Newsweek cover story, the Beatles' music, already topping the charts, was "a near disaster" that did away with "secondary rhythms, harmony, and melody." Despite such early criticism, the Beatles garnered two Grammy Awards in 1964, foreshadowing the influence they would have on the future of pop culture.
Inspired by the simple guitar-and-washboard "skiffle" music of Lonnie Donegan and later by U.S. pop artists such as Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and Little Richard, John Lennon formed his own group, the Quarrymen, in 1956 with Pete Shotton and some other friends. Expertise helped guitarist Paul McCartney, whom Shotton introduced to Lennon in 1957 at a church function, find a place in the band, and he in turn introduced Lennon to George Harrison. Only fourteen, Harrison, though a skilled guitarist, did not impress seventeen-year-old Lennon overmuch, but his perseverence finally won him a permanent niche in the developing ensemble. Stuart Sutcliffe, an artist friend of Lennon's, brought a bass guitar into the group a year later. Calling themselves Johnny and the Moondogs, the band eventually won a chance to tour Scotland, backing a little-known singer, Johnny Gentle. Renamed the Silver Beatles, they were well-received, but the pay was poor, and the end of the tour saw the exit of a disgusted drummer and the arrival of Pete Best.
With the help of Welshman Allan Williams, club owner and sometime-manager for many promising bands playing around Liverpool in 1960, the Beatles found themselves polishing their act at seedy clubs in Hamburg, West Germany. Living quarters were squalid, working conditions demanding, but instead of splintering the group, the experience strengthened them. Encouraged by their audiences' demands to "make show," they became confident, outrageous performers. Lennon in particular was reported to have played in his underwear with a toilet seat around his neck, and the whole band romped madly on the stage. Such spectacles by the Beatles and another English band, Rory Storme and the Hurricanes, ultimately caved in the stage at one club. The Beatles' second trip to Hamburg, in 1961, was distinguished by a better club and a series of recordings for which they backed singer Tony Sheridan--recordings that proved critical in gaining them a full-time manager. At the end of that stay, Sutcliffe remained in Hamburg to marry, having ceded bass duties to McCartney. He died tragically (brain tumor?) the following spring, shortly after the Beatles joined up with Brian Epstein.
Intrigued by requests for Tony Sheridan's "My Bonnie" single, featuring the Beatles, record shop manager Brain Epstein sought the band at Liverpool's Cavern Club. Within a year of signing a managerial agreement with Epstein, the Beatles gained a recording contract from E.M.I. Records producer George Martin, and on the eve of success shuffled yet another drummer out, causing riots among Pete Best's loyal following. The last in a long line of percussionists came in the form of the Hurricanes' sad-eyed former drummer, Ringo Starr.
Despite initial doubts, Martin agreed to use Lennon and McCartney originals on both sides of the Beatles' first single. "Love Me Do," released on October 5, 1962, and it did well enough to convince Martin that, with the right material, the Beatles could achieve a number one record. He was proved correct. "Please Please Me," released in Britain on January 12, 1963, was an immediate hit. The biweekly newspaper Mersey Beat quoted Keith Fordyce of New Musical Express, who called the song "a really enjoyable platter, full of vigour and vitality," as well as Brian Matthew, then Britain's most influential commentator on pop music, who proclaimed the Beatles "musically and visually the most accomplished group to emerge since the Shadows." The Beatles' first British album, recorded in one thirteen-hour session, remained number one on the charts for six months.
The United States remained indifferent until, one month before the Beatles' arrival, E.M.I.'s U.S. subsidiary, Capitol Records, launched an unprecedented $50,000 promotional campaign. It and the Beatles' performances on "The Ed Sullivan Show," which opened their first American tour, paid off handsomely. "I Want to Hold Your Hand," released in the United States in January of 1964, hit number one within three weeks. After seven weeks at the top of the charts, it dropped to number two to make room for "She Loves You," which gave way to "Can't Buy Me Love." As many as three new songs a week were released, until on April 4, 1964, the Beatles held the top five slots on the Billboard list of top sellers, another seven in the top one hundred, and four albums positions including the top two. One week later, fourteen of the top one hundred songs were the Beatles'--a feat unmatched before or since.
