Essential Question

How did The Beatles' rigorous work schedule during the years 1960-63 build their strengths as performers, as musicians, and as a band?

Overview

“A lot of people thought we were an overnight sensation,” says The Beatles’ Paul McCartney in The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, “but they were wrong.” Indeed, though to many fans The Beatles seem to have been a big bang, bursting from Liverpudlian obscurity to international stardom with their 1963 debut album Please Please Me, quite the opposite is true. Between 1960-63, The Beatles worked. They were, after all, young men from the working classes of Liverpool, a city still recovering from World War II. They worked to earn money for basic necessities, playing pub sets both day and night and performing lengthy residencies in Hamburg, Germany, one of which included a stretch of 104 consecutive shows. They worked on repertoire, learning dozens of “cover” songs spanning several genres. They worked on their group sound, playing several sets a night and fine tuning the skills that helped them “hold” audiences at the dance floor, even those who may not have come specifically to see them.

When The Beatles began taping the BBC Radio series “Pop Go The Beatles” in May 1963, still nearly a year before their American debut on the Ed Sullivan Show, they recorded 56 songs. Within that songlist were the Lennon/McCartney originals, cabaret numbers, and numerous versions of American Rock and Roll and Rhythm and Blues songs. Though many listeners have noted the early Rock and Roll roots of The Beatles sound –in 1964 a Saturday Evening Post journalist said plainly, “It’s 1956 American Rock bouncing back at us”– the group displayed a capacity to absorb music from very diverse influences. For instance, “A Taste of Honey,” an American Broadway song popularized by Billy Dee Williams in 1961 and later rerecorded by Barbara Streisand, was a staple of The Beatles’ early live sets. “Baby it’s You,” recorded for the “Pop Go the Beatles” series and featured in this lesson, was recorded first by The Shirelles, an African-American “Girl Group” that cracked the Billboard Top 10 with the track in late 1961. The Beatles, unphased by the gender of the original performers, heard something special in the song, and “Baby It’s You” was in their live show repertoire within months of its release.

The Beatles moved at a frenetic pace in 1961 and 1962, rarely taking a night off. It seems the young Beatles rarely took a moment’s rest; amidst all this activity they collected records, learned songs, practiced vocal harmonies and began composing original music. Though the band had been working non-stop for several years already when they recorded their debut album Please Please Me in February 1963, guitarist George Harrison was not yet 20 years old.

To many, Please Please Me sounded radically new, and the “Beatlemania” that followed was unprecedented as a response to popular music. But when one looks at the years just before the world focused its cameras on The Beatles, a story of four young men with talent, passion, an unwavering drive to succeed and a remarkable work ethic is revealed.

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Objectives

Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • About the cultural phenomenon of “Beatlemania”
    • About the work ethic of The Beatles in their early years
    • About the effects of World War II on Liverpool, England
    • How teenagers coped with post-war life in Liverpool
    • About the social circumstances and musical environments that helped shape The Beatles
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Analyze the idea of “popularity” and the factors that contribute to it
    • Study a timeline and use basic math principles to extract statistical data
    • Analyze statements from historical materials to arrive at a better understanding of the past
    • Understand connections between popular culture and the time, place and social circumstances in which it was created

Activities

Motivational Activity:

  1. Ask your students:
    • How in your view does a band become popular?
    • What do you know about The Beatles’ music and their popularity? (The teacher should inform students that by 1964 The Beatles had attained an unprecedented level of international popularity experienced by many as “Beatlemania.”)
  2. Show your students Clip 1, “The Beatles’ Early Years.”Ask your students:
    • What do you think John Lennon meant when he said that as a young band The Beatles had to “hold” audiences? (Help your students understand that The Beatles were not yet popular and had to earn the attention of listeners and keep patrons on the dance floor.)
    • If you were at a concert watching an unfamiliar band, what could they do to “hold” your attention and keep you engaged in the performance? (Students may suggest that a band could “cover” songs that the audience is already familiar with or that they could keep the music “upbeat” and danceable, or be visually engaging.)

