“They made such a great impact,” David Bowie once remarked about The Beatles during an interview with MTV in 1995. “They gave the British the illusion that they meant something again, you know, and we love hearing that.”
What was it about The Beatles that led them to create an ever-lasting legacy, forever changing music and culture? American writer, Adam Gopnick, suggests that it’s because The Beatles mirror an era that we still long for.
By 1967, The Beatles had successfully captured the essence of the summer of love in what’s now considered a groundbreaking record, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Before The Beatles took the world by storm, the idea of a British band, or any band for that matter – let alone one from a little old working-class place like Liverpool – seemed like a bizarre and foreign concept. Of course, there was Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Sherley Bassey and others – essentially, the dominant archetype was the solo performer.
The Fab Four would stay together for just about eight years but they succeeded in making some of the most successful music in history. Not only in the commercial realm did they outsell everyone else, but they also helped push popular music to another level. The only other artist who arguably had more if not just as much influence is Bob Dylan.
Consequently, the two inevitably played off each other, pushing one another to make better music. Bob Dylan showed Lennon, McCartney and Harrison how to write better songs, and The Beatles showed Bob Dylan how to incorporate rock ‘n’ roll into his folk repertoire.
Lennon and McCartney met on a fateful summer day in 1957, where Lennon was playing skiffle music with The Quarrymen. McCartney impressed Lennon during one of their set breaks by playing a rock ‘n’ roll standard and it wouldn’t be long until Lennon recruited McCartney. Soon after, McCartney brought his classmate along, George Harrison, and it became clear that there was palpable chemistry among them.
After shuffling through various line-ups involving Lennon’s friend’s Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe, the group eventually recruited Ringo Starr as they were impressed by his resume of touring with other groups. Starr came equipped with the rings and the showmanship and a brilliant celebrity personality – his real name is Richard Starkey and his stage name represented the next level The Beatles were bound for.
The Beatles would go on to make their first appearance with Ringo Starr on August 22nd, 1962. The last time they were photographed together was on August 22nd, 1969. How on earth did they create such memorable music in such a small frame of time?
Below, we delve into some questions surrounding the mystique of the success of the Fab Four – the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band to have ever existed.
Why are The Beatles so popular?
On a very fundamental level, it could be argued The Beatles were so popular simply because their songs sold well, especially their earlier material.
From a perspective of an art historian and critic, one could argue that The Beatles were the natural evolution of rock ‘n’ roll, a lineage that started with Elvis Presley. After Elvis, there were the likes of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, The Marvelettes, The Everly Brothers, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
What is the one thing, besides their artistry, that these artists share in common? They are all American.
The musical and cultural landscape in Britain before The Beatles came around was pretty bleak, to say the least. The Beatles took what American artists were doing and created their own version of it. Dan Akroyd commented on this point, saying: “Up until then, there were jugglers and comedians like Jerry Lewis, and then, suddenly, The Beatles!”
“We were just trying to get better and develop,” McCartney recalled. “That was the force behind the Beatles: We’d do one song, and it’d be a hit, and instead of doing another with the same formula, we’d say, ‘OK, we’ve done that.’ You listen to the Beatles’ output and no two songs are alike.”
From 1964 to 1970, the Fab Four had the top-selling US single one out of every six weeks. Their albums performed even better in the States.
Their best-selling single was ‘She Loves You’ in 1963 and in second and third place were, ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, and ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’, respectfully. An entire list of their number ones can be found here.
The moment that The Beatles truly found themselves ingrained in British society was when they were offered MBEs in 1965 by the British Monarch – a first-ever feat for a British pop act. This truly solidified The Beatles as a formidable cultural force.
How did The Beatles impact culture?
“Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I’ll be proved right,” Lennon famously remarked in the London paper, Evening Standard in 1966. The following remark would simultaneously ‘crucify’ Lennon, so to speak, and also immortalise Lennon as a cultural force.
He added: “We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first – rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”
To say the least, Lennon’s remark was not taken lightly in the Bible belt in the Southern region of the United States. American radio stations subsequently banned The Beatles and mass gatherings took place where Beatles records and memorabilia were thrown into a smouldering pile.
The saying goes, bad publicity is better than no publicity. Beatles manager, Brian Epstein, comically but truthfully remarked, “Arthur, if they burn Beatles records, they’ve got to buy them first,” speaking to Arthur Unger.
Lennon would later have to apologise, saying, “I suppose if I had said television was more popular than Jesus, I would have got away with it. I’m sorry I opened my mouth. I’m not anti-God, anti-Christ, or anti-religion. I was not knocking it. I was not saying we are greater or better.”
Like many of the bands from the 1960s, The Beatles were part of a counter-cultural revolution, or so it seemed at the time; this was a time when the youth fought for liberation. They did this through self-expression, growing their hair and practising free love. This was in direct opposition to violence, hatred and war which found its tangible form in protest against the Vietnam war. The Beatles were associated with the hippie-counter culture due to their call for peace and love.
Men began growing their hair out and openly experimenting with mind-altering drugs. Music festivals such as Woodstock in 1969 yielded peaceful gatherings of men, women and children, who celebrated nature in the nude.
The so-called climax of this movement is said to have been in 1967, what is now called the ‘Summer of Love’. This phenomenon found its ultimate representation through The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Psychedelia was married with transcendental meditation through the Maharishi who the fab four studied underneath.
The secret to their success was their ability to walk the line between commerciality and artistic integrity. It seemed like they kept their own agenda and were not swayed too much by outside forces. They kept their finger on the pulse and led trends into the next.
The Beatlemania craze and the success that The Beatles achieved left plenty of managers and A&R people at the time hungry to follow in their footsteps and get a piece of the action. As a result, other British bands were modelled after The Beatles.
The Fab Four led the British Invasion of the States. Bands such as The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Kinks, The Monkees were all, more or less, modelled after The Beatles.
The Beatles’ most notable rivals were the Rolling Stones who were managed by Andrew Loog Oldham in the early days. Oldham apprenticed with Brian Epstein for a time, so when he got a hold of the Stones, his idea was to create the ‘bad-boy’ version of the Liverpool lads.
When did The Beatles become huge?
The day when things truly changed for the Fab Four was when they played The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9th, 1964. Many consider this the most influential live concert in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. Any kid who was watching at the time went on to become a musician, successful or not.
Approximately 73 million people were tuned in. “A lot of fathers did turn it off, but a lot of mothers and children made them keep it on. All these kids are now grown-up, and telling us they remember it. It’s like, ‘Where were you when Kennedy was shot?'” McCartney once remarked.
He added, “I get people like Dan Aykroyd saying, ‘Oh man, I remember that Sunday night; we didn’t know what had hit us – just sitting there watching Ed Sullivan’s show.”
The list of other musicians who were indelibly influenced is a long one. Among them are the likes of Tom Petty who recalled saying: “I didn’t know him, he didn’t know me, and I thought to myself, ‘This means something.’ The Beatles came out and just flattened me. To hear them on the radio was amazing enough, but to finally see them play, it was electrifying.”
The world changed forever once they did the show, and their influence will carry on to impact new generations of aspiring musicians.