The impact of the Beatles — not only on rock & roll but on all of Western culture — is simply incalculable. As musicians, the Beatles proved that rock & roll could embrace a limitless variety of harmonies, structures, and sounds; virtually every rock experiment has some precedent on Beatles records. As a unit the Beatles were a musically synergistic combination: Paul McCartney's melodic bass lines, Ringo Starr's slaphappy no-rolls drumming, George Harrison's rockabilly-style guitar leads, John Lennon's assertive rhythm guitar — and their four fervent voices. One of the first rock groups to write most of its own material, the Beatles inaugurated the era of self-contained bands and forever centralized pop. And as personalities, they defined and incarnated '60s style: smart, idealistic, playful, irreverent, eclectic. Their music, from the not-so-simple love songs they started with to their later perfectionistic studio extravaganzas, set new standards for both commercial and artistic success in pop. Although many of their sales and attendance records have since been surpassed, no group has so radically transformed the sound and significance of rock & roll. At the dawn of the 21st century, a chart-topping collection of the Beatles #1 hits, 1, was well on its way to becoming one of the best-selling albums of all time.
Lennon was performing with his amateur skiffle group the Quarrymen at a church picnic on July 6, 1957, in the Liverpool suburb of Woolton when he met McCartney, whom he later invited to join his group; soon they were writing songs together, such as "The One After 909." By the year's end McCartney had convinced Lennon to let Harrison join their group, the name of which was changed to Johnny and the Moondogs in 1958. In 1960 an art-school friend of Lennon's, Stu Sutcliffe, became their bassist. Sutcliffe couldn't play a note but had recently sold one of his paintings for a considerable sum, which the group, now rechristened the Silver Beetles (from which "Silver" was dropped a few months later, and "Beetles" amended to "Beatles"), used to upgrade its equipment. Tommy Moore was their drummer until Pete Best replaced him in August 1960. Once Best had joined, the band made its first of four trips to Hamburg, Germany. In December Harrison was deported back to England for being underage and lacking a work permit, but by then their 30-set weeks on the stages of Hamburg beer houses had honed and strengthened their repertoire (mostly Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, and Buddy Holly covers), and on February 21, 1961, they debuted at the Cavern club on Mathew Street in Liverpool, beginning a string of nearly 300 performances there over the next couple of years.
In April 1961 they again went to Hamburg, where Sutcliffe (the first of the Beatles to wear his hair in the long, shaggy style that came to be known as the Beatle haircut) left the group to become a painter, while McCartney switched from rhythm guitar to bass. The Beatles returned to Liverpool as a quartet in July. Sutcliffe died from a brain hemorrhage in Hamburg less than a year later.
The Beatles had been playing regularly to packed houses at the Cavern when they were spotted on November 9 by Brian Epstein (b. Sep. 19, 1934, Liverpool). After being discharged from the British Army on medical grounds, Epstein had attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London for a year before returning to Liverpool to manage his father's record store.
The request he received for a German import single entitled "My Bonnie" (which the Beatles had recorded a few months earlier in Hamburg, backing singer Tony Sheridan and billed as the Beat Brothers) convinced him to check out the group. Epstein was surprised to discover not only that the Beatles weren't German but that they were one of the most popular local bands in Liverpool. Within two months he became their manager. Epstein cleaned up their act, eventually replacing black leather jackets, tight jeans, and pompadours with collarless gray Pierre Cardin suits and mildly androgynous haircuts.