Also in 1964, long before music videos had become commonplace, the Beatles appeared in the first of several innovative full-length feature films. Shot in black-and-white and well-received by critics, A Hard Day's Night represented a "day in the life" of the group. Its release one month before the Beatles began their second U.S. tour was timely. Help, released in July of 1965, was a madcap fantasy filmed in color. Exotic locations made Help visually more interesting than the first film, but critics were less impressed. Both albums sold well, though the U.S. versions contained fewer original songs, and Help was padded with pseudo-Eastern accompanying tracks.
The 1965 and 1966 albums Rubber Soul and Revolver marked a turning point in the Beatles' recording history. The most original of their collections to date, both combined Eastern, country-western, soul, and classical motifs with trend-setting covers, breaking any mold that seemed to contain "rock and roll." In both albums, balladry, classical instrumentation, and new structure resulted in brilliant new concepts just hinted at in earlier works like "Yesterday" and "Rain." Songs such as "Tomorrow Never Knows," "Eleanor Rigby," and the lyrically surreal "Norwegian Wood" made use of sophisticated recording techniques--marking the beginning of the end of the group's touring, since live performances of such songs was technically impossible at the time. The Beatles became further distanced from their fans by Lennon's comments to a London Evening Standard writer:
"Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that, I'm right and will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus Christ now. I don't know which will go first, rock 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me."
While the British dismissed the statement as another "Lennonism," American teens in the Bible Belt took Lennon's words literally, ceremoniously burning Beatle albums as the group finished their last U.S. tour amid riots and death threats.
Acclaimed by critics, with advance sales of more than one million, the tightly produced "conceptual" album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was perhaps the high point of the Beatles' recording career. No longer a "collection" of Lennon-McCartney and Harrison originals, the four-Grammy album was, in a stunning and evocative cover package, a thematic whole so aesthetically pleasing as to remain remarkably timeless. Imaginative melodies carried songs about many life experiences, self-conscious philosophy, and bizarre imagery, as in "A Day in the Life"--a quintessential sixties studio production. The Beatles' music had evolved from catchy love songs to profound ballads, social commentary, and work clearly affected by their growing awareness of and experimentation with Eastern mysticism and hallucinogenic drugs. Song like "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" were pegged as drug-induced (LSD), and even Starr's seemingly harmless rendition of "A Little Help From My Friends" included references to getting "high." Broadening their horizons seemed an essential part of the Beatles' lives and, influenced greatly by Harrison's interest in Indian religion, the Beatles visited the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Bangor, Wales, in 1967. It was there that news of Brian Epstein's death reached them.
The group's next cooperative project was the scripting and directing of another film, Magical Mystery Tour, an unrehearsed, unorganized failure. Intended to be fresh, it drew criticism as a compilation of adolescent humor, gag bits, and undisciplined boredom. The resulting album, however, featured polished studio numbers such as McCartney's "Fool on the Hill" and a curiosity of Lennon's, "I Am the Walrus." The American LP added tracks including "Penny Lane," "Hello Goodbye," and "Strawberry Fields Forever," which were immortalized on short films broadcast by Ed Sullivan. Solo projects in 1967 and 1968 included the acting debuts of Lennon in How I Won the War and Starr in Candy, Harrison's soundtrack to the film "Wonderwall," and Lennon's eventual release of his and Yoko Ono's controversial Two Virgins albums.
Growing diversity pointed to disintegration, the early throes of which were evident in 1968 on the two-record set, The Beatles, the first album released by the group's new record company, Apple. The White Album, as it was commonly known, showcased a variety of songs. According to George Martin, as quoted in The Beatles Forever, "I tried to plead with them to be selective and make it a really good single album, but they wouldn't have it." The unity seen in earlier projects was nudged aside by individuality and what appeared to be a growing rift between Lennon and McCartney. Whereas the latter contributed ballads like "Blackbird," the former ground out antiwar statements, parodied the Maharishi, and continued to experiment with obscure production. Harrison, on the other hand, shone in "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," aided by Eric Clapton's tasteful guitar solo. Starr, for the first time, was allotted the space for an original, the country-western "Don't Pass Me By," which became a number-one hit in Scandinavia where it was released as a single. Overall, critics found the White Album a letdown after the mastery of Sgt. Pepper, though Capitol claimed it was the fastest-selling album in the history of the record industry.
