60s Oldies Music

The History of the Beatles, the First Classic Rock Band

If you think back to the music of the 60s, you probably remember The Beatles. There are few musical groups more iconic than this group. They are often referred to as one of the main reasons that rock-n-roll became popular in the US.

 

The Beatles
The “Fab Four” Beatles lineup in 1964. Clockwise from top left: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison

Get to Each of the Fab Four

John Lennon was born John Winston Lennon in Liverpool, England, on October 9, 1940. He was named after his father and Winston Churchill, who was the Prime Minister at the time. When he was four, he was cared for by his mother’s sister, Mimi Smith, after two complaints to social services about the way his mother was raising him. His father was a seaman, and disappeared for six months just before this incident. In 1946, when Lennon was 5-and-a-half, his father, who was moving to New Zealand, made him choose between his mother and his father. Though he chose his father verbally, he chose his mother in reality and neither saw nor heard from his father for the next 20 years.

He lived with his aunt and uncle the rest of his childhood, but visited and was visited by his mother often.

As a child, Lennon was very creative. He enjoyed writing and drawing, including poetry, satire, caricatures, and cartoons. He created his own school magazine and filled it with his creations.

His mother, who died when he was 16, taught him music. She introduced him to the music of Elvis Presley and Fats Domino. She taught him to play the banjo, followed by an acoustic guitar. He played electric guitar later, as well as bass guitar. It was claimed that he tuned his D-string a tiny bit flat so his Aunt Mimi would know which guitar was his. He also knew piano, and composed many songs.

When Lennon was 15, he became involved with a band known as the Quarry Men, named after the school the members attended. This evolved into The Beatles (as chronicled below). Lennon continued with The Beatles until their dissolution in 1970.

In March of 1965, the band was at a dinner party when a dentist put LSD in their coffee. After this introduction to the narcotic, Lennon continued and increased its use for many years.

Lennon was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 with The Beatles, and again for his solo work in 1994.

Lennon married Cynthia Powell on August 23, 1962, after learning she was pregnant with his child. Their son, Julian, was born on April 8, 1963, but Lennon was on tour and was unable to see his son until he was three days old. Lennon’s continued LSD use resulted in a breakdown of their marriage, and her arrival at home to find Lennon and Yoko Ono together was the final straw. Cynthia retained custody of Julian.

Lennon and Ono were married March 20, 1969. The couple was very active in protesting the Vietnam War. While Yoko Ono did not take on Lennon’s name when they married, Lennon did add “Ono” to his own name, as a second middle name (though he used it as his only middle name, except on legal documents which required both, due to the inability to revoke a given birth name). Lennon and Ono had several miscarriages before the birth of their son Sean on October 9, 1975 (Lennon’s 35th birthday). He stayed home to rear his younger son.

On December 8, 1980, as Lennon and Ono were returning home, Lennon was shot four times in the back by Mark David Chapman, who was arrested and imprisoned with a sentence of 20 years to life. He has applied for parole eight times, and has been denied every time.

Paul McCartney was born James Paul McCartney on June 18, 1942 in Liverpool, England. His mother was a midwife and the primary breadwinner for the family. His father was a volunteer firefighter and a trumpet player and pianist, and led Jim Mac’s Jazz Band in the 1920s. McCartney’s mother died of an embolism when McCartney was 14.

McCartney met John Lennon when he was 15. He was quickly added to Lennon’s band, the Quarry Men, and the two found that they worked well together. They became lifelong friends. Many of the songs written and performed by The Beatles were the work of Lennon and McCartney, either individually or as co-writers.

McCartney was also very interested in visual arts, as well as music. He would have attended art college, except he lacked discipline and therefore his grades suffered. He was not academically adequate to be accepted. He did go on to study art and theatre on his own and with the help of Robert Fraser, an art dealer.

McCartney was an avid user of marijuana, and also occasionally indulged in LSD, though he chose to quit using LSD after a year because he did not like how he felt after using.

