Making sense of the Beatles
Pop Culture Released - Feb 23, 2014
It was 50 years ago this month that the Beatles arrived in America for the first time. The world of pop music hasn’t been the same since.
What’s forgotten is how very different the Beatles were. They were English at a time when English recording artists didn’t register on the Top 40. They wore their hair long at a time when crewcuts were the norm. And their clothes had flair at a time when Americans were button-down and conservative.
As important, the Beatles were exciting in a way Elvis had been exciting in 1956. Their vocal harmonies recalled the Everly Brothers while their guitar-bass-drums recalled Buddy Holly and the Crickets. They absorbed Elvis, Little Richard and American rhythm-and-blues, put it through the crucible of nightly eight-hour performances over several months, and created something fresh and new. On top of that, they turned out catchy pop tunes with assembly-line efficiency.
The Beatles didn’t merely sell millions of records and play to screaming fans in sold-out arenas across the country. They changed youth culture. They changed the way kids dressed, wore their hair, the music they listened to, even what they talked about. American youth obsessed with cars and surfing, after seeing the Beatles, bought electric guitars and formed rock bands.
For about 18 months the Fab Four dominated not only radio but all media. They were covered on the nightly news networks with the same attention given to, say, Charles De Gaulle and Martin Luther King. Madison Avenue took note of what they wore, what they said, and how they held their cigarettes. Their faces appeared on the covers of ALL the major magazines, Time and Newsweek included. Their likeness was seen on lunch boxes, coloring books, toy dolls, and as characters in cartoons. They starred in movies that revolved around their songs (the Monkees’ TV sitcom was based entirely on one of their movies). World leaders, who’d often started by warning or criticizing, would make references to the Beatles to show that they too were hip to the Beatles’ phenomenon.
ANYTHING BUT STARSTRUCK
Amazingly, the Beatles let none of it go to their heads. They were stunned by the overwhelming reception they received upon their arrival in New York, but took it in stride. The famous press conference at Kennedy Airport, right after they got off the plane, revealed that they were blessed with wit as well as talent.
“Will you sing something?” was the first question. “No,” they all cried as one. “We need money first,” said John. “How do you account for your success?” they were asked. “We have a press agent.” “What do you think of Beethoven?” “I love him,” Ringo said. “Especially his poems.” Even if their press agent had scripted their answers, he could not have come up with responses this clever.
How to explain the Beatles phenomenon? They couldn’t read music. They weren’t exceptional musicians. And they weren’t well-educated. They were born and bred in Liverpool, a provincial backwater on the west coast of northern England. According to their producer, George Martin, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were geniuses. But even genius doesn’t explain the world’s overwhelming response to their music.
What we do know: John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison took up guitar in 1956 after hearing Elvis Presley. At the time, they didn’t know each other. John formed a band and eventually added Paul and then George to the lineup. They added a drummer and accepted an invitation to perform at a club in Hamburg because it was a paying gig. As soon as they got there, they wanted to leave. The club was a dump, and patrons were old men and drunken sailors. Their dressing room was the men’s room, and their sleeping accommodations was a dank room in the basement of a rundown hotel. They stayed because they didn’t have money for a return ticket and because they had nothing better to do.
Performing in Hamburg was a case of learning on the job. They knew enough songs to play for maybe an hour, but were required to play until closing. What did they do? Improvise. They played every song they could think of, whether they knew it or not, rearranged old songs on the spot, wrote new songs, and repeated themselves endlessly. As long as they played loud and fast patrons didn’t care. They did this for up to eight hours a night, six and sometimes seven days a week, for three-and-a-half-months. In the process they became a tight unit that played with one heart and mind.
While in Hamburg they befriended art student Astrid Kirchherr who had a flair for photography. She cut and changed their hair from greasy Elvis pompadour to the blow-dry mop-top they would become famous for. She also helped them dress better, and designed their collarless suits.
When the Beatles returned to Liverpool, they caused a stir immediately. They looked and sounded different from other bands. The clubs they played began selling out, girls screamed incessantly, and riots sometimes broke out. “No one could match us playing rock-and-roll,” Lennon said later, not even professional bands like Cliff Richards and the Shadows which had songs topping the record charts. With their strange hair and onstage antics people were reminded of the three stooges--with guitars. Everyone, guys and girls alike, could not take their eyes off them.
