In the early ’60s, Liverpool, England, is a gritty and dreary port city hobbling through post-war malaise. It’s the last place anyone would expect to launch a music revolution. Yet that’s exactly what happens when The Beatles — an obscure act featuring John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr — become the biggest and most influential band of the 20th century. Not only do they reshape rock ’n’ roll, but fashion and youth culture as well. This is their story.
Between 1960 and ’62, the young and ambitious upstarts take several extended trips to Hamburg, Germany, where they hone their chops at various dive joints in the port town’s red-light district. Back in Liverpool, they gradually become star attractions at The Cavern Club. Its legendarily dark and dank confines — it was a World War II air raid shelter — serve as a breeding ground for the city’s top Merseybeat outfits, including Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas and Gerry and the Pacemakers.
On September 4, 1962, The Beatles, with new drummer Ringo Starr (who replaced fan favorite Pete Best), enter London’s EMI studios to cut their debut single. Producer George Martin insists the boys record “How Do You Do It?,” a tune penned by professional composer Mitch Murray. Declining, Lennon and McCartney counter with their own composition, The Everly Brothers-flavored “Love Me Do.” The song eventually hits No. 17 on the U.K. Singles Chart, setting the stage for the band’s swift rise the following year.
After their second single, “Please Please Me,” rockets to the top of the U.K. chart, the budding pop stars return to London in March of 1963 and record their debut full-length. Please Please Me is completed in a single day — not bad for a record that ranks No. 39 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” At the time, virtually no band writes their own material, yet Lennon and McCartney boldly break the mold by claiming eight of the album’s 14 songwriting credits.
Reeling from President Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, the United States desperately needs something to pull them out of their collective doldrums. That something arrives in the form of The Beatles. At the beginning of 1964, John, Paul, George and Ringo conquer America with their ebullient music, good looks and endearing charms. On February 9, 1964, approximately 73 million viewers tune into the Fab Four’s television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. By early April, their singles claim the top five slots on Billboard’s Hot 100.
Pop stardom turns The Beatles’ lives upside down throughout 1964. In addition to a frantic tour schedule, they star in the Richard Lester-directed movie A Hard Day’s Night. For solace they retreat to EMI’s Abbey Road studios, where their sound continues to evolve by leaps and bounds. A true gearhead, Harrison acquires a prototype of the Rickenbacker 360 12-string. Featured heavily on the soundtrack, the guitar’s brilliant, chiming sound would inspire the folk-rock boom of the next year.
The year ends the way it began, with the entire world swooning over The Beatles — but they now have company. Their global success in 1964 kick-starts the British Invasion, a tidal wave of up-and-coming bands from across the U.K. that will change the course of rock ’n’ roll. Some of these acts — The Swinging Blue Jeans and Freddie and the Dreamers — will return to obscurity after a hit or two. Others — The Rolling Stones, The Who and The Kinks — evolve into creative forces that often rival The Beatles.
Filming for The Beatles’ second motion picture, Help!, takes them to several exotic locales, including the Bahamas, where they frolic like rock ’n’ roll Marx Brothers under swaying palm trees. The movie captures more of their irrepressible wit. The soundtrack, in notable contrast, strikes a decidedly thoughtful tone. The sonic rush of A Hard Day’s Night gives way to somber acoustic textures. McCartney’s “Yesterday” — one of the most covered songs in the history of pop — is the first recording to feature only Paul on acoustic guitar and vocals.
As groundbreaking as their music is, The Beatles’ look, a stunning marriage of avant-garde sensibility and pop trendiness, redefined youth culture on a global scale. Those iconic “mop tops” boast roots in a haircut popular with German bohemians in the early ’60s. Their finely tailored clothing, formal and casual, reflects the sharp fashions preferred by England’s mod subculture. Musicians to this day continue to dress like The Beatles — just ask the Gallagher brothers.
As 1965 becomes 1966, The Beatles enter their most radical phase of growth and transformation. It begins with Rubber Soul, which sounds unlike any previous album. The music — sonically and lyrically groundbreaking — is a complex mélange of folk-rock, baroque pop, R&B, country and more. Fueled by his growing passion for Indian music and mysticism, Harrison adds sitar to Lennon’s introspective, Bob Dylan-inspired ballad “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).” The Beatles are growing up — so, too, is their audience.
Exploring new modes of artistic expression, young people are coalescing into a global counterculture. Dr. Timothy Leary, the public face of psychedelic experimentation, implores them to “turn on, tune in, drop out.” The Beatles lead their generation’s march into this new age with Revolver. Considered by many rock critics to be the ensemble’s finest sonic achievement, the album’s daring and trippy music redefines pop. “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream,” Lennon sings on “Tomorrow Never Knows.” The world is listening.