He married Linda Eastman in 1969, and had four children with her. She died in 1998 of breast cancer at the age of 56. In 2002, McCartney remarried, to Heather Mills. They had a daughter in 2003, and divorced in 2008 after a two-year separation. In 2011, he married Nancy Shevell, who he had dated since late 2007. They remain together as of this writing.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted McCartney in 1988 with the other Beatles, as a group, and again in 1999 for his solo work. He wrote – himself or as a part of collaboration – 43 songs that sold a million or more records and had 188 charted records in the UK, 91 of which were in the top ten, and 33 of which were #1 hits.

George Harrison was born February 25, 1943, also in Liverpool, England. He was the youngest of The Beatles. He was also the youngest of his siblings: one sister and two brothers. His mother was enthusiastic about music and loved to sing, though she was no professional.

He loved guitars, even though his school did not include them in their music class. Harrison’s father bought him his first guitar in 1956, and one of his father’s friends taught him to play. He, his brother Peter, and their friend Arthur formed a skiffle band before he met McCartney.

It was his influence that steered The Beatles into folk rock around 1965, because he was interested in the Byrds and Bob Dylan. He also brought in some Indian classical music, using a sitar and a tambura in some songs.

His interest in the Indian culture and its mysticism drew him in, and he became vegetarian and followed the Hindu religion, as well as Hare Krishna. This was also exacerbated by his use of cocaine and other psychedelic drugs.

Harrison was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with The Beatles in 1988, and again in 2004 for his solo work.

On January 21, 1966, Harrison married Pattie Boyd, a model who also played in their movie A Hard Day’s Night. Due to Harrison’s infidelities, Boyd divorced him in 1977. On September 2, 1978, he married Olivia Trinidad Arias, the secretary for Dark Horse Records. They had a son, Dhani, on August 1, 1978, and remained married until Harrison’s death in 2001, which was attributed to lung cancer.

Ringo Starr was born Richard Starkey, Jr., on July 7, 1940, in Liverpool, England. His parents loved singing and dancing and often danced at local ballrooms. Once “Ritchie” was born, his mother became someone overprotective and some might say fixated on her son, and his father, sometimes called “Big Ritchie,” chose to spend his days in pubs, drinking and dancing, instead of with his family. His parents divorced in 1944 and Starr saw little of his father after that time. His mother was forced to work to support the two, and she discovered she enjoyed being a barmaid, a job she kept for twelve years. They lived in Dingle, an inner-city district where the air was filled with soot from the coal furnaces and the neighborhoods were filled with violence.

He had two illnesses as a child that threatened his life, resulting in hospitalization that caused his schooling to fall behind. Peritonitis followed a routine appendectomy when he was six, resulting in a three-day coma and a twelve-month recovery. His mother allowed him to remain home from school after that, and he was still illiterate and not good at math by the time he was eight. Because of this, he felt out of place at school and he often skipped. He began to be tutored by a neighbor twice weekly and had nearly caught up in 1953, when he fell ill with tuberculosis. He was admitted to a sanitorium for two years for treatment and recovery, where the staff encouraged the patients to join the hospital band to prevent boredom and assist with their motor activity. This is where Starr discovered percussion, as he used a cotton bobbin for a mallet to drum on the cabinets by his bed.

This began his obsession with drumming. His grandparents gifted him a banjo, a mandolin, and a harmonica but he had no interest in any of these instruments, nor in the piano at home.

He had an aptitude for drama, art, and mechanics; however, after his bout of tuberculosis, Starr did not return to school. Starr’s stepfather, Harry Graves, introduced him to Dinah Shore, Billy Daniels, and Sarah Vaughan.

When he was 15, his stepfather arranged for him to become apprenticed to an equipment manufacturer in Liverpool. He developed admiration for skiffle through a co-worker and joined a friend to create their own skiffle band in 1957, which became well-known and well-liked in their area. It was around 1959 when he chose to use the stage name Ringo Starr, feeling it implied a country-western feel, and because he liked to wear rings.