ENTER BRIAN EPSTEIN
After the Beatles returned from a second stint in Hamburg, a record store owner name Brian Epstein heard about the commotion they were causing at the Cavern Club. Curious, he closed his store one day and went to see for himself. His first visit was a lunchtime session of November 9, 1961. Epstein wrote later: “It was dark, damp, and smelly and I regretted my decision immediately. . . . Then the Beatles came on and I saw them for the first time. They were not very tidy and not very clean. They smoked as they played and they ate and talked and pretended to hit each other. They turned their backs on the audience and shouted at people and laughed at their private jokes. But there was quite clearly enormous excitement. They seemed to give off some sort of personal magnetism. I was fascinated by them.”
Epstein kept returning to the Cavern Club, all the while learning about what it would take to manage the band. After he signed the Beatles to a contract, he got them to stop smoking and eating onstage but otherwise didn’t try to change them. “I just projected what was there,” Epstein said. “What was there was this presence. Onstage they had this undefinable feeling.”
He got them gigs all over England and Scotland, and everywhere the Beatles performed the audience went nuts. Trying to get them a record contract, however, drove Epstein nuts. None of the record labels showed the slightest interest. “They told me they didn’t like the sound,” said Epstein. “They said guitar groups were on the way out.” They also told him to forget about the Beatles and return to his record store.
As the rejections piled up, the Beatles “Us against Them” mentality, which had always been presence, strengthened their resolve. They were a team bound together by adversity and years of playing together. Their mantra became: “We’ll show them.”
Epstein pursued every record company in England not once but twice. The second time around he got a break. He met producer George Martin at EMI. Martin didn’t know the first thing about rock-n-roll. What he did know was classical music and comedy, which he recorded for EMI. Epstein played him a tape of their songs. “I wasn’t particularly impressed,” said Martin. “I didn’t think a great deal of the songs or the singers. But I did think they produced an interesting sound.” He agreed to give them a tryout. While he still wasn’t impressed with their music, he found them to be engaging and refreshingly down to earth. “I liked being with them, which was funny, I suppose, as they were so insignificant and I was so significant. It shouldn’t have really mattered whether they liked me or not, but I was pleased they seemed to. I discovered John was a fan of the Peters Sellers and his Goons records I’d produced.”
Perhaps more out of curiosity than anything else, Martin signed them to a recording contract. “I thought, I can’t lose anything if I sign them up, although I had no idea what to do with them or which songs to record.” The first song they recorded and released was, “Love Me Do.” It sold well in Liverpool, and on the strength of a second nationwide tour began to sell where it mattered--in London. Slowly the song climbed up the charts and peaked at number 18. The next release was, “Please Please Me.” Released in January 1963, it was the Beatles‘ first number-one hit record.
Meanwhile, Epstein had new worries. He could not get an ounce of press coverage. This was in the days before there was a rock press. The people who covered music were the same people who covered store openings, dog shows, and the local police beat. “I could never get any feature writers or news reporters interested in the Beatles,” said Tony Barrow, the press agent Epstein hired. “I would love to say that it was my brilliant handouts which built the Beatles, but they didn’t. The press was very very late catching on. Kids everywhere were starting to go wild about them, not just in Liverpool. But nobody seemed to notice. They’d got to the top of the Hit Parade with their second record, but the nationals still couldn’t see them as a news or feature story. To this day, I don’t know why the press was so late.”
The Beatles were very much aware of the snub and attributed it partly to being from Liverpool. Had they been from London, they believed, they would have been accepted sooner. Such a notion only served to further strengthen their “We’ll Show Them” resolve. It also helped destroy any illusions they might have had about the press. Later in 1963, when “Beatlemania” was sweeping England and the press were calling on the Beatles in droves, they were not taken in. “Will you sing something?” the press asked. Their answer, “No, we need money first,” wasn’t merely funny, it said that while they were happy to clown around in public they were not fools, nor wished to be made fools of. At best, they tolerated the press.
