From Liverpool to London to the World Stage, The Beatles Redefined What it Means to be a Pop Star
Over half a century ago, the Beatles made their American debut on the Ed Sullivan Show (February 9, 1964). In one memorable evening they changed Pop Music and American Culture in ways no one could have imagined.
Not as well known, perhaps, was that this performance came at the end of a very long journey, a journey that began eight years earlier, in Liverpool, England, when a bohemian art student named John Lennon formed his first band, the Quarrymen. Lennon idolized the music of Elvis Presley, combed his hair in a flamboyant pompadour like Elvis, and dreamed of someday being a Rock-N-Roll star like Elvis. Eventually he teamed up with a fellow Elvis admirer named Paul McCartney. Two years later they invited George Harrison into the band, because he was a superb guitar player, and made him the band's lead guitarist. After high school, the Quarrymen discovered the difficulty in finding a paying audience--and to find a permanent drummer. As a result they enlisted help from a local impresario, who not only found them a drummer (Pete Best), but arranged a paying gig in Hamburg, Germany.
Any dreams of making it big in Germany were dashed, upon their arrival in Hamburg. The venue they were to perform in was a seedy bar located in the city's rundown waterfront district, where they would play impossibly long hours before drunken sailors, and receive little or no pay. They would also share sleeping quarters in what amounted to a small, dingy restroom next door to the bar. With nothing at home to return to, the band elected to stay, performing a grueling eight hours a night, six days a week.
And yet in this seemingly hopeless environment, they polished their stage craft, learned to write pop songs, and befriended members of the local artistic community, including a gifted artist named Astrid Kirschherr. Kirschherr was something of a fashion visionary, who restyled the boys' greasy Elvis-pompadours into the clean, shaggy mop-tops that would become their trademark.
Right away the boys realized they didn't know enough songs to fill an eight-hour set. To get by they learned to improvise hit songs they had heard on the radio, and composed new songs, while performing on stage. The German audience, consumed with drinking as much beer as possible, rarely took notice of them. In fact, the boys made it their goal to play loud and fast, in a spirited effort to capture and hold their attention. This nightly crucible made them better musicians, while teaching them the fine art of writing catchy pop tunes.
Writes music critic Steve Turner: "(performing in Hamburg) was the best apprenticeship they could have had. The continuous playing of other artist's songs taught them how songs were constructed, and the pressure to entertain taught them what worked and what didn't."
After a year's residency in Hamburg, the Silver Beatles (as they now called themselves), returned to Liverpool, and began playing in the Cavern Club, a local favorite of Liverpool's youth culture. Right away, they realized they were far superior to any of the local bands then performing in Liverpool. As word spread of their exciting brand of Rock-N-Roll, the lines to get into the Cavern Club, grew longer and longer.
A manager of a local record store (Brian Epstein) got word of the excitement the band was generating, and decided he wanted to see what all the fuss was about. He caught them performing during their lunch-hour show, and while he didn't appreciate their music, he was enchanted by their playfulness and on-stage banter. He couldn't get enough of them, and after seeing several shows, signed them to a contract to be their manager. With visions of million-dollar record deals dancing in his head, Epstein arranged an audition with every record label in London, and every time the band failed to impress. "Guitar bands are no longer popular", he was told repeatedly. However, Epstein never took no for an answer, and kept knocking on doors. It was during the Beatles' second audition with Polydor Records, that producer George Martin expressed interest in recording the band--not because he liked their music, but because he enjoyed the band's company, particularly that of Lennon and McCartney, who amused him endlessly.
Having replaced Pete Best, with Ringo Star as their drummer (whom they had admired and befriended in Liverpool), the Beatles signed with Polydor Records, and scored a Top 40 hit record with their very first recording: "Love Me Do." Creating a follow-up hit proved problematic, however. Martin did not think think much of their new song, a ballad entitled "Please, Please Me." Martin wanted them to record "How Do You Do It" instead, written by an outside song writer. While the Beatles recorded a demo out of courtesy to Martin, they hated the song, and went home that evening and revised "Please, Please Me" into an infectious rocker. The following morning they played the revised version, which knocked Martin out. That same day, they recorded the song, and a week later, watched it make a fast climb up the record charts, to become the Beatles' first number-one hit single in England. After that, the Beatles couldn't miss, as they composed something like 20-straight number-one hit singles.
Their growing success on the British airways, led to tours throughout England and on the Continent, tours that coupled the Beatles with a variety of American recording stars, including Little Richard, Roy Orbison, and the Everly Brothers. In time the Beatles absorbed what these Americans did best--the excitement, sheer joy, and audacious screams of Little Richard's stage show, the Everly Brothers' tight vocal harmonies, and Orbison's gift for mixing heartbreaking ballads with upbeat rockers.
America soon beckoned, but without a number-one hit on the American airways, the Beatles knew touring the U.S. meant performing before empty concert halls across the country, and an early trip back to England. Even talent scouts for the Ed Sullivan Show, as impressed as they were by the size of the crowds the Beatles routinely attracted in England, were not interested in signing the Beatles to appear on their show, without a hit single.
However, late in 1963, that changed as the Beatles began to receive radio play on U.S. Top 40 radio stations. Due to rapidly growing listener demand, the band's first single on Capitol Records, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was rush-released in late December, three weeks ahead of schedule. Around this time Ed Sullivan and Brian Epstein finally met, and worked out a deal for the Beatles to perform on three shows--two live and one taped. The timing could not have been better, as "I Want to Hold Your Hand" peaked at number one on January 25, 1964, mere days before the Beatles were to arrive at JFK International Airport.
Demand for tickets for their American TV debut broadcast, topped out at 50,000, for a theater that seated 728 patrons. The show would attract a record of 73 millions television viewers
The Beatles' performance, as exciting and influential as it was, amounted to a summation of all they had learned up to that time, from Elvis Presley to Little Richard, to their newest love--American Rhythm and Blues, as performed by the Isley Brothers.
And it didn't stop there. Throughout the 1960s, the Beatles would continue to adapt and absorb and grow artistically, in their newfound role as pop icons. Ironically, they did it with limited touring and without the need of television appearances (they would appear only once more on the Ed Sullivan Show, in May of 1965, and retire from touring at the end of 1966). The secret to their success? Never settling on past accomplishments, but forever experimenting in their search for composing the perfect pop song.
You can trace their amazing growth curve, beginning with the lyrically captivating "Rubber Soul" in 1965, up to their pop masterpiece, "Abby Road" in 1970. As John Lennon would write: "All You Need is Love."