The Beatles: John, Paul, George, Ringo.
They seemed to come from nowhere -suddenly, there they were. And nothing was ever the same again. In the 1960s, it was physically impossible to avoid them, whether you wanted to or not. Of course, both the previous and subsequent generations worshipped their own idols, but not many that made such a profound impression as the Fab Four. Like an effervescent electric storm, they swept across the landscape, driving everything and everyone before them. At the time, they stood for much more than music, although of course it’s the music that has proven most durable. But the symbolic value of the Beatles trademark cannot be overstated.
This was partly because the four of them collectively came to represent the so-called “baby boomer” generation, i.e. those who were born in the 1940s, grew up in the 1950s and whose experiences and ideology culminated in the youth rebellion that took place in the second half of the 1960s. As such, the Beatles came to symbolize the dream of a more peaceful and humane world, even if the vision did not in the end prove compatible with the harsh realities of life. As far as culture and lifestyle were concerned, it was a time of great upheaval, although not in terms of politics and economics.
Possibly because of the period during which they were actively recording (1962-1970), they underwent a musical development virtually unparalleled in rock history. And paradoxically, not because they were individually the best musicians of the time; on the contrary, as instrumentalists, they were easily bettered by other technically more able musicians. On the other hand, the group wrote, arranged and recorded some of the most enduring and melodically robust songs ever recorded, and demanded far higher standards of themselves than many of their contemporaries.
The group’s secret song-writing weapon was the combination of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who, despite very different temperaments and approaches to their craft, complemented each other perfectly. Their unique chemistry has been interpreted as representing the classic clash between Beauty (McCartney) and Truth (Lennon). Which should, of course, be taken with a pinch of salt because in both their repertoires, there were plenty of examples of both the seriously bombastic and the lighter, more cheerful songs; there was always something for everyone. In fact, there was hardly any popular musical genre they didn’t turn their hand to along the way, although of course it was always given that special Lennon-McCartney twist.
John and Paul became friends as teenagers in their hometown of Liverpool, both infected by the rock ‘n’ roll bug, but also both growing up in an environment where different kinds of songs and singing were an integral part of any given social occasion. They were exposed to music from Tin Pan Alley and Broadway as well as the British Music Hall via the BBC’s Light Programme, the most listened to and musically varied radio channel of the three channels broadcast by the BBC in the post-war period when they grew up. It gave them a very varied musical background, even though right from the very beginning, they found a style and tone that was all their own and which transcended genres and traditions.
McCartney had been writing songs since the age of 14, which inspired Lennon to follow suit. Together they formed a partnership whose basic idea was that no matter which of them actually wrote a given song, it should be credited to “Lennon-McCartney”. Both were deeply sceptical of music teaching and theory, and both had a mistrust of musical virtuosity as they were afraid it would harm spontaneity, distinctiveness and the ability to surprise not only others, but also to a great extent themselves. This premise proved incredibly successful and contributed to creating a whole new sound in popular music.
Right from the very start of their careers, the pair easily outran other contemporary musicians with their melodic and harmonious ingenuity, which was without equal, and amazed even well-known and gifted songwriters with their often surprising chord changes, strange shifts in tempo, unorthodox song structures and other unpredictable elements. So even though their lyrics were somewhat clichéd in the beginning, their music sounded catchy, and constantly surprised the listener. Later on, their lyrics became deeper and more original, and by employing, for example, exotic instruments in their songs and experimenting with expanding the limits of the studio, they kept the group’s sound fresh and different throughout their careers. In the same way, the music became more and more complex, though the songs were generally always catchy, and could still be whistled by most people on their way to work.
Distinctly different both as people and musically, it is usually easy to hear which of them has contributed what to a particular song. And even though it was only at the start of their career that they wrote songs together, they always played their compositions to each other before going into the studio, which allowed for both frank criticism and suggestions for improvement. Clear examples of songs created together are early hits such as “From Me to You”, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You”, but also later compositions such as “In My Life”, “Being the Benefit for Mr Kite” and “I’ve Got a Feeling” were obviously written 50-50.
The somewhat phlegmatic Lennon’s ironic and realistic view of life characterized his song-writing, which tonally did not move very much up and down the scale; especially his later tunes often worked best by virtue of their harmonic arrangements, but at the same time, they packed a powerful punch and had an irresistible directness that appealed immediately to the listener. Indeed, the group’s breakthrough hit “Please Please Me” (1963) was an almost pure Lennon creation, and, as is well known, its insistent freshness took the group straight to the top of the English charts. The same can be said of the title song for the group’s debut film, “A Hard Day’s Night,” which simply leaps out of the speakers. Ballads such as “Norwegian Wood”, “Nowhere Man” and “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” are lyrically more sophisticated, with audible inspiration from Bob Dylan, giving the lyrics depth and a generally much higher level of ambition.