The last obstacle was America, and a formidable obstacle it was. Prior to the Beatles, the biggest English pop group to tour the United States had been Cliff Richard and the Shadows. While they played to sellout crowds in England and Scotland, without a U.S. hit record they opened to empty ballrooms across America. The message was not lost on the Beatles. Without a record topping the U.S. charts, touring America was futile. The prospect of this happening appeared especially bleak because Capital Record, EMI’s U.S. subsidiary label, refused to issue their records.
In October 1963, the Beatles released “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” which became their fourth consecutive single to top the British charts. Meanwhile, a Washington D.C. radio station got hold of the single and began playing it. The station’s request line jammed immediately with calls that would not stop coming. The station’s phone line was tied up for a solid week. Capital Records made an abrupt about face. They released the Beatle’s single but could not keep up with demand. In an unprecedented move, they asked other record companies to help out with production. In January 1964, the Beatles topped American charts for the first time. A month later, they did their famous press conference in New York, followed by three consecutive Sunday nights performing their songs on the Ed Sullivan Show. Ratings were through the roof.
The Beatles success in England came partly as a result of their sound and partly as a result of endless touring. In America, success happened overnight as the result one record. Below is a New Hampshire girl’s account of how she was affected.
“I was going to the supermarket in the car with my mother one day,” she said. “Over the car radio came ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand.’ It was the first time I’d ever heard of the Beatles. I went, Wow! What a strange sound. I just couldn’t get over it. No tune had ever affected me as much.
“I found a lot of the girls at school had also heard it and felt the same. I remember walking down the street with two of my friends and discussing them. We all said how ugly they looked in their photographs, especially with no collars on their jackets. The music was great, but we thought they did look ugly.
“Then slowly we changed our minds. I became really interested in pop music, which I’d never been before. I knew about everything they did. I read everything about them. I grew my hair long, because I read they said they liked girls with long hair.”
The Beatles recorded 12 albums. Arranged in groups of three, they chronicle the band’s growth as songwriters and artists.
PLEASE PLEASE ME, WITH THE BEATLES, and BEATLES FOR SALE*(1963-64) -- The early albums capture the Beatles as inveterate rock-n-rollers fresh from the bowls of the Cavern Club. While many of the songs are Lennon-McCartney originals, several are covers that reveal the band’s love of rhythm and blues (“Twist and Shout” “Please Mr. Postman” “Baby It’s You”) and Ringo’s penchant for country (“Honey Don’t” “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby). A smattering of ballads (sung by McCartney) add needed variety (“Till There Was You” and “A Taste of Honey”).
HARD DAYS NIGHT, HELP! and RUBBER SOUL (1964-65) -- These records reflect the Beatles’ time in America and meeting Bob Dylan. The rock-n-roll is more subdued and supplemented with words that reveal Dylan’s influence. Gone are the simple boy-meets-girl songs. Lennon in particular shows decided sophistication as a lyricist with “In My Life” “Norwegian Wood” and “If I Fell.” McCartney’s gift for melody and clearly evident with “Yesterday” and “Michelle.”
“REVOLVER” “SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND” and “MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR” (1966-67) -- These reveal the Beatles peaking as a band and as masters of the modern recording studio. They confirm what many already believed--that the Beatles were not mere flashes in the pan but true artists. Sitar, harpsichord, organ, full orchestra, brass and studio magic that has guitars sounding like pianos and vice versa, coupled with soaring, multi-layered vocal harmonies abound. Songs like “A Day In The Life” “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I Am The Walrus” had people believing the Beatles were mystics and the only ones who knew what was going on. Pop music would never again be this inventive--or this good.
THE WHITE ALBUM, LET IT BE and ABBEY ROAD (1968-69) -- The theme of these final recordings is retrenchment--the Beatles pulling back and looking for simpler, more direct means of expressing their music. “The White Album” reveals the band coming apart and pursuing more individualistic songs. “Let It Be” is an attempt to recapture their early days in the Cavern Club, while highly-polished “Abbey Road” is a final attempt to produce a group effort. Harris emerges as a songwriter of considerable promise with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Hear Comes The Sun” and “Something.” The song suite on side two of “Abbey Road” has the Beatles ending on a high note.
*Beatles For Sale is actually the fourth release but is grouped with the first two albums because the playing as well as several songs recall their fast & loud days at the Cavern Club.