The Beatles are universally regarded as one of the most important bands in the history of Rock and Roll. Over the course of an active career that spanned just 10 years, the band released some of the most enduring popular music of the 20th century – a catalog whose influence would be hard to overstate. To give but one measure of the band’s stature, when Rolling Stone ranked the “500 Greatest Albums Of All Time,” four Beatles records made the top ten: Revolver, Rubber Soul, The Beatles (a.k.a. the “White Album”) and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which made the No. 1 slot.
The Beatles formed in Liverpool in the late-1950s. Inspired by American Rock and Roll as well as the English Skiffle craze, a teenage John Lennon teamed up with Paul McCartney to form the Quarrymen. George Harrison was recruited soon thereafter, and before long the band changed their name to the Silver Beatles, then simply the Beatles. Original drummer Pete Best was replaced by Ringo Starr during the band’s first recordings for the label EMI, cut with producer George Martin.
The band cut their teeth during their early years playing clubs in Liverpool and Hamburg, Germany, mixing stray original songs with a repertoire heavy on numbers by American Rock and Rollers including Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, and Larry Williams. Manager Brian Epstein molded the scruffy, leather-wearing combo into a professional act, and helped secure the band a record deal in 1962. The early singles “Love Me Do,” and “Please, Please Me” climbed the U.K. charts, taking the band from regional success to stardom in Britain, and from there things snowballed. The band’s first visit to New York City, in February 1964, and their subsequent appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show – the best-watched program in television history to date — launched a hysterical wave of popularity that would be dubbed “Beatlemania.” It also kicked off the British Invasion, an era that saw English bands including the Kinks, Rolling Stones, Animals and the Who dominating the charts in the United States, while purveyors of American styles including Surf, Doo-Wop, and R&B found themselves abruptly marginalized.
The Beatles’ popularity was such that their tours became frenzied affairs akin to military maneuvers, and tired of the ordeal, the Beatles retired from live performance after completing a U.S. tour in August 1966, to focus on recording. The records the Beatles made during this period, in partnership with longtime producer George Martin – Rubber Soul, Yesterday and Today, Revolver – were increasingly marked by invention and experimentation, and are considered among the band’s highwater marks.
Their growing studio sophistication culminated in 1967’s Sgt. Peppper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a tour de force that’s considered one of the most influential records of the 20th century, in part for the way it advanced the idea of an album as a cohesive artistic statement rather than a collection of singles.
At the heart of the Beatles was harmonizing and songwriting collaboration between McCartney and Lennon. While each was a formidable talent on his own, it was through their partnership that each one’s gifts fully flowered, both because each was spurred by a sense of competition and because McCartney’s innate melodicism and Lennon’s soulful grit were such a potent combination. In all, the partnership resulted in over two dozen No. 1 hits in the U.S. and U.K., and a great many songs songs considered classics, from early efforts such as “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to mid-period gems such as “Help!” and “Yesterday” to latter-period songs such as “Across the Universe” and “Let It Be.” George Harrison’s skill as a songwriter also gradually blossomed; he would have to fight to have his songs included on Beatles records, but Harrison’s original songs such as “Something” and “Here Comes The Sun” stand among the Beatles most beloved material.
By 1970, creative and personal tensions split the band apart. All members went on to successful solo careers. Fans and critics clamored for a reunion that would never be realized. John Lennon was murdered by a deranged fan in New York City in 1980. George Harrison died of cancer in 2001.