Both a cynic and a realist, Lennon wrote under the influence of his LSD trips in the period 1966-1967, composing some of the group’s most acidic and experimental songs, including titles such as “Tomorrow Never Knows”, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “I Am the Walrus”. Together with other darker material such as “She Said, She Said”, “Sexy Sadie” and “Cry Baby Cry”, this made him the group’s favourite among its more intellectual audience, even though, as a rule, he worked instinctively and found his inspiration in the very oddest of places.
The outgoing and optimistic but slightly sentimental McCartney has almost perfect pitch and an unparalleled sense of melody. In contrast to Lennon, his compositions take surprising tonal leaps and use intervals that span at least an octave. His songs do not need harmonies to work, being the natural progeny of a born songwriter, as can be heard as early as 1963 with a song like “All My Loving”. Two years later, he entered the annals of song-writing history with the elegant “Yesterday”, one of the most recorded Beatles songs ever. McCartney’s genius is attributed to his ability to compose not just extremely catchy melodies, but also songs that make up a narrative in themselves.
Stylistically more far-reaching than Lennon, songs like “Can’t Buy Me Love”, “Penny Lane”, “Hey Jude” and “Let It Be” are impossible to get out of your head, once they’ve taken hold. McCartney also had another more melancholy side, which finds its expression in such classic songs as “For No One”, “Eleanor Rigby”, “Here, There and Everywhere” and “She’s Leaving Home”, while the British Music Hall tradition is evident in songs like “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da”, “Martha My Dear” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”. With his incredible versatility, he brought air and light into his work, and there are only very few songwriters who have managed to produce songs where popularity and quality have been combined so successfully.
Together, the two were invincible, and right up until the end, they always had a positive influence on each other. Even in the recording studio, they were driven by the curiosity, hunger and lack of respect for tradition that made them so unique, and which made “Lennon-McCartney” one of the strongest brands in the music industry.
It began in the fall of 1963 as a phenomenon which became known as Beatlemania, a term that hardly even begins to describe the mass hysteria the group generated wherever they appeared. Boys grew their hair long and dreamed of electric guitars; girls screamed and sobbed and fainted at Beatles concerts, making it physically impossible to hear, let alone concentrate on, the music. After some 15-20 minutes into a concert – which never lasted any longer than that – there was literally not a dry seat left in the house.
Everyone – even grandparents and babies – knew who John, Paul, George and Ringo were. Whether you liked them or not was irrelevant; you couldn’t help having an opinion about them. For us groups of lads, the four Beatles seemed as real as friends, and in a way, they were friends. We were on a first-name terms with them, their music was sung at every possible social get-together, and every day they chatted with us about this and that – for we were all residents of Beatleland. These four young men were completely real to us – but at the same they were completely outside our normal sphere of reality. They lived in a world so remote, so unattainable and so desirable that it was far beyond our wildest dreams. A sparkling Beatleland, and if you were really lucky, maybe some of their stardust would land on you, like Tinkerbell’s in Peter Pan – and then, boy, would you fly!
Beatleland is inhabited by four lovable, but also somewhat mischievous princes. Drummer Ringo Starr is the most human: sweet, funny, gentle and slightly lost; lead guitarist George Harrison beyond cool, silent, good-looking and soulful; rhythm guitarist John Lennon edgy, enthralling, sarcastic and charming; and finally Paul McCartney on bass, beautiful, talented, pleasant and obliging Paul: dear heart, what more could you wish for? Four personalities who together produced a monumental body of work far beyond their individual abilities, and far greater than any of those involved could have imagined in their wildest dreams.
The genius of John, Paul, George and Ringo was that almost every guy could find something to identify with at least one of them. And for the girls, too, there was something to please everyone. The Beatles had an undefined chemistry that few groups possess because there is always a weak link – isn’t there? But not with the Beatles: the personalities all complemented each other perfectly. This made the group the most attractive proposition in the music industry, an industry that they were also responsible for completely revolutionizing. Since Frank Sinatra in the 1940s, the music industry had been dominated by soloists, by singers. The Beatles changed all that and made playing in a band the ultimate in style – in fact, an absolute must!
By their sheer existence, the Beatles created the notion of the beat group as a flawless, self-sufficient and beautiful entity, where creativity, talent, sex appeal, fun and earning decent money all came together to form a perfect whole. The legendary story of the three, maybe four, childhood friends who came from a modest background in the provincial city of Liverpool, but who, with a combination of hard work, cheeky charm, drive and unprecedented musicality, ended up with the world at their feet.
