Even the Beatles found it hard to escape their image; they were trapped by it.
All you could do was to see them. We were backstage when the Beatles were on and you could just about hear a noise. It was just literally screaming.
Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue with that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first – rock and roll or Christianity.
At the end of the Beatles, I really was done in for the first time in my life. Until then, I really was a kind of cocky sod.
We were the Spice Boys.
There is really not much more that can be said about the Beatles that hasn’t already been said. Groundbreaking, historic, revolutionary, overrated. Yes, it has all been said before. But it hasn’t been said on here so let’s do this shit. I think just about everyone can find a song they like from their substantial catalog. They released 12 studio albums. One seminal album that will go down in history as an all time classic, the White Album, and 11 other “good tries”. I’m sure people still remember some of them but it’s mostly filler. Anyways, the Beatles were a charismatic trio. A generous group of men who took in a simple lad from the street and let him pretend he was playing drums for them. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison. All would eventually enjoy some success as solo artists but never the level of overhyped fanaticism they would see as a group. So let’s begin with the early history of the group and the build up to their invasion of the 16-25 year old demographic. This early section, and each proceeding, will owe some of it’s content to the fantastic book “Beatles Anthology”.
Before the Mania
The Beatles were actually cool at one point. When John, Paul, and George finally got going as “The Beatles”, they were all leather jacket, greaser types. They played crazy music and were best known for eating fried chicken on stage and setting condoms on fire. Plus they played A LOT of
titty bars gentleman’s clubs. It was as rock and roll as rock and roll lifestyles get. Lennon said that, at the time, they viewed it as a job. Looking back he realized they were just some kids having fun playing music. Before they were “robots playing on stage”, as he put it. But in the moment they just wanted to make enough money to get through the week and get a new slate of gigs. And they did a lot of different kinds of gigs. Some nights it would just be them and whatever drummer happened to be in the building that night, other nights they would pull 15 or 20 musicians on stage and do shit no one had heard before. They really didn’t want to repeat themselves and wanted each show to be a unique experience.
The band was heavy into the American rock n roll scene. Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, the late Big Bopper. And being the young, crazy assholes they were they liked their music loud and with a quicker tempo that would become more and more popular in rock music as the decades progressed. During this time the first of a series of conversations began between Lennon and McCartney. It basically involved Lennon saying, “I believe I’m the front man. I’m carrying the vocals”, McCartney replying, “I don’ t know about that”, and Harrison remarking under his breath, “Really looking forward to 2 more decades of this bullshit”.
All kidding aside, Paul and George did look up to John. Greatly respected him. He was older than the two and often took on the role of mouthpiece for the group. But their music did most of the talking in those early years. The band was good. Local music magazine Mersey Beat, named for Merseyside county, featured them on the cover of their second issue and stayed closely involved with them. The publication was founded by an art school friend of John Lennon and Lennon even contributed a column for awhile. In their 13th issue the magazine published a poll to find out who the most popular band in the area was. It was no surprise that The Beatles won. They weren’t just the most popular band in Liverpool, their fame was spreading all across the county and beyond. They had a simple formula of guitar, guitar, oh look over here, what’s this?, it’s more guitar. McCartney admitted he never wanted to play bass. No one did. When the band finally became The Beatles we know he just accepted it. But I’m betting they gambled for it and he lost.
Beatles shows became experiences. Many of the groups out at the time were copycats. Same look, same sound, night in and night out. The Beatles were experimenting more with blues and R&B riffs and this made them must see performers. They had also added something of a permanent drummer in the form of Pete Best. But don’t let the name fool you. He was a shitty drummer. The Beatles had written a ton of material and actually sold a lot of it instead of recording it. Such as The Hippy Hippy Shake, which McCartney claims to have written. A recording of the song being played by the group well before the album release pretty much proves it. But they did get a few tunes out and this led to some gigs outside of England.
Hamburg, Germany. The city of lights. Wait….. Paris? Anyways, the boys show up in Germany in the fall of 1960. Harrison, who is only 17, has to lie to authorities about his age to stay in the country. A local promoter booked them for a 48 night tour of the various clubs. The promoter, Bruno Koschmider, had a healthy dose of gigs lined up for them. Plenty of bars and strip clubs. During this time the boys violated their contract by performing at a club contracted by a rival promoter. Bruno immediately went to the authorities and ratted out Harrison on his age. He was immediately deported. Two weeks later McCartney and Best were kindly asked to leave after starting a fire in a hotel by lighting a condom pinned to the wall. The usual.
