lennon was an imaginative child who displayed a proclivity for drawing and writing and a love of the works of Lewis Carroll’s fanciful, wordplay-filled Alice books and Richmal Crompton’s William Brown series.
As he grew older, Lennon began to imitate Crompton’s unruly pre-adolescent hero: An indifferent and insolent student, he became a chronically underachieving and oft-disciplined pupil at Quarry Bank Grammar School in suburban Woolton. He affected the Edwardian garb of the lower-class toughs known as “Teddy Boys,” and even organized a mild-mannered gang, the Outlaws.
In 1957, Lennon fell under the spell of Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” the American singer’s first No. 1 hit. (American seamen decamped in the port city of Liverpool, which became a prime conduit for US popular culture in the north of England.) Like many of his generation, he also acquired a fondness for skiffle, the slovenly string-band adaptation of American folk music popularized by singer Lonnie Donegan, the former banjo player in Chris Barber’s trad jazz band. Galvanized, and encouraged by his errant mother, Lennon bought a mail-order guitar and formed a skiffle group, The Quarry Men, with his running buddy Pete Shotton and other Outlaw cronies. Its rotating personnel began to solidify with the arrival of another young musician who could not have been more unlike Lennon in personal style or orientation.
James Paul McCartney was born June 18, 1942, and grew up in the factory town of Speke. His father, a self-trained pianist, led The Jim Mac Jazz Band, which played local socials and dances. He was by all accounts a studious and well-liked schoolboy. In 1955, when he was 13, his life was rocked when his mother died suddenly from belatedly diagnosed breast cancer. In 1956, Lonnie Donegan’s appearance in Liverpool spurred McCartney to ask his father for a guitar. Studying the instrument obsessively, he was inspired by the American rockers – Elvis, the close-harmony singers The Everly Brothers, the manic Little Richard, and picker-singer Carl Perkins.
On July 6, 1957, at the invitation of Ivan Vaughan, a sometime member of The Quarry Men, McCartney attended the group’s performance at the garden fete at St. Peter’s Church in Woolton (a typical gig for the young amateurs). After the show, 14-year-old McCartney impressed the older Lennon and his band mates with his recall of lyrics to contemporary hits by Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, and with his ability to tune a guitar (which he played left-handed). By that fall, McCartney had joined The Quarry Men; he and Lennon practiced together, and – inspired by such American rock ‘n’ roll singer-songwriter-guitarists as Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, whose songs would join the band’s repertoire – they soon began writing together.
In early 1958, The Quarry Men were joined by an even younger musician who had befriended McCartney on their daily bus route from suburban Speke to Liverpool. George Harrison was born on Feb. 24, 1943. Like his future colleague Lennon, he was a horrendous student who affected Teddy boy garb. As mesmerized by Donegan and skiffle as his contemporaries, he took up the guitar in 1956. Agonizingly teaching the instrument to himself, he took pickers like Carl Perkins and Chet Atkins as his models. The taciturn young musician was introduced to The Quarry Men in late 1957. Over the initial objections of Lennon, who had undisguised contempt for the much younger guitarist, Harrison gradually ingratiated himself into the group.
Not long after Harrison began playing with The Quarry Men, an incident that bonded the group’s senior members took place: Lennon’s mother Julia, who had grown increasingly close to her long-estranged son, was struck by a car while crossing Menlove Avenue in Woolton and killed. The tragedy further cemented the relationship of Lennon and McCartney, now both motherless.
As the skiffle craze waned in 1958, The Quarry Men edged toward rock ‘n’ roll; sometime that year, for themselves, they recorded Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day” and the McCartney composition “In Spite of All the Danger.” Work was infrequent, and members came and went, yet the group secured a brief run of 1959 dates at the Casbah Club, a local coffee bar owned by Mrs. Mona Best.
Good for little else academically, Lennon managed to enroll in Liverpool Art College. His closest associate there was Stuart Sutcliffe, a gifted painter but a maladroit musician. Lennon somehow conned his friend into buying a bass guitar with the money he received from the sale of a canvas, and his group acquired a reluctant, conspicuously inept new member in early 1960. Sutcliffe suggested that Lennon’s group – then known in its rock ‘n’ roll incarnation as Johnny and the Moondogs – rename themselves in homage to Buddy Holly’s band The Crickets. Historians record the original of this entomological moniker as “The Beetles” or “The Beatals,” in acknowledgement of the band’s role in Liverpool’s homegrown “beat music” scene; it was Lennon who ultimately altered it to The Beatles, and the group would be known as such, with temporary variants like The Silver Beetles, for the rest of their career.
The rechristened group took a major step towards professionalism in 1960 with the acquisition of Liverpool promoter and club owner Allan Williams as their manager. Williams had co-promoted shows with Larry Parnes, the powerful, insidious London-based manager of such unlikely-named teen idols as Billy Fury and Tommy Steele. He arranged an audition for The Silver Beetles (which now included drummer Tommy Moore) before Parnes, who hired the group for a tour of Scotland backing one of Parnes’ lesser charges, the third-tier singer Johnny Gentle. They returned from the chaotic spring trek broke and bedraggled, but schooled in the verities of life on the rock ‘n’ roll motorway.
In the summer of 1960, a chance meeting between Williams and a German club owner opened an opportunity for his group – now permanently known as The Beatles – to play a run of shows at a venue in Hamburg. Then minus a drummer and desperate for the employment, the band quickly drafted the handsome, diffident son of Casbah owner Mona Best, Pete Best, whose band The Blackjacks was in the process of dissolving. In August 1960, the quintet set forth on a fateful ferry voyage to the continent.
