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When a group of teenagers formed a band in the late 1950s whilst still at school, little did they know that they would change the face of the music industry and become the biggest selling band in the history of music. It is estimated that to date, the quartet have sold over a billion records, making them by far the most successful band of all time.
It all began in Liverpool in 1957 when John Lennon started “The Quarrrymen,” a skiffle group. He was swiftly joined by Paul McCartney and a much younger, George Harrison who was a mere 14 years old when he began playing with the others. Over the next few years, the group played a few gigs around the Liverpool area and were joined in January 1960 by bass guitarist Stu Sutcliffe who suggested changing the name of the band to something more contemporary. They hit upon the name “The Beetles”, changing the spelling of the name later that year to “The Beatles”. However, they were still missing a permanent drummer until they auditioned Pete Best, who joined them for their first gigs in Hamburg in late 1960.
Over the next few years, Hamburg became a place that the band returned to repeatedly to hone their sound and their stage presence. On one of their trips to the city, Sutcliffe decided to leave the band to pursue his art studies. Just over a year later, he died unexpectedly from a brain haemorrhage, very young at 21.
Back in the UK, the band began playing at the Cavern Club in their home city of Liverpool and it was here, one evening, that they met the man who was to change their fortunes. Brian Epstein was a part time music writer and owned a local record store. After several meetings, the band appointed him their manager, a post he held until his death at the age of 32 in August 1967. Epstein was instrumental in persuading George Martin at EMI to sign the band to a record deal in early 1962.
In June 1962, the band went into the studio for the first time to the famous Abbey Road Studios in London to record their first album and single. Upon Martin’s recommendation, Ringo Starr replaced Best as a drummer and the “fab four” was born.
Their first single was “Love Me Do” and was released in October 1962, reaching number 17 in the UK singles chart. It was swiftly followed by “Please Please Me” which fared much better, reaching number two on the charts the following January. Lennon and McCartney, a partnership that endured over the remainder of the decade and turned them into song writing legends, together wrote most of the band’s records.
In March 1963, the album “Please Please Me” was released and immediately stormed the charts. The third single from the album, “From Me to You” also hit the top spot marking a run of 17 number one singles over the next seven years. “She Loves You” which was the fourth single from the album sold over a million copies. Funnily enough, its reign as the biggest selling single in UK record history was broken in 1978 by Paul McCartney’s song “Mull of Kintyre”.
The band played on the success of the album and singles by going on the road and toured the UK three times during the remainder of the year. Their follow up album was released towards the end 1963. “With The Beatles” became only the second album in UK history to sell over a million copies and gave us the hit “I Want to Hold Your Hand”.
At this stage, however, their popularity had not spread across the Atlantic as Capitol Records, the EMI group in America, turned down the option to release either of the band’s albums. However, they quickly changed tactic after news broadcast in the country showed the first film clip of “Beatlemania” which triggered huge interest in the band. In late January 1964, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was released in the USA and immediately sold over 2.5 million copies. The band embarked on a US marketing initiative, appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” to an estimated nationwide audience of 74 million viewers. Their other singles were immediately released in the States and at the beginning of April The Beatles occupied the top five singles places on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.
In spring 1964, they found time to appear in their first film venture. “A Hard Day’s Night” was a mock-documentary that saw the four-piece play themselves to comic effect. The film was released in late summer along with an accompanying soundtrack album. Shortly afterwards, the band went back into the studio to record their fourth album, “Beatles for Sale”.
The foursome’s next venture into films occurred the following year when they released “Help!” which generated the hit single of the same name plus “Ticket to Ride” and the classic “Yesterday”. The band topped off a busy summer by returning to New York to perform in front of 56,000 fans at Shea Stadium.
By now the band were releasing an album a year. “Rubber Soul” came out in December 1965 followed by “Revolver” nine months later in August 1966. Later that month the band appeared at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in what was to become their last commercial concert.
Earlier in 1966, the group had come under fire in the press for comments made by John Lennon, which he believes were taken out of context. His comments, however, would go down in music legend with the singer/songwriter claiming that The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus”. The resulting controversy saw the band’s songs banned in a number of countries including South Africa.
December 1966 saw the band return to the studio to record one of their most critically acclaimed albums, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. The album was experimental in many ways including the use of orchestras and the complexity of its recording only using four-track equipment. Hit singles from the album include stalwarts such as the double A-side single, “Strawberry Fields Forever / Penny Lane” and “A Day in the Life”. Twenty-five years after its release, Rolling Stone magazine named the album as simply the “Greatest Albums of All Time” on its listing of the top 500 albums.
The death of Epstein later that year (1966) left the group depressed and disoriented as they had lost their guiding light, mentor and friend. At the end of the year, they released an EP called the “Magical Mystery Tour” which accompanied a Beatles TV film. Unfortunately, it failed to win the critics over and dismissed by some as rubbish and a waste of time.
Their next proper album was released in November 1968. The “White Album” was unusual in that the cover of the album featured virtually nothing, an unusual and controversial move but one that paid off for the group. Pre-sales figures for the record topped two million. In the US alone it sold four million copies within four weeks. The “White Album” was also the first album to be released on the group’s own record label, Apple Records.
However, whilst commercially the band was going from strength to strength, the atmosphere within the group was deteriorating. By now, Lennon had met and fallen in love with Yoko Ono, a woman who to this day many fans believe split up the group and as a result, he spent less and less time collaborating with McCartney on song writing. The partnership was ending; although it was two further years before the band finally broke up. Within that time, they released three further albums.
“Yellow Submarine” came out in January 1969 and did not set the charts alight. “Abbey Road” came out later the same year and gave us the classic record “Something”. The album stayed at the top of the UK album chart for three months even though it received mixed reviews from the critics. By this time, Lennon had not only released his first solo recording, “Give Peace a Chance” but had also announced his departure from the band, although this wasn’t made public for some time.
The group’s final album was “Let It Be” and most of it was recorded before “Abbey Road” was released. However, the recording experience was miserable and hugely tense for the four members of the group. By the time the album was ready to be mixed and released, the group was no longer together. The American record producer Phil Spector was drafted in to make sense of the session tapes and to craft a final album for the band. It did not find favour with McCartney who criticised Spector’s production of the album, in particular his handling of what turned out to be the band’s final single, “The Long and Winding Road”. In April 1970, McCartney announced to the public that he was leaving the band. The Beatles were no more.
All four members of the group continued to produce records over the next decades, some to good, and others to not so good reaction and sales. In December 1980, the world was shocked when John Lennon was shot and killed outside his apartment building in New York. In 2001, George Harrison died of lung cancer at the age of 57 but the legacy of The Beatles lives on.
Little did the schoolboys know when they first picked up their instruments in the late 1950s that they were to become the biggest band in the world selling millions upon millions of records. The writing partnership of Lennon and McCartney generated some of the best known and best loved lyrics in music, and whether you are 14 or 94, everybody knows the words to at least one Beatles song.