Designated bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, the original “Fifth Beatle”, decided to stay in Germany with his new fiance. Lennon returned to Liverpool not too long after. They did return to Hamburg though. Their popularity there was at an all time high. During the return trip, Sutcliffe officially quit the band. Lennon later commented that they all really liked Sutcliffe. He was a dedicated musician, a good friend, he was just boring to be around. After he left they made the decision that they would not have a fifth member again. Harrison said that he and Lennon both stated firmly they did not want to play bass. McCartney just went with it. Though I’m sure he was disappointed. Germany was full of long tours and epic performances. They casually fell into drug use while on tour there. Mostly speed and the stimulants most athletes were hooked on in those days.
Back home in Liverpool the band’s popularity was reaching new levels as well. Enter Brain Epstein. Epstein had visions of being a star in the theater but found he had an affinity for the business side of show business. Epstein took charge of the record department of his father’s music store, turning it into a huge success and grew it into a profitable franchise. He loved music but his job in the store bored him. In his free time he contributed to the local mag Mersey Beat. I was here hat he discovered the Beatles. And I mean just him. Most of Liverpool and Merseyside already knew who they were. McCartney and one other person involved in the story state that Epstein always knew who the Beatles were. They were on the cover of the second issue of the magazine Epstein contributed to and old in his shops. Their music was everywhere in the area. But Epstein did know they had something special and he wanted in on it.
Harrison, McCarntey, and Best were all still under 21 and couldn’t sign any agreements without consent of a parent or guardian. McCartney’s dad agreed but told his son to “watch his finances”. A shot at Epstein’s Jewish heritage. Harrison’s parents also approved. Lennon’s aunt, his legal guardian, warned him that Epstein was rich and had the money to drop them when something else that interests him came along. But since Lennon was already of age it was completely his decision. Ironically, Best’s mother seemed the most exited about the idea and thought it would be the best thing to ever happen to them. I say ironic because after the Beatles finally signed their life away to Brian Epstein, he fired Best only a few months later.
There are many reasons given for why Best was let go and most of them revolve around him not being a great drummer. He was adequate for bar tours and strip clubs but if they wanted higher profile gigs they needed better drumming. Kind of a slap in the face to Best, who did go on to be a pretty successful drummer, but he just didn’t fit the image Epstein was going for. Lennon and McCartney said that Epstein wasn’t trying to change their style or who they were, he just knew his shit and they had to look the part to play the big gigs. Lennon hated the suits but if the money was good he’d wear them. Lennon never lamented the ideas. He knew this was what they had to do to get to the point where they were calling all the shots.
Epstein worked his ass off to get the band off the ground. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. He genuinely believed in the band and that they could be the biggest act in the world. From the start he envisioned a great take over of the American music scene. With Best’s dismissal Epstein inserted a simple minded mechanic who they let play drums in the studio every now and then, Richard Starkey. Starkey asked the fellas if they’d call him Ringo and they all smiled and commented on how adorable he was. It was a surprise when they later discovered he could actually drum. And somewhere Pete Best cried into his warm beer. In the band’s first meeting, the catchphrase “Shut up Ringo” was first coined. A staple of the band ever since.
It’s 1962, Epstein is the band’s official manager, and the band is ready to break out. Epstein’s years in theater gave him a certain eye for the stage. *Funny side note – Lennon married Cynthia Powell that year and Ringo did not get an invite to the wedding.* The band adopts the matching suits and haircuts that would be their look for many years to come. If they wanted to play the big stages, make all the TV appearances, they had to look and perform like professionals. Epstein got them touring the countryside while he prepared them to record their debut album. Lennon and McCartney wrote Please Please Me in about a day.It was released in March of 1963. There was no focus on precise composition and, to them, the lyrics were meaningless. They just wanted to turn out catchy pop hooks that would get them played on the radio stations. Please Please Me went to number one in England and many Beatles aficionados still consider it one of their best albums.
In November of 1963 the Beatles followed up Please Please Me with With The Beatles. Featuring the single “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” it skyrocketed the band to superstar status in England. They were developing a decent following in America btu Capital Records was slow to release their material overseas. Same old story. Some old fart in a boardroom who thinks he knows what the kids like. CBS did a report on “Beatlemania” in Britain that December and American interest int he band quickly elevated. Capital rushed to release I Wanna Hold Your Hand. Epstein knew they were ready. In February of 1964 he loaded them up and flew across the pond to the colonies. “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” was closing in on 3 million copies sold in only a few weeks and excitement in America was building for the Beatles arrival.