The Beatles would make five trips to Hamburg between 1960-62. They came of age entertaining audiences of drunks, hooligans, and hookers in the clubs of the Reeperbahn, the dock city’s notorious center of vice, with sets largely comprising American rock ‘n’ roll and R&B hits. Their first tour of duty encompassed more than 100 gigs at the Indra, a dilapidated former strip joint, and the larger Kaiserkeller. Instructed to “mach schau” (“make a show”) by their German employer, The Beatles stormed through their performances with a vigor fueled by doses of Preludin, the cheap amphetamine readily available on the Hamburg streets. Clad in leather a la Gene Vincent, they clowned and rocked for as long as six hours a night, mocking and inciting their sodden audiences cheerfully with the sardonic Lennon leading the charge.
They made several important connections on their first Hamburg stand. They encountered and sometimes backed Tony Sheridan, a native of Norwich, England, who had established himself as the Reeperbahn’s answer to Elvis Presley after his arrival in Hamburg in 1959. Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison recorded a session (which has not survived) with two members of another visiting Liverpool band, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. One was 20-year-old drummer Richard Starkey. He was born on July 7, 1940; after a sickly childhood that curtailed his formal education, he had graduated from Liverpool’s skiffle bands to the beat music scene, taking the nom de theatre Ringo Starr. In Best’s absence, he sometimes sat in with The Beatles on the Reeperbahn.
The unlikeliest of The Beatles’ local fans was Astrid Kirchherr, a 22-year-old photographer and bohemian. Soon romantically involved with Stu Sutcliffe, she shot an iconic series of photographs of the band against rough-hewn Hamburg backdrops. On their return to Germany in 1961, she introduced the band, through Sutcliffe, to the long, loose, fringed haircut – the pilzenkopf (mushroom head), later known as the “Beatle cut” – that replaced their Teddy boy quiffs. (Best was the lone tonsorial hold-out, sticking with his upswept pompadour.)
The Beatles’ stay in Hamburg ended with the deportation of three band members: 17-year-old Harrison was kicked out of the country for performing while under age, and McCartney and Best were expelled after being arrested on a trumped-up arson charge. But the invigorated quintet returned to the Liverpool clubs and put the lessons they learned on the German stages to work. They gained a reputation as top dog among Liverpool’s beat music acts. On February 9, 1961, they played the Cavern Club, a former jazz venue on Victoria Street, for the first time; in 1961-62 they appeared regularly at this cramped, unventilated subterranean hole, performing both lunchtime shows and evening performances. The Cavern became the staging area for Beatlemania.
In April 1961, The Beatles returned to Hamburg for a two-month engagement at the Top Ten. It was a significant trip for a couple of reasons. First, Stu Sutcliffe chose to devote himself to his art studies and his relationship with Kirchherr, and drifted out of the group; his duties were taken over by McCartney, whose facility as a guitarist was brought into play on the bass. (Sutcliffe’s promising painting career was cut short when he died of a brain hemorrhage in Hamburg in April 1962.)
The quartet also made their first professional recordings. Drafted as a backup band for a session by Tony Sheridan, they supported the singer on “My Bonnie,” a corny traditional number popular among drunken sailors in the Hamburg clubs in its rocked-up version. The Beatles also cut two numbers of their own, “Ain’t She Sweet” (a 1927 chestnut previously essayed by Gene Vincent) and Harrison’s instrumental “Cry For a Shadow.” On the strength of these recordings, the group was signed to German Polydor by composer-producer Bert Kaempfert. The single “My Bonnie,” credited to Sheridan and The Beat Brothers (to avoid the similarity between “Beatles” and “peedles,” German slang for “penis”), reportedly sold 100,000 copies regionally. (These historic tracks were later included on Anthology I.)
The Beatles returned to Liverpool in July 1961, where they swiftly commenced to mow down the local competition. Each member of the band – acerbic John, charming Paul, quiet George, and dreamboat Pete – had his own vocal claque of fans. At noontime and at night, the Cavern filled to overflowing.
However, it was uncertain if the group would be able develop beyond their devoted local base: A dispute with Allan Williams over his commission on German club dates had ended the band’s association with him. But a new player now entered the picture to provide momentum for their career.
Brian Epstein was an improbable candidate for managerial success in the rock ‘n’ roll business. Aged 27 in 1961, he was the well-educated son of a prosperous Jewish retailer who had abruptly thrown over theatrical studies at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts to return to a position in Liverpool overseeing the record-sales outlet of the family’s instrument and phonograph business, North End Music Stores (NEMS).
It remains unclear how Epstein first heard about The Beatles. Legend has it that one October day, an 18-year-old customer walked into NEMS’ downtown store and asked for a copy of “My Bonnie,” alerting Epstein to the band’s existence. However, it is unlikely that Epstein would have been ignorant of the group by that late date: He stocked “Mersey Beat,” the local beat music fanzine, which followed The Beatles’ progress slavishly, and without doubt he knew Bob Wooler, the Cavern’s DJ and emcee, who also wrote a column for the paper.
