What is there left to write about The Beatles? What can one say that hasn’t been analyised, written about, over studied, filmed, or pondered on before? Looking at my own bookshelf, I can see that I own a book on every possible angle on the group. I have books spanning their entire careers (from the coffee-table sized Ten Years That Shook The World to the song-by-song Revolution in the Head) perspectives from the boys themselves (George’s I Me Mine and Paul gives as close as he’ll ever get in Many Years From Now), books focusing on one particular album (be it Get Back or Revolution, about the White Album) haigiographies (Strawberry Fields Forever, the inevitable cash in book from after Lennon died) and quite the reverse (The Lives of John Lennon, in which Albert Goldman just about stops himself short of accusing John Lennon of actually killing JFK in order to ensure the Beatles popularity, but pillors him for everything else). That isn’t even the half of it either, not to mention the infinite Beatle-related books that I haven’t read.
And obviously it doesn’t stop at books – endless documentaries (whether sanctioned by The Beatles themselves with Anthology or otherwise) their own films, interviews, parodies and so on and so on. There is unlikely to ever be a band quite so extensively talked about, and written about as The Beatles. The reason is simple – between 1963 and 1970 they produced some of the best pop music anyone will ever hear anywhere ever.
It is important not to forget about the music when talking about The Beatles. They were in the right place at the right time to invent and influence a hell of music history, but so were many bands. If they were merely “important”, you wouldn’t care, more important than their importance to music history is that they wrote some really really good music.
The bare bones of the story, I will assume you know already, amazingly familar as it feels – John Lennon is a tortured lad in Liverpool, his mum’s abanonded him and his dad’s done a runner. His mum comes back into the picture, but dies (knocked over by a car) while he is still young and living with his Aunt Mimi. He gets the angst out by playing in a skiffle band (The Quarrymen), and at Woolton Village Fete meets a young Paul McCartney, who has also lost his mum (to cancer), giving them something to bond over. Macca (as would later be known) displays a musical knowledge that offsets Lennon’s angry rebellion.
They head off to Hamburg on tour with Stuart Sutcliffe, an artist friend of John Lennon who is roped into pretending to play bass. Paul has introduced a young George Harrison to John, who despite his age, is in the group because he can actually play the guitar. At this point they have the pretty Pete Best on drums.
Hamburg changes The Beatles. Stuart falls in love with Astrid Kirchherr, who photographs the band and gives them their soon to be revolutionary mop-tops. He decides to stay in Hamburg with her, rather than play in the group, and dies before the band makes it big. George, Paul, and John (presumably Pete too) learn the ways of sex and drugs from briefly living in the seediest of German towns. The band meet Little Richard (who’s shaking his head and saying “wooo” would become a Beatles trademark, and after whom Paul styled his Rock ‘n’ Roll singing voice) and Ringo Starr, who would eventually become the Beatles drummer when they realise he is a) funnier and b) much uglier than Best.
Playing at the Cavern Club in Liverpool on return from a second trip to Germany, The Beatles are discovered by n’er-do-well layabout Brian Epstein, who had been put in charge of his fathers record department after dropping out of RADA. Epstein went crazy for The Beatles, and set about trying to get them a record contract. He was largely unsuccessful (Decca famously declaring that “guitar groups are on the way out” in their audition), until he discovered George Martin. The band loved Martin, because he had produced lots of comedy records they liked. He saw something in them, and they recorded Love Me Do, an attempt by Paul to “do the blues” (it sounds absolutely nothing like the blues at all) which reached No17 in the UK chart.
John’s first attempt at writing a hit single was Please Please Me, which he originally envisioned as a Roy Orbison tribute number. George Martin was baffled by this and got them to speed it up. After recording it, he told them they had just recorded their first Number One, and was right.
This led to an album – in those days albums were still basically considered attempts to cash in on a singers popularity while it was there – which was recorded in one day of solid recording, in which The Beatles essentially played everything they had and some cover versions. The album is a raw rock ‘n’ roll tribute album essentially, luckily with some great tunes. Of their own material I Saw Her Standing There and the singles stand out, proving that they never took themselves too seriously, they got Ringo to do a cover of Boys. Most remembered is the cut of Twist and Shout, recorded with Lennon’s voice in absolute pieces, the first of many of others songs The Beatles would make their own.
The album was a gigantic success, and Epstein signed up just about everyone else in Liverpool into bands, and Merseybeat was born. The Beatles also inspired record labels to pick up their own versions of the band (Decca chose The Rolling Stones, which was probably quite a good move really). Beatlemania began, and The Beatles knocked out a string of No 1 singles, and a second album (With The Beatles) before landing in America where everyone seemed to know they were great already before they had even got there. Presumably they read about them on the internet.
