In the early 1960s rock & roll, the revved up American music form that raced onto the scene a few years earlier and quickly became the soundtrack of its burgeoning youth culture, was stuck in neutral.
Gone was Elvis Presley, its biggest star, who had been drafted into the army and was stationed in Germany. Other rock & roll pioneers went AWOL from the music scene they helped create: Chuck Berry went to jail for violating the Mann Act. Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly were in rock & roll heaven, their deaths occurring in a tragic plane crash. Eddie Cochran joined them after a fatal car crash.
Little Richard found religion and Jerry Lee Lewis found his first cousin, whom he promptly married. Carl Perkins barely recovered from a car accident on his way to New York. Gene Vincent nearly lost his leg in a motorcycle mishap. And Johnny Cash, it seemed, cared more for country music than rock & roll and thus headed in that musical direction.
There were bright spots: the sunny California sound of surf and fun from the Beach Boys; from Detroit, the emerging Motown Sound; and the soul-stirring songs of Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, and James Brown. However, the pop charts were still mostly filled with the syrupy sounds of teen idols that had better smiles than voices.
It took an unlikely pop group, not only to make things right, but to begin the greatest, most fertile period ever of American pop and rock. They were four lads from Liverpool, of all places, collectively called the Beatles. With mop tops and dry humor, with British accents and sharp suits, the Beatles also happened to play some of the most compelling rock & roll of the era—any era, actually—all tightly wrapped in a Union Jack.
They learned the rudiments of rock & roll by listening to American records brought to the English port city by merchant seamen returning from the States. A young John Lennon formed a group that he called the Quarry Men. It soon included Paul McCartney and George Harrison. The Quarry Men became Johnny and the Moondogs, then the Beatals, the Silver Beatles, then finally, the Beatles. Along the way they added one of Liverpool’s best drummers, Ringo Starr.
The Beatles woodshedded in Hamburg, Germany, playing five sets a night in bars and strip clubs for drunken sailors and tourists. They mastered the rock sounds they heard from America and then began to write their own songs. The Beatles came back to Liverpool after their Hamburg jaunts a top-notch rock & roll band and Lennon and McCartney an increasingly capable songwriting team.
The Beatles hired Brian Epstein as their manager and shortly thereafter, a record contract with EMI/Parlophone came their way. Epstein had a positive impact on the Beatles; he polished their look and gave them a direction. George Martin, the band’s record producer, also had an important effect on them. Without suffocating the band’s unique sound and style, Martin provided the studio wisdom and guidance that drew attention to and admiration of the Beatles’ earliest records. In 1963, the first signs of Beatlemania surfaced in England.
America discovered the Beatles in early 1964. They were introduced to us in February of that year on The Ed Sullivan Show, the most popular variety show on television. By December, the Beatles had conquered the pop charts with number one singles, had starred in a hit movie, A Hard Day’s Night, had toured America, and had inspired countless kids to learn to play guitar and start their own bands.
It would have been perfectly understandable had the Beatles’ star burned bright in 1964, only to fade the following year. Pop music tastes were fickle.
But the Beatles steadily matured as songwriters and evolved as musicians. They pushed into pop places no other rock bands had ventured. They were also seasoned performers, even if no one could hear them over the din of screaming teens. Finally, all the screaming got to them. In San Francisco in the summer of 1966, the Beatles stepped onstage for the last time. But the Beatles did not stop making records. In late 1966, the band released the album Revolver, a masterpiece that ranks with the greatest rock recordings of all time. A few months later, in June 1967, the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, arguably the greatest rock recording of all time. In between these monumental albums came the single, “Strawberry Fields Forever” with the B-side, “Penny Lane.” No rock 45 ever packed a more creative, more visionary one-two punch.
The Beatles would remain a band until 1970. By then the pressure of pop superstardom had taken its toll and too many creative differences within the band went unresolved. During their time together, John, Paul, George and Ringo, as we had come to know them, elevated the pop music bar and transformed the most innovative rock sounds into true art. No other band owns such a superlative recording catalogue, commands such respect, or continues to influence, not just musicians but artists in nearly every cultural category. And now, 50 years after their arrival in America, we celebrate their genius and recall their impact in Ladies and Gentlemen…The Beatles!
Beatles curriculum materials: