In the early 1960s four young men from Liverpool, England, amazed the world with their musical talent. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr (real name—Richard Starkey) together were the Beatles, a rock-n-roll band which became the most popular music performers in the world. Even now, thirty-five years after the group disbanded, their music and recordings remain well-known and loved all over the world.
The legend of the Beatles as working-class lads who made it big with a lot of talent and a lot of luck is popular, but it does not quite hold true. John was attending an art college when the Beatles first were formed. Paul came from a family well-versed in music. Ringo was known as the best drummer in Liverpool even before he joined the Beatles. Even if the legend exaggerates the unlikeliness of their success, it does not diminish the high standards they achieved in writing songs, performing music, and shaping culture by the trends they joined or started.
The Beatles worked hard to achieve their success. For years they performed in the nightclubs of Liverpool and of Hamburg, Germany, learning how to play together as a band and learning how to keep the audience entertained with more than just their music. Ringo frequently sat in with the band long before he officially joined the Beatles. Oddly, their audition tape was rejected by several record companies because the executives believed that the Beatles’ style of music was losing popularity. At first none of them could see that the Beatles were going to revolutionize rock-n-roll music, making it more popular than ever before.
Most of their early songs were simple love ditties set to a dance rhythm, but even their earliest music signaled what was to follow. John’s word play in the song “Please Please Me” foreshadowed the more complex poetry of “I am the Walrus,” while the unconventional harmonies of “She Loves You” prepared their fans for the many musical experiments that would follow. Their early albums included their own compositions as well as their favorite songs by other artists. By 1965 they were hitting their stride musically, ready to create a new sound or two on every album. The album Help! contained two of Paul’s masterpieces, “Yesterday” and “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” while on the title track John expressed the pain of feeling out of control and feeling down.
The next two albums, Rubber Soul and Revolver, continued to be filled with remarkable songs showing the Beatles musical mastery and their willingness to work new sounds into rock music. At the same time, they were following an exhausting schedule of concerts and movies. By 1966, they were writing and singing songs like “Paperback Writer” that could not be performed well on stage. On August 29, 1966, the Beatles stopped performing live concerts and became a studio band.
Their next album, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, was one of rock’s first “concept albums,” although many of the songs were less memorable than those of their earlier albums. By Christmas they had completed an album and made-for-television movie, Magical Mystery Tour, which continued the experimenting for which they were known. The movie was not well-received, especially because it was first broadcast in black and white, but it has stood the test of time. In 1968 the Beatles released a two disc album, officially called The Beatles but usually named the White Album. Their greatest song of the year, “Hey Jude,” was not released on the White Album, but as a single it was number one on the American charts for nine consecutive weeks.
Their greatest album came at the end of their run, when they were already about to split apart as a group. They had spent time in front of the camera creating an album and movie called Let It Be, and scenes from the movie show the tension they felt within the group. In spite of that stress, they agreed to come together for one more album, the astounding Abbey Road. Including two gems from George Harrison, “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun,” the album closes with a montage of song fragments that are knit together in a complex yet successful medley.
The disbanding of the Beatles allowed them to pursue separate interests, including solo careers. John was assassinated in December 1980, and George died of cancer in November 2001. Paul and Ringo continue to perform and record music in their “retirement years.” Best of all, the music of the Beatles remains easily available. All their official recordings, some of their studio out-takes, and even a successful parody called “The Rutles” will keep the legend of the Beatles alive forever.