People: The Beatles
In late-1950s Liverpool, a teenage John Lennon teamed up with Paul McCartney to form the Quarrymen, a group that by 1960 would become the Beatles. As teenagers, Lennon and McCartney were initially drawn to Skiffle music. Skiffle, which developed in Britain after World War II, was a kind of street music that relied on homemade or inexpensive instruments—often a washtub bass, a washboard, a banjo and an acoustic guitar—and combos generally played covers of Folk and Blues-style songs. Similar in ways to Punk and Hip Hop, Skiffle players were not always reliant on traditional venues, expensive equipment or in-depth knowledge of an instrument. Because of this, young musicians without much money or experience, including Lennon and McCartney, found the genre accessible. It was their door in.
By 1960, Lennon and McCartney had transformed their band into a more professional operation. Now calling themselves the Beatles, their ensemble included lead guitarist George Harrison and drummer Pete Best, who would later be replaced by Ringo Starr. The group had incorporated more Rock and Roll and Rhythm and Blues covers into their repertoire and were soon performing gigs in dancehalls and nightclubs. Between 1960 and 1962, the Beatles were hired to play several residencies at nightclubs in Hamburg, Germany, including the Kaiserkeller and the Indra Club. During this period, the group typically played multiple sets over four and half to six hours a night. Their shows leaned heavily on the repertoire of early American Rock and Roll artists, including material by Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly. In the process of playing so many shows and learning so many songs, the Beatles sharpened their skills as entertainers, as instrumentalists, and ultimately, as songwriters.
Places: London, Liverpool, and Hamburg
The Beatles grew up in Liverpool, England in the late 1940s and 50s, the years following World War II. Unlike the United States, which did not directly experience combat on American soil, Great Britain struggled for many years to return to normalcy following the devastation caused by the war. Though the war had ended in 1945, rations on food and other material goods continued into the 1950s, and port cities, including Liverpool, had to rebuild much of their bombed-out infrastructure. Compared to the booming postwar years in the United States, life in Liverpool was bleak. Set against this backdrop, it was no wonder that the bright sounds of American R&B and Rock and Roll music proved attractive to teenagers like John Lennon and Paul McCartney. This new music came from a far-off country they had never visited, a place about which they had a vivid fantasy life based on images described in Chuck Berry and Little Richard songs. American Rock and Roll and R&B deeply affected the Beatles as they began to find their own musical style as a cover band.
After several years of developing their act in Liverpool and Hamburg, the Beatles signed to EMI in 1962. The group traveled to London to record their debut album, Please Please Me. The album showcased a band in transition, containing eight original songs including “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Love Me Do,” in addition to six cover songs including “Twist and Shout.” The collection portrayed the Beatles with one foot still in the world of the cover band and the other foot planted in their future as recording artists and original songwriters. Of the band’s first five albums, four included a mix of both Beatles originals and cover songs. But after 1965, the band recorded seven more studio albums, with only one cover song appearing on the cumulative track list. During this later stage in their career, the Beatles committed to crafting original songs and exploring new frontiers of recording popular music in the studio.
The Beatles’s fascination with American music culture can best be understood when considered in the context of teenage life in postwar Europe. The world in which Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr grew up was deeply scarred by war. Liverpool, an important shipping center in England, had been largely bombed out by the Germans, requiring years of rebuilding. Food rationing, which had once been a wartime necessity, continued for nine years after the war as the British economy recovered. American records, including the Isley Brothers’ 1962 hit “Twist and Shout,” provided the members of the Beatles with an escape from this everyday reality. By performing this song and others like it in their setlist, the Beatles were able to immerse themselves, and their European audiences, in an American sound driven by a youthful energy that symbolized another world of possibility.
- MAY 1945: WORLD WAR II ENDS — While a marked period of prosperity and growth follows the war in the United States, in England, it’s a time of lingering deprivation and rebuilding.
- APRIL 1948: THE MARSHALL PLAN SIGNED INTO LAW — Rolled out in 1948, The Marshall Plan commits U.S. economic support to ravaged European communities, including Liverpool.
- JULY 1954: RATIONING ENDS IN THE U.K. — Britain ends food rationing, which had continued for over nine years after the end of WWII. During that same time, the U.S. economy had experienced a period of rapid growth and prosperity.
- AUGUST 1960: THE BEATLES PLAY HAMBURG, GERMANY — The group begins their first residency at Hamburg’s Indra Club. Playing long hours on stage helps the group develop their musical skills and group image.
- MARCH 1963: BEATLES RELEASE DEBUT ALBUM — Please Please Me includes original Beatles songs such as “Love Me Do” and “I Saw Her Standing There,” as well as covers including “Twist and Shout.” The album tops the U.K. charts for 30 weeks.
- FEBRUARY 1964: BEATLES APPEAR ON THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW — In one of the most significant moments in music and television history, a record 73 million viewers tune in, launching the group into U.S. superstardom. Within two years of their first appearance on American television, the band would transition away from mixing covers with original material and commit entirely to writing original songs.