Synopsis of Pop Music
"It was twenty years ago today..."
How do you capture, or even describe Beatlemania? The music was the backbone of course, but what about the look, the attitude, the sheer joy of rock and roll in its bubbliest, most infectious glory? If it were a simple formula, some bright record producer would have minted a hundred carbon copies of the Beatles (and heaven knows, many have tried).
Perhaps the phenomenon is better left uncaptured, undescribed, unreplicated. There was certainly nothing like it before; it’s unlikely there ever will be again. And that only makes it all the more amazing that John, Paul, George and Ringo would choose to leave their mop-topped, “boy/girl love song” image behind in order to take rock to places it had never been. Even more astoundingly, their fans came along for the ride, putting the Beatles in the incredibly rare position of simultaneously being critical darlings, rock pioneers, teen idols, gifted songwriters, and the most popular band in the world.
The birth of a legend dates back to the summer of 1957, when young Liverpool natives Paul McCartney and John Lennon met at a performance of Lennon’s band, The Quarrymen. McCartney soon joined The Quarrymen as a second guitarist (Lennon was the other), and within a few months, George Harrison had signed on as the band’s third guitarist. Lennon’s art school friend Stuart Sutcliffe came on as a bassist, suggesting the group rename themselves 'The Silver Beetles' as a response to Buddy Holly’s band 'The Crickets.' The 'Silver' was eventually dropped, and with Pete Best on drums, the newly-christened Beatles hit the famed Hamburg, West Germany club scene in 1960.
In Hamburg, the Beatles became a local hit, and the soon-to-be-legendary songwriting partnership of Lennon and McCartney began to take shape (the two had agreed early on to share all writing credits). An underage George Harrison (still only 17) was eventually kicked out of the country, and the Beatles with him, but the return to Liverpool was a triumphant one. Playing at the Cavern Club, famed home of the “Merseybeat” sound, the Beatles found even more success on their hometown scene than they had in Germany. After a return to Hamburg and a recording session as a backup band to Tony Sheridan, the Beatles caught the attention of record store manager Brian Epstein, who became the group’s manager.
Epstein tried to sell the Beatles to every label in London, encouraging the lads to shed their leather-jacketed image for a set of matching suits and ties. Most record labels rejected the group, but producer George Martin was convinced enough to sign the band to Parlophone, a subsidiary of EMI. On Martin’s urging, Best was kicked out of the band, replaced by Ringo Starr. The addition of the former Rory Storm and the Hurricanes drummer made the official 'Fab Four' lineup complete (Sutcliffe had already left the band to pursue his art, later dying of a brain hemorrhage in 1962).
By the end of 1962, the Beatles had hit the U.K. charts with their first single, “Love Me Do” (with “P.S. I Love You” on the B-side), both Lennon/McCartney originals. A series of television and radio appearances followed, as the Beatles began packing in crowds at live performances across the country. In February of 1963, the group headed back into the studio to record their debut album, Please Please Me (a feat accomplished in under ten hours). The album was a phenomenal hit in Britain, hitting the #1 spot and staying there for thirty weeks. In that time, the lads from Liverpool went from local musicians to pop icons—their mop-topped hairdos, dapper style and boyish good looks driving the girls wild all across the United Kingdom.
It certainly didn’t hurt that the boys had musical chops like few other bands. The early tunes—“Love Me Do,” “Please Please Me,” “She Loves You” (the latter from the group’s second album, With the Beatles) and others—all revealed the influences of proto-rockers like Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Little Richard, but the style was all Beatles. Jangly guitars were prominent, and the harmonies were exquisite. By the end of 1963, the Beatles had to compete with the screams of fans at concerts, and the term 'Beatlemania' entered the pop culture lexicon.
