Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



A UK pop group formed in 1959 in Liverpool, all born there: John Winston Lennon (b 9 October 1940; murdered 8 December 1980, NYC), rhythm guitar; James Paul McCartney (b 18 June 1942), rhythm guitar, then bass; George Harrison (b 24 February 1943; d 29 November 2001), lead guitar; Ringo Starr (b Richard Starkey, 7 July 1940), drums. Lennon had started a skiffle group called the Quarrymen, after the Quarrybank school he attended, in 1956, and asked McCartney to join in the summer of 1957; Harrison was added late that year; Lennon's close friend art student Stuart Sutcliffe (b 23 June 1940, Edinburgh; d 10 April 1962) joined '58 on bass: he couldn't play at first but had money from the sale of a painting, needed to upgrade the group's equipment. They lacked a steady drummer until joined by Pete Best (b 24 November 1941, Madras, India). In 1954 an American horse, Never Say Die, had won the Epsom Derby; the odds at one point had been 200 to 1. Mona Best, Pete's mother, had bet all the money she could scrape up, and used the winnings to buy a 20-room Victorian mansion in Liverpool, where in 1959 she opened a coffee club, the Casbah, in the basement, where the Quarrymen first played. The name changed to Johnny and the Moondogs, then the Silver Beetles (after Buddy Holly's Crickets), then the Beatles, a Lennon pun.

Their first manager was a legendary LIverpool figure, Allan Williams (d 30 December 2016 aged 86), who ran the Jacaranda Club, one of the first place they played; he booked their four tours of tough seaport clubs in Hamburg, Germany beginning in 1960, where they served their apprenticeship perfecting covers of Chuck Berry, Little Richard etc. Lennon was influenced by the harmony and the softer style of the Everly Brothers, and also by Holly because (unlike Elvis Presley) Holly played guitar and wrote his own songs; Lennon and McCartney wrote songs together from the beginning. From January 1961 they played hundreds of dates at Liverpool's Cavern Club between Hamburg trips. The quintet became a quartet when Sutcliffe left to paint and settle with photographer Astrid Kirchherr in Hamburg that year (he died in Astrid's arms after falling down stairs). Astrid inspired much of the Beatle style in dress and haircuts, which left a deep imprint on the period; their haircuts were not English 'pudding-basin' haircuts, but modelled after what upper-class German schoolboys wore. Kirchherr [b 20 May 1938, d 12 May 2020 in Hamburg] did not make much money from her photos, which were published everywhere, until she began touring fan conventions and publishing books of them.)

German bandleader and record producer Bert Kaempfert used the group as the Beat Boys, backing pop singer Tony Sheridan on Polydor. (Anthony Esmond Sheridan McGinnity, b 21 May 1940, Norwich, England; d 16 February 2013, Hamburg; he had already been performing successfully in Germany and was an influence on the band.) Fans back in Liverpool sought out the Polydor records, and Brian Epstein (b 19 September 1934; d 26-7 August 1967), who managed the record department in his parents' furniture store, went to see them at the Cavern to find out what the fuss was about, and became their manager.

They were turned down by several labels (Decca famously chose Brian Poole and the Tremeloes instead), then got an audition with George Martin at Parlophone, then an EMI catch-all label for Scottish dance bands, comedy records etc. Best played on a test record, but Martin wanted a session drummer for the recording, but meanwhile Ringo had been drafted in from Rory Storm and the Hurricanes; John, Paul and George fired Best and hired Ringo. Best's brooding good looks had made him the band's heart-throb and his sacking was controversial in Liverpool. He had a desultory career in music, quit '68 and while the Beatles were the most famous people in the world he wrapped bread in a factory; but he survived, later became a civil servant, served as a consultant on the U.S. TV movie Birth Of The Beatles '79, published autobiography Beatle! '85. A lot of people think Ringo wasn't a very good drummer either, but he was very good at what he had to do for the Beatles: 'Love Me Do' was re-recorded with him on 11 September '62 for a UK top 20. (A third recording of 'Love Me Do' had been made with Martin's choice of a session drummer, Andy White [d 10 November 2015 aged 85], and that one was a no. 1 hit on Tollie in the USA '64). Meanwhile the second single 'Please Please Me' was no. 2 early '63 in the UK and a UK LP of that name completed in a marathon session; the third single 'From Me To You' was no. 1, succeeded by 'She Loves You', the biggest single in UK history till then and the first time an act had bumped itself out of the top spot, all in 1963.

