At the start of the 1960s, there was a thriving ‘popular’ or commercial music scene in the USA and a fast-growing one in the UK. The explosion of Jazz and Blues music in America in the first half of the 20th century had showed little sign of diminishing, and in a post-war culture hungry for entertainment and fun, people with money to spend liked nothing more than going out dancing or listening to the radio. The development of radio, recorded sound and, ultimately, television, helped spread the music of the big American jazz and blues artists all over the Western world, and as more traditional American country music became infused with jazz and blues, so new styles like rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll became popular in the 1950s.
Rhythm and blues, often called R&B, was primarily an African-American fusion of blues and jazz, with driving rhythms and the fast developing electric guitar. Originating in the 1940s, it became popular in America throughout the 1950s with artists such as Fats Domino, Bo Diddley and Ray Charles, and British bands such as The Rolling Stones and The Who adopted the style in the 1960s.
A more ‘sanitised’ and less ‘earthy’ development of R&B was Rock ‘n’ Roll, which was closer in style to the Country and Western music popular with European-Americans in the mid-west and south of the USA. In the 1950s Rock ‘n’ Roll had its heyday with artists like Bill Haley and the Comets, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and, of course, Elvis Presley all playing their part. The Beatles spent their early years playing cover versions of mainly Rock ‘n’ Roll songs by these artists, and this experience played a big part in the development of their sound in the early 1960s.
The Beatles were one of the most successful and popular groups in Western pop music, comprising John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. John and Paul met as teenagers in 1957 when John was performing in a group called The Quarrymen, and Paul joined the group along with his friend George, changing the name to Johnny and the Moondogs, then The Silver Beetles and finally The Beatles in 1960, when Pete Best joined on drums.
The Beatles made a living playing gigs in Hamburg (which they visited three times between 1960 and 1962) and Liverpool, most famously at the Cavern Club. They largely played covers of Rock ‘n’ Roll songs but John and Paul were also working at their song writing. Bass player Stu Sutcliffe left the band in 1962 and Paul switched from guitar to bass – very sadly, Sutcliffe died suddenly some months later.
It was at the Cavern Club that Brian Epstein discovered the Beatles and convinced them to let him become their manager. He got them to smarten up, cutting their hair and donning suits to perform, and worked to get them a record deal. A large number of record labels rejected them until a producer called George Martin, who worked for EMI Parlophone, agreed to sign them. Martin persuaded the band to replace Pete Best with Ringo Starr.
The Beatles first single, produced by Martin, was Love Me Do, written by Paul and John, and this and their first album Please Please Me were huge successes. The band toured Europe in 1963 and moved to London. By 1964 they were also successful in America and toured there in February of that year, appearing on the Ed Sullivan show (watched by about 70 million) and followed by screaming fans wherever they went. Their song Can’t Buy Me Love was number 1 in the US and UK at the same time and at one time they held all of the top five positions on the US chart.
In 1964 The Beatles made a film called A Hard Day’s Night and followed it with another, Help! – the following year. By mid 1965 they had made five albums with countless hit singles, most written by John or Paul (though both received writing credits for every song either of them wrote) and a few contributed by George. They played in August 1965 at New York’s Shea Stadium, setting a record for the largest crowd at a pop concert, and received MBEs from the Queen.
Rubber Soul and Revolver
In late 1965, on returning from their US tour, The Beatles spent a month in the studio making their sixth album, Rubber Soul, and released it along with a double-A side single of Day Tripper and We Can Work It Out (which did not appear on the album). It was a huge success on both sides of the Atlantic. Containing entirely original material, this was the first album where The Beatles began to experiment a little more with instrumentation and style, and it contained classic songs such as Norwegian Wood (a folk-style song which included Indian sitar) and In My Life. It is well worth listening to one or two of the songs from this album, which in 2012 was rated fifth in Rolling Stone Magazine’s top 500 albums of all time.
The months of April, May and June 1966 were supposed to be set aside for the shooting of a new Beatles film, but when the band decided to pull out of the project, they found themselves unexpectedly free for three months. They went back into Abbey Road studios and set about making their next album, Revolver, which was released in August 1966.
If Rubber Soul was starting to become a little more experimental, Revolver took things much further. Here perhaps for the first time the band saw their new album as a work of art in itself, with its own structure, diversity and stories to tell. Revolver was another huge success, ranked third in Rolling Stone’s top 500, and containing classic songs such as Eleanor Rigby, Good Day Sunshine and Tomorrow Never Knows – probably The Beatles’ first ever psychedelic track. Revolver showed a huge range of influences – the sounds and structures of Indian music, the close harmonies of The Beach Boys, the brass sections of Motown and Soul, string quartets and the band’s experiences from taking the drug LSD. In Tomorrow Never Knows they pushed the boundaries of studio recording techniques, using tape loops, special vocal and guitar effects and even playing things backwards. The stage was definitely set for The Beatles’ next, and most significant album.