The Beatles played The Ed Sullivan show, and apparently no crimes were reported anywhere in America while The Beatles were on. This possibly because the police were all too busy watching Paul sing All My Loving to bother taking any calls from people who had been robbed. Anyway, The Beatles were even more popular in America than they were at home, which led them to making their first film A Hard Days Night, a knockabout romp by kitchen-sink director Richard Lester about what its like to be in The Beatles. It was a huge hit, and spawned a soundtrack album which provided them with their best work yet.
There began a period of wondering when the fad of The Beatles was going to die off, and they did themselves no favours with Beatles for Sale, in which they sound knackered and bored, and look moody on the cover. Luckily they were introduced to Bob Dylan, who apparently assuming The Beatles were already feverant pot-smokers, introduced them to casual drugs. This informed both Help! (the soundtrack, their greatest pop statement and stepping stone to the greatness that was to come) and Help! (the incomprehensible movie, in which The Beatles are mostly too stoned to convincingly play themselves).
They got MBE’s off the Queen (causing some Daily Mail readers to complain) but essentially, the press was still waiting for the bubble to burst. When they played Shea Stadium a second time, a few thousand less people turned up causing sensationalist The Beatles Are Over type headlines. The review of their next album, Rubber Soul, in the NME was essentially a complaint that it was all a bit slow.
Rubber Soul was a definitive step away from rock ‘n’ roll and was the clearest sign yet of the experimentalist streak that The Beatles would need to keep them going. In 1966 they stopped touring after offending the entire Phillipines by accident, and generally being bored of not being able to hear themselves.
Rubber Soul led to Revolver, perhaps the best album anyone has ever made. Essentially a collection of whines (Paul about being dumped by Jane Asher on For No-One, John about being got out of bed on I’m Only Sleeping, George about not having enough money on Taxman) set to brilliant pop tunes, The Beatles (now experimenting with LSD as well as pot) set about redrawing the boundaries of pop music.
They followed up Revolver with Sgt Pepper, which remains the biggest selling album of all time in the UK (it isn’t even their biggest selling album in the US however, with both Abbey Road and The White Album outselling it). The key to Pepper’s success, of course, is that while other bands who “went psychadelic” took that mean they could get away with 40 minute guitar jams, The Beatles love of melody shines through, and even at their weirdest (Within Without You, A Day In The Life) they are still memorable tunes.
Despite the magnificence of Pepper, a mis-step was to follow with The Magical Mystery Tour, a movie made up as they went along, which was torn apart by the British press after it was shown (in Black and White, later in colour) over Christmas 1967. The soundtrack album was great, although only actually released in America at the time. The Beatles went to India to study some meditation, and Brian Epstein died while they were gone.
A Self-Titled, less colourful (popularly known as The White Album) album followed, a stylistic tour de force that takes in The Beach Boys (Back in the USSR), Music Hall (Honey Pie), avant garde (Revolution #9) ska (Ob-la-di Ob-la-da), proto heavy metal (Helter Skelter) and obviously plenty of Rock ‘n’ Roll. The album remains an odd mystery, containing no singles, and remains an enticing gem to be discovered.
By now of course The Beatles were getting into things not directly related to each other, and things were starting to fall apart. Ringo left the group during the White Album sessions feeling unloved, John had met Yoko Ono and gained an increasing interest in art and peace, George had started resenting being repressed by the extraordinary other talents in the band, and The White Album saw the band recording not as a band, but just whoever was around and needed at the time. It mostly fell to Paul, always the biggest believer in the group to steady the ship and become de facto leader.
Things would only get worse as Paul tried to fix things. He decided that getting the group to play live again would be the answer, and arranged for the next album sessions to be filmed, in which would preface a concert movie announcing The Beatles comback. The rest of the band resented being recorded all the time, and the band fell to pieces, shambollically unable to agree on a gig, wound up playing their final show on the roof of the studio, before being told by the police to cut out the noise.
That album would eventually be turned into Let It Be, but not until The Beatles had gone back into the studio to record Abbey Road as a final waltz. George had left the band during the Let it Be sessions, but it was John after Abbey Road who actually left the band for good. Ironically it was Paul, who never left the band at all, who told the press of the band’s finality, during the press for his solo début, McCartney. He was vilified for breaking up the biggest band in the world.
If the story – and there is plenty left out from that, from the Mahereshi to Apple – is over familiar, it is because The Beatles extraordinary ability to reinvent themselves (both David Bowie and Madonna would note) meant that they stayed fresh and interesting. Crucially of course, they were the first of their type, and the soap opera that was their career had it all, including fortunately, a stonkingly good soundtrack.