Despite having little to do with its making, the Beatles regained some of their lost status with Yellow Submarine, an animated feature film released in July 1968. A fantasy pitting the big-eyed, colorfully clothed Beatles against the Blue Meanies, the film was visually pleasing if not initially a big money-maker. The group spent minimal time on the music, padding it with studio-session throwaways and re-releases of "All You Need Is Love" and "Yellow Submarine" itself. The remainder of 1968 and 1969 showed the individual Beatles continuing to work apart. Starr appeared in the film The Magic Christian, and Lennon performed live outside the group with Yoko Ono, whom he had married, and the Plastic Ono Band.
After spending months filming and recording the documentary that would later emerge as the Let It Be film and album, the Beatles abandoned thirty hours of tape and film to producer George Martin. Since editing it down would make release before 1970 impossible, the album was put on hold. Instead, for the final time, the Beatles gathered to produce an album "the way we used to do it," as McCartney was quoted in Philip Norman's book, Shout! The result was as stunning in its internal integrity as Sgt. Pepper had been. Schisms seemed to vanish on Abbey Road, with all Beatles at their best. Lennon showed himself controlled in "Come Together" and "I Want You--She's So Heavy," McCartney crooned ballads and doo-wop rockers alike in "Golden Slumbers" and "Oh! Darling!"; and Harrison surpassed both of them with "Here Comes the Sun" and "Something," hailed by Lennon as the best track on the album. Starr, always in the background, provided vocals for "Octopus's Garden" and uncompromising and creative drumming throughout. Wrote Schaffner, "The musicianship is always tasteful, unobtrusive, and supportive of the songs themselves. ... The Beatles never sounded more together." Yet another Grammy winner, it was a triumphal exit from the 1960s, and its declaration, "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make," read like an epitaph until the "post mortem" release of the heavily edited Let It Be.
American producer Phil Spector took over the Let It Be clean-up project from George Martin in 1970. The resulting album, brought out after fifteen months of apathy, bickering, and legal battles, was a mixture of raw recordings, glimpses of the Beatles in an earlier era, and heavily dubbed strings and vocals--as on McCartney's "Long and Winding Road." Though most tracks were tightly and effectively edited, critics said the album lacked the harmony of earlier endeavors. According to Schaffner, Lennon later told Rolling Stone, "We couldn't get into it. ... I don't know, it was just a dreadful, dreadful feeling ... you couldn't make music ... in a strange place with people filming you and colored lights." The film, which strove to show the Beatles as honestly and naturally as possible, gave further evidence of disintegration. Band members were shown quarreling, unresponsive to McCartney's attempts to raise morale. Said Alan Smith of the New Musical Express, quoted by Roy Carr and Tony Tyler in The Beatles: An Illustrated Record, "If the Beatles soundtrack album 'Let It Be' is to be their last, then it will stand as a cheapskate epitaph, a cardboard tombstone, a sad and tatty end to a musical fusion which wiped clean and drew again the face of pop music."
By the end of 1970, all four Beatles had recorded solo albums, and, in 1971, McCartney sued for the dissolution of the group. Throughout the seventies, promoters attempted to reunite them without success. The closest approximation of a reunion was Starr's Ringo album in 1973-though never together in the studio, Lennon, Harrison, and McCartney contributed music, vocals, and backing. Any lingering hope of a joint performance or album ended with the tragic murder of John Lennon on December 8, 1980. A year before, Neil Munro, in an Oakland Press Sunday Magazine article, provided what might make a fitting epitaph, setting the Beatles into their place in history: "Their musical imagination was startling. They lived on it. ... They played the songs for the best times of our lives, and always will."