Published on December 13th, 2012 | by Todd Monahan0
Yesterday and Today: Fifty Years of The Beatles
The Beatles released ‘Love Me Do’ on October 5, 1962
As 2012 nears its end it marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles as recording artists, when they began their career for EMI in the spring of 1962. Their recording career would span eight years during which they would become the most influential and successful pop group in history, scoring a record 20 number one hits and selling over a billion units to date. A great deal has been written over the years about how a group from Liverpool, England could have possibly become one of the first and greatest global pop culture phenomenon’s, but what is more incredible is what a hold the band’s music still has on today’s listeners. The world and it’s musical landscape has changed incredibly since the time when The Beatles were making their records, and yet most of their musical output never seems to get old, and with each new generation, they seem to gain more fans. And while there may be some boomers out there that keep the bands sales high for nostalgic reasons, there is also a large demographic of younger listeners who were born long after the band split up who have fallen under the Beatle’s spell as well. While 2012 marks the fiftieth anniversary of this incredible group, it’s important to remember what a crucial year 1962 was for the band, for it was during this year that the band really found its unique voice.
The group’s output during its first year seems minimal, and other than the fact that they were signed that year it would appear to be the least accomplished of their career. I would argue, however, that 1962 was as important in their legacy as any other because this was the year that the band transformed themselves from one of many like-sounding British rock groups of that era to the of the greatest pop group of all time. It was in 1962 that the band went from sounding like every other late ’50’s-early ‘60’s rock group as we hear them on their Decca audition tape from January of that year to something quite different when George Martin signed them four months later. This short period is important in the band’s history, for it is here that the mystery of the Beatles sound lies. Martin would later say he signed them even though he was not impressed with their musical abilities because he heard something in their music that he had never heard before. There is, however, no evidence of that on the Decca acetate, which seems to suggest the in a few short months the band not only further refined their sound, but finally stumbled upon a style that was distinctly their own. But first, a brief digression on how they got there.
It was fifty years ago today: a brief history
John Lennon formed his first group in 1957, a skiffle band made up of classmates from Quarry Bank School, aptly named The Quarrymen. Later that year, a mutual friend introduced Lennon to Paul McCartney, who impressed Lennon with his talent on the guitar and was soon asked to join the band. The following year, McCartney’s younger friend George Harrison tried out for the group and was eventually invited to join despite Lennon’s misgivings about his age (he was John’s junior by over two years) since he was a better guitarist than either of them. When Lennon’s Quarry Bank friends left the band after graduation in 1959, the three guitarists decided to form a new band that was alternately called Johnny and the Moon dogs, the Silver Beetles and eventually The Beatles. They found work anywhere they could in Liverpool’s fledging rock and roll scene, but their lack of drummer and sloppy sound soon earned them the reputation as one of the worst bands in town. Lennon’s art school friend Stu Sutcliffe, a talented painter, joined on bass guitar the same year. They eventually fell under the management of Allan Williams who scheduled them for a residency at the Indra and Kaiserkeller clubs in Hamburg, Germany. Before leaving, they filled themselves out with drummer Peter Best, whose mother owned the local Casbah Club, where the band sometimes played.
Bruno Koshmider, the owner of the Indra and Kaiserkeller clubs, worked his groups hard, making The Beatles perform seven hour sets, with a 30 minute break, six days a week. For the next four months, the band would pull these marathon, all night performances fueled on stimulants such as Preludin. When the band returned briefly to Liverpool in early 1961, and played their first return performance at the Litherland ballroom, the local audience was shocked at the quality of their sound. The band had cut its teeth in Hamburg, and the exhausting sets in that city’s tough clubs had transformed the lazy slackers into a tight, aggressive unit. The importance of their first Hamburg residency cannot be underestimated, for years later when they were world famous, the Beatles would always have a tight live sound that would match their studio recordings (even though the music was inaudible at their shows due to the crowd noise). This would contrast them sharply from the Rolling Stones who had a much shorter, easier climb from the clubs to the world stage, and as a consequence have never been a great live act to this day.
The Beatles would return to Hamburg four more times over the next two years, while alternately establishing themselves as one of the top groups in Liverpool. During the course of 1961, they would serve as backing band to singer Tony Sheridan on a small number of recordings in Germany. Shortly thereafter, Sutcliffe would leave the band to pursue a career in art and would be replaced on bass by McCartney. Sutcliffe, who was engaged with a young German photographer, Astrid Kircherr, had suffered a head injury during a fight in one of the clubs earlier in the year; he would die shortly after leaving the group from a brain hemorrhage. Despite his short time in the group and lack of musical talent, Sutcliffe left a lasting legacy on the group: he came up with their name, which was influenced by Buddy Holly’s Crickets; and his finance Kircherr gave them their signature mop top” haircuts.