Procedure:​

  1. Distribute Handout 1 – “Music’s Gold Bugs.” Have your students read the first five paragraphs out loud. Ask your students:
    • Where is this crowd gathered?
    • How does the author describe the scene? (Students should recognize that it is a maylay, there are too many people, it seems to be bordering on chaos.)
    • Why have they gathered here? (If it is unclear from the article, inform your students that this is The Beatles’ first landing in the U.S. in 1964, and none of them had ever been to the U.S. before.)
    • In the previous clip, The Beatles are referred to as a “four-headed monster.” What do you think that means? Why do you think people perceived them as a single unit? Do you see language in the selection you just read that suggests this author thinks of them in a similar way? What do you think seemed “monsterous” about The Beatles? (Students should note that the author mentions their matching suits and haircuts and refers to them as “indistinguishable.” Also, The Beatles “monstrousity” was their popularity; no group had ever drawn the attention of such a large percentage of the American population.) 
  2. Ask your students:
    • Do you know where The Beatles are from?
  3. Display the map of Liverpool and the “Liverpool Blitz” image of the city in 1942. Ask your students:
    • Why do you think Liverpool was targeted directly by the German bombing campaign? (Help your students recognize that Liverpool was a port city and a gateway for supplies to the country.)
    • How long do you think it took to rebuild Liverpool?
    • How do you think growing up in a city recovering from war might affect one’s childhood?  (Impart to your students that rebuilding and recovering from WWII in Liverpool was a long process. For instance, food rationing lasted until 1955. The Beatles were all born between 1940-43 and from working class families. This was their childhood experience.)
  4. Now play Clip 2, Graham Nash – Skiffle, in which Graham Nash discusses teenage life in post-war Liverpool and Skiffle music. Ask your students:
    • What about Skiffle made it so easy for teenagers to play it (Students should recall that the instruments were often cheap and homemade, and the music was fairly simple.)
    • Why does Nash suggest so many teenagers started playing Skiffle in the 1950s in Liverpool? (Students may recall Nash’s suggestion that because so much had been destroyed in the war, young people had very little to do for fun.)
  5. Distribute Handout 2 – Timeline of the Beatles’ Early Years. Have students read entries 1 through 5 out loud. Ask your students:
    • John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison began as Skiffle musicians, but by the late 1950s the jug bass and washboard associated with Skiffle had disappeared from the group leaving only guitars and drums. What kind of music do you think they were beginning to play? What kind of new music was gaining popularity in the U.S. at that same time? (Students may suggest Rock and Roll. The Beatles were learning to perform songs by Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and other American Rock artists at this time. )
  6. Return to the Timeline and read entries 6 and 7. Ask your students:
    • What situations do you think would make a venue “tough”?
    • How do you think a young band like The Beatles could succeed in a “tough” venue?
  7. Have a student read Timeline entry 8 out loud. Then show Clip 3, The Residencies in Hamburg, Germany and the arrival of Ringo Starr. (Hamburg, Germany, Ringo & Professionalization). Follow the clip by having students read Timeline entries 9-11 out loud. Distribute Handout 3 – Beatles Math, and allow your students time to complete Problems 1 and 2. Ask your students:
    • How do you think this time spent working in Germany changed The Beatles as musicians? (Students should note that over 500 hours spent on stage in a little over three months is an excellent form of immersive practice. The Beatles would have improved as individual instrumentalists. They were forced to learn dozens of new cover songs, had the opportunity to experiment with original material and improved through the repetition of every facet of their music.)
    • Can you think of any other professions that require a similar investment of focused development? (Students may answer sports, medicine, law, etc. In general, the idea is that to do anything well, one must work hard at it.)
    • How do you think The Beatles’ stage presence would have been affected by this trip? (Hamburg required The Beatles to earn the respect of new audiences nightly, they gained confidence, began to feel at home on a stage in front of watching eyes, etc.)
    • How do you think The Beatles were able to fill all of this time on stage? Do you think they only played their original music?
  8. Ask your students if they know what a “cover” song is? (Explain that a “cover” is a version of a song written or performed by another artist.) Now ask your students:
    • Why do you think a band would play a cover song?
    • If you were at a performance of a band that was new to you, and that band was playing mostly music you had never heard, how do you think you would respond if they next played a “cover” of a song that you know well?
  9. Have your students read points 12-23 on the Timeline. Then have your students complete Problem C. Ask your students:
    • What do you notice about The Beatles’ schedule after their first trip to Hamburg?
    • How do you think a successful trip to a foreign country might affect the perceptions of local music fans in Liverpool? Can you think of any ways the trip to Hamburg might have made The Beatles more popular at home in Liverpool? (Encourage your students to think about this from their perspective: If a high school band went to Germany for two months and came back confident and musically strong, how would they react? Also, imagine that this band goes away sounding good, but comes back sounding louder, stronger and more confident, and all this development happens somewhere else.)
  10. Display Slides 1 and 2 to the class.                                                                                                                                                                                                            Ask students:
    • In which photo do you think The Beatles look more “professional?” Why?
    • Can you think of other groups of people connected by a uniform? What purposes does a uniform serve?
  11. Explain to your students that early on, The Beatles were primarily self-taught musicians. During the thousands of hours they spent on stage, The Beatles were improving as players and composers by covering the work of other artists including several songs by Richard Penniman, a pianist and vocalist from the American South known to most as “Little Richard.” In 1962, before most of the world had ever heard of The Beatles, they were the opening band for Richard’s group several times in both Germany and England. In a January 1963 interview, Little Richard said of The Beatles to a reporter for the New Musical Express, “I’ve never heard that sound from English musicians before. Honestly, if I hadn’t seen them with my own eyes I’d have thought they were a coloured group from back home.” Tell your students that The Beatles returned to these influences throughout their career and show Clip 4, “Don’t Let Me Down” (Beatles 1 collection) from The Beatles’ impromptu 1969 rooftop concert in London, their final live performance as a band. Ask your students:
    • Other than The Beatles’ appearance and style, do you notice anything different about this video?
    • Why do you think The Beatles would include a fifth member in this performance?
  12. Tell your students that the extra musician seen here is Billy Preston, a keyboard player who The Beatles met in 1962 while he was a member of Little Richard’s touring band. Preston and The Beatles reconnected in 1969 and worked on several songs at Abbey Road Studio together. The 1969 single “Get Back,” issued as “The Beatles with Billy Preston,” was the only release to directly credit another musician during The Beatles’ career. Ask your students:
    • Why do you think The Beatles would open themselves to an outside musician like Preston after so many years of working as a four-person ensemble? (Students may offer a variety of answers such as: Preston offered a fresh perspective, he was an excellent musician who performed an instrument that was not the primary instrument of any of The Beatles, and that they already knew him from their early years.)
    • How do you think The Beatles’ familiarity with Preston from their pre-fame days affected their decision to include him in their work in 1969? (Encourage your students to consider how years of international fame might make The Beatles’ nostaligic for the early, more-anonymous years of their career. Also, that Preston represented a link to Little Richard, and the African-American music that deeply inspired The Beatles early on.) 

