The Beatles

The Beatles were an English rock band formed in Liverpool in 1960. With a line-up comprising John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, they are regarded as the most influential band of all time.

In March 1957, John Lennon, then aged sixteen, formed a skiffle group with several friends from Quarry Bank High School in Liverpool. They briefly called themselves the Blackjacks, before changing their name to the Quarrymen after discovering that another local group was already using the name. Fifteen-year-old Paul McCartney joined them as a rhythm guitarist shortly after he and Lennon met that July. In February 1958, McCartney invited his friend George Harrison to watch the band. The fifteen-year-old auditioned for Lennon, impressing him with his playing, but Lennon initially thought Harrison was too young for the band. After a month of Harrison’s persistence, during a second meeting (arranged by McCartney), he performed the lead guitar part of the instrumental song “Raunchy” on the upper deck of a Liverpool bus, and they enlisted him as their lead guitarist.

By January 1959, Lennon’s Quarry Bank friends had left the group, and he began his studies at the Liverpool College of Art. The three guitarists, billing themselves as Johnny and the Moondogs, were playing rock and roll whenever they could find a drummer. Lennon’s art school friend Stuart Sutcliffe, who had just sold one of his paintings and was persuaded to purchase a bass guitar with the proceeds, joined in January 1960, and it was he who suggested changing the band’s name to Beatals, as a tribute to Buddy Holly and the Crickets. They used this name until May, when they became the Silver Beetles, before undertaking a brief tour of Scotland as the backing group for pop singer and fellow Liverpudlian Johnny Gentle. By early July, they had refashioned themselves as the Silver Beatles, and by the middle of August shortened the name to The Beatles.

Allan Williams, the Beatles’ unofficial manager, arranged a residency for them in Hamburg, but lacking a full-time drummer they auditioned and hired Pete Best in mid-August 1960. The band, now a five-piece, left four days later, contracted to club owner Bruno Koschmider for what would be a 3​12-month residency. Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn writes: “They pulled into Hamburg at dusk on 17 August, the time when the red-light area comes to life … flashing neon lights screamed out the various entertainment on offer, while scantily clad women sat unabashed in shop windows waiting for business opportunities.”

Nightclub on the Reeperbahn in St Pauli – the red-light district of Hamburg where the Beatles performed extensively from 1960 to 1962 (photo taken 2006)

Koschmider had converted a couple of strip clubs in the district into music venues, and he initially placed the Beatles at the Indra Club. After closing Indra due to noise complaints, he moved them to the Kaiserkeller in October. When he learned they had been performing at the rival Top Ten Club in breach of their contract, he gave the band one month’s termination notice, and reported the underage Harrison, who had obtained permission to stay in Hamburg by lying to the German authorities about his age. The authorities arranged for Harrison’s deportation in late November. One week later, Koschmider had McCartney and Best arrested for arson after they set fire to a condom in a concrete corridor; the authorities deported them. Lennon returned to Liverpool in early December, while Sutcliffe remained in Hamburg until late February with his German fiancée Astrid Kirchherr, who took the first semi-professional photos of the Beatles.

During the next two years, the Beatles were resident for periods in Hamburg, where they used Preludin both recreationally and to maintain their energy through all-night performances. In 1961, during their second Hamburg engagement, Kirchherr cut Sutcliffe’s hair in the “exi” (existentialist) style, later adopted by the other Beatles. When Sutcliffe decided to leave the band early that year and resume his art studies in Germany, McCartney took up the bass. Producer Bert Kaempfert contracted what was now a four-piece group until June 1962, and he used them as Tony Sheridan’s backing band on a series of recordings for Polydor Records. As part of the sessions, the Beatles were signed to Polydor for one year. Credited to “Tony Sheridan & the Beat Brothers”, the single “My Bonnie”, recorded in June 1961 and released four months later, reached number 32 on the Musikmarkt chart.

After the Beatles completed their second Hamburg residency, they enjoyed increasing popularity in Liverpool with the growing Merseybeat movement. However, they were also growing tired of the monotony of numerous appearances at the same clubs night after night. In November 1961, during one of the group’s frequent performances at The Cavern Club, they encountered Brian Epstein, a local record-store owner and music columnist. He later recalled: “I immediately liked what I heard. They were fresh, and they were honest, and they had what I thought was a sort of presence … [a] star quality.”

Epstein courted the band over the next couple of months, and they appointed him as their manager in January 1962. Throughout early and mid-1962, Epstein sought to free the Beatles from their contractual obligations to Bert Kaempfert Productions. He eventually negotiated a one-month-early release from their contract in exchange for one last recording session in Hamburg. Tragedy greeted them on their return to Germany in April, when a distraught Kirchherr met them at the airport with news of Sutcliffe’s death the previous day from what was later determined as a brain haemorrhage.