Epstein tried landing the Beatles a record contract, but nearly every label in Europe rejected the group. In May 1962, however, producer George Martin (b. Jan. 3, 1926, North London, Eng.) signed the group to EMI's Parlophone subsidiary. Pete Best, then considered the group's undisputed sex symbol, was asked to leave the group on August 16, 1962, and Ringo Starr, drummer with a popular Liverpool group, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, was added, just in time for the group's first recording session. On September 11 the Beatles cut two originals, "Love Me Do" b/w "P.S. I Love You," which became their first U.K. Top 20 hit in October. In early 1963 "Please Please Me" went to Number Two, and they recorded an album of the same name in one 10-hour session on February 11, 1963. With the success of their third English single, "From Me to You" (Number One), the British record industry coined the term "Merseybeat" (after the river that runs through Liverpool) for groups such as the Beatles and Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, and the Searchers. By mid-year the Beatles were given billing over Roy Orbison on a national tour, and the hysterical outbreaks of Beatlemania had begun. Following their first tour of Europe in October, they moved to London with Epstein. Constantly mobbed by screaming fans, the Beatles required police protection almost any time they were seen in public. Late in the year "She Loves You" became the biggest-selling single in British history (in the years since, only six other singles have sold more copies there). In November 1963 the group performed before the Queen Mother at the Royal Command Variety Performance.
EMI's American label, Capitol, had not released the group's 1963 records (which Martin licensed to independents like Vee-Jay and Swan with little success) but was finally persuaded to release its fourth single, "I Want to Hold Your Hand," and Meet the Beatles (identical to the Beatles' second British album, With the Beatles) in January 1964 and to invest $50,000 in promotion for the then unknown British act. The album and the single became the Beatles' first U.S. chart-toppers. On February 7 screaming mobs met them at New York City's Kennedy Airport, and more than 70 million people watched each of their appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9 and 16. In April 1964 "Can't Buy Me Love" became the first record to top American and British charts simultaneously, and that same month the Beatles held the top five positions on Billboard singles chart ("Can't Buy Me Love," "Twist and Shout," "She Loves You," "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "Please Please Me").
Their first movie, A Hard Day's Night (directed by Richard Lester), opened in America in August; it grossed $1.3 million in its first week. The band was aggressively merchandised - Beatle wigs, Beatle clothes, Beatle dolls, lunch boxes, a cartoon series — from which, because of Epstein's ineptitude at business, the band made surprisingly little money. The Beatles also opened the American market to such British Invasion groups as the Dave Clark Five, the Rolling Stones, and the Kinks.
By 1965 Lennon and McCartney rarely wrote songs together, although by contractual and personal agreement songs by either of them were credited to both. The Beatles toured Europe, North America, the Far East, and Australia that year. Their second movie, Help! (also directed by Lester), was filmed in England, Austria, and the Bahamas in the spring and opened in the U.S. in August. On August 15 they performed to 55,600 fans at New York's Shea Stadium, setting a record for largest concert audience. McCartney's "Yesterday" (Number One, 1965) would become one of the most often covered songs ever written. In June the Queen of England had announced that the Beatles would be awarded the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire). The announcement sparked some controversy — some MBE holders returned their medal — but on October 26, 1965, the ceremony took place at Buckingham Palace. (Lennon returned his medal in 1969 as an antiwar gesture. Interestingly, even though he rejected the medal, the honor itself cannot be returned; Lennon technically remained an MBE.)
With 1965's Rubber Soul, the Beatles' ambitions began to extend beyond love songs and pop formulas. Their success led adults to consider them, along with Bob Dylan, spokesmen for youth culture, and their lyrics grew more poetic and somewhat more political. In summer 1966 controversy erupted when a remark Lennon had made to a British newspaper reporter months before was widely reported in the U.S. The quote — "Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue with that; I'm right and will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now" — incited denunciations and Beatles record bonfires. The anti-Beatles backlash was particularly intense in the U.S., where the group was set to begin a tour just two weeks after the controversy erupted, and included death threats against the group. Largely out of concern for the safety of his fellow band members, Lennon apologized at a Chicago press conference.