No great matter. On Nov. 9, 1961, Brian Epstein attended a noontime show at the Cavern Club, and he walked away impressed. The first week in December, against the advice of his family’s attorney, he met with The Beatles and proposed a contract with the band. For 25% of their gross earnings, he would handle their bookings, improve their per-gig take, extricate them from their German Polydor contract, and secure them a domestic recording contract. They ultimately signed with Epstein in January 1962, and not a moment too soon: At their first show in the South of England, at the Palais Ballroom in Aldershot, Hampshire, on Dec. 9, the provincial quartet drew 18 paying customers.
Epstein’s well-mannered persistence and his clout as Northern England’s top record retailer swiftly yielded results. On New Year’s Day 1961, The Beatles traveled to London to audition for Decca Records, one of England’s major labels. Infamously, Dick Rowe, Decca’s head of singles A&R, passed on the group. By the time Rowe made his decision, the group had also tried out for the BBC; for the occasion, Epstein outfitted them in crisp matching continental-cut suits. Their scruffy leathers vanished for good, and for the next four years The Beatles would always appear together togged in well-scrubbed uniformity.
Other labels declined The Beatles’ services as well, but a connection at EMI Records’ HMV retail stores called George Martin, head of EMI’s Parlophone imprint, and secured a meeting for Epstein. Parlophone was the company’s poor-sister imprint – it was best known as the label home of radio comics Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan’s Goon Show – and the classically-trained Martin’s principal experience was in comedy and orchestral production. EMI’s other imprints had already rejected The Beatles, by mail. But Martin heard something in the Decca audition tapes, and agreed to audition the band. Somewhat deviously, Epstein cabled The Beatles, then playing the Star-Club in Hamburg, and told them they were to record their debut Parlophone single in June.
Having pried themselves from Polydor’s grasp with a session in Hamburg, The Beatles auditioned for Parlophone at EMI’s Abbey Road studios in London on June 6, 1962. They cut four songs. One of them, the punchy Lennon-McCartney original “Love Me Do,” was strong enough for supervising engineer Norman Smith to summon George Martin into the control room. On meeting Martin, Lennon and McCartney, whose zany sense of humor had been shaped by the Goons, were awed by Martin’s experience with the comics, while the A&R executive was tickled by the band members’ irreverent, self-deflating style. A contract was inked, and a creative partnership born.
Before The Beatles could enter the studio in earnest, a final, definitive lineup change was in order. Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison agreed with Martin that Best, not a distinguished drummer at the absolute top of his game, would have to be replaced. They opted to supplant him with their old Hamburg mate Ringo Starr, still with Rory Storm. In August, the diminutive, good-humored drummer threw in his lot with The Beatles; the band callously gave Epstein the task of dismissing Best, almost two years to the day after he joined them. Starr’s arrival created an outcry among some of Best’s hometown supporters, but the ring-bedecked musician’s modest, ebullient personality and his obvious skill made the controversy short-lived.
In September 1962, in the midst of frenetic touring in the North of England, The Beatles cut their debut Parlophone single, “Love Me Do.” But it was not without a snag: Feeling that newcomer Starr’s playing on the track lacked snap, Martin re-recorded the song with session player Andy White in the drum chair. Backed with “P.S. I Love You,” another original, the single was issued in October; it rose to No. 17 on the national charts. (Some maintained that Epstein had “juiced the chart” through phantom sales at NEMS.) The same month, they appeared on Radio Luxembourg, the BBC, and Granada TV, and headlined Liverpool’s top theater, the Empire. Their career was rolling.
In late November – shortly before they left for their last appearance at Hamburg’s Star-Club – The Beatles cut “Please Please Me.” The direct appeal of this energetic number, issued as a single in January 1963, put the band over the top. In February, while touring with pop songbird Helen Shapiro, The Beatles were informed by Epstein that they had, as Martin had predicted it would be, their first No. 1 single.
The lightning-like success of “Please Please Me” inspired Martin to record a full-length album, a then-unthinkable move for a new, virtually unknown band. Cut in one marathon February session, Please Please Me (1963) sought to capture the immediacy of The Beatles’ club sets. The title track and Lennon-McCartney originals like the dynamic “I Saw Her Standing There” were complemented by songs from their live repertoire -- covers of numbers by the American R&B singer Arthur Alexander, a gaggle of US girl groups, and the storming R&B act The Isley Brothers (whose “Twist and Shout,” sung by a raw-voiced Lennon, was the highlight of the album).
Within six weeks, Please Please Me reached No. 1 on the British charts, a position it held for five straight months. Something new was afoot in the land: A group of smart, funny, melody-spinning young Brits who wrote their own songs and played them with energy and grace. That spring and summer, The Beatles attained something like media ubiquity, with a string of tour appearances (including a stint with one of their American heroes, Roy Orbison) and near-constant radio and TV exposure.
The shrill keening and hysterical public behavior of female “Beatlemaniacs” became a source of press consternation; in the face of this escalating madness, the witty sang froid, humorous ease with the rituals of stardom, and broad Northern accents of the so-called “Fab Four” began to charm even the most skeptical journalists, who used their coverage of the wildly popular musicians as a salve for a population still smarting from the disgrace of the Profumo sex-and-spying scandal, which had overturned the Tory government.
Three more No. 1 singles – “From Me to You,” “She Loves You” (their biggest English 45, which spawned the indelible chant “Yeah, yeah, yeah”) and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” – dominated the English charts in 1963. The Beatles climaxed a year of increasingly high-profile shows – all of them overrun by uncontrollable hordes of wailing fans -- on Nov. 4 with a Royal Command Performance before the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret in London; Lennon amused the crowd by asking those in the cheap seats to clap, and those in the more expensive orchestra to “rattle your jewelry.”