In 1960, when The Beatles began officially, Starr belonged to Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, another band from Liverpool. They traveled around the UK and Hamburg, but when Lennon invited him to join The Beatles, Starr quit the Hurricanes to take the place of Pete Best, who they fired.

Starr was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 with The Beatles, and again in 2015 for his solo work.

Starr married Maureen Tigrett in 1965, and they had three children. Infidelity on Starr’s part caused their divorce in 1975. In 1981, Starr married Barbara Bach, to whom he is still married, and they divide their time between their properties in London and Los Angeles. He became a grandfather in 1985 when his oldest son’s daughter was born.

The Early Years (1957-1962)

The band began with John Lennon, who put together a skiffle band – a sort of group that often used homemade instruments, and played folk, jazz, and rock music – in the 1950s. At the end of 1956, the band consisted of John Lennon (guitar), Pete Shotton (washboard), Eric Griffiths (guitar, also), Rod Davies (banjo), Len Garry (tea-chest bass), and Colin Hanton (drummer). They called themselves The Quarry Men.

Between 1956 and 1962 (when Ringo Starr joined the group), the band included 27 other members at one time or another, including: Stuart Sutcliffe (bassist until 1961), Pete Best (guitarist 1960-1962), Norman Chapman (drummer for a few weeks in summer 1960), Tommy Moore (drummer from May to June 1960), and others who played less often or for a shorter period of time.

In July of 1957, a mutual friend introduced Lennon to Paul McCartney. Lennon was impressed with his abilities and invited McCartney to join the Quarry Men. McCartney had a friend he knew from school, and he recommended to Lennon that his friend be invited to join them. Because the young man was only 14, Lennon was reluctant, but eventually auditioned George Harrison, just before his fifteenth birthday.

Toward the end of 1958, Lennon’s mother was killed in an accident, and he began drinking to cope. The band separated for about six months, and retired the name “Quarry Men,” never using it again. Other names were tested, such as “Johnny and the Moondogs,” “The Silver Beetles,” and, in 1960, the group adopted the name “The Beatals.” It was a few months after this, in August, when they settled on “The Beatles.”

They played nearly seven weeks in Hamburg, Germany, a tour which changed their sound and helped them to rise above the other, similar bands of the time. Gerry Marsden said, “Hamburg made them sound better; it made them different. Before that, I didn’t notice anything directly different between The Beatles and all the other bands in Liverpool, but after their first Hamburg trip they were tremendous.”

In 1961 and 1962, Merseybeat was the “in thing” in Liverpool, and The Beatles excelled at it. They were considered the most exciting band in the area, and were booked for over 30 gigs each month. The most popular hangout for music in Liverpool was The Cavern Club, and The Beatles played there 292 times. It was there that Brian Epstein heard them perform, and within months, they signed a five year contract with him.

 

She Loves You by The Beatles

 

The British Invasion (1963-1964)

A Life magazine quote described this time period this way: “In [1776] England lost her American colonies. Last week the Beatles took them back.” Known as the British Invasion, it was led by The Beatles and their 1963 release in the U.S. of the single “Please, Please Me,” and increased exponentially when, in January 1964, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” ranked on the Top Forty chart of Billboard, followed by The Beatles beginning a two-week U.S. tour in February.

 

The Beatles arrive in the US in 1964.
The Beatles, from left to right, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, arrive in the US in 1964.

This first tour The Beatles made to the USA began on February 7, 1964, when they were greeted in Kennedy Airport in New York City by 5,000 screaming fans. Their appearance on the Ed Sullivan show two days later was watched by a record 73 million Americans. July 10, 1964 saw the release of The Beatles first film – A Hard Day’s Night – and its soundtrack.