The Beatles gave up touring after an August 29, 1966, concert at San Francisco's Candlestick Park and made the rest of their music in the studio, where they had begun to experiment with exotic instrumentation ("Norwegian Wood," 1965, had featured sitar) and tape abstractions such as the reversed tracks on "Rain." "Strawberry Fields Forever," part of a double-sided single released in February 1967 to fill the unusually long gap between albums, featured an astonishing display of electronically altered sounds and hinted at what was to come. With "Taxman" and "Love You To" on Revolver, Harrison began to emerge as a songwriter.
It took four months and $75,000 to record Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band using a then state-of-the-art four-track tape recorder and building each cut layer by layer. Released in June 1967, it was hailed as serious art for its "concept" and its range of styles and sounds, a lexicon of pop and electronic noises; such songs as "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" and "A Day in the Life" were carefully examined for hidden meanings. The album spent 15 weeks at Number One (longer than any of their others) and has sold over 8 million copies. On June 25, 1967, the Beatles recorded their new single, "All You Need Is Love," before an international television audience of 400 million, as part of a broadcast called Our World. On August 27, 1967 - while the four were in Wales beginning their six-month involvement with Transcendental Meditation and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (which took them to India for two months in early 1968) — Epstein died alone in his London flat from an overdose of sleeping pills, later ruled accidental. Shaken by Epstein's death, the Beatles retrenched under McCartney's leadership in the fall and filmed Magical Mystery Tour, which was aired by BBC-TV on December 26, 1967, and later released in the U.S. as a feature film. Although the telefilm was panned by British critics, fans, and Queen Elizabeth herself, the soundtrack album contained their most cryptic work yet in "I Am the Walrus," a Lennon composition.
As the Beatles' late-1967 single "Hello Goodbye" went to Number One in both the U.S. and Britain, the group launched the Apple clothes boutique in London. McCartney called the retail effort "Western communism"; the boutique closed in July 1968. Like their next effort, Apple Corps Ltd. (formed in January 1968 and including Apple Records, which signed James Taylor, Mary Hopkin, and Badfinger), it was plagued by mismanagement. In July the group faced its last hysterical crowds at the premiere of Yellow Submarine, an animated film by Czech avant-garde designer and artist Heinz Edelmann featuring four new Beatles songs; a revised soundtrack featuring nine extra songs was released in 1999 (Number 15). In August they released McCartney's "Hey Jude" (Number One), backed by Lennon's "Revolution" (Number 12), which sold over 6 million copies before the end of 1968 — their most popular single. Meanwhile, the group had been working on the double album The Beatles (frequently called the White Album), which showed their divergent directions. The rifts were artistic — Lennon moving toward brutal confessionals, McCartney leaning toward pop melodies, Harrison immersed in Eastern spirituality — and personal, as Lennon drew closer to his wife-to-be, Yoko Ono. Lennon and Ono's Two Virgins (with its full frontal and back nude cover photos) was released the same month as The Beatles and stirred up so much outrage that the LP had to be sold wrapped in brown paper. (The Beatles, went to Number One, Two Virgins peaked at Number 124.)
The Beatles attempted to smooth over their differences in early 1969 at filmed recording sessions. When the project fell apart hundreds of hours of studio time later, no one could face editing the tapes (a project that eventually fell to record producer Phil Spector), and "Get Back" (Number One, 1969) was the only immediate release. Released in spring 1970, Let It Be is essentially a documentary of their breakup, including an impromptu January 30, 1969, rooftop concert at Apple Corps headquarters, their last public performance as the Beatles.
By spring 1969 Apple was losing thousands of pounds each week. Over McCartney's objections, the other three brought in manager Allen Klein to straighten things out; one of his first actions was to package nonalbum singles as Hey Jude. With money matters temporarily out of mind, the four joined forces in July and August 1969 to record Abbey Road, featuring an extended suite as well as more hits, including Harrison's much-covered "Something" (Number Three, 1969). While its release that fall spurred a "Paul Is Dead" rumor based on clues supposedly left throughout their work, Abbey Road became the Beatles' best-selling album, at 9 million copies. Meanwhile, internal bickering persisted. In September Lennon told the others, "I'm leaving the group. I've had enough. I want a divorce." But he was persuaded to keep quiet while their business affairs were untangled. On April 10, 1970, McCartney released his first solo album and publicly announced the end of the Beatles. At the same time, Let It Be finally surfaced, becoming the group's 14th Number One album (a postbreakup compilation would become their 15th in 1973) and yielding the Beatles' 18th and 19th chart-topping singles, "Let It Be" and "The Long and Winding Road."