The group’s second album With the Beatles (1963), issued in November, immediately displaced Please Please Me at No. 1, and held that position for yet another five months. Somewhat slighter than its predecessor, it included the potent Lennon-McCartney tune “All My Loving” and Lennon’s raving cover of “Money,” Barrett Strong’s craven 1959 Motown hit.
BEATLEMANIA HITS THE US
It was now Epstein’s job to break The Beatles in America, the world’s largest music market. To date, it had been a frustrating task. Capitol Records, EMI’s American arm, had declined to release the group’s records, pointing to US listeners’ historic indifference to English acts. The band’s material had instead been licensed to American independent labels – Vee-Jay, Swan, and Tollie – without any measurable sales.
But Epstein’s acumen and a propitious confluence of events reversed the band’s stateside fortunes. In November 1963, Epstein convinced Ed Sullivan, host of the top-rated TV variety show in the US, to book The Beatles for four appearances in early 1964, after Sullivan had witnessed a frenzied mob of Beatlemaniacs at London’s Heathrow Airport during a overseas trip.
And, in the wake of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, the group’s music started to get airplay; the upbeat power of The Beatles’ sound connected with still-grieving, novelty-starved young American listeners. DJs in Washington, DC, Chicago, and St. Louis began spinning import copies of the new 45 “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (which had already broken UK records, selling 1 million copies before its release). After initially contemplating cease-and-desist orders, Capitol Records instead officially signed the band, and rush-released the single, backed by a huge promotional push, on the day after Christmas. The Beatles’ music blanketed top 40 radio during the Yuletide lull of 1963. By the third week of January 1964, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had secured the top slot on the U.S. charts. A love affair had begun.
On Feb. 7, 1964, The Beatles arrived at the rechristened Kennedy International Airport in New York for their first US TV and concert appearances. They were greeted by thousands of shrieking, swooning fans (whose madness had been stoked by incessant airplay on New York City’s fiercely competitive top 40 radio stations), and a cordon of teens besieged their Manhattan residence, the sedate Plaza Hotel. Their bow on Sullivan’s show was watched by an estimated 73 million (a record 34% of the viewing public); they played sold-out dates at the Washington, DC, Coliseum (where, during an in-the-round show, they were forced to rearrange their own equipment on a recalcitrant revolving stage) and New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall.
During 1964, The Beatles conquered America as surely as they had England. During one week in April, their singles occupied the top five slots on the US chart (with two Capitol releases and three previously licensed indie 45s); a total of 30 Beatles tracks would reach the singles rolls that year. Four albums – Capitol’s Meet the Beatles, The Beatles’ Second Album, and Something New and Vee-Jay’s Introducing…The Beatles (all 1964), reconfigured versions of their UK LPs – peaked at No. 1 or No. 2. (Following the expiration of Vee-Jay’s license, Capitol reissued Introducing…The Beatles as The Early Beatles in 1965.)
Variant versions of another Beatles album, A Hard Day’s Night (1964), topped the UK and US charts that summer. It was the soundtrack for the quartet’s movie debut, directed by expatriate American Richard Lester (who, like George Martin, was a former collaborator with the comedic Goons). The script was penned by Welsh playwright Alun Owen, who had been raised in Liverpool. The high-energy black-and-white comedy with music, spiced with recent hits and new songs (including the title number, an exclamatory No. 1 single), followed the misadventures of The Beatles, playing themselves, as they attempted to dodge their delirious fans and make a mishap-plagued live TV appearance.
The exuberant film cheekily amplified the group members’ well-defined public personae, and inspired critical comparisons to the Marx Brothers. The inexpensively shot feature became the year’s most profitable theatrical release. “A Hard Day’s Night” went on to collect a 1964 Grammy as best performance by a vocal group (and The Beatles, predictably, were named best new artist). The movie’s July release prefaced a fall US tour that climaxed with a sold-out appearance at the Hollywood Bowl (belatedly issued on LP in 1977).
At the start of that tour in August, journalist Al Aronowitz arranged a meeting between The Beatles and Bob Dylan at a New York hotel. Dylan – whose impressionistic folk music would give way within the year to surrealistic rock ‘n’ roll – was already a songwriting role model for the Liverpool musicians (especially Lennon), and his influence would be deeply felt in their music of the next two years. During their meeting, Dylan produced some marijuana; the English performers, who had never smoked it before, soon embraced it as a creative catalyst.
The Beatles moved from strength to commercial strength in 1965. Their British album Beatles For Sale (1965) and its retooled US counterparts Beatles ’65 and Beatles VI (both 1965), all vaulted to No. 1. Their chart-topping singles included “I Feel Fine” (which began with an unprecedented burst of guitar feedback), “Eight Days a Week” (which kicked off with an equally unusual fade-in), and “Ticket to Ride” (a chiming number that bore the influence of America’s Dylan-spawned folk-rock movement).
