Along with a police dog display and the crowning of a Rose Queen, The Quarrymen are one of the attractions at a garden fete of St Peter’s, the parish church of Woolton in Liverpool.
The group featured Rod Davis on banjo, Eric Griffiths on guitar, Pete Shotton on washboard and Colin Hanton on drums. But it was singer/Guitarist, John Lennon, 16, lubricated by several beers who impressed young Paul – who in return shows the group how to play Eddie Cochran‘s Twenty Flight Rock. John thinks “He’s as good as me”. Two weeks later Paul joins the band.
That same year, The Beatles secured a residency in Hamburg, a favoured haunt for early British rockers, which proved to be the making of the band.
The living was rough and wild, with the fresh-faced Liverpool teens exposed overnight to the pleasures of amphetamines, existentialism, all night drinking, fighting and the Reeperbahn’s notorious red-light zone.
Most importantly of all, their punishing schedule of three sets a night turned them into seasoned professionals within only a few months.
The existentialist input came from Stu Sutcliffe’s German girlfriend Astrid Kirchherr, who created much of the early Beatles look.
The Beatles returned to Liverpool in June 1961, to find that their frenzied playing went down a storm at home as well as in Germany.
But with their horizons opened by their time in Europe, their eyes turned to London and a national record deal. Derek Rowe of Decca has gone down in history as the man who turned down The Beatles, but he certainly wasn’t the only one to reject Brian Epstein’s overtures.
In fact, it was hit or miss as to whether EMI/Parlophone would sign them, but it seems that producer George Martin liked their sense of humour as much as their music (he had worked on comedy records for Peter Sellers and many other acts) and decided to take a chance.
However, one final and controversial change remained: next time The Beatles returned to London’s Abbey Road studios in September 1962, Ringo Starr – previously of Rory Storm and the Hurricanes – was in the drummer’s seat.
The reason was as much musical as personal (whether it had anything to do with the fact that Pete Best was too good-looking for the others’ liking is, of course, debatable) but the girls at The Cavern didn’t see things this way and in one of the ensuing punch-ups George Harrison sustained a black eye.
He was still sporting it as The Beatles struggled through their first commercial recording, a Lennon and McCartney composition called Love Me Do (a composition influenced by the harmonica playing of Delbert McClinton on Bruce Chanel’s 1962 hit, Hey Baby).
Today it sounds like a pretty lightweight affair, but its refreshing directness made it stand out at a time when most British pop was compressed and reverb-laden in the Joe Meek school.
It reached an unimpressive #17 and in the hope of the top slot, The Beatles threw everything into their next effort, Please Please Me.
This time there was no doubt, as it smashed in at #1 following a live appearance on the Thank Your Lucky Stars TV show. Teenage audiences were mesmerised by this fresh new group with the long hair and the buttoned-down suits: slowly but surely, Beatlemania was spreading.
As luck would have it, George Martin turned out to be the perfect producer for the band. Acting on instinct, he decided to make their debut album something better than the usual cash-in of the time.
Please Please Me, recorded in one marathon session, was a lively mix of their own compositions and standards from their stage act, including a frenzied version of Twist And Shout.
By now, the Lennon and McCartney hit machine was working in overdrive, producing a string of singles including From Me To You, She Loves You and I Want To Hold Your Hand, that were both innovative and fiendishly catchy.
By the time of the November 1963 release of their second album, With The Beatles, they were established as Britain’s favourite group, on a scale that was previously unheard of. The LP became the first-ever million-selling album by a group in Britain.
To most outside Britain in 1963, The Beatles were an English oddity. They had weird hair and one was called Ringo, but that was about the size of it. And then in 1964 the band toured the US and played on The Ed Sullivan Show. The gig was tuned into by a monster American TV audience – 73 million people – and is still one of the most celebrated and literally hysterical musical moments of the 20th century.
The studio audience squealed and cried as the lads powered through All My Loving, Till There Was You, She Loves You, I Saw Her Standing There and I Want To Hold Your Hand. And for viewers at home, it was the same.
Back in the studio, The Beatles produced the rousing Can’t Buy Me Love and then, in a frenzied bout of recording and film-making, A Hard Day’s Night, the soundtrack to a brilliant study of Beatlemania directed by Richard Lester. The public were delighted to find that as well as being talented tunesmiths with a rowdy stage act, The Beatles also looked great on the screen.
However, they were already starting to move beyond the confines of their beat group image, with both Harrison and Lennon showing a strong interest in Bob Dylan. The two key forces in 60s music met for the first time that August in New York when Dylan turned The Beatles on to the delights of dope.
Beatles For Sale, their second album of 1964, was mostly a more soulful variation of their usual fare, though Lennon’s I’m A Loser showed a new emotional depth and hinted at new influences in their music. The catalyst arrived sometime in early 1965 when The Beatles had their first encounter with LSD, an experience reflected in the density and sensual languor of their next single, Ticket To Ride.
The experimentation continued on their soundtrack album for their second film, Help!, which boasted the Dylanesque You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away and McCartney’s eternal ballad Yesterday, as well as the superb title track.
