The Beatles were active throughout the sixties before breaking up in 1970.
They were just kids in Liverpool when they started playing together in the late fifties. Those Merseyside boys honed their craft in Hamburg, entertained tens of millions in the United States, and took the world by storm.
Even though they broke up over fifty years ago, the Beatles remain the best-selling musicians of all time.
In the Beginning
Paul McCartney and John Lennon were only fifteen and sixteen years old when they first met. Lennon was in a band called the Quarrymen, and McCartney was brought in by another band member. George Harrison, also fifteen, joined the group soon after.
Over the next few years, the group tried on different names: Johnny and the Moon Dogs, The Silver Beetles, and The Silver Beats. By 1960, they had settled on the Beatles. They went through a few different drummers before Ringo Starr joined them in 1962.
The Beatles performed in Hamburg in 1960 with Pete Best as their drummer. Harrison was deported in November for lying to German authorities about his age. Just a week later, McCartney and Best were deported as well.
They returned to Hamburg the following year and returned to increased popularity in Liverpool. When they returned home to England, they were discovered by fellow Liverpool native Brian Epstein. The group signed him as their manager in early 1962.
The Fifth Beatle
“If anyone was the fifth Beatle,” McCartney once said, “it was Brian.”
Epstein set his sights on the world stage and cleaned up their image, swapping grungy clothes out for suits. He urged them to act more professionally as well. There would be no more eating on stage, no more smoking or swearing during their performances.
Those ragtag Liverpool kids were growing up and headed for bigger things.
Within six months, their new manager landed the group their first recording contract. They recorded at EMI Studios on Abbey Road for the first time in June 1962.
The first four songs to be recorded were “Besame Mucho,” “Ask Me Why,” “PS I Love You,” and the iconic “Love Me Do.”
These first four songs were produced by George Martin, who felt that Pete Best was not up to par. The other band members agreed. That summer, they replaced Best with local drummer Richard Starkey, who had already started going by the name Ringo Starr.
With the help of their new manager, the Beatles were soon playing to bigger crowds at better venues than they ever had before.
In 1963, their album “Please Please Me” hit number one on the United Kingdom charts, and Epstein booked the group a spot on the Ed Sullivan Show in the United States.
“Please Please Me” was the first of eleven consecutive albums released in the United Kingdom to reach the top spot on the charts. Their fourth single, “She Loves You”, was their first single to sell over one million copies.
The Beatles toured the United Kingdom four times in 1963, and over fifteen million viewers watched them perform live in the show Sunday Night at the London Palladium. They left for a few days to perform in Sweden, and hundreds of screaming fans greeted them at the airport when they returned.
When they left for America, approximately four thousand fans went to Heathrow Airport just to see them off. And when they landed in New York, thousands more were waiting to greet them.
The Beatles arrived in the United States in February 1964 and performed on the Ed Sullivan Show two days later for 73 million viewers – over one-third of the population of the United States at that time. No television program in the country had ever drawn an audience of that size before.
Around the World
In June and July of 1964, the Beatles toured Australia, Denmark, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, and New Zealand. They played 37 shows in 27 days.
After that, they returned to the United States and performed in 23 cities. Over ten thousand fans flocked to see each of their 30 half-hour concerts.
It was during this tour that they met the popular folk singer Bob Dylan. After this meeting, both Dylan and the Beatles began to incorporate elements of the other artists’ style into their own music. It was a gradual melding of folk music with rock and roll.
Touring the United States in 1964, the Beatles came up against local segregation policies. When they learned that the audience of their Florida concert had been forcibly segregated, they refused to play until the audience was allowed to integrate.
“We never play to segregated audiences and we aren’t going to start now,” Lennon said. “I’d sooner lose our appearance money.”
At a dinner party in early 1965, Lennon and Harrison were dosed with LSD when an acquaintance secretly added the drug to their coffee. They began to use psychedelics regularly, sometimes joined by Starr and eventually McCartney as well. This influenced their music, resulting in songs such as “I Am The Walrus” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”.
In June 1965, Queen Elizabeth II appointed the four bandmates to the Order of the British Empire.
They continued to write new songs, releasing some of their best work in the albums Rubber Soul and Revolver. And they continued to tour, visiting far-flung locations such as the Philippines and India.
During the mid-sixties, they also launched their second movie and an animated show.
The group became increasingly frustrated with live performances as their screaming fans began to drown out the music. Many of their newer songs such as “Eleanor Rigby” required additional musicians, and the band felt that they couldn’t do justice to them on their own.
By this point the group had been touring virtually nonstop for four years, performing over 1,400 concerts around the world. They played their last commercial concert in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in August 1966.
After their final concert, the Beatles retired from touring to focus on recording albums.