That summer, the latter song was used in a key sequence in the band’s second feature film, Help! Again directed by Richard Lester, this spoof of contemporary James Bond-styled spy films found The Beatles, again playing themselves, fleeing a group of Eastern cultists in pursuit of a sacrificial ring lodged on hapless Ringo Starr’s finger. Shot in brilliant color on locations in England, Austria, and the Bahamas, this frothy, loosely-scripted picture found less favor with critics, but was still a box-office smash. Its No. 1 soundtrack album included John Lennon’s anguished big-beat title track, a No. 1 single. After a sitar was used as a prop in the film, George Harrison grew fascinated with the multi-stringed Indian instrument; his deepening devotion to Eastern music and spirituality, which led to studies with Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar, would have a far-reaching effect on The Beatles’ development.
In August, George Martin, frustrated by EMI’s refusal to compensate him fairly for his lucrative work, exited the company and formed his own independent production entity, with The Beatles as his first clients.
In September – a month after 55,000 fans packed a Beatles concert at New York’s Shea Stadium -- “Yesterday,” a track from the UK version of Help!, was issued as an American single. The song, which became a much-covered No. 1 hit, was the first Beatles 45 that didn’t feature all four members of the band: McCartney was accompanied on the affecting ballad by a string quartet arranged by George Martin. (The follow-up US odds-and-ends compilation Yesterday…And Today  sparked an uproar: Retailers were offended by its cover photo of The Beatles clad in butcher smocks, surrounded by dismembered dolls and draped with hunks of gory meat. The so-called “butcher block” cover, now a prized collectible, was withdrawn by Capitol in favor of a more innocuous sleeve.)
On Oct. 26, 1965, the members of The Beatles received the Order of the British Empire (MBE), the lowest rung on the English monarchy’s annual honor roll. The move outraged conservative Britons who still found the group little more than a mop-topped annoyance, their contribution to the national economy notwithstanding.
1966-67: REACHING THE PINNACLE
Released just before Christmas 1965, Rubber Soul dominated the charts for much of 1966 in variant American and British versions. It sold a million copies in its first week of US release. Comprising elegantly crafted folk-rock and driving rock ‘n’ roll, it begged to be taken seriously, and audiences sensed that a new chapter in The Beatles career was beginning. In its English incarnation, its tracks included the striking autobiographical Lennon composition “In My Life,” the Dylanesque “Norwegian Wood” (which featured Harrison’s first studio sortie on sitar), the popular, French-inflected ballad “Michelle,” the love-professing “The Word,” and the biting, richly harmonized “Nowhere Man.” It was the first rock album to be considered not as a collection of singles and filler, but as a work that was all of one piece.
As they worked at Abbey Road on sessions for a new single and album in the spring of 1966, The Beatles contemplated their forthcoming tour commitments wearily. After nearly four years of unrelenting Beatlemania, the group had tired of the high-pitched screams that obliterated their music in concert. Their private experimentation since early 1965 with the powerful hallucinogenic drug LSD had led to detailed, densely layered material, and they understood that their new music, with its multitudinous studio effects, could not be replicated with any fidelity on stage. Shortly, events conspired to hasten an end to their career as live performers.
In July – shortly after the release of the storming 45 “Paperback Writer” and its druggy, studio-manipulated flip side “Rain,” supported by short films that prefigured music videos – The Beatles made a stadium appearance in the Phillipines. Their perceived snub of a reception organized by Imelda Marcos, wife of Filipino strongman Ferdinand Marcos, led to a near-riot at the Manila airport that left the group fearing for their lives.
Then, on the eve of The Beatles’ US stadium tour in August, an interview with John Lennon sparked an outbreak of furious controversy. First published in England’s Evening Standard and later excerpted in The New York Times, Lennon’s spontaneous remarks about the waning of organized religion – which included the statement, “Christianity will go…We’re more popular than Jesus now” – had run without comment, but they inflamed a firestorm of criticism when reprinted in the teen magazine Datebook. Lennon offered a half-hearted apology at a press conference as the tour commenced, but hard-core Christians reacted by organizing public burnings of Beatles albums and boycotts of their shows. The dates were marked by threats of violence (to which the band responded by traveling via armored car to their Los Angeles appearance) and a prevailing atmosphere of paranoia. The Beatles played what would be their last concert before a paying audience at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park on August 29.
Revolver (1966) was released as The Beatles commenced their final tour. The product of more than 300 hours of sessions at Abbey Road by a band now free to use the facility virtually at will, it boggled listeners with its complexity and its devotion to experimental techniques. Its songs were elaborated with extravagant studio wizardry that tested the limits of EMI’s technical capabilities with the employment of tape looping, additional instrumentation, and intricate overdubbing.
Its release was prefaced by the album’s startling single “Eleanor Rigby,” an evocative sketch of a lonely woman’s demise, with McCartney’s solo vocal framed by a string octet. The UK LP’s key tracks included Harrison’s caustic “Taxman” and his sitar-driven “Love You To,” Lennon’s acid-saturated “I’m Only Sleeping” and “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and the sing-along Starr specialty “Yellow Submarine,” which was banned in some quarters for its perceived reference to drugs. As it soared to No. 1, many wondered what The Beatles could do to top such a barrier-busting achievement.
After a three-month layoff, which gave rise to rumors that The Beatles had broken up, the group reconvened to begin work on a new album, which Lennon and McCartney first envisioned as a look back at their Liverpool childhoods. The first tracks completed – recorded and edited, painstakingly, over a period of three months in late 1966 and early 1967 – were “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” a matched pair of songs that considered their writers’ old Northern haunts through the veil of memory, gilded with horns, woodwinds, strings, and a panoply of studio effects.
