How the Beatles Made History
Everyone knows their names, even if one never cared for their music: Ringo, John, Paul, and George. Just 15, 16 and 17 respectively, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and John Lennon came together in 1958—young but passionate musicians from Liverpool, England, who wanted to play jazz, blues and folk music on improvised instruments. By 1962, they had added Ringo Starr to the group. With Starr on drums, the group’s first single “Love Me Do” hit the airwaves and changed the face of pop music forever. Beatlemania became a thing and the Beatles themselves became “more popular than Jesus,” as Lennon put it four years later to a London journalist (Runtagh). The Beatles surely did make history (whether they were ever actually bigger than Jesus was a controversial point): they had more number one singles than any other British band or artist, and there 17 number ones were beaten only in America by Elvis’s 21 (Vincent). For 14 years, the single “She Loves You” was the best selling single of all time. The band pushed the boundaries of recording in the studio and, as Kevin Murnane has pointed out, the band’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was “a perfect storm of musical and recording creativity” that produced the 11x Platinum album. The band used four track recording and bounced tracks one, two and three to the fourth where more tracks were added to fill the final track with as much sound and as many instruments and musical expressions as possible. It was just one of the innovative ways that the Beatles made history. This paper will explore that and the other ways in which the Beatles left their mark on modern pop culture.
Who Were the Beatles?
The Beatles became a huge cultural phenomenon at a time when the Baby Boomer generation was coming of age. It was the 1960s—a decade of social and sexual revolution (Jones). The members of the Beatles were themselves born during the war time period: “all six boys were born during that conflict” (Laing 10). The effects of war and violence had a haunting impact on the young men who made the most popular music in the world in the post-war youth culture that developed as a reaction to the symptoms of the Cold War that followed WW2 in the 1950s and 1960s (Laing 10). The Youth Culture was made up of war babies and baby boomers: they wanted emancipation from the culture that had fostered the war era, which seemed to still be in play, even in the 60s and 70s, with Vietnam drawing a lot of criticism from the hippie movement and the youth movement in America.
In physical terms, the Beatles were very young when they made it big. They were just barely in their mid-20s at the peak of their fame. They went from being four mop-headed British youths wearing dress jackets and ties when performing to being poster boys for the Hippie Generation, with long, shaggy hair, side burns, beards, denim pants, and bell bottoms. For their second to last album Abbey Road, released in 1969, the quartet was photographed crossing the street—the photo was used as the cover for the album, and as David White notes, it was controversial to say the least: “The controversy over the album cover sprang from the rampant rumor that the ambulatory line of pop stars represented a funeral procession, mourning the departed Paul McCartney. John Lennon religiously led the procession in a heavenly white suit, Ringo Starr followed in black as the mourner, George Harrison clad in denim would be the gravedigger and Paul McCartney, barefoot, out of step, stood as a seemingly animated corpse, member of the walking dead” (6). Thus, for the cover art of their very last album as a band, the members represented more than their iconic selves: they represented something mystical, something beyond even their own celebrity and fame, something otherworldly, something meta. They were already post-themselves: they had become so big, so famous so fast, that there was nowhere for them to go but their own separate ways before the end of the decade that made them famous came to a close.
In psychological terms, the Beatles were still just trying to figure things out: they were barely adults when their first single topped the charts. The fame, adulation, success, money, and media attention changed them, challenged them, and forced them to respond in different ways. They went to India and chanted Hare Krishna. They grew their hair out and fit right in with all the other young people of the 1960s protesting the Vietnam War on college campuses. Were the Beatles really trend setters or were they simply following the trends set out for the youth by the uber-trend setters in Laurel Canyon? Whatever the case was the Beatles were not shy about voicing their opinions. At the height of their fame, they were struggling with their own personal identities, and by the end of their tenure as the Beatles, they were in full transformation mode: “In September 1969 Srila Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement, arrived as a house guest at Tittenhurst Park, John Lennon’s estate in England. 1969 was for John Lennon a year of intense search for social and personal liberation. He had already been to the Maharishi and later would enter primal therapy and left-wing politics. He was in a major transitional period; he had married Yoko Ono in March” (Krishna). The others were moving on as well, each attempting their own solo careers, each with different levels of success. Harrison and Lennon took to Eastern religion. Lennon would be assassinated before long by Mark David Chapman. Yet the legend of the Beatles would live on. They were considered the quintessential pop band: they defined the genre, made it what it was, pioneered all the modern pop sounds.
In emotional terms, they handled their success rather well. No…of his hits, the band as a hole was very happy to take things in new directions.
The Beatles made history by becoming the biggest band from Britain to ever grace the stage. They helped to kick off the British Invasion in America. They defined the tastes of the Baby Boomer generation. Later generations would be as in love with them as their parents and even grandparents as the case may be today. They resist categorization. They could write pop tunes as well as they could write edgy, trippy, counter-culture music. They were capable of seemingly doing it all musically—mainly because they had four writers who had four different musical tastes and styles (even Ringo was allowed to write a tune here and there). The fact is that the Beatles were forerunners of the musical artists writing today, artists who have been in pop bands and who have gone on to write music for the screen, operas, symphonies and so on. The Beatles prefigured the epic works of Pink Floyd, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Radiohead.
But could the Beatles have been the Beatles had it not been for the 1960s? The 1960s was a decade of upheaval. The Feminist Movement got underway in 1963, one year after the Beatles came out with their first single. Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963 and it advocated for women to get out of the homes, quit being the domestic servants of husbands, and embrace a life out in the public square. Gloria Steinem followed with Ms. Magazine and before anyone knew it, Feminism was in the air. It even entered into the Beatles via Yoko Ono, who married Lennon and pushed him beyond the limits of anything he had done before. Her intrusion in the band was considered by many fans to be such an upheaval that they blamed her for breaking up the band. The whole situation was satirized in the epic mockumentary This is Spinal Tap, a comedy about a British hair band that gets busted up because one band member falls in love and lets his new wife start introducing all sorts of crazy concepts and ideas into the band’s artistic works. The Beatles were as much an influencer of the 1960s and the 1960s were of the Beatles.
If there is one band that embodies the spirit of popular music in the 20th century, it is the Beatles. Beloved of many (though not by all), their range allowed them to create some of the most enduring hits of latter half of the 20th century and some of the most compelling sounds and musical experimentation. They embraced the counter-culture once it got underway and their fame and status enabled them to give the counter-culture additional steam. They stared in films, became bigger than Jesus (as Lennon believed—though he did not anticipate it being a statement that would really cause much hype, even satirically clarifying that if he had said TV was bigger than Jesus…
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