In November of 1966, the Beatles settled into the studio to record Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The songs that they recorded became increasingly complex, requiring as many as forty additional musicians at one time.
They released “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane” in February of 1967 and then released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in May of that same year.
They didn’t stop there. Also in 1967, the Beatles made the films Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine. They produced their single “All You Need Is Love”.
Things came crashing down with the sudden death of their manager, Brian Epstein. The Beatles were in shock, and they grieved the loss of their friend deeply.
“We collapsed,” when word reached the group of Epstein’s death, Lennon said. “I knew that we were in trouble then. I didn’t really have any misconceptions about our ability to do anything other than play music, and I was scared.”
Losing Their Rudder
Over the years, Brian Epstein struggled with addiction. During the Beatles’ intense touring years of the mid-sixties, Epstein took stimulants to compensate for his fatigue and developed an addiction to sedatives.
He died suddenly in 1967, when he was only 32 years old, due to an overdose of sleeping pills mixed with alcohol. For each of the men whose career he had managed for the past five years, it was a devastating loss.
In many ways, Epstein’s death was the beginning of the end for this iconic quartet.
“The Beatles have been in the doldrums for at least a year,” Harrison said after the death of their manager. “Ever since Mr. Epstein passed away, it’s never been the same.”
Without their manager to steer them, the band began to struggle. McCartney struggled to keep his bandmates together by stepping into Epstein’s shoes, but they resented what they viewed as his overcontrolling micromanagement.
“After Brian died,” Lennon said in a Rolling Stone interview, “we collapsed. Paul took over and supposedly led us. But what is leading us, when we went round in circles? We broke up then. That was the disintegration.”
They disbanded less than three years after Epstein’s death.
By early 1969, the group was fractured and squabbling. Peter Jackson’s seven-hour documentary Get Back uses video and audio recordings from that period to show the gradual disintegration of the group that had been playing together for nearly a decade.
Many of the band’s issues stemmed from McCartney’s efforts to steer them, which his bandmates began to resent. McCartney wrote most of the songs, pressured the others to keep to a schedule, and scolded Lennon for not writing more.
“We got fed up of being sidemen for Paul,” Lennon said after the band split.
There was tension between Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison over creative freedom. For years, Lennon and McCartney wrote the vast majority of their songs. By 1969, Harrison was ready to come into his own. But when he brought original songs to the table, the established duo of songwriters was dismissive of his contributions.
Adding to this tension was what Harrison felt was excessive direction towards him on the part of McCartney. Harrison felt that he was being bossy and overbearing, and he began to lash out. He went so far as to walk out, saying, “I think I’ll be leaving the band now… Get a replacement.”
He eventually returned, after much cajoling, but continued to feel driven to record his own songs separately from his bandmates. Lennon encouraged him, and Harrison’s resulting song “All Things Must Pass” is an enduring hit.
Even during that last difficult year, the talented musicians continued to record some of their best songs, including “Let It Be,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” and “The Long And Winding Road.”
The group continued to argue over who would manage them, which eventually led to McCartney disbanding the group in December of 1970. He had alluded to his intentions to leave earlier that year, when he released his first solo album.
Lennon had performed a solo track that year as well, in addition to performing with his Plastic Ono band, but it was McCartney who leveraged the disintegration of their band to launch his solo career.
Both Lennon and Harrison had told McCartney earlier that year that they planned to leave the band, and he discouraged them from saying anything to the public – only to turn around a few months later and make the announcement himself, as part of the press release for his album.
“We were all hurt he didn’t tell us what he was going to do,” Lennon said in an interview with Rolling Stone. “Jesus Christ! He gets all the credit for it! I was a fool not to do what Paul did, which was use it to sell a record…”
Despite his frustration with how McCartney handled things, Lennon’s overall commentary on the disbanding of the Beatles was at once fatalistic and peaceful. After years of Beatlemania, he and his bandmates finally stopped buying into the Beatles myth and “remembered that they were four individuals.”
Tabloids tried to pin the end of an era on Lennon’s wife, Yoko Ono.
Lennon didn’t help things when he told Rolling Stone, “I had to either be married to them or Yoko, and I chose Yoko.” They had just gotten married in 1969, and she was often present in the recording studio that year.
While Lennon’s marriage coincided with he and McCartney drifting apart, none of the band members blamed Ono for the group’s gradual disintegration.
The End of an Era
In the end, it’s unsurprising that a group of musicians who began playing together as teenage boys in Liverpool eventually went their separate ways.
They had traveled around the world, evolved as people, and pushed the boundaries of what they could do together. Eventually, they felt too constrained by old patterns and differing visions to continue as they had been.
They each continued to pursue their own music careers after separating, and they left an enduring legacy of over two hundred songs.