The phenomenon was dubbed Beatlemania in England, and the term migrated to the US with the group. However, the British Invasion included several other groups, such as the Rolling Stones, the Dave Clark Five, the Searchers, the Kinks, the Yardbirds, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and more. The only groups out of the many that were part of the British Invasion that had a lasting a legacy were The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, who were a sort of opposite. The Beatles were mannerly and decent, for the most part, while the Rolling Stones were without manners and lacking smiles – a group with which parents were uncomfortable. The manager of the Rolling Stones encouraged delinquency and raunchiness.

Top Songs

The Beatles’ first single, “Love Me Do,” was recorded at EMI Studios (also known as Abbey Road) on June 6, 1962. Their #1 hit single, “Please, Please Me,” was recorded November 26, 1962, and was produced by George Martin, who predicted its success. Their first single was released in October, reaching a national audience and sparking Beatlemania – even though it only reached #17 on the charts. Their next #1 hit was released on April 11, 1963, “From Me To You.” In January 1964, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” hit #1 on the US charts, and The Beatles saw 14 songs get on the American Hot 100 chart over the next four months, including all of the top five spots. These top five songs were, from first to fifth: “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Twist and Shout,” “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and “Please, Please Me.” The Beatles’ releases were regularly breaking records.

During their career, the following songs placed on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart (in no particular order):

“I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Do You Want to Know a Secret?,” “Love Me Do,” “I Feel Fine,” “P.S. I Love You,” “She’s a Woman,” “Ticket to Ride,” and “Eight Days a Week.” Also to reach the Hot 100 were “Help!,” “Yesterday,” “We Can Work It Out,” “Day Tripper,” “Nowhere Man,” “Paperback Writer,” “Penny Lane,” “Yellow Submarine,” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” These songs also reached the Hot 100 chart “Hello, Goodbye,” “All You Need Is Love,” “Lady Madonna,” “Get Back,” “Hey Jude,” “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” “Something,” “Come Together,” “Let It Be,” “Got to Get You into My Life,” “The Long and Winding Road,” and “Free as a Bird.”

 

The Beatles Twist and Shout

 

Movies

Along with A Hard Day’s Night (1964), which was already mentioned, The Beatles acted in several other movies:

  • Yellow Submarine (1968)
  • Help! (1965)
  • Magical Mystery Tour  (television movie – 1967)
  • Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978)
  • The Beatles (the television series  -1965-1967)

Decline and Dissolution

In August 1967, Brian Epstein overdosed, ending his life at only 32 years old. His death, along with disagreements and difficulties within the band, including financial woes for their company, Apple, was the beginning of the decline that ended the band. Additionally, they had all married. They each had solo careers and other interests.

That December, The Beatles’ film Magical Mystery Tour aired on Boxing Day, resulting in their first negative reviews. Despite that, the film gained a following, including a young filmmaker who became famous: Steven Spielberg.

The men spent the beginning of 1968 in India, meditating and writing songs. They recorded their double album – now known as the White Album – in the UK in November 1968. Their last performance together was in January 1969, on their company’s rooftop in London. They were asked to stop by the police due to complaints about the noise. Their last two albums, Abbey Road and Let It Be, were released in September 1969 and May 1970, the latter after their official breakup in April, even though it was recorded before Abbey Road.

Solo Careers

After the dissolution of the group, the men continued their musical careers individually.

  • Lennon released eleven albums, including Imagine (1971) and six works with his wife, Yoko Ono.
  •  Harrison recorded ten albums after The Beatles disbanded, with the last releasing in 2002, after his death in November 2001.
  • McCartney released several albums, and continued writing songs. He started another band, Wings, in which he participated from 1970-1981, followed by collaborations and orchestral music, charity concerts, and more. He continues to be a popular performer, with high-grossing concerts.
  • Ringo Starr went on to release over fifteen albums, and he drummed for albums released by Lennon and Harrison, as well. He participated in collaborations and gave interviews. His most recent album was released in January 2015.

Even though The Beatles stopped recording in 1969, their music is still listened to and influences singers, musicians, and song writers today.

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