The group exuded an insatiable lust for life, high spirits, close camaraderie, charm, beautiful (long) hair, and musicality of such quality that even musical heavyweights like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Leonard Bernstein only had praise for them, long before it became acceptable to admit to appreciating the quality of their music. Such eminent gentlemen obviously had no trouble hearing the Beatles’ music clearly through all the hysteria and the hype.
Because after the dust had settled and every moment of their journey in that tumultuous decade had been documented by writer after writer, what remains through it all is the songs. And there is plenty there to satisfy a Beatles connoisseur or someone hearing the group for the first time: nine to ten hours of music, if you only count the 10-12 LPs and additional singles and EPs released while the group existed. A huge musical catalogue, and yet at the same time one that is not difficult to digest and enjoy.
All four Beatles come from Liverpool, a port city located at the mouth of the River Mersey in north-west England. The city was hit hard by German bombing during World War II, when the boys were born, Lennon and Starr in 1940, McCartney in ’42 and Harrison in ’43. They came from either working class or lower middle-class backgrounds, and it was by no means a foregone conclusion that they would amount to very much at all; none of them, for example, showed any kind of academic prowess. On the other hand, each of them seemed to have a distinct talent for getting up to mischief, but without seriously getting into trouble with the law.
Liverpool found it difficult to recover after the war, and the boys grew up in a war-torn city suffering food shortages, economic collapse and widespread unemployment. Liverpudlians are famous for tackling life’s ups and downs with wry humour, frequent visits to the pub and mass singalongs at every possible social event. The English music hall tradition was well past its heyday, so when American rock ‘n’ roll provided a much needed breath of fresh air with acts like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and Gene Vincent and took the world by storm in the second half of 1950s, Liverpool was no exception.
The rock ‘n’ roll bug had definitely got to Paul McCartney and John Lennon when they met at a church fete in the summer of 1957, Lennon playing with his skiffle group the Quarrymen, which Paul subsequently joined. Paul had lost his mother the year before and John would lose his mother the following year, which gave the two an even stronger bond of friendship. George Harrison joined in ’58, and the three played in local pubs and clubs with various drummers, before the group stabilized in 1960 with Lennon’s art schoolmate Stuart Sutcliffe on bass and Pete Best on drums. Over the next couple of years, the group served its apprenticeship with a total of five long stays in the German port city of Hamburg, where they played as the house band at various clubs in the city’s entertainment area, St. Pauli. When Sutcliffe left the group, Paul took over the bass.
In 1962, the group got an ambitious manager in the form of Brian Epstein, who got them a record deal with Parlophone, a subdivision of the recording giant EMI. Here they were assigned George Martin as producer, but he did not think Best was good enough, so Best was replaced by Ringo Starr. The group debuted in October of that year with the fairly unremarkable single “Love Me Do”, which nevertheless distinguished itself by being written by the group’s own songsmiths Lennon-McCartney and not by professional songwriters, which was otherwise the norm at the time.
However, the follow-up, the infectious, confident and energetic “Please Please Me” topped the British charts in the beginning of ’63, triggering the avalanche that became Beatlemania. Initially, the group was seen as a purely teenage phenomenon, and no one – least of all themselves – expected it to last more than a year or two. But if you listened closely, it was obvious even at the time that several of the group’s songs were well above the going standard of the time; tracks like “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” not only excited fans, but also got professional musicians to prick up their ears. Wow – what was that? Somewhat pleasantly familiar, yet with an unexpected twist giving it a piquant originality, a combination which in fact aptly describes all the best Lennon-McCartney compositions.
For a start, the music was touchingly simple: two guitars, bass and drums, sometimes accompanied by a piano, played by George Martin, who, in his collaborative role as the group’s producer and by virtue of his ability to translate the group’s ideas into practice, is often regarded as the fifth Beatle. Add to that the group’s instinctive but exquisite sense of multi-voiced harmonies, and you’ve got the magic formula. On the group’s first few LPs, Lennon-McCartney’s original compositions were supplemented with cover versions of American rock ‘n’ roll classics and rhythm ‘n’ blues hits, clearly showing where they drew their inspiration from.
The unexpectedly colossal breakthrough in the United States in 1964 paved the way for a whole host of British groups trying to outplay and outperform each other to be top dog: the Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Yardbirds, the Who, and the Kinks all significantly raised the bar for rock music at the time, and were fierce competitors, which motivated them to push the bar even further. With the LP Rubber Soul, released in 1965, the Beatles moved up a level, proving themselves capable of writing lyrics which were not simply linguistic clichés. The album showed new and exciting facets of the group and helped to shift the focus of record sales from the single to the LP.
