The Beatles... fifty years after
On October 5, 1962, exactly fifty years ago, four young men recorded a single the words and music of which they had composed themselves, which rose to No. 17 on the Record Retailer chart. The leader of the group, all boys from Liverpool, was, at the age of 16, part of a group called The Quarrymen (named after their school, the Quarry Bank school). The Quarrymen performed skiffle, a type of music said to originate among the American blacks which was a combination of jazz, blues and folk, often using homemade or improvised instruments. A fifteen year old left-handed rhythm guitarist joined The Quarrymen in 1957, introducing, soon after, to the leader, a fourteen year-old guitarist, initially not accepted by the band because he was too young. But persistence paid off, and, some months later, he was in. By 1959, the original members of The Quarrymen left, all save the teenager who along with his two younger friends played rock and roll when they could find a drummer. They called themselves Johnny and the Moondogs. The leader was enrolled in Liverpool College of Art, and it was one of his artist friends, Stu Sutcliffe, who suggested that the band call itself a name that would pay tribute to Buddy Holly and the Crickets. He suggested the name The Beatles.
The rest was not quite history. The lack of a full-time drummer was a problem. The first regular drummer was a young man called Pete Best. The band, then five including Best and Sutcliffe, got a booking in Hamburg, Germany, arranged by their unofficial manager, Allan Williams. The three and a half month stint in Hamburg proved never to have a dull moment. George Harrison, the baby of the band, was deported because he was underage (he had lied to the German authorities about his age). Paul McCartney, who had introduced Harrison to the group, set fire to a tapestry in his room with the help of Best and both were arrested and then deported. John Lennon, the leader of the group, returned to the UK soon after. Despite these misadventures, the group worked sporadically in Hamburg for the next two years. Back in the UK they played to their home crowd in Liverpool and in Merseyside. One night, a record store owner and music columnist heard them in Cavern Club, a local Liverpool club. That man was Brian Epstein. And yes, the rest is history.
It was Epstein who was immediately struck by the enormous freshness and joyousness of their sound. The fact that they composed all their own music and lyrics was an added bonus. It was rare if not unheard of in those days for members of a pop group to write their own songs. It was Epstein who told them to clean up their act-to stop wearing jeans, to stop eating and smoking and swearing on stage-without damaging their individuality and effervescence. Epstein was appointed manager in January 1962 by which time the band had suffered its first tragedy: the sudden death of Sutcliffe from a brain haemorrhage. It was Epstein who got them their first recording contract. When Epstein approached Decca Records he was famously told, "Guitar groups are on their way out." EMI's Parlophone label ultimately signed the group and the first recording was held in Abbey Studios in June 1962. EMI's George Martin immediately complained about the drummer, Pete Best; in mid-August, Ringo Starr, earlier with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, replaced Best. "Love Me Do" was the first single to be recorded, and it rose to No. 17 on the charts. Why didn't it shoot to No.1, as would so many of the group's later singles? Because the people of Liverpool wanted to hang on to these youngsters and not lose them to London, opines Liverpudlian Sam Leech who says he was the first promoter of the Beatles.
That was of course not to be. The Fab Four (a shortened version of the band's press officer Tony Barrow's description of them as the fabulous foursome) conquered not just Liverpool and London but the world of popular music in the '60s and '70s. Their appeal was not just to teenagers, particularly teenaged girls, who screamed themselves hoarse at every concert. I remember twisting to their "I want to hold your hand" as it blared on the BBC programme Top of the Pops as a five year old in Edinburgh-and twisting along with me was my father's thirty-plus friend and colleague preparing for his Master of the Royal College of Surgeons examination! Their music appealed to all ages and their cuteness quotient-every girl I knew had her favourite Beatle and secretly wanted to be married to him (that was a more innocent time)-their cuteness belied their genius for music.
Look at the way in which the group perpetually evolved. From the simple but catchy harmonics of a "I love you yeah yeah yeah" to the more complicated arrangements of "Help!" and "Ticket to Ride" to the world music sound of the songs on Rubber Soul: "Girl," "In my life," "Nowhere man." By this time the Beatles were habitual users of marijuana and the next two albums, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band with memorable numbers such as "Paperback Writer," "Eleanor Rigby" and "Strawberry Fields Forever," made no bones about the band's drug use. The White Album was produced after the group's stay at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's ashram in Rishikesh where they learned transcendental meditation.It contains singles like "Hey Jude" and "While my guitar gently weeps." Along with ceaseless experiments with sound (Help! experimented with instruments used for classical music, flutes and strings, "Norwegian wood" used the sitar, Revolver used psychedelic rock, while in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band primitive oscillators varied the speed of instruments, vocal tapes were chopped up and haphazardly strung together, a 40-piece orchestra played for "A day in the life") the Beatles lyrics became increasingly sophisticated and interiorized. The Lennon-McCartney duo would graduate from "She loves you yeah yeah yeah" to "Eleanor Rigby" (All the lonely people,) "Nowhere man" and "Let it be" in the space of five years, 1963 to 1968!
As Malcolm Jones rightly puts it, the Beatles became pop icons because they threw formula out of the window. Despite the enormous popularity of their initial, unclouded style of singing, they refused to stay put. They grew and changed constantly, imbibing like cultural blotting paper all the emerging fashions of the times, and setting quite a few trends themselves, be it in ideology or hairstyles! Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band introduced the world to psychedelic pop, Ravi Shankar's tutelage of Harrison led to the use of the sitar in "Norwegian Wood," the deceptively simple "All you need is love" became an anthem for the youth, embittered by the senseless Vietnam war. The simple yet emphatic lyrics carry a resonance even today. Classical music and string quartets, harpsichords and trumpets joined the guitars, drums and harmonica, to create a layered sound enormously sophisticated for a pop group. And they never took themselves too seriously--as exemplified in the brilliant mock-documentary directed by Richard Lester, A Hard Day's Night (1964) and, to a certain extent, in the next film, Help! (1965), a spoof of James Bond movies. Even when John Lennon proclaimed, in 1966, that they were more popular than Jesus and produced an outcry in the Bible belt of the US leading to a ban of the Beatles by the Vatican promptly followed by Spanish, Dutch and South African radio stations, the Beatle nonchalantly remarked, "If I'd said television was more popular than Jesus, I might have got away with it."
Awards and honours (and they got many) do not define The Beatles. Their sound was the defining sound of a generation. Their music is here to stay, fifty years after they recorded their first single.
More about Shormishtha Panja
Shormishtha Panja teaches at the University of Delhi. She writes books on critical theory, gender studies and visual culture. She loves being a mom and enjoys travelling to new countries. She is borderline obsessive about food and Renaissance art and guards her collection of children’s fiction fiercely.
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