Across the Atlantic, the Beatles’ rise to the top came a bit more slowly, but when they hit, they hit in a big, big way. Indie labels like Vee-Jay released the first Beatles material in America, but once EMI’s American counterpart Capitol caught on to what they were missing, the company released the remixed compilation album Meet the Beatles in January of 1964. The timing couldn’t have been better. Beatlemania was about to sweep the U.S. as thoroughly as it had the U.K. On February 9, 1964, the band played the first of three gigs on The Ed Sullivan Show, a landmark moment in both rock and television history. “I Want To Hold Your Hand” rocketed to the top of the U.S. charts, the first of an astounding twenty #1 singles that the Beatles would release over the next six years.
America’s brand of Beatlemania was even more insane that the U.K.’s, if such a thing were possible. In the first week of April 1964, the Beatles held the top five spots on the singles charts. Three weeks later, they charted a record 14 singles at the same time. The statistics alone are impressive, but the Beatles’ influence went well beyond sales. The 'British Invasion' of bands like the Kinks, the Hollies and the Zombies followed in the Beatles’ wake, as did the trend of bands writing their own songs, though none as successfully as Lennon/McCartney.
By the summer of 1964, the Beatles were everywhere, conquering even the silver screen in the classic comedy A Hard Day’s Night. The film played up the personalities the Fab Four had already been given—Paul as the Cute One, John as the Clever One, George as the Serious One, Ringo as the Funny One—mixing wisecracks and pop rock exuberance into a critical and commercial smash. The soundtrack album was another classic, the first Beatles LP of all original material, and the only one penned entirely by Lennon and McCartney. Songs like the title track, “And I Love Her” and “Can’t Buy Me Love” showcased the pair’s growing songwriting prowess, offering the definitive album of early Beatlemania.
With A Hard Day’s Night still selling strongly in the U.K. and in its altered U.S. version, EMI released Beatles for Sale in Britain at the end of 1964. American fans were given Beatles VI and later Beatles ‘65, more cobbled-together cuts from Capitol that topped the U.S. charts. 1965 also brought the release of the next Beatles film, the spy spoof Help!, along with an album of the same name. Seven songs from the movie were included, and the U.K. version added (among other tunes) a song recorded by Paul McCartney with the backing of a string quartet. “Yesterday” not only became another of the bands twenty #1 U.S. hits, it also launched a tidal wave of cover versions (more than 2,500 to date).
The Beatles were riding high on their pop credentials, but the band was never content to coast on past formulas. Every album found the band (and Lennon/McCartney especially) stretching itself musically, but the Christmas 1965 release of Rubber Soul showed just how much they had grown. The straight-ahead rocker “Drive My Car” opened the album (at least, on the British version), but it was followed by the sitar-driven “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).” New instruments were part of the equation, but the band’s style itself was changing, embracing folk music (“I’m Looking Through You”), social commentary (“Nowhere Man”), and even French love ballads (“Michelle”).
As different as Rubber Soul was from the days of Please Please Me, the Beatles still knew how to write a catchy tune, and the band’s legion of Beatlemaniacs was willing to follow them wherever they went. In fact, that following was getting a bit too literal for the band’s tastes. Life on the concert tour circuit was more difficult than ever, as hysterical fans mobbed the mop-tops wherever they went. John Lennon’s infamous remark to a reporter that, “We’re more popular than Jesus now,” led to further headaches in the more conservative parts of the U.S. (Lennon later issued a public apology). The grind was getting to be too much, and after a final concert in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park on August 29, 1966, the Beatles quit performing in order to focus exclusively on their music.
It was an uneasy time for Beatlemaniacs. The recent release of Revolver proved that the band was as good (if not better) than ever, but rumors were flying about a possible breakup. Girls were heartbroken, and fans of both genders feared losing their favorite band forever. Those fears were put to rest in mid-1967 by the release of a new album, one that would be hailed as the greatest in rock and roll history. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a coming of age for rock music, elevating it to the status of art and cementing the idea of an album as an album, not just a collection of songs.
