More than just a passing fad, the Beatles were a cultural event unlike anything the world had ever seen. Their names, their moptops, their songs, and their presence have been a cornerstone of our culture--and our lives--for nearly 50 years. Their presence may seem ubiquitous, but there was a time, pre-Beatlemania, when the Beatles were just four working class kids from Liverpool, England, enchanted by American rock and roll records. Those four working class kids were:
John Lennon (b. October 9, 1940 - d. December 8, 1980) - Rhythm guitar and vocals
Paul McCartney (b. June 18, 1942) - Bass guitar and vocals
George Harrison (b. February 25, 1943 - d. November 29, 2001) - Lead guitar and vocals
Ringo Starr (born Richard Starkey; b. July 7, 1940) - Drums and vocals
"To the Toppermost of the Poppermost"
In 1957, John Lennon and Paul McCartney met backstage at a performance of Lennon's skiffle band, The Quarrymen. Impressed by McCartney's musical chops, Lennon asked McCartney to join the band within a few days after their initial meeting.
Not long after joining the Quarrymen, McCartney suggested his friend George Harrison also be brought into the band. Lennon initially balked at bringing in Harrison, but relented after hearing him play a flawless rendition of the song "Raunchy" on a bus one night.
The Quarrymen floundered as a local band for years, going through members and monikers (including a stint being known as Johnny and the Moondogs) before Lennon's friend from art school, Stuart Sutcliffe, joined the band as its bassist in 1960. It was Sutcliffe who suggested changing the band name to the Beetles--inspired by both Buddy Holly and the Crickets, and the Marlon Brando movie The Wild One, in which one of the biker clubs is called "The Beetles". The name changed from The Silver Beatles to The Silver Beats before finally settling on Beatles (with the spelling altered to allude to the beat music they played).
Also in 1960, after the addition of the drummer Pete Best, the Beatles traveled to Hamburg, Germany, where they played in strip clubs in the city's notorious red-light district. It was during this period that they perfected their stage show and developed their sound. When times were tough for the band, Lennon would cheer them up by asking, "Where are we going, fellas?" to which the others would reply "To the toppermost of the poppermost!" It proved to be a prophetic statement.
Harrison was eventually deported for being underage, and McCartney and Best were deported after being arrested for arson after burning a condom tacked to a concrete wall. Lennon returned to Liverpool with his band mates, while Sutcliffe decided to settle in Hamburg with his fiancee, photographer Astrid Kirchherr, and concentrate on his art. Sadly, Sutcliffe died of a brain hemorrhage in 1962 and never witnessed his friends' rise to fame.
After another stint in Hamburg, (where they cut a record as a backing group for singer Tony Sheridan), the Beatles returned to Liverpool where they began playing regularly as the lunchtime act at the Cavern Club. It was there where they were spotted by Brian Epstein, the man who was to become their manager. One of Epstein's first orders of business was to fire Pete Best, and hire Ringo Starr instead.
Liking them immediately, Epstein arranged auditions at Decca Records (who turned them down, telling them that "guitar groups are on their way out), and EMI, who signed them and brought them to producer George Martin.
After signing with EMI, they recorded two singles--"Love Me Do" and "Please, Please Me". "Love Me Do" had a respectable showing on the charts, peaking at number 17. "Please Please Me", however, was a smash and shot straight to number one. They instantly went back to the studio and recorded their first album, Please Please Me, in a single day. Although nobody could have predicted it, Beatlemania was beginning.
Each successive single released--"From Me to You", "She Loves You"--were huge hits in Europe, but failed to make an impact in the United States. It wasn't until the 1964 release of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" that Beatlemania reached American shores. That, plus their legendary appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, cemented their status as the biggest band in the world. In two years (1964-1965) they released five albums (With The Beatles, A Hard Day's Night, Beatles For Sale, Help!, and Rubber Soul), two films (A Hard Day's Night and Help!), had over 10 number one singles (including "Can't Buy Me Love", "Yesterday", and "Eight Days a Week"), and toured the world many times over. It was a breakneck pace, and the band grew weary. In 1966, after a concert at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California, the band decided to retire from touring and instead focus all their attention on making albums.
The Studio Years
The gamble the band undertook when they decided to retire from touring ultimately paid off. Their first post-touring album was the classic Revolver, an album that is widely considered one of the best ever made. They followed Revolver with the wildly innovative Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, another album that consistently tops critic's "best of" lists. However, their winning streak ended with Magical Mystery Tour, an avant-garde film that was derided by critics. The accompanying soundtrack album, which included tracks such as "Strawberry Fields Forever", "Penny Lane", and "I Am The Walrus", was generally well received.
It was during this time that the band members started developing different interests, and the easy camaraderie of their earlier years evaporated. Their next album, the double-disc opus The Beatles (usually referred to as The White Album for its plain white cover), is generally regarded as four separate solo albums. Also during this time, John Lennon became involved with performance artist Yoko Ono, and insisted on having her by his side at all times. Her presence only amplified the overwhelming chill of the studio sessions.
In an attempt to bring the group back together, McCartney proposed the band make a stripped down, back-to-basics album. He conceptualized having a film crew document the band writing and recording new material, and then playing a final concert in an exotic locale as a sort of coda for the band. Unfortunately, the film crew mostly documented the band members fighting, and the uncomfortable situation made working nearly impossible. The band decided to scrap the concept of the final concert and simply decided to have an impromptu show on the roof of their recording studio on January 30, 1969. The film footage eventually made its way to the big screen as the documentary Let It Be, and the tracks from the studio sessions were released as an album of the same name.
Not feeling satisfied with Let It Be, the band decided to venture back into the studio to make one final album. Abbey Road became one of the bestselling albums of the Beatles' career, with classic tracks such as "Something", "Here Comes the Sun", and "Come Together". Its popularity was also boosted by the bizarre "Paul McCartney Is Dead" rumors circulating at the time. However, the popularity of Abbey Road was not enough to keep the band together, and they officially announced their breakup on April 10, 1970.
The Beatles, as the world knew them, would never perform together again. Each band member went his own way, and pursued his own unique interests.
Paul McCartney married photographer Linda Eastman and formed the band Wings. McCartney enjoyed a bevy of hits both with Wings and as a solo artist. He still tours and records music to this day, and is involved with the animal rights movement. He was knighted in 1997.
Ringo Starr enjoyed success as both a recording artist and actor, memorably appearing as Mr. Conductor on the children's television program Shining Time Station. Starting in 1989, he began touring with Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band, an ever-revolving lineup of musicians.
George Harrison developed an interest in Hinduism and Indian culture that would last for the rest of his life. He is credited with bringing awareness of both to Western culture. In 1971, he organized The Concert for Bangladesh, which was later released as both a concert film and album. Aside from writing and recording, Harrison started a film production company, Handmade Films, which produced such works as Monty Python's Life of Brian. He was also a member of the rock supergroup, The Traveling Wilburys. In 1997, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. He succumbed to the illness in 2001 at the age of 58.
John Lennon enjoyed a successful solo career (including his seminal 1971 hit Imagine). Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, also became prominent political activists, causing the Nixon administration to attempt to deport him. He announced a hiatus of his recording career in 1977, instead deciding to spend time raising his son, Sean. In 1980, he and Ono released Double Fantasy, an album that was well-received by critics and considered his comeback.
On the night of December 8th 1980, Lennon was shot and killed by a deranged fan outside his home in New York City. He was 40 years old.
Since his death, numerous tributes and memorials have been dedicated to him around the world, most notably Strawberry Fields in New York City's Central Park.