Summary Activity:

Ask your students:

  • Do you think The Beatles were an “overnight sensation”?
  • What do you think were the most important factors in their development?
  • Do you see any aspects of The Beatles’ development as an artistic unit that might be applicable to your own life?

Writing Prompts:

Distribute the full 1964 Saturday Evening Post “Music’s Gold Bugs” article to the class. Inform your students that this article was written during the first year of The Beatles’ international stardom. Have your students analyze the journalism using the following questions:

  • What is the author’s tone? Does he like The Beatles? Does he take them seriously as people or musicians?
  • Do you think the author thinks The Beatles will still be popular 10 years later?
  • How does the author characterize The Beatles’ upbringings? Can you point out specific passages in which the author makes references to the members’ social class and Liverpool?
  • How much of this article is about music? If the piece is not about music, what do you think it is about?
  • Does the author seem to suggest that The Beatles take their music seriously?

Standards

Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text

  • Reading 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects

  • Writing 1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • Writing 9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12

  • Speaking and Listening 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
  • Speaking and Listening 3: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language for Grades 6-12

  • Language 6: Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.

Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
  • Theme 8: Science, Technology and Society

National Standards for Music Education

Core Music Standard: Responding

Analyze: Analyze the structure and context of varied musical works and their implications for performance

Enduring Understanding: Analyzing creators’ context and how they manipulate elements of music provides insight into their intent and informs performance

Essential Question: How do performers select repertoire?

Identify how cultural and historical context inform performances [MU: Pr4.2.6c]

Identity how cultural and historical context inform performances and result in different musical effects [MU:Pr4.2.8c]

 

Core Music Standard: Connecting

Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.

Enduring Understanding: Understanding connections to varied contexts and daily life enhances musicians’ creating, performing, and responding.
Essential Question: How do the other arts, other disciplines, contexts and daily life inform creating, performing, and responding to music?

Demonstrate understanding of relationships between music and the other arts, other disciplines, varied contexts, and daily life. [MU:Cn11.0.6a, 7a, 8a]

National Core Arts Standards

Responding

  • Anchor Standard 7: Perceive and analyze artistic work.
  • Anchor Standard 8: Interpret intent and meaning in artistic work.
  • Anchor Standard 9: Apply criteria to evaluate artistic work.

Connecting

  • Anchor Standard 10: Synthesize and relate knowledge and personal experiences to make art.
  • Anchor Standards 11: Relate artistic ideas and work with societal, cultural and historical context to deepen understanding.

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