Epstein began negotiations with record labels for a recording contract. To secure a UK record contract, Epstein negotiated an early end to the band’s contract with Polydor, in exchange for more recordings backing Tony Sheridan. After a New Year’s Day audition, Decca Records rejected the band with the comment “Guitar groups are on the way out, Mr. Epstein.”However, three months later, producer George Martin signed the Beatles to EMI’s Parlophone label.

Former Rolling Stone associate editor Robert Greenfield compared the Beatles to Picasso, as “artists who broke through the constraints of their time period to come up with something that was unique and original … [I]n the form of popular music, no one will ever be more revolutionary, more creative and more distinctive …”The British poet Philip Larkin described their work as “an enchanting and intoxicating hybrid of Negro rock-and-roll with their own adolescent romanticism”, and “the first advance in popular music since the War”.

They not only sparked the British Invasion of the United States, they became a globally influential phenomenon as well. From the 1920s, the United States had dominated popular entertainment culture throughout much of the world, via Hollywood films, jazz, the music of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley and, later, the rock and roll that first emerged in Memphis, Tennessee. The Beatles are regarded as British cultural icons, with young adults from abroad naming the band among a group of people that they most associated with UK culture.

Their musical innovations and commercial success inspired musicians worldwide. Many artists have acknowledged the Beatles’ influence and enjoyed chart success with covers of their songs. On radio, their arrival marked the beginning of a new era; in 1968 the programme director of New York’s WABC radio station forbade his DJs from playing any “pre-Beatles” music, marking the defining line of what would be considered oldies on American radio. They helped to redefine the album as something more than just a few hits padded out with “filler”, and they were primary innovators of the modern music video. The Shea Stadium show with which they opened their 1965 North American tour attracted an estimated 55,600 people, then the largest audience in concert history; Spitz describes the event as a “major breakthrough … a giant step toward reshaping the concert business”. Emulation of their clothing and especially their hairstyles, which became a mark of rebellion, had a global impact on fashion.

According to Gould, the Beatles changed the way people listened to popular music and experienced its role in their lives. From what began as the Beatlemania fad, the group’s popularity grew into what was seen as an embodiment of sociocultural movements of the decade. As icons of the 1960s counterculture, Gould continues, they became a catalyst for bohemianism and activism in various social and political arenas, fuelling movements such as women’s liberation, gay liberation and environmentalism. According to Peter Lavezzoli, after the “more popular than Jesus” controversy in 1966, the Beatles felt considerable pressure to say the right things and “began a concerted effort to spread a message of wisdom and higher consciousness”.

Other commentators such as Mikal Gilmore and Todd Leopold have traced the inception of their socio-cultural impact earlier, interpreting even the Beatlemania period, particularly on their first visit to the United States, as a key moment in the development of generational awareness. Referring to their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show Leopold states: “In many ways, the Sullivan appearance marked the beginning of a cultural revolution … The Beatles were like aliens dropped into the United States of 1964.”According to Gilmore:

Elvis Presley had shown us how rebellion could be fashioned into eye-opening style; the Beatles were showing us how style could have the impact of cultural revelation – or at least how a pop vision might be forged into an unimpeachable consensus.

In 1965, Queen Elizabeth II appointed Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr Members of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). The Beatles won the 1971 Academy Award for Best Original Song Score for the film Let It Be (1970). The recipients of seven Grammy Awards and fifteen Ivor Novello Awards, the Beatles have six Diamond albums, as well as 20 Multi-Platinum albums, 16 Platinum albums and six Gold albums in the United States. In the UK, the Beatles have four Multi-Platinum albums, four Platinum albums, eight Gold albums and one Silver album. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.

The best-selling band in history, the Beatles have sold more than 800 million physical and digital albums as of 2013. They have had more number-one albums on the UK charts, fifteen, and sold more singles in the UK, 21.9 million, than any other act. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked the Beatles as the most significant and influential rock music artists of the last 50 years. They ranked number one on Billboard magazine’s list of the all-time most successful Hot 100 artists, released in 2008 to celebrate the US singles chart’s 50th anniversary. As of 2017, they hold the record for most number-one hits on the Billboard Hot 100, with twenty. The Recording Industry Association of America certifies that the Beatles have sold 178 million units in the US, more than any other artist. They were collectively included in Time magazine’s compilation of the 20th century’s 100 most influential people. In 2014, they received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

On 16 January each year, beginning in 2001, people celebrate World Beatles Day under UNESCO. This date has direct relation to the opening of The Cavern Club in 1957.

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