For the first time, both the U.K. and the U.S. releases of a Beatles album matched each other song for song, a necessity on Sgt. Pepper since the tracks were often linked together without a break. The tunes represented a wide variety of styles, from the George Harrison-penned raga “Within You, Without You” to the psychedelia of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” to the mournful morality tale “She’s Leaving Home.” The album’s famed cover collage included cut-outs of nearly every influence the boys in the band could think of—from Bob Dylan to Laurel and Hardy—and for the first time, the album’s lyrics were printed on the inner sleeve. The message was clear: Rock and roll, and the band specifically, was no longer simply about puppy love.
Even after withdrawing from the concert scene, the Beatles were as popular as ever. A broadcast of the recording of the generational anthem “All You Need Is Love” (with backing vocals from Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Keith Moon and others) was sent to a global audience, seen by 400 million people. Sadly, the band was faced with tragedy when Brian Epstein, who had managed their career almost from the beginning, was found dead of a drug overdose in August of 1967. The Beatles announced a few days later that they would be managing their own affairs, eventually forming Apple Music for that purpose.
The Beatles' first project after Epstein’s death, the fantasy TV movie Magical Mystery Tour, was largely criticized in the British press, but the accompanying album was another #1 hit. Musically, the Beatles were as talented and inventive as ever, as the double-A-side single “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever” proved, but the band was drifting apart both personally and professionally. Lennon, who had become enamored with the avant-garde artist Yoko Ono, pushed into psychedelic new frontiers, while the more melodically oriented McCartney experimented with elaborate orchestrations and differing styles. Harrison, meanwhile, was developing into a songwriter on the same level as his more praised bandmates. Another feature film was released in 1968, the animated Yellow Submarine, but the Beatles themselves appeared only in a small live-action epilogue.
The result of this musical rift was the December 1968 release The Beatles, more commonly known as The White Album. A double album, The Beatles held some of the group’s highlights—the surf pop parody “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” the ballad “Dear Prudence,” the heavy metal forerunner “Helter Skelter,” Harrison’s sad “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (with Eric Clapton guesting on guitar)—but the two LPs often felt more like a collection of individual visions than a true 'Beatles' record.
Ironically, at the same time that insiders wondered how long the band could stay together (Starr had already quit and returned once, though the walkout didn’t make the papers), fans were more concerned over the speculation that Paul McCartney had died and been replaced by a lookalike in photo sessions. McCartney had married the former Linda Eastman in March of 1969 (Lennon officially married Ono the same month), but conspiracy theorists and distraught fans convinced themselves that clues in the band’s songs and album covers pointed to the Cute One’s demise. The truth eventually came out—Paul was alive, but the Beatles were on their last breath.
The band had returned to the studio for a 'back to basics' album, stripped of the orchestrations and elaborate studio effects that producer George Martin had so masterfully executed on Sgt. Pepper and other recent recordings. Tentatively titled Get Back, the project was recorded for a feature film, including the band’s final performance atop the roof of Apple Music’s offices in London’s Savile Row on January 30, 1969. The project was put on hold as the band argued internally over Apple’s management, and in the meantime, the group recorded its last music together for what would become Abbey Road.
Another candidate for the group’s best album, Abbey Road featured a second-side suite of tunes from Lennon/McCartney (“Sun King,” “Mean Mr. Mustard,” “Polythene Pam” and others), along with “Come Together,” “Here Comes the Sun,” “Something” and more. The latter two songs were written by Harrison, proving that the talented guitarist was every bit as good a tunesmith as Lennon/McCartney. Unfortunately, that emerging talent was yet another reason for the band to pursue solo projects. The rift among the Fab Four was growing deeper, and the hiring of legendary producer Phil Spector to remix the 'back to basics' album (now titled Let It Be) against Paul’s wishes only made matters worse. On April 9, 1970, the Beatles’ breakup became official.