By late 1966 the stresses of nonstop touring has overwhelmed the foursome. Tired and bored, they don’t want to be on the road, performing in hulking arenas for teenagers too busy screaming to listen to their music. They yearn to be back in the studio experimenting, or at home reading and creating art. After a tumultuous, riot-marred tour of Asia that passes through the Philippines and Japan, The Beatles head to the States, where they play their final concert at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park on August 29.
A visionary song cycle awash in kaleidoscopic brilliance, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band stands as the definitive sonic artifact of the Summer of Love. No other psychedelic rock album more perfectly expresses the utopian impulses and dreams of the hippie generation. The world changes because of Sgt. Pepper’s. Before its release on June 1, 1967, pop music is lighthearted commercialism fit only for teenagers. Afterward, pop music becomes cutting-edge art demanding serious consideration and critical analysis.
As The Beatles dive deeper into studio exploration, George Martin’s role as producer expands to include problem solver, arranger, and even composer. It’s during their psychedelic phase that he more or less becomes the “fifth Beatle.” In addition to exposing the quartet to avant-garde techniques such as musique concrète, tape loops and vari-speed, his classical training is necessary for realizing the dizzying complex orchestral parts that Lennon and McCartney envision for their art-pop masterpiece, “A Day in the Life.”
Rock’s role as the voice of the counterculture is thrust into the mainstream in 1968. Young people around the globe look to The Beatles and other musicians to help make sense of the political turmoil surrounding them. In September, the group films a television performance of “Revolution” for The David Frost Show. With its shrieking guitars and topical lyrics, the incendiary song reflects a troubling year that sees the war in Vietnam intensify and the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and presidential hopeful Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
By 1968 The Beatles have shed the strong collective identity manager Brian Epstein (who passed away the previous year) originally cultivated for them. John, Paul, George and Ringo are now four distinct individuals. This new reality shapes The Beatles (aka “The White Album”), a double LP that unfolds like a loose collection of solo recordings. Another key development is the emergence of Harrison — now composing masterpieces like “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” — as Lennon and McCartney’s creative equal.
One of The Beatles’ first ventures under the umbrella of their new media corporation, Apple Corps Ltd, is 1968’s Yellow Submarine, an animated film inspired by the psychedelic music and artwork of Sgt. Pepper’s. Despite the band’s initial reservations about getting bogged down in another movie project, they ultimately are delighted with director George Dunning’s fantastical cartoons and surreal storyline. A global hit, the movie plays a critical role in the acceptance of animation as a serious art form. It’s yet another innovation from The Beatles.
For their next endeavor, an album and documentary tentatively titled Get Back, The Beatles relocate from their familiar surroundings at Abbey Road to a sound stage at Twickenham Studios. Inspired by The Band’s 1968 roots-rock masterpiece Music From Big Pink, the hundreds of hours of music they record is earthy, loose and stripped down. Unfortunately, the sessions are mired in squabbling. Growing apart, and clearly frustrated with one another, the band temporarily suspends the project. It would eventually see the light of day as the significantly altered Let It Be.
Though The Beatles struggle internally, they band together for their mythical rooftop concert. On a chilly afternoon in January of 1969, the group lug their gear to the roof of Apple headquarters and give an impromptu performance for the shocked passersby below. Appearing with them is guest musician Billy Preston, an old friend they met in 1962. The affable keyboardist also joins The Beatles in the studio for a handful of sides. Featuring his soulful and funky accompaniment, the No. 1 smash “Get Back” is credited to “The Beatles With Billy Preston.”
Despite having retired from touring in 1966, the Beatles sound fantastic: tight, ecstatic and bursting with rock ’n’ roll swagger. After roughly 45 minutes, London police — concerned about noise and traffic issues — shut down what would turn out to be The Beatles’ last public appearance. Through the decades, numerous artists have paid homage to the rooftop concert. The most famous came courtesy of another iconic rock band, U2, who faithfully recreated the event in Los Angeles for the 1987 video of “Where the Streets Have No Name.”
Practically everyone in their inner circle assumes The Beatles are finished after the aborted Get Back sessions. Managing to set aside their differences (albeit temporarily), the quartet regroup in February of 1969 and begin working on songs that will eventually comprise Abbey Road. Recorded using an 8-track tape machine for the first time in the group’s career, the album is a pristinely rendered masterpiece on every conceivable level. On September 20, a week before the album’s release, Lennon announces to his mates he’s leaving the fold.
By the time the Let It Be album and documentary are released in May of 1970, John, Paul, George and Ringo have gone their separate ways. When “The Long and Winding Road” tops the Billboard’s Hot 100 that year, it marks the band’s 20th and last No. 1 in the U.S. It’s the end of the ’60s, as a decade and moment in cultural history. In the coming years, The Beatles’ catalog — arguably the most revered in the history of rock ’n’ roll — will serve as a source of endless inspiration for artists from every walk of life. The Beatles are the measuring stick against which any band’s greatness is measured.
— Justin Farrar
— Justin Farrar