THE BEATLES Biography - Other artists & entretainers


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The Beatles is irrepressible and irresistible, they were - and remain - the world’s most astonishing rock-’n'-roll band Boomers can be tiresome when they natter on too long about the fun-swollen fabulousness of the 1960s. I mean, I was there: “Flower power"? Patchouli oil? Peter Max posters? Please. But even the mistiest of such geezers is likely to be right about the rock and soul music of that decade: Who could overstate its distinctive exuberance, its heady inventiveness, or the thrill of its sheer abundance? And who could overcelebrate those most emblematic of ’60s pop phenomena, the Beatles? For the Beatles were then, and remain to this day, the world’s most astonishing rock-’n'-roll band.


I use the adjective advisedly. Unrelenting astonishment is what I clearly recall feeling, as a teenager myself back in the winter of 1964, when “Beatlemania,” an obscure hysteria that had erupted in Britain the year before, suddenly jumped the Atlantic and took instant root here. First, in January, came the spine-tingling arrival of I Want to Hold Your Hand - a great, convulsive rock-’n'-roll record that, to the bafflement of many a teen garage band across the land, actually had more than three chords (five more, to be exact - incredible). Then one week later, She Loves You careened onto the charts - wooo! The week after that came the headlong rush of Please Please Me, and by April, the top five singles in the country were all Beatles records. By year’s-end they had logged a head-spinning 29 hits on the U.S. charts. It is hard - no, it is impossible - to imagine any of the gazillion or so carefully marketed little bands of today replicating a quarter of that feat. (Even a contemporary English group such as Oasis, which baldly appropriates the superficialities of the Beatles’ style, entirely misses the still-magical heart of their music.)


Ed Sullivan, the poker-faced TV variety-show host, having spotted the effervescent moptops in mid-mob scene at London’s Heathrow Airport the previous October ("Who the hell are the Beatles?” he’d asked excitedly), brought them over to play his show early on, in February 1964, and 70 million people tuned in. A congratulatory telegram from Elvis Presley, the great, lost god of rockabilly, was read at the beginning of the show, in what might have been seen as torch-passing fashion, and Americans - or American youth, at any rate - promptly fell in love. ("I give them a year,” said Sullivan’s musical director.)


It is a commonplace of pop-music commentary to point out that at the time of the Beatles’ first appearance on the Sullivan show, the U.S. was a country uniquely in need of some cheering up. The assassination of a young and charismatic President little more than two months earlier had cast a pall on the national mood; and of course there were rumors of war. Certainly the moment was propitious for the four lads from Liverpool.


Looking back, though, it seems likely that the Beatles - with their buoyant spirits, their bottomless charm, their unaccustomed and irrepressible wit - could probably have boosted the mirth quotient at a clown convention. Their overflowing gifts for songcraft, harmony and instrumental excitement, their spiffy suits and nifty haircuts, their bright quips and ready smiles, made them appear almost otherworldly, as if they had just beamed down from some distant and far happier planet.


Actually, of course, they hailed from Liverpool, a semi-grim seaport on the northwestern coast of England. John Lennon, born there in 1940, never knew the seagoing father who had deserted his mother; mainly a doting aunt raised the boy. He grew up arty and angry - and musical, it turned out, after his mother bought him the traditional cheap kid guitar (the label inside said guaranteed not to split), and he quickly worked out the chords to the Buddy Holly hit That’ll Be the Day. Paul McCartney, born in 1942 and destined to become Lennon’s songwriting soul mate, seemed a sunnier type: well mannered, level-headed, all that. But he had weathered trauma of his own, losing his mother to breast cancer in his early teens. McCartney encountered Lennon in the logical way, given the times and the two boys’ musical interests: on the skiffle scene.