After another hectic round of touring, including the famed Shea Stadium gig (yes, they gave us the horrors of stadium rock too), The Beatles found themselves pushed to match a batch of summer singles from the likes of The Kinks, The Animals, The Rolling Stones, and of course Bob Dylan.
They rose to the occasion with Rubber Soul, the first of their classic albums, and one that showed a new maturity and complexity in songs like Norwegian Wood and Nowhere Man. The accompanying single, Day Tripper, backed with the brilliant We Can Work It Out, reinforced the image of a band working at the peak of their powers.
Following a final UK tour, the band took three months off, relaxing and preparing for their next waxing. If Rubber Soul had opened minds, then Revolver, released in August 1966, was to blow them.
As well as some of the finest pop songs ever recorded, it contained two tracks that set out a manifesto for the psychedelic explosion of 1967 – She Said She Said, however lysergic, was at least a pop song, albeit one pushed to the limit. Tomorrow Never Knows, however, was something completely different. On top of Ringo’s hypnotic drums and a kaleidoscope of tape loops, John Lennon’s mesmerising vocal exhorted you to ‘listen to the colour of your dreams’.
It was the final delight on an album that took in everything from George Harrison’s bitter Taxman, to Eleanor Rigby and the obligatory singalong-a-Ringo track, Yellow Submarine. Even the advance single, Paperback Writer, was a corker, backed by Rain, The Beatles best ever B-side, propelled by yet more innovative drum work from Ringo.
Ironically, at a time when The Beatles were achieving new heights in the studio, they were packed off on a demoralising world tour, which saw them physically assaulted in the Philippines (for allegedly insulting Imelda Marcos), then facing demonstrations and death threats in the States, following John Lennon’s offhand remark that the band were now “bigger than Jesus”.
Their last concert performance was at Candlestick Park in San Francisco: on their return to the UK, they made it clear to Brian Epstein that touring was now off the agenda. Apart from the hassles and threats, they couldn’t even hear themselves play over the screaming, never mind attempt to reproduce the complexities of their new studio work.
With unlimited studio time available to them at Abbey Road, The Beatles set about topping their previous efforts. By this time, Lennon was so spaced out from the acid that McCartney had taken over as de facto leader of the group, but the old tensions in their relationship were pushing each other to new heights, as could be heard on their next double A-side single, Penny Lane b/w Strawberry Fields Forever.
Both were registered as Lennon and McCartney compositions, but the lazy psychedelic swirl of Strawberry Fields was as obviously Lennon as the bouncy melody of Penny Lane was McCartney.
Astonishingly, it was their first single since 1962 not to hit the top slot: the great British record-buying public preferred Engelbert Humperdinck‘s ballad, Release Me. The single, however, was merely a foretaste of The Beatles big statement, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
If ever an album perfectly summed up the times this was it. Acid-drenched from start to finish, it was the definitive crystallisation of the mood of 1967’s Summer of Love.
Though it had little real integrity as a concept album, bar the opening track and its reprise, the conceptual link was in the wash of echoed and reverbed sound, heavy with Harrison’s Indian instrumentation and underlaid by the wet tea-towel clump of Ringo’s drums to stop the whole thing levitating off the turntable.
Songs like Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, With A Little Help From My Friends and A Day In The Life marked the culmination of five years of intense recording activity, but from these towering heights, there could only be one direction – down.
The rest of the year was spent in a stoned reverie, although the hours of good-natured studio experimentation did produce two classics in the form of All You Need Is Love, broadcast live as Britain’s contribution to the first global satellite link-up, and Lennon’s remarkable I Am The Walrus, the product of a drug-twisted consciousness imploding into adolescent psycho-goo.
The recording was given extra emotional bite by being made only a few days after the suicide of Brian Epstein, a sobering shock amidst the love and peace vibes of that hot, incense-scented summer. Without his leadership, The Beatles were left to their own devices, a situation that would lead to a financial crisis in the following year and the ultimate collapse of group spirit.
In the immediate aftermath of Epstein’s death, The Beatles decided to press ahead with Magical Mystery Tour, a film project inspired by the charabanc coach trips to Blackpool of their Liverpool youth.
The somewhat amateurish results were screened on Boxing Day 1967 to a hostile reception, though today it comes over as an engaging period piece. The Mystery Tour’s destination turned out to be a disused airfield at West Malling in Kent, where the memorable I Am The Walrus clip was filmed with forty dwarfs and a military band.
Early in 1968, The Beatles decamped to Rishikesh, to the Maharishi’s meditation centre on the banks of the Ganges. Predictably, Ringo was the first to tire of the endless prayer, chanting and vegetarian curry, but Lennon and Harrison stuck it out for a full three months, before realising that the Maharishi was extremely attentive to the spiritual needs of his female devotees.
Their stay might have ended in disillusionment, but it was to prove extremely productive in songwriting terms. Freed from the entertainments of Swinging London, they had come up with enough material for a double album.
Back in London, they resumed work at Abbey Road and set about developing Apple Corps, a company that was to handle all their collective interests. As McCartney said, it was to be ‘a controlled weirdness . . . a kind of western communism’.