The recording engineer was Norman Smith (b 22 February 1923, Edmonton, North London; d 4 February 2008, East Sussex), a WWII veteran and musician who, working under Martin, chose the equipment and techniques used to capture the sound in the studio. He liked the Beatles' actual sound, playing together in the room (they had racked up a lot of experience, after all, in those Hamburg clubs) and recorded them without the ornamentation and reverberation typical of pop music of that period (see entry for producer Joe Meek). The relative freshness of the recordings was another factor in their sudden, huge success. (Smith helped to discover Pink Floyd a few years later, producing their first two albums, and had some success himself as a singer. He wrote a song called 'Oh, Babe, What Would You Say?', hoping to sell it, but recorded it himself as Hurricane Smith, for a no. 3 hit in the USA in 1972.)

When Beatlemania began, the group could not appear in public without police protection; the press wrote about the 'Mersey sound' to describe the phenomenon (including other groups from Liverpool, on the river Mersey: the Searchers, Gerry and the Pacemakers, etc. Mersey Beat was actually the name of a local entertainment paper founded by Bill Harry, which ran from July 1961 until 1965; it was only later that the term 'Mersey beat' was used in retrospect for the music.) The Beatles toured Europe; at a Royal Command Performance in London, Lennon told the royals to rattle their jewellery instead of applauding. Their candour, unforced style and insouciant humour were evident in interviews, and something new had happened: they were real, not a press agent's creation; at the end of a too-long period of post-war austerity in Britain a generation of artists, photographers, playwrights and musicians had been nursed by the welfare state and educated thanks to the 1944 Education Act, and found themselves in a new era of rising prosperity; Britain seemed to have recovered from two world wars, a terrible economic depression and the loss of Empire and was ready to smile again, and Lennon and McCartney became one of the most successful song-writing teams in history.

Next came the British Invasion of the USA. Capitol, EMI's pop label in the USA, had passed on the Beatles at first, so USA singles came out on Vee Jay, Swan and Tollie, but finally Capitol hit big with them in January '64 with their fourth single 'I Want To Hold Your Hand' and their second UK LP With The Beatles (Meet The Beatles in the USA) pulling the indie singles into the charts (as well as singles with Sheridan, on MGM in the USA). Capitol had caught up in the nick of time as the group landed in NYC to mob scenes 7 February 1964; millions saw two appearances on the Ed Sullivan TV show (but nobody heard the music for the screaming); in April 'Can't Buy Me Love' became the first single to top the USA and UK charts simultaneously. Their first film A Hard Day's Night opened in the USA in August and made $1.3 million the first week: directed by Richard Lester in monochrome and realistic style, good actors in support (Wilfrid Brambell as the lecherous grandfather), it received two Oscar nominations and is still probably the best pop film ever made. Help! '65 co-starred Victor Spinetti, was directed by Lester and well received but (prophetically) more self-indulgent. They received MBE (Member of the British Empire) honours at Buckingham Palace from HM Queen Elizabeth II 26 October 1965 (and confessed later that they were so nervous they smoked dope in a rest room there): the 'gongs' are recommended by politicians, in this case Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who wanted credit for 'Swinging London'.

The songs improved in craftsmanship and lyrics became more adventurous; 'Day Tripper' and 'Paperback Writer' '65-6 broke new ground: some were puzzled, especially in the USA by UK idioms, but the records sold automatically. With soundtrack LPs and Beatles For Sale '64 they had five straight no. 1 LPs in the UK, five slightly different no. 1 USA issues; Help! included McCartney's beguiling 'Yesterday' accompanied by a string quartet (covered since about 2,000 times) and Lennon's Bob Dylan-influenced 'You've Got To Hide Your Love Away'. They no longer wrote together (though by mutual agreement songs were published under both names), so that John's acerbity and Paul's prettiness no longer complemented each other. Rubber Soul '65 made full use of four-track studio techniques, polished layer by layer by Martin, who was called 'the fifth Beatle'. Rubber Soul included John's boredom ('Nowhere Man'), the sadness of anonymous lust ('Norwegian Wood', with Harrison on sitar), Paul's too-pretty 'Michelle'. Revolver '66 plunged further afield and is regarded by many now as their masterpiece; Harrison was allowed three songs: 'Taxman' (mentioned rapacious interchangeable UK politicians Wilson and Edward Heath by name), 'Love You To' with sitars, 'I Want To Tell You'; there was also the upbeat 'Good Day Sunshine' as well as Paul's 'Eleanor Rigby' (sung alone with a string octet); the stunningly simple 'Here, There, And Everywhere'; powerful, brassy 'Got To Get You Into My Life'; the title song from Yellow Submarine '68, an animated film by Heinz Edelman, still delighting children today; John's quirky 'I'm Only Sleeping', 'And Your Bird Can Sing', 'Doctor Robert' and the mysterious 'Tomorrow Never Knows'.

