The Beatles were an English rock quartet that was active throughout the 1960s. Establishing their classic lineup in Liverpool in late-1962, the band were among the first to liberate rock from its 12-bar, 1-4-5 blues base and open the music to an infinite array of chord sequences and melodic possibilities. In doing so, they sparked a wave of like-minded bands throughout the UK, many of whom followed the band across the Atlantic as the Fab Four — as the press dubbed the Liverpudlian foursome — spearheaded the British Invasion of 1964/65.
The Beatles were among the first acts to legislate the principles of the self-contained rock unit in which the members play their own instruments and write their own material. The band’s strength on that latter front — coupled with a global touring itinerary that exposed them to a vast array of musical influences — facilitated their idiomatic expansionism as the decade advanced.
Ultimately, The Beatles conceived new methods of composition and instrumentation in tandem with their producer, George Martin. These innovations — combined with a worldwide profile that allowed them to function as a conduit through which new musical developments could gain mass exposure — cast them as leaders in rock’s development from an idiom of static foundationalism to one of infinite musical potential and cross-generational sustenance.
Members: John Lennon (guitar, vocals, bass, keyboards, harmonica), Paul McCartney (bass, vocals, guitar, keyboards, drums, percussion), George Harrison (guitar, vocals, sitar, keyboards, bass), Stuart Sutcliffe (bass, 1960-61), Pete Best (drums, 1960-62), Ringo Starr (drums, percussion, vocals, keyboards, 1962-70)
The Beatles evolved from skiffle group The Quarrymen, formed in 1957 Liverpool by sixteen-year-old guitarist John Lennon and several friends from Quarry Bank High School. Paul McCartney, then fifteen, became the band’s rhythm guitarist that summer. As the year advanced, Lennon and McCartney began their songwriting partnership and moved the band from skiffle to rock. Lennon switched from banjo to rhythm guitar while McCartney struggled as the band’s soloist.
In February 1958, Lennon hired McCartney’s schoolmate George Harrison as lead guitarist. The 15-year-old won his spot in The Quarrymen with an impromptu rendition of the rock instrumental “Raunchy” by Bill Justis. Another McCartney cohort, John Duff Lowe, became the band’s pianist. That July, the lineup of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Lowe, and drummer Colin Hanton cut an acetate of the McCartney original “In Spite of All the Danger,” backed with a cover of Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day.” The sole 78rpm copy landed in the possession of Lowe, who sold it to McCartney for an undisclosed sum in 1981.
By late 1958, the band was down to the trio of Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison. They briefly gigged as Johnny and the Moondogs and Japage 3 before running aground in the spring of 1959. Lennon and McCartney continued their songwriting partnership while Harrison did a stint in the Les Stewart Quartet with guitarist Ken Brown. That August, the three regrouped with Brown in tow as the Quarrymen. This four-guitar lineup took a residency at Mona Best’s Casbah Coffee Club.
In January 1960, Brown bowed out due to illness. Lennon persuaded his art school friend Stu Sutcliffe to purchase a bass and join the band. They entered Phillips’ Sound Recording Services to cut a now-lost version of Lennon’s “One After 909.” They also taped a jam at McCartney’s home, where they cut his instrumental “Cayenne.”
Weary of the Quarrymen name, Sutcliffe suggested they call themselves The Beatals. They used this name until May, when they became The Silver Beetles, changed shortly thereafter to The Silver Beatles. That August, they shortened their name to The Beatles.
With a Hamburg residency arranged for the band by acting manager Allan Williams, The Beatles hired drummer Pete Best (Mona’s son) in August 1960. They played all-nighters at two red-light area clubs, the Indra and Kaiserkeller, until the November deportations of Harrison (for lying about his age), followed by McCartney and Best (for a condom-fire prank). When Lennon returned to Liverpool that September, Sutcliffe stayed behind to be with his German fiancée, photographer Astrid Kirchherr, who took the first professional photos of the band.
When The Beatles returned to Hamburg in early 1961, Sutcliffe had his hair fashioned in a pixie style that was soon adopted by the other members (except Best). He soon left the band to focus on his art studies, prompting Paul to switch to bass. Sutcliffe would ultimately die of a brain haemorrhage on April 10, 1962.
For the next two years, The Beatles alternated between residencies in Hamburg and Liverpool. In June 1961, the now-four-piece band were linked in Hamburg with English rock singer Tony Sheridan. This union produced the single “My Bonnie” (b/w “The Saints”), credited to Tony Sheridan & The Beat Brothers and issued that October on German Polydor. The following month, after a concert at Liverpool’s Cavern Club, the band encountered local record-store owner Brian Epstein, who became their manager.
By 1962, The Beatles were one of the most popular bands on Liverpool’s growing Merseybeat scene, which also included The Searches, Gerry & the Pacemakers, and Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas. Though rejected that January by Decca, which favored Londoners The Tremeloes, they were signed that April to Parlophone, a division of EMI.
After the signing, The Beatles held their first sessions at Abbey Road Studios in June 1962 with producer George Martin, who complained about the drumming. That August, they replaced Best with drummer Richard Starkey (aka Ringo Star) of fellow Merseyside act Rory Storm & the Hurricanes. Early the following month, they held another session that yielded their first single, “Love Me Do” (b/w “P.S. I Love You”), released October 5, 1962 (UK #17). In November, they cut the harmonica-driven “Please Please Me,” released as a single on January 11, 1963 (b/w “Ask Me Why”). It topped the UK charts and catapulted The Beatles to homeland superstardom.
- Please Please Me (1963)
- With the Beatles (1963)
- A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
- Beatles for Sale (1964)
- Help! (1965)
- Rubber Soul (1965)
- Revolver (1966)
- Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
- Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
- The Beatles (aka “The White Album”, 1968)
- Yellow Submarine (1969)
- Abbey Road (1969)
- Let It Be (1970)
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