Hungry for new Beatles product, EMI and Capitol released these astonishing tracks as a double-A-sided single in February 1967, to universally stunned acclaim. Now hunting for another concept around which to build an album, The Beatles chose as a framing device a new McCartney number inspired by memories of the provincial concert bands that played in Liverpool when he was a child. The 13-song album – to be released for the first time in uniform US and UK editions – would be climaxed by a five-minute track, stitched together from separate contributions by Lennon and McCartney, that resolved itself with a dizzying glissando and a thunderous end-of-days chord, played by a hired 40-piece orchestra.
The climactic song was “A Day in the Life,” generally acknowledged as The Beatles’ creative high-water mark (and banned by the BBC for its supposedly drug-related lyrics). The album, issued on June 1, 1967, was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Formulated as a riposte to such ambitious precursors as Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde (1966) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations” (both 1966), it was a zeitgeist-defining work. It contained such enduring creations as “With a Little Help From My Friends,” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” (yet another song attacked and banned for purportedly advancing a drug-friendly agenda), “She’s Leaving Home,” and “When I’m 64.” It was honored with Grammy Awards as album of the year and best contemporary album.
Issued at the dawn of ‘67’s psychedelic Summer of Love, Sgt. Pepper – an instantaneous worldwide No. 1 mega-hit – seemed to speak universally. As rock critic Ellen Sander – one of a new breed of musical commentators fresh on the scene that year – noted, “It wafted over the horizon like sweet incense, and its permeation was so complete that everyone who heard it lived it, breathed it, and spoke of little else.”
In late June, the group appeared on the international satellite TV show “Our World,” performing their new single and next No. 1 hit, the self-explanatory “All You Need Is Love,” before an audience estimated at 500 million. The Beatles’ conquest of contemporary popular music appeared complete.
DISORDER, FINAL TRIUMPHS, AND DISSOLUTION
In the late summer of 1967, at the behest of George Harrison, The Beatles traveled to Bangor, Wales, for a retreat sponsored by the Spiritual Regeneration Movement, an organization founded by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, an India-born self-styled guru and teacher of the spiritual discipline of transcendental meditation. It was there, on Aug. 27, that the musicians received a phone call from London: Brian Epstein – who had grown increasingly uncertain about The Beatles’ future and unhappy in his closeted gay lifestyle -- had died, at the age of 32, from an accidental overdose of sleeping pills mixed with alcohol.
Shaken by the death of the man whose efforts had shaped their career, The Beatles nonetheless moved forward with their plans to form a multi-disciplinary company of their own. They would essentially be self-managed for the remainder of their existence as a group. Minus Epstein’s steadying hand and business acumen, The Beatles would veer through a final 20 months of missteps, embarrassments, and interpersonal acrimony – and, surprisingly, a period of fruitful, albeit troubled, artistic activity.
Assuming a role he would take repeatedly during the next two years, McCartney instigated a new project for the band: a feature film, with music. After belatedly confessing his LSD experience in print that June, and inspired by time spent in early 1967 with American writer Ken Kesey’s psychedelic Merry Pranksters, who took their acid-proselytizing show on the road in a brilliantly-painted school bus, McCartney envisioned a hallucinogenic comedy sending up the rituals of English vacationers.
The essentially self-directed film shoot degenerated into anarchy as The Beatles and their crew were dogged on location by journalists and fans; when the last-minute booking of a studio proved impossible, one was improvised in an abandoned aircraft hangar. Aired on national TV on Boxing Day (Dec. 26) in England, the broad and frankly amateurish Magical Mystery Tour was universally lambasted by the critics; most viewers watched the candy-colored film on dim black-and-white sets. It was the previously bulletproof band’s first major fall from grace. The soundtrack (an EP in England and a No. 1 album, with additional uncollected singles, in the US) fared better; it contained the No. 1 American single “Hello Goodbye” and Lennon’s indelible, Carrollesque outburst of nonsense “I Am the Walrus.”
In February 1968, The Beatles traveled to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh, India, to immerse themselves in meditation among a glittering assemblage of wealthy seekers that included actress Mia Farrow, folk-pop singer Donovan, and Mike Love of The Beach Boys. The trip did much to promote Eastern spirituality (and, of course, the Maharishi) among Westerners, but it also promoted discord among the guru’s best-known acolytes. Starr and McCartney, never comfortable in the remote locale, bolted in March; Lennon and Harrison followed a month later, disillusioned by rumors that the Maharishi was taking liberties with female students.
In May, The Beatles announced their formation of Apple Corps, a diversified company with record, studio, and film divisions. Naively announcing the philanthropic orientation of the firm, the band was instantly deluged with requests for funding from all corners of the globe. That summer, Apple Boutique, a psychedelically decorated retail outlet opened by the band on London’s Baker Street the previous December, shuttered for good, plagued by mismanagement, complaints about its garish façade by neighboring businesses, and constant pilferage; the remaining contents of the store were given away. The boutique’s failure was a harbinger of The Beatles’ business dealings in the immediate future.
In May, armed with a large backlog of songs (many of them written in Rishikesh). The Beatles regrouped at Abbey Road. McCartney, Harrison, and Starr were alarmed when Lennon was joined in the studio by a diminutive, raven-haired Japanese woman 10 years his senior. The daughter of a wealthy Tokyo businessman, Yoko Ono was a well-educated, married 37-year-old who had undertaken an unsuccessful career in New York’s conceptual art community. In 1967, she contacted Lennon, who underwrote Ono’s London gallery show. Their relationship deepened, and their affair culminated in Lennon’s divorce action against his wife Cynthia, mother of their five-year-old son Julian. Lennon and Ono became literally inseparable, and she became a divisive presence in the studio.