Skiffle music - a sort of jug-band clatter ideally suited to inexpensive and homemade instruments - was all the rage, and in 1957 Lennon formed a band called the Quarrymen. By the following year, the group had been joined by McCartney and his school friend George Harrison, then just 14. In 1960, calling themselves the Silver Beatles, and with drummer Pete Best in tow, they sailed to Germany to play the riotous red-light-district bars of Hamburg, drink Herculean quantities of beer and gulp down handfuls of illicitly energizing pills to keep them stage ready seven nights a week. In 1962 Best was replaced by another Liverpool drummer, basset-eyed Ringo Starr (born Richard Starkey in 1940). After passing an audition that their manager, Brian Epstein, had arranged with EMI’s Parlophone label, the group cut its first single, Love Me Do, a moderate hit. In January 1963 a second single, Please Please Me, went to No. 1, and Beatlemania was born.


It is commonly thought that by the time the Beatles arrived in the U.S., rock-’n'-roll music, an uproarious sound forged by such pioneers as Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Elvis Presley, had all but died out, leaving the charts littered with such unconvincing rock-lite commodities as Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell and Chubby Checker. This is not entirely true. Although Presley had been drafted into the army in 1958 (and was never quite the same after he got out), and Buddy Holly had been killed in a plane crash in 1959, and Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis were all otherwise sidelined, there was no gaping lack of good music around. In 1963 - the year before the Beatles broke Stateside - the charts were filled with great records by the Drifters, the Beach Boys, Roy Orbison, Sam Cooke, Motown’s Miracles and Martha and the Vandellas, and celebrated Phil Spector girl groups such as the Crystals and the Ronettes.


What set the Beatles apart, amid all those fabled acts, was their dazzling interpersonal chemistry (showcased to irresistible effect in the 1964 feature film A Hard Day’s Night, which critic Andrew Sarris called “the Citizen Kane of jukebox movies"), their novel sound (produced on offbeat - to most Americans - Gretsch, Rickenbacker and Hofner guitars and cranked out through snarly little Vox amplifiers brought over from England) and of course their awesome facility for making ravishing hit records.


By 1965 even the non-fab world had been forced to take notice of this all-conquering cultural force. The Beatles had become such a huge British export that they were given a royal award: the Member of the Order of the British Empire, or M.B.E. (They took this about as seriously as anyone might have expected, all four of them firing up a joint in a Buckingham Palace washroom before the ceremony, and Ringo commenting on his M.B.E., “I’ll keep it to dust when I’m old.") Having scored a breakthrough with their chart-topping 1965 album Rubber Soul - the record whose elegant lyrics and luminous melodies lifted them forever out of the world of simple teen idols and into the realm of art - the Beatles, exhausted, decided to stop touring. After a final concert in San Francisco in 1966, they would come together again as a group only in recording studios. But there they spun out ever more elaborate masterpieces: the tripped-out psychedelic special Revolver in 1966; the breathtaking (at the time) concept epic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967; the strangely alienated, every-man-for-himself White Album (officially called The Beatles) in 1968; and the gorgeous Abbey Road in ‘69.


For millions of fans worldwide, these albums mapped a path through the puzzling and sometimes scary ’60s. The paths of Lennon and McCartney, however, were diverging drastically. Each took a wife (John married Japanese avant-garde artist Yoko Ono, and Paul wed American rock photographer Linda Eastman) and drifted even farther apart, Lennon growing bitter, McCartney adopting the air of the contented family man.


By 1969 Lennon was ready to quit the group. McCartney is said to have talked him out of going public with this desire; but then in April 1970 McCartney himself announced that the group was disbanding. In December he filed suit to have the partnership dissolved and a receiver appointed to handle its affairs. When the other three Beatles dropped their appeal of this action in 1971, the most fabulously successful band of all time (with more than 100 million records sold to date) came to an end.


And so it was over. McCartney began making records with his wife in a new band. Harrison followed his Indo-mystical inclinations as far as he could until fans lost interest. Ringo made occasional records, movies and television commercials. And Lennon moved to New York City, where he had always wanted to be, and ironically became that most English of figures, the reclusive eccentric. He was shot down in 1980, and the Beatles were nevermore. Except for their music, which is eternal.


Kurt Loder, a former editor at Rolling Stone magazine, is the anchorman for MTV News