The next single 'Penny Lane'/'Strawberry Fields Forever' was the first not to be no. 1 in the UK (it was no. 2 '67); the snapshots of Liverpool childhood were too good for the pop chart: 'Penny Lane' was Paul's, 'Fields' had John's surreal lyrics. When the vocal session for 'Penny Lane' was finished they recorded an experimental piece called 'Carnival of Light', a 14-minute sound collage perhaps inspired by Stockhausen; this was for an avant-garde music fest at London's Roundhouse, but few have heard it since. (McCartney hinted in November 2008 that it might be released sometime soon; see his entry.)

The single was their boldest work to date, intended for a new LP but released because the two tracks took so long to make and a new single was due. UK LPs had seven songs on each side; because of the way royalties were paid and the price structure in the American market, American LPs had only six (hard-core fans bought the imported editions), but the Beatles changed all that, too: Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band '67 was identical everywhere (it cost $1 more in USA than previous Beatles sets). As a concept album it was a carnival of pure entertainment, with an overture, a mixture of music hall, old theatre posters ('Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite'), engaging nonsense ('Lovely Rita'), psychedelia ('Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds'), Paul's sentimentality ('When I'm Sixty-Four'), Ringo's jolly singing on '(With) A Little Help From My Friends', all strained Martin's then state-of-the-art equipment to its limits: the hurdy-gurdy effect in 'Mr Kite' was obtained by mixing taped bits of steam-organ music at random; the last track 'A Day In The Life' began with leftover lyrics and ended with a 40-piece orchestra playing a long improvised chord like a coffin lid, followed by a 20,000 Hz sound only dogs could hear. The collage on the sleeve artwork also set fashions, featuring marijuana plants (unknown to EMI) amid the jungle/jumble. Many years later people remembered where they were when they first heard the album, which worked partly because drug-induced bonhomie brought the Fab Four closer together than they had been for a long time or would be again: they had conquered the world but not seen it, prisoners in hotel rooms.

In a world-wide satellite broadcast '67 200 million people saw them sing 'All You Need Is Love' two weeks after an Arab-Israeli war. They now extended interest in Eastern music to philosophy, following Maharishi Mahesh Yogi; at a retreat with him in Wales they heard about Epstein's death (probably drug-induced by accident, but enormous fortunes being made had begun to haunt them all, and Epstein, a good manager in the early days, had made a serious mistake in selling Beatles merchandise permissions for practically nothing). Lennon acknowledged that they might never have made it without Epstein. They decided to make an improvised film, leaving London on a bus in September 1967 without Epstein to organize everything for them, followed by crowds and snarled traffic; they forgot to book studio time and had to shoot interiors in a disused aircraft hangar: Magical Mystery Tour was like a sequence of early experimental pop videos, shown on the BBC 26 December 1967 and trounced by critics: a USA TV deal was cancelled; it was the first Beatle failure. A two-disc 45 EP soundtrack album reached no. 2 on the UK singles chart; in USA it filled one LP side, recent singles the other.

Meanwhile tax and financial problems were to be sorted out by investment in a company which became Apple Corps Ltd, to be operated in hippie 'peace and love' fashion, creativity unstifled by businesslike methods: a Dutch design team the Fool was commissioned to run an Apple boutique in Baker Street, a shoplifters' heaven; Apple Electronics (nothing to do with the American computer firm) was run by the incompetent 'Magic Alex', who never invented anything; also Apple Music, Retail, Foundation for the Arts, record label: a few long-time friends worked hard for little reward, hangers-on and people off the street helped themselves with no one in charge: a fortune was saved from the taxman by throwing it away. As this disaster was getting under way, the Beatles went to India with Maharishi, but the Liverpudlians were still hardheaded enough quickly to tire of trying to levitate and used the time to write songs. Sessions for The Beatles '68 were marred by John's romance with Yoko Ono, who was constantly present and carelessly in the way, but the group was disintegrating anyway. The two-disc set was called 'The White Album', with no sleeve artwork at all; it included scribbles and scraps among flashes of the old brilliance: Lennon's 'Julia' to his long-dead mother, rocker 'Back In The USSR', charming market-place romance 'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da'. Martin begged them to edit it to a single album but the only thing they agreed on was not to do that. The first batch bore serial numbers: a 'limited edition' of two million.