Lennon and Ono celebrated their union with the noisily experimental collaboration Two Virgins (1968). Its cover, a full-frontal photograph of the pair in the nude, scandalized EMI chairman Sir Joseph Lockwood, who refused to distribute it, and Apple’s financial advisors, who quit in a huff. The album was released independently that September, with its sleeve masked, like pornography, in a plain brown wrapper.
In July, as The Beatles continued to labor on a new single and album, the cartoon feature Yellow Submarine was released. Directed by George Dunning, this fanciful tale pitted The Beatles (voiced by actors) against a race of cerulean-skinned, melody-hating monsters, the Blue Meanies, conquerors of the peaceful, musical undersea kingdom of Pepperland. The film, which sported several familiar Beatles songs and six new numbers, ended with a cameo live-action appearance by the group. Eschewing Disney-style representational animation, it illustrated the band’s mythos with wildly colored, sometimes abstract images that plundered the breadth of art history. An immediate flop in England, it was embraced by its stoned young American audience as the ideal “head movie.” The soundtrack album hit No. 2 in the US.
“Hey Jude,” the follow-up to the band’s half-hearted Fats Domino pastiche “Lady Madonna,” was released in August 1968. The consoling ballad, written by McCartney with Lennon’s son in mind, was welcomed as another great leap forward by listeners. The swelling seven-minute single, with its extended coda/fadeout, became a radio ubiquity and held the No. 1 spot on the US singles chart for nine weeks, making it the band’s biggest American 45.
Its flip side “Revolution” fueled the wrath of the radical Left in the street-fighting summer of 1968, as protests against the Vietnam War escalated. Lennon’s storming rocker explicitly questioned increasingly violent tactics at the barricades, engendering bitter accusations of self-satisfied timidity and passivity on the part of the wealthy counterculture icons. Significantly, the sharply critical lyrics were qualified in a languid version of the song – ironically, recorded before the single version – that appeared on The Beatles’ arduously completed album in November.
Released on the group’s EMI-distributed imprint Apple in an individually numbered white jacket (designed by Pop artist Richard Hamilton) with the band’s name embossed on its gleaming surface, The Beatles (1968), aka “the White Album,” came close to sundering the group. Starr had briefly quit during the group’s taxing five-month Abbey Road residency. Producer Martin was angered by the band’s self-indulgence and disquieted by their decision to release a sprawling 30-track, two-LP set instead of a more listenable and sensibly selected single album. The collection, which contained little that was recorded by the foursome as a group, was a grab bag of jokes, parodies, incoherent experiments (like Lennon’s sound collage “Revolution 9,” executed with Ono), and even a few finished compositions.
It had its moments – Harrison’s lushly romantic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (with Eric Clapton guesting), McCartney’s “Blackbird,” Lennon’s “Julia” (dedicated to his mother), “Yer Blues,” and “I’m So Tired.” But observers were perplexed and disappointed by its uneven quality. Nonetheless, starved for a new non-soundtrack album by the band, the public ate up The Beatles out of the box, propelling it to No. 1. In America, it remains their bestselling collection.
As The Beatles’ Apple organization came apart at its poorly-stitched seams, McCartney proposed another idea to cement the band: a live album that would be rehearsed and recorded in front of movie cameras. Lennon insisted that the project be executed without studio trickery. Exasperated, Martin largely excused himself and left the project in the hands of engineer Glyn Johns. American director Michael Lindsay-Hogg was hired to capture the proceedings on celluloid at London’s Twickenham Studio.
The misbegotten sessions began in January 1969 on a drafty and uncomfortable soundstage in an atmosphere of contention and unease. An argument between McCartney and Harrison, captured by the naked camera eye, led to the guitarist’s abrupt departure. After a period of intense internal wrangling, Harrison grudgingly returned. The Beatles decided to quit Twickenham and continue at their newly built studio in Apple’s Savile Row offices; when the poorly constructed facility proved unusable, portable equipment was imported from EMI. In an attempt to manufacture a climax for their film, The Beatles played a hastily-organized set on the roof of Apple’s offices on Jan. 30; the alfresco concert sparked noise complaints in the heart of London’s financial district, and uniformed bobbies moved in to halt it.
The only fruit of the sessions to see immediate release was the back-to-basics-themed single “Get Back,” recorded with American R&B keyboardist Billy Preston on piano. It took No. 1 on the singles charts in the spring of 1969. The remainder of the material – made up mainly of new McCartney compositions, including the ballads “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road,” plus odds and sods like the antique Lennon-McCartney song “One After 909,” written in 1957 – was widely bootlegged, but it stayed on the shelf for a year. It would only see official release belatedly, with incongruous, overwrought overdubs by producer Phil Spector, as Let It Be (1970). The like-titled film, which premiered a month after The Beatles had ceased to exist, is a sobering depiction of a band in its death throes.