The mid-sixties was a period of great social change on all fronts; England was shaking off its post-war austerity and gloom, and the concept of “Swinging London” was emerging. With a heady mix of long hair, colourful clothes, mind-altering substances, sexual liberation, Far Eastern mysticism and political consciousness, the baby boomers were making their mark in all sectors of society.
For the Beatles, 1966 was something of a watershed year because that was when the group stopped touring. The same year, they released the extremely ambitious Revolver, whose songs could not generally be performed live, at least not with the technology available at the time. Their imagination and ingenuity seemed to know no bounds on a record that had songs ranging from the children’s song “Yellow Submarine” to the mysteriously droning and obviously LSD-inspired “Tomorrow Never Knows”, because as always with the Beatles, there was something for everyone.
The Beatles’ work culminated in 1967 with the group’s magnum opus: the psychedelically tinged Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released on June 1 as a kind of prelude to, and for many people synonymous with, the so-called ‘Summer of Love’. In Sgt. Pepper, any notion of rock as simply a naturalistic rendition of four guys playing music together was abandoned in favour of an incredibly sophisticated, whimsical and excellently produced work.
The idea of rock music as an art form emerged in parallel with this, and almost as a way of proving just how seriously they should be taken, the lyrics of the record were printed on the back of the cover so everyone could read what was being sung. And not a hint of a traditional love song to be found among the 13 songs on the album, which together seemed to form a coherent whole, merging seamlessly from one song to the next.
Stylistically, the record was extremely diverse, ranging from the title track’s no-nonsense rock to the baroque-pop “She’s Leaving Home”, from George Harrison’s Indian contribution “Within You, Without You” to the finale “A Day in the Life”, whose challenging form and content elicited a fan letter from no less a personage than Karlheinz Stockhausen!
The Beatles were always a very inclusive group, and, despite Lennon’s efforts to the contrary, and McCartney’s fascination with the avant-garde of the time, they simply couldn’t help writing melodies that virtually everyone could hum. Although Sgt. Pepper was predominantly the brainchild of the brilliant Paul McCartney, it is also, above all, a stunning studio creation, and no one in 1967 had heard anything like it. That a rock band could aspire to such heights and do so with such resounding success sent shockwaves across genres and generations.
Following the optimism and belief in a bright new future that had characterized the youth rebellion up to that point, the tumultuous year of 1968 struck a more confrontational note. Which could be heard on the 30 songs that made up the group’s next offering, the double LP The Beatles, usually referred to as the White Album. Gone was any trace of psychedelia in favour of a darker and more sober tone. While there was still room for sing-along favourites like “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da” and music hall-inspired songs like “Martha My Dear”, hard-hitting numbers such as “Yer Blues”, “Helter Skelter”, “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” and” Revolution 1″ showed a more divisive, confrontational side of the group.
Things were no longer so rosy in the Beatleland garden, where the different members had started working on individual projects. The group’s manager, Brian Epstein, had died in 1967, only 32 years old, and without his friendly guiding hand and stabilizing effect, the four Beatles slowly but surely slid away from each other. While it wasn’t obvious to the outside world, who still saw the group as the epitome of camaraderie and unbreakable musical bonds, the Beatles were singing their last verse together.
Harrison turned to Hinduism and was generally frustrated by how few of his songs found their way onto the group’s LPs. Ringo Starr was finding success as an actor and was fed up with the constant squabbling of the others. John Lennon fell in love with Japanese avant-garde artist Yoko Ono and became very critical of both the group and its success. And Paul McCartney met American photographer Linda Eastman, with whom he started a family; at the same time, he was worried about the financial debacle that had resulted from the formation of the idealistic company Apple Corps. Created for both philanthropic and tax reasons, the company ended up being run by a bunch of hopeless dilettantes.
1969’s excellent Abbey Road came into being only through a huge effort of will on the part of those involved. The LP’s excellent side two is an inventive montage of both full and half-finished songs, seamlessly clipped together by Martin, and a fitting end to a career unparalleled in rock history. Following the split-up of the Beatles in April 1970, the LP Let It Be was released, controversially post-produced by the American producer Phil Spector, and even though the title track has rightly become a classic, it is a slightly laden swan song, although it has its moments. Recorded before Abbey Road, but not released until after Abbey Road, it had the honour of being the Beatles final work – at least until the lawyers got stuck in!
That’s what people thought at any rate. Even though all talk of getting the group back together was abruptly silenced when John Lennon was shot by a deranged fan in 1980, in 1996 the three remaining Beatles gave their support to the Anthology project, a six-part television series and a total of three double CDs containing previously unreleased material. After having been side-lined by other trends and musical phenomena for a little under 25 years, the Beatles’ unforgettable songs and irresistible charisma suddenly put them right back on top again as the world’s most famous and most influential group ever. And nothing has changed since. Beatleland is still open, after all: so step right up!