The Apple label was nearly successful: the single 'Hey Jude' sold three million; the label signed Mary Hopkin ('Those Were The Days' no. 1 UK, no. 2 USA), James Taylor, Jackie Lomax, the Modern Jazz Quartet; but the Apple empire was collapsing. The Beatles wanted industry shark Allen Klein to sort it out, except Paul, who wanted NYC lawyer John Eastman, soon to be his father-in-law; Klein won and a sweep-out of Apple Corps began. The Yellow Submarine soundtrack album '69 was very short weight. Abbey Road '69 had a famous sleeve photo of the four crossing that road to the EMI studio; an absurd rumour started, still peddled today, that Paul was dead, a lookalike replacement hired. The album contrasted Paul's nursery-rhymish 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer' (which John hated), Ringo's vocal on 'Octopus's Garden' with 'Come Together', 'She Came In Through The Bathroom Window' (a hit for Joe Cocker '70). Their last album Let It Be was released '70 after the final split; the sessions saw a great many songs recorded, some going back to the Quarrymen ('One After 909'); 'Get Back' was best thing on it. Lennon wanted it done 'live' in the studio rather than edited together, and didn't want Martin to work his usual magic; when everybody got tired of doing take after take, Lennon wanted to release the chaos: 'It'll tell people, This is us with our trousers off, so will you please end the game now?' But he (or Klein) handed the tapes over to Phil Spector; when Paul could not stop what Spector had done to his 'Long And Winding Road' (dubbed strings, etc) he too knew the group was finished, and Martin was still disgusted decades later. Derek Taylor said that McCartney described the release as 'the shittiest thing anybody had ever done to him, and that was saying something.' A film for the album was completed in January '69 with a rooftop concert at Apple's Savile Row headquarters and the sound in the sky was enough for the neighbours, who called police: the decade and the Beatles ended with John saying, 'I'd like to say thank you very much on behalf of the group and myself and I hope we passed the audition.'

The self-contained group creating its own material had turned the music business upside down, giving popular music to the people who made it; the huge amounts of money in post-Beatles pop meant that accountants and lawyers took over record companies and took the music back again, yet Britpop a quarter of a century later was nothing but an echo of what the Beatles had done. Their lyrics were clever and often contained puns, but critics and public looked too hard for secrets: when lines from Shakespeare were thrown into Lennon's sound-collage 'I Am The Walrus' (from Magical Mystery Tour), critic Rex Reed (in the USA's Stereo Review) thought they were mocking a priest in the confessional; when psychopathic murderer Charles Manson claimed to be inspired by 'Helter Skelter' (a McCartney scribble on 'The White Album') everybody rushed to listen. The excitement was overdone '66 when Lennon said, 'We're more popular than Jesus now', a banal piece of social comment which some clergymen admitted was true; and Lennon may have meant it with some regret, or at least puzzlement. He wanted a sleeve illustration on a USA compilation album that year featuring chopped-up dolls and fake blood in a butcher shop, describing it as 'as relevant as Vietnam', but the Beatles weren't allowed to be serious. The issues of Beatles CDs early '87 were revealing: the first was recorded all in one day in mono; Martin had only a two-track machine to work with, putting instruments on one track, voices on the other; mixing down a mono master was a breeze. David Sinclair in The Times wrote of the second LP, revealed by digital technology in all its strangeness: 'Did George intend the guitar intro to ''Roll Over Beethoven'' to sound like a rubber band? Did Paul forget to plug in his bass during ''Hold Me Tight''? And were the Beatles really such a barber shop vocal unit as the ... versatile harmonies, so prominently mixed, suggest?' They were, and unlike other 'beat' groups, they went on from there to get better. They spent four months and $75,000 making Sgt Pepper; less talented groups later spent far more making flops and the Beatles were blamed.

William Mann wrote in The Times of London that Lennon and McCartney were 'the greatest songwriters since Schubert'; Fritz Spiegl described them in The Listener as doing more damage than anyone in the history of music; the American composer Ned Rorem thought that the Beatles had come to slay the wicked serialists; Wilfred Mellers sought subtexts by examining inaccurately arranged sheet music of songs by people who could not read or write music. The Beatles combined Tin Pan Alley chord patterns, a rhythm and blues framework and folk harmonies; later they experimented with electronics and sound-collage, which Cage and Stockhausen had done before them; they invented nothing, but absorbed and reflected with a delightful childlike curiosity; the media contributed to a lot of nonsense, while the Beatles were no more or less than a deeply loved pop group who made people feel good, and whose original, essentially English tunes contained a large element of seaside postcard and music hall: among their many saving graces was that they knew and cheerfully acknowledged that the mystery of their popularity was greater than the sum of their parts.