Apple Records launched with a bang on 11 August, with Hey Jude, one of the finest Beatles singles. Yet, despite this testament to oneness, The Beatles were starting to come apart at the seams.
If the demands of running a business weren’t enough to contend with, John’s relationship with Yoko Ono (who was now present at most of their recording sessions) was another source of friction, which was to boil over during the making of the new album, officially called The Beatles, but more usually known as ‘The White Album’.
Weeks of tension culminated with the walkout of Ringo, who was, of course, persuaded to re-join, though the bad vibes refused to go away.
The album, however, was a fascinating display of the different facets of the group, often in the form of solo performances backed by the other three.
As well as rockers such as Back In The USSR and Helter Skelter, the White Album was stuffed full of more reflective gems like Dear Prudence, Julia and Blackbird, not to mention the complete one-off, Happiness Is A Warm Gun.
The recording of the White Album was such a lengthy bad-tempered affair that it left the group completely exhausted musically and close to breaking point. When the band reconvened in January 1969 the idea of returning to live performance was seen as a panacea for the group’s ills.
Various exotic venues were suggested before they settled on the idea of filming themselves rehearsing and recording a ‘live’ album/film, to be called Get Back, in a freezing film studio in Twickenham. The sessions were a disaster, with McCartney and Harrison at each other’s throats, while the beatific John and Yoko looked on dispassionately. Not even Ringo’s good-natured humour could stop the rot.
Fed up, Harrison walked out and the sessions ended in chaos. When everyone had calmed down, they returned to their Apple headquarters at Savile Row in the hope of better vibes, but it was obvious that the magic had gone. They struggled on with a mixed bag of material, enlivened as ever by some great songs, as well as the presence of organist Billy Preston.
It was to be over a year, however, before the proceedings, edited down and controversially overdubbed by Phil Spector, reached the shops as the farewell album, Let It Be (1970).
However, January did produce one legendary performance, on the rooftop of Apple, to the delight of passers-by. The band gave it their best shot until the arrival of the Blue Meanies put an end to the proceedings. It was to be the last live Beatles show ever, culminating in John’s comment, “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we’ve passed the audition.”
The Beatles story was more or less over, but despite the aggravation, they couldn’t face bowing out with the shambles of Let It Be. Later in 1969, George Martin was astonished to get a phone call from McCartney asking him to produce an album ‘the way we used to do it’. He responded cautiously, but the Abbey Road sessions proved to be astonishingly fruitful.
Harrison contributed two of his best songs, Something and Here Comes The Sun, and there was strong competition from Lennon’s Come Together and from Paul, who contributed most of the ‘Long Medley’ on the second side. George Martin’s immaculate touch at the controls gave a glittering sheen to the whole set.
Such a return to form made the band’s final breakup, announced by Paul McCartney on 10 April 1970, seem even more like the end of an era.
All four Beatles pursued solo careers: John with the Plastic Ono Band and Imagine albums, followed by a marked decline and disappearance into domesticity and drink; Paul with the less acclaimed but more commercially successful Wings; George with a handful of albums followed by a steady career as sideman; and even Ringo was dragged away from the bar to bang out a few sentimental favourites.
There was regular speculation about a reunion, but a decade of accumulated resentments and the Byzantine legal actions that dogged the affairs of Apple made it difficult to get all four in the same room together.
On 8 December 1980, a blunt report was received by the New York Police Department: “Man shot. One West 72nd”. When police arrived at New York’s Dakota apartments, they found John Lennon bleeding from seven bullet wounds; Yoko Ono desperate to save his life; and murderer, Mark Chapman, 25, calmly reading Catcher in the Rye.
The Beatles catalogue forms perhaps the most important body of work in popular music. They are the ultimate pop group and one of the few bands that produce music that is truly universal.
Yet at the heart of The Beatles odyssey is the story of two lads who became the best of friends and were split up by marriage. It could be any young man’s rite of passage, except that the people involved happened to be two of the greatest songwriters of the late twentieth century.
Little-Known Beatles Facts
- George Harrison‘s dad, Harold, was a local MC. He helped launch the career of Ken Dodd.
- Ringo Starr spent a year in hospital with peritonitis at the age of six, and two years from the age of 13 with pleurisy.
- Paul McCartney‘s mother died in 1956 when he was 15. He wrote his very first song, I Lost My Little Girl, about it.
- In 1953 Paul McCartney won an essay writing contest. His prize was a copy of Geoffrey Trease’s The Seven Queens Of England.
- At the age of 16, Harrison tried to convince his family to emigrate to Australia, Canada or Malta.
- McCartney wrote a song in his teens called Suicide which he thought would be perfect for Frank Sinatra. Years later he sent a demo of it to Sinatra – who thought McCartney was joking!
- Lennon and McCartney tried to write a play called Pilchard, about a man who thought he was the Messiah.
- The Beatles’ tour-mate on their first Hamburg trip in August 1960 was a Caribbean-born calypso singer named Lord Woodbine.
- Lennon was obsessed with his Scalextric model car racetrack. He owned 20 sets of cars and insisted on taking it with him on The Beatles’ 1964 British tour.