The Beatles, British rock music group, which revolutionized popular music around the world in the 1960s with their stimulating songwriting and vibrant performances. Although they played together barely ten years, the Beatles have been recognized by many critics and social historians as the most popular and influential music group of the 20th century.
More than just the leaders of a movement in rock music known as the British Invasion (see Rock Music: The 1960s), the Beatles were the main force behind changing the concept of popular music stars from simple entertainers to social and spiritual gurus. While the group remained hugely popular throughout the decade, the Beatles gradually transformed from fresh-faced boys singing songs about love into complex young men writing about a world full of political and social upheaval. For many critics and music fans the group reflected the turmoil and change that gripped society during the 1960s.
All the members of the band were born in Liverpool, England, in the early 1940s. The core songwriting pair, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, met in 1957 while Lennon was performing with his skiffle band, the Quarry Men. The two teenagers discovered they shared a love of American rhythm-and-blues and rock music. McCartney joined the group later in 1957 and the following year guitarist George Harrison became a member. In January 1960 an art-school acquaintance of Lennon, Stuart Sutcliffe, joined as bass player, and the band changed its name, after several variations, to the Beatles.
Drummer Pete Best accompanied the group to Hamburg, Germany, in August 1960, where for more than three months they played an arduous schedule of club dates. The group returned to Hamburg four more times in the following three years, and in this demanding environment the Beatles forged many of their dynamic traits: rousing three-part harmonies, a witty on-stage repartee, and a large repertoire of American rock-and-roll songs, supplemented by original material.
Sutcliffe left the band in early 1961, causing McCartney to change from rhythm guitar to bass. Later that year a local businessman, Brian Epstein, became the Beatles’ manager. After a number of rejections, he secured the group a record deal with Parlophone, a subsidiary of EMI Records, in June 1962. Ringo Starr (born Richard Starkey) replaced Best as the group's permanent drummer in August 1962, completing the Beatles’ famous lineup. The band released their debut hit single, “Love Me Do,” in England in October, and followed that with “Please Please Me” in early 1963. Other early hits included “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (1963), “She Loves You” (1963), and “I Saw Her Standing There” (1963).
The Beatles’ first public appearance in the United States came on television’s Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964, and was watched by an estimated 73 million people. By the end of March they held the top five positions in the Billboard magazine U.S. singles charts, an unprecedented feat. Most of the band's releases from this date onward sold in phenomenal numbers.
In addition to writing, recording, and performing, the Beatles made two feature films in the mid-1960s, A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help (1965). Both were critically and commercially successful. On the Help soundtrack album (1965) the songwriting became more mature and diverse, incorporating folk music influences and using more sophisticated lyrical ideas. The group’s next album, Rubber Soul (1965), is regarded as a creative breakthrough. It featured instruments innovative to Western pop/rock music, such as the Indian sitar, and experimental sounds. The Revolver album (1966) was another important advance in songwriting and musical craftsmanship for the band.
|IV||LATER YEARS AND BREAKUP|
The pressures caused by the group’s extreme popularity—known as Beatlemania—resulted in safety problems for the group, especially when performing live. On August 29, 1966, the band played a show in San Francisco, California, which turned out to be their last public concert. Retreating to the studio, the Beatles produced a string of increasingly complex compositions, such as the single “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever” (1967). The 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was a creative milestone hailed for its lyrical and musical brilliance. The album was a result of more than 700 hours of studio time and featured a brass band, an orchestra, Indian instruments, and psychedelic textures in songs such as “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “A Day in the Life.” A television film, Magical Mystery Tour (1967), extended the surreal and experimental vein with songs such as “I Am the Walrus.” Yellow Submarine (1968), an animated film featuring the Beatles’ songs and likenesses, was also released during this time.
Worn down by the demands of their fame and by personal disagreements, the group began to splinter around the time of the release of The Beatles (1968), usually known as The White Album because of its plain white cover. These growing divisions within the band were displayed in the recording sessions that were filmed in 1969 for Let It Be, a documentary film about the album of the same name, which was released in 1970. The final Beatles studio album was Abbey Road (1969). Despite increasingly separate musical activity through this period, the group's members continued to produce popular, high-quality songs, from “Revolution” and “Hey Jude” (both 1968) to the optimistic “Here Comes the Sun” (1969) and the poignant “The Long and Winding Road” (1970). McCartney formally announced the group’s breakup on April 10, 1970. The Beatles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.
After the break each member of the group pursued another musical career, either as a solo artist or as bandleader. Despite individual successes, members were often approached with requests to reunite, fueling wide speculation. This talk ended when Lennon was murdered by an obsessed fan in 1980. In 2001 Harrison died of cancer.
In 1995 the first volume of a three-album retrospective of the Beatles, Anthology, was released, accompanied by a television miniseries of the same name. The Anthology album included “Free as a Bird,” a song for which Lennon recorded a rough demo before he died, and to which the surviving Beatles added their own voices in 1994 and 1995 to create a “new” song by the group. It became one of the fastest-selling albums in the history of popular music, and the second and third albums of the series were released in 1996. The group’s enduring appeal was evident when a compilation of their biggest hits, Beatles 1, became one of the most popular albums of 2000. A collection of edited and restructured Beatles’ songs, created for the Canadian circus company Cirque du Soleil, was released as the album Love in 2006.