Lucy Vodden (d September 2009 in London aged 46 of complications of lupus) was Lucy O’Donnell when she was a schoolmate and friend of John Lennon's son Julian, who came home from school at age 4 with a drawing which, he told his father, was 'Lucy in the sky with diamonds.' John Lennon no doubt spotted the mnemonic with LSD, and Lucy never cared much for the song, saying in an interview in June 2009 that 'As a teenager, I made the mistake of telling a couple of friends at school that I was the Lucy in the song and they said, "No, it’s not you, my parents said it’s about drugs." And I didn’t know what LSD was at the time, so I just kept it quiet, to myself.' Hearing about her illness, Julian sent her gifts and frequently texted her from his home in France, hoping to cheer her up.

The long-suffering and self-effacing Derek Taylor (b 7 May 1932, Liverpool; d 7 September 1997), a former reporter on the Daily Express, had gone to work as Epstein's assistant, worked at Apple and was still looking after the Beatles' interests 30 years later. Neil Aspinall (b 13 October 1941, Prestatyn, Wales; d 23 March 2008 in Manhattan) had been with them since the Cavern days, and only retired from Apple in 2007. It was Aspinall who had to try to get surviving Beatles and widows to agree unanimously on any project. Klein (b 18 December 1931, Newark NJ; d 4 July 2009) squabbled for many years with his other pop groups, but his business with the Beatles ended in 1972 when McCartney successfully got a receiver in; Klein later spent two months in jail for tax fraud, having illegally sold Beatle promo records. Klein was responsible for the Beatles losing control over their own material: Dick James at Northern Music was so disgusted by Klein that he sold the Lennon/McCartney songs to Lew Grade's ATV, which later sold them to Michael Jackson.

In December 1994 a two-CD set Live At The BBC compiled recordings and dialogue from radio programmes; the three surviving Beatles got together '95 to record backing for a tape of Lennon singing 'Free As A Bird', the 'new' Beatles single included in Anthology, a three-CD set of scraps and out-takes, and there was an exhaustive TV profile at last making good use of archive film and interviews. Another three-CD set Anthology 2 early '96 was much more interesting, revealing how some of their most famous work was built up in the studio; Anthology 3 late '96 was more of the same, '68-70 near-misses and takes from Let It Be without Spector's mischief, as well as George Harrison doing some of the most focused work of the four. A set of eight videos was released as Anthology, almost double the length of the TV series.

The surviving Beatles and widows still refused in 2009 to sell individual tracks e.g. via iTunes, or allow snippets to be sampled e.g. on Barnes & Noble's Red Dot system, which allowed shoppers to hear music they were browsing in the store. Beatle reissues on compact disc were less than satisfactory until September 2009, when Apple and EMI finally seemed to have got it right. In four years of work they had transferred each track from the master tapes one at a time, dusting the tape heads between each one; they removed unintended mechanical noises but retained the ancillary sounds of the musicians' breathing and side-chatter, cleaning up the sound without removing the ambience that fans had been listening to for forty years. The results were said to have more 'bottom' compared to the 'tinny and desperately malnourished' previous digital transfers. Each original British album was reissued individually, each with a documentary video about five minutes long, and there was a 2-CD set called Past Masters compiling 33 tracks from singles and EPs. There were also limited-edition boxed sets, one for stereo and one collecting the original mono editions up to the White Album; the first pressings of the boxes sold out almost immediately, in the top 15 music pre-order best-sellers in the history of The release was timed to take advantage of the publicity on the release of a Beatle number in the video game series Rock Band.

The book Shout! '81 by Philip Norman told their story in detail, but astonishingly had no index; the best book on the music was probably Allan Kozinn's The Beatles '95, and even he fell into the trap of trying to turn pop music into higher culture. Ian MacDonald's Revolution In The Head '94 was very good on the songs. The Beatles 2005 by Bob Spitz was the biggest book to date but was criticized for a large number of small errors. The work of Mark Lewisohn, especially Tune In on their early years (expanded edition 2013), surely tells us as much as we will ever know. The Beatle industry showed no signs of slowing down; a new compilation of their greatest hits in 2015 was said to have the best transfers yet technically, but perhaps their earliest hits were dating a wee bit. See also entries for individual Beatles.