British Invasion I: The Beatles

No other Rock and Roll band has achieved the stature accorded the Beatles. They remain the most celebrated act in the music’s history. Their recordings, their performances, their songwriting, their singing: taken together, the band’s output is widely considered unmatched in the history of popular music. How, then, did it all happen? What made the Beatles the Beatles?

In this chapter, teachers can explore the complicated historical roots of the Beatles’ rise to fame. The first lesson examines life in postwar England, and Liverpool in particular: it was there that Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and George Harrison — later joined by Ringo Starr— met as teenagers and played together for the first time. In a city colored by war-wrought devastation, with rationing still a daily reality, the young men who would become the Beatles saw the power of music in hard times. From the Music Hall acts to the Skiffle bands on the streets, music makers were bringing a spirit of release to the lives of working-class families, most of whom were affected very directly by the challenges of life during and after the war. The young Beatles were pulled toward music as a cultural power source.

As another lesson in this chapter will demonstrate, the Beatles spent significant time as a band before they became worldwide stars. They honed their craft, playing “covers” of other artists’ material and performing nightly for long hours, particularly during their Hamburg residence. Perhaps more than any other lesson, this one approaches very directly that question “What made the Beatles the Beatles?” The lesson that follows explores Beatlemania, looking into the Beatles as a cultural phenomenon. Like no other reaction to a popular music act, Beatlemania remains a powerful instance of music giving rise to community, to collective obsession, to media saturation, and to widespread joy.

In a time of tremendous social change, the Beatles provided a model for the creative possibilities of youth culture. They broke musical ground by expanding on the possibilities of studio recording, by actively engaging with both avant-garde and non-Western cultures, and by exploring film, television, and other media as territories of a new popular artistry. They remain, even today, a kind of standard for music-makers.