Through the spring of 1969, The Beatles went their separate ways personally. Lennon, who married Ono in March after the finalization of their divorces, embarked on a series of “bed-ins for peace” with his spouse, recorded the self-serving single “The Ballad of John and Yoko” (issued under The Beatles’ name) with the accommodating McCartney, and began to dabble in heroin use. McCartney’s marriage to his girlfriend, photographer Linda Eastman, preceded Lennon’s by eight days. A tug-of-war for the band’s fortunes began, as McCartney lobbied to retain his father-in-law, the powerful New York attorney Lee Eastman, as The Beatles’ manager, while Lennon, with the approval of Harrison and Starr, enlisted the bare-knuckled American accountant Allen Klein, most recently The Rolling Stones’ representative, to sort out the band’s tangled financial and music publishing affairs. The die was cast.
In the midst of the tumult, the ever-striving McCartney approached the estranged George Martin with a proposal to make another album; the producer agreed, if he could return to his old methods of recording. Sessions began in July without Lennon, who arrived tardily with Ono in tow; recuperating from a serious car accident, she would recline on a double bed imported into the studio by her husband for the duration of the sessions. Songs written autonomously by the members – including “Come Together,” a Lennon tune lyrically inspired by Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me,” and Harrison’s sublime, later much-covered ballad “Something” – were earmarked for the disc’s first side; most of the second side, artfully orchestrated, sequenced, and arranged with Martin’s input, was structured as a suite made up of bits and pieces contributed by diverse hands.
Titled in tribute to The Beatles’ studio home, Abbey Road (1969) arrived, two months after the mammoth Woodstock music festival in upstate New York, as a blinding beam of sunshine, and immediately lodged itself at No. 1. (The cover of the album, which showed The Beatles crossing the titular avenue, was offered as evidence of a laughable underground rumor that Paul McCartney had died in a car crash.) While comment about side one’s contributions was mixed, “Come Together” reached No. 1 (and inspired a suit, later settled, against Lennon by Berry), and “Something” rose to No. 3 on its own. Critics reserved most of their praise for the grand song-suite, which seemed the culmination of The Beatles’, and Martin’s, musical vision; reflecting the still-utopian tenor of the times, it ended with McCartney’s proclamation, “And in the end, the love you take/Is equal to the love you make.”
The landscape quickly darkened. In December 1969, a “family” of hippies living communally in the California desert was arrested for a pair of savage August multiple murders in LA; the victims included starlet Sharon Tate, wife of director Roman Polanski. Prosecutors soon informed the public that the group’s leader, career criminal Charles Manson, had incited his drug-deluded followers with an apocalyptic doctrine inspired by The Beatles’ “White Album.”
As 1970 dawned, the appearance of the American compilation Hey Jude to the contrary, The Beatles were a band in name only. Lennon – who had already recorded such solo singles as “Instant Karma,” “Cold Turkey,” and “Give Peace a Chance” under the moniker Plastic Ono Band – told his handler Klein that he “wanted a divorce” from the group. Harrison was contemplating an exorcism of his frustration within The Beatles’ fold, which would ultimately be expressed in his three-LP set All Things Must Pass (1970). Starr had cut an album of old-school standards, Sentimental Journey (1970). And McCartney had clandestinely finished a home-recorded solo collection, titled McCartney (1970), which was scheduled for release three weeks after Starr’s long-pending effort.
The last straw came when Allen Klein convinced Lennon, Harrison, and Starr to send a letter to EMI requesting the postponement of McCartney’s release, to avoid competition with Starr’s album. When the drummer confronted McCartney about the issue personally at home, he was angrily ejected from the house. On April 10, 1970, McCartney issued a self-penned interview promoting his LP, in which he tersely announced the end of his songwriting partnership with Lennon and his determination to go it alone.
A week later, Apple issued a press statement: “Paul McCartney has left The Beatles due to personal, musical, and business differences.”
Interest in The Beatles’ music did not wane with the demise of the group; it has outlived the deaths of John Lennon (in 1980, at the hands of a deranged assassin) and George Harrison (from lung cancer, in 2001), and has flourished in the intervening years.
Compilations and collections of unreleased music have poured forth almost continuously for nearly four decades; these included the so-called “red” and “blue” hits packages The Beatles/1962-1966 and The Beatles/1967-1970 (both 1973), the latter of which reached No. 1; Live at the BBC (1994), a two-CD set of radio performances; the three two-CD Anthology volumes of previously unreleased material (all 1995), which complemented the group’s official oral biography and its accompanying eight-part TV series (a 1996 Grammy recipient as best long-form video); 1 (2000), a collection of chart-topping singles, which in the US alone held the No. 1 slot for eight weeks and sold more than 10 million copies; Let It Be…Naked (2003), an alternate version of the 1970 album, overseen by McCartney and denuded of Spector’s overdubs; and “Love” (2006), featuring remixed versions (produced by George Martin and his son Giles) of the band’s songs used in Cirque du Soleil’s Beatles-themed Las Vegas extravaganza.
Eight Beatles singles have reached the charts since 1970; two – including Anthology’s “Free As a Bird,” which reunited the surviving members of the band behind a Lennon demo, and received two Grammys – peaked in the top 10.
The Beatles received the Recording Academy’s Trustees Award for their career contributions to recorded music in 1972. In 1988, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at its first ceremony.
In 2004 and 2006, Capitol reissued The Beatles’ first eight U.S. albums in stereo and mono in two boxed sets. On September 9, 2009 – 22 years after the first release of The Beatles’ UK catalog on compact disc – Apple issued the albums in digitally remastered stereo and mono editions, day-and-date with the release of a Beatles “Rock Band” video game.