Throughout the '70s, as repackages of Beatles music continued to sell, the four were hounded by bids and pleas for a reunion. Lennon's murder by a mentally disturbed fan on December 8, 1980, ended those speculations. In 1988 the Beatles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. McCartney, citing business conflicts with the two other surviving members, did not attend. Relations between him and Harrison, in particular, had been strained for some time.
In January 1994 Goldmine magazine reported that McCartney, Harrison, and Starr had begun recording music for a long-rumored Beatles documentary the previous August, with more secret sessions scheduled. There were other signs that the three band members were on the mend — when Lennon was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist in 1994, for instance, McCartney did the honors (McCartney himself was inducted in 1999). Later in 1994 Live at the BBC was released, featuring 56 songs the Beatles performed on the British radio between 1962 and 1965. It debuted at Number One in the U.K.; in the U.S., it debuted and peaked at Number Three.
The Beatles Anthology, the long-awaited six-hour television special, was broadcast over three nights in November 1995, coinciding with the release of the George Martin-compiled double-CD Anthology 1 (Number One), which featured alternate takes, demos, and rare tracks, and premiered the first new song by John, Paul, George, and Ringo since 1970. "Free as a Bird" (Number Six, 1995), a demo recorded by Lennon in 1977, was completed by the other three and produced by Jeff Lynne; it became the Beatles 34th Top 10 single. Lennon's lyrics didn't extend much beyond the title, and so Harrison and McCartney collaborated on lyrics for a new bridge. Two additional double CDs, Anthology 2 and 3 (both Number One), followed in 1996, as well as an extended videotape version of the documentary. Anthology 2's "Real Love" (again a Lennon demo, from 1979, with modern additions by the others) reached Number 11 and became the group's 23rd gold single (the most of any group).
The Liverpool juggernaut continued to roll on in 2000: the Beatles became the highest certified act of all time, with over 113 million albums sold in America (which grew to 170 million albums in 2008); a coffee table book, The Beatles Anthology, topped the New York Times bestseller list; and 1, a collection of the band's Number One hit songs, became the Beatles’ 19th chart-topping album, selling 25 million copies by 2005.
On November 29, 2001, George Harrison, diagnosed with lung cancer in the late 1990s, became the second Beatle to pass away. Three years later Capitol Records released all of the Beatles' U.S. albums (in both stereo and original mono versions) as two box sets, The Capitol Albums, Vols. 1 and 2. In 2006, George Martin and his son Giles produced a set of Beatles remixes, Love, for the soundtrack to Cirque du Soleil’s theater production of the same name. The following year, McCartney and Starr appeared on CNN's Larry King Live to talk about the project; they joined Beatles widows Ono and Olivia Harrison in Las Vegas to celebrate the Love production’s first anniversary.
Until 2007, the Beatles' Apple Corp. was in legal limbo with the Apple, Inc. computer company over use of the name. Apple Corp. had sued Apple, Inc. after the computer company opened its online iTunes music store; one result of the suit was that the Beatles' group and solo music was not made available for digital download. In February 2007, the two sides came to an agreement. Apple, Inc. would retain ownership of the name and license it back to the Apple Corp. record label. By October, all of the Beatles’ solo works were available on iTunes, and McCartney had told Billboard.com he expected the Beatles' group catalog to go online in 2008. [See also: George Harrison; John Lennon and Yoko Ono; Paul McCartney; Ringo Starr.]
Updated from The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001)