Paul had talked about how nervous they were at that point. A large adoring crowd had seen them off at the airport but what reception was waiting when they landed. Would anyone even care? Lennon wanted so bad to make it in America. Get that recognition and launch it into a global tour. The boys worries were put at ease before they even landed when they spotted a large crowd gathering near the runway. They exited the plane to cheers and screaming adulation. Paul thought, “We’ve arrived! Finally.” Two days later they would know just how big they were. February 9, 1964 the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show , the most popular variety show in the country. It was a historic moment as 74 million people, 40% of the U.S. population, tuned in to see them perform. It was ridiculous. Beyond ridiculous. At some points you could barely hear the music over the din of screaming teenage girls. The band themselves admit to worrying if they were being drowned out by the reaction.
They returned one week later and shared the time with Muhammad Ali(then Cassius Clay) as he trained for his next bout. it was an outdoor performance and the crowd was enormous. Police were pushing back piles of screaming teenagers as the boys raced for their instruments and began playing. Harrison remarked that it was quickly surpassing his wildest expectations. He had no doubt they would be successful but who gets police escorts?! They were in Elvis territory. And they hit at the right time. They had a new look and a slightly different sound than many of the pop acts that were big in America at the time. Americans were chomping at the bit for something new. It also didn’t hurt that the trio was extremely talented. Their performances went like clockwork. Almost flawless execution. As Lennon said, “Robots playing on stage”. Epstein took care of the look and the presentation, worked the promoters and had a hand in how they were televised. They were a well oiled machine and they were running all over young America.
On February 22, the band returned to England. They had 12 singles on the Billboard top 100 including all top 5 positions. Another ridiculous accomplishment. This opened the door for other acts and the “British Invasion” began. You’re welcome Rolling Stones. In June they launched their first major international tour. In August they returned to America for a tour and the screaming crowds had only increased. Again there were problems with acoustics as the noise of the crowds almost completely absorbed their instruments. The equipment at the time wasn’t great. No one ever expected these kinds of crowds. The Beatles completely changed the way concerts are set up and performed. Drove the pursuit of new and better concert equipment and speakers. The Beatles are why you constantly ask those kids to “turn down that damn loud music!”. Given the fact their concerts were nothign more than photo ops the boys became weary of the constant touring.
Growth and The End
The Beatles fan base was obvious. Teenage girls. Not exclusively but the by far the vast majority. And Epstein loved it. These girls would buy up their merch, come to all the shows, and be there on day one for every album and single. The band wanted more. But change is scary. You could lose your old fans and not gain any new ones. A fateful meeting with Bob Dylan at the end of August set them down the path to widening their musical range. It also introduced them to the wonderful world of cannabis. It was quite an epic meeting. At the time Dylan was the most respected musical act in America. The Beatles the most popular. The boys all loved Bob. Especially Lennon who admitted to being a bit starstruck. Not long after the meeting Lennon would incorporate aspects of Dylan’s performance into his own. His nasally delivery and philosophical demeanor. It was a meeting that would greatly influence the kind of artist Lennon would become. It also gave The Beatles legitimacy with an older audience.
Capitol records was still showing weak interest int he band and other labels stepped in to try and scoop them up. United Artists stepped in and offered them a movie deal. A Hard Day’s Night was born from this collaboration. Shot in spring of 1964, it was a lighthearted comedy about the band’s daily life starring them and it proved to be a huge success financially and critically. That October they followed it up with their fourth studio album, Beatles For Sale. It would mark a change in the band’s direction. songs became more introspective and moody. The band was “growing up”. Lennon and McCartney were struggling to still write all the catchy pop hooks they had been cranking out. They were just tired of it.
By the time Rubber Soul came out a year later they were no longer a commercial pop group. The album had a more Dylanesque folk rock sound to it and the maturity of the lyrics brought them a whole new audience as their teen fans were quickly drawing away and finding younger acts. It was barely noticeable. They were a generational band with an unmatched global audience. Each subsequent album release marked a new growth in the band’s music. But inner friction was slowly driving them apart. Lennon and McCartney had a very real feud for many years over songwriting. In 1968 The Beatles released their opus, The White Album. It was perhaps the boys at their best. Sgt. Pepper may have been their most successful album but the White Album showcased everything the band was and had been. Remarkable considering they were all but officially broken up by this time.
Two years later The Beatles would be no more, capping one of the most successful and influential decades in music history. But they probably weren’t meant to last much longer. Their star was far too bright to burn for very long. The legacy though is enormous. 4 decade after their split the Beatles still set records. The re-releases of their music have set records in every format it’s been introduced to. The first day their music went on I-Tunes the servers shut down from the activity. Fathers and mothers all over the world want to introduce them to their children. Global cultural icons, their legacy will exist long after we are all gone. Personally, I don’t get it.