The news hit the press the next day, and the hordes of Beatlemaniacs across the globe were despondent. Despite the rumors and hints at dissension, fans had always hoped they were just that—rumors and hints. The release of Let It Be as an album and a film was small consolation after losing the greatest band on the planet, and devoted Beatlemaniacs were inconsolable.
The band’s split was followed by years of legal wrangling, as well as fruitful solo careers from McCartney, Lennon, Harrison and Starr. The group may have been disbanded, but the Beatles’ music was evergreen, and re-released singles continued to chart for years after the 1970 breakup. Capitol and other labels released endless repackagings of old and forgotten material, including the two-disc Past Masters, which collected essential non-album singles like “I’m Down,” “We Can Work It Out,” “Paperback Writer” and “Hey Jude.” Despite offers of ridiculous sums of money to reunite (from the ridiculously large to the ridiculously small $3000 that Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels promised), the Beatles never again played together as a band, and the tragic shooting of John Lennon on December 8, 1980, assured that they never would.
The legal entanglements were finally sorted out in 1989, allowing Apple to re-release unavailable recordings and to introduce hidden gems like 1994’s Live at the BBC and the three double-disc Anthology set, which featured outtakes and other rarities, including the newly-produced “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” (recorded by John decades earlier, with new orchestrations and vocals from the surviving three Beatles). Nearly five years later, the Beatles again topped the album charts worldwide with Beatles 1, a collection of every U.K. and U.S. #1 single in chronological order.
A year 2000 book release, also titled Beatles Anthology, promised to tell the complete story of the Beatles (from the point of view of McCartney, Harrison and Starr), but the greatest tales have already been told. Simply put, the Beatles changed rock and roll music like no other band before or since. They popularized the idea of bands playing originals, they elevated rock music to an art form, and they captured the hearts and minds of a generation with catchy hooks, ingenious melodies, astounding harmonies and thought-provoking lyrics. And perhaps most impressively, they continue to win new fans with each new generation, still sounding as fresh and relevant as the day Beatlemania first came to town.
"And in the end,
The love you take,
Is equal to the love you make..."
Artist Release History1963 - Please Please Me (U.K.)
1963 - Introducing...The Beatles (U.S.)
1963 - With the Beatles (U.K.)
1964 - Meet the Beatles! (U.S.)
1964 - The Beatles' Second Album (U.S.)
1964 - A Hard Day's Night
1964 - Something New (U.S.)
1964 - Beatles for Sale (U.K.)
1964 - Beatles VI (U.S.)
1965 - Beatles '65 (U.S.)
1965 - Help!
1965 - Rubber Soul
1966 - "Yesterday"...and Today (U.S.)
1966 - A Collection of Beatles Oldies (But Goldies) (U.K.)
1966 - Revolver
1967 - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
1967 - Magical Mystery Tour
1968 - The Beatles (The White Album)
1969 - Yellow Submarine
1969 - Abbey Road
1970 - Let It Be
1970 - Hey Jude (Or the Beatles Again) (U.S.)
1970 - In the Beginning: Early Tapes (Circa 1960)
1973 - 1962-1966 (The Red Album)
1973 - 1967-1970 (The Blue Album)
1976 - Rock 'n' Roll Music
1977 - The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl
1977 - Love Songs
1982 - The Savage Young Beatles
1988 - Past Masters, Vol. 1
1988 - Past Masters, Vol. 2
1992 - The Beatles Box Set
1994 - Live at the BBC
1995 - Anthology 1
1996 - Anthology 2
1996 - Anthology 3
1999 - Yellow Submarine (Songtrack)
Pop Sub Categoriesrock
Essential Music AlbumsA Hard Day's Night
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
1962-1966 (The Red Album)
1967-1970 (The Blue Album)
Band MembersJohn Lennon guitar, vocals
Paul McCartney bass, vocals
George Harrison guitar, vocals
Ringo Starr drums, vocals (1962-70)
Pete Best drums (1960-62)