By the early sixties, rock and roll had given way to a mellower, more pop oriented sound evident in the recording of artist like the Everly Brothers, Dion, Fabian and a plethora of vocal groups, both male and female. A group of songwriters working in the Brill Building in New York City were churning out top twenty hits left and right, while ‘star’ producers like Phil Spector and Jerry Fuller were exerting more control in the studio. In California, surf bands like the Beach Boys were creating their own sun streaked version of vocal and instrumental music. Overseas, the Beatles adapted to these changes accordingly. There had always been a pop element in their sound and vocal harmonies, so they simply refined it to adapt the changing tastes in the States.
Near the end of 1961 the band would agree to have Brian Epstein, owner of the North End Music Store in Liverpool, to become their new manager. Epstein had heard of the group from young fans who bought records in his store, and after seeing them play at the Cavern Club on Mathew Street, he decided to manage them. Epstein used his contacts as a music dealer to contact the various music labels and quickly got the band an audition for Decca on New Year’s Day, 1962. Epstein was cautious, arranging the band’s set list to include twelve cover songs and only three original Lennon-McCartney compositions. The band lacked their whimsical onstage personalities in the dry studio atmosphere and the sessions were polished, yet stiff and uninspiring. Decca rejected the band the following month and the band returned for another residency in Hamburg where Kircherr greeted them at the airport with the news that Sutcliffe had died the day before. After exhausting every avenue in the British recording industry, Epstein was directed to Parlophone, a subsidiary label under EMI whose in house producer was George Martin. Martin, who was best known for producing comedy records up to that point, had an uncanny willingness to listen to anything and everything with an open mind that the previous producers that Epstein approached did not have. Martin auditioned the band, and although he was not impressed with their sound, he eventually decided to take a chance and sign them in May of 1962.
Dick Rowe would gain infamy in music history as the man who turned the Beatles down, but when you listen to the Decca audition, it’s not hard to see why. The band was very tight and polished, but showed no evidence of originality or style. Twelve of the fifteen tracks they recorded that day were covers, and they sounded identical to numerous other late’50’s/early 60’s rock groups who were as good or better. Their singing was restrained and nervous; Best’s drumming was polished but repetitive. Worst of all, there is nothing on the recording that would suggest the sort of material they would be producing a short time later. It’s possible that Epstein’s overcautious approach confined the band to covers, which along with stifled studio environment killed any of the charm that the band had onstage. Perhaps the ‘sound’ was already there. But if it was, even the few original songs that the band did play, such as Like Dreamers Do” and Hello Little Girl” have none of the originality or quality of the music that the band would serve up for George Martin just six months later. The classically trained Martin was probably even less impressed with the band than the pop-savvy executives at Decca had been, but he would later say that part of their appeal was that they had an original sound that he had never heard before.
In September of 1962 they recorded the master of their first single for Parlophone, Love Me Do/ P.S. I Love You.” The Everley Brothers inspired Love Me Do” was a mediocre, half-finished song that should have been fleshed out a little more before being released, John Lennon’s catchy harmonica riff being it’s best quality. The B-side, P.S. I Love You” was a better, more finished tune in the classic sense. But in a band full or irony, it was Love Me Do” that was more integral to the Beatles legacy, for this was the first recording that truly showed their distinctive style, and despite all its flaws, the kernel of the Beatles sound is heard in that song. The ballad P.S. I Love You” was less original, owing to its Elvis Presley/Shirelles influence. Love Me Do,” while certainly not of the same caliber as the music they would begin producing within a couple of years, was a huge change from the dead-wood originals that were performed at the Decca audition. With its dockside, north country sound and whimsical charm, it is undeniably Beatlesque in sound, in a way that earlier recordings by the band were not. The Beatles had arrived, and pop music would never be the same.
Their production will be second to none: anatomy of the band
No one in The Beatles inner circle could have seen it at the time, but by the time the band signed on to EMI, they were ready to take on the world. After years or refinement and trial and error, the band and absorbed and assimilated many different elements that were evident of pop music at that time to create their own kaleidoscope sound. Part of the reason many dismissed the band in their early days was that the Beatles have always been a band full of contradictions. None of the members are great singers or instrumentalists, and yet as anyone whose has been in a band can tell you, many of their songs are tricky to sing and play. John Lennon had a poor vocal timbre in the classic sense, yet he had a range over three octaves. Most of the American vocal groups had much sweeter harmonies, yet the vocal melodies of their work are part of what makes their music so infectious. They were, in a sense, the first boy-band: but this boy band played music and wrote all their best known songs. With the help of George Martin, Lennon and McCartney wrote and produced enough hit songs to compete with the whole Tamla-Motown organization with its whole stable of songwriters and artists. They were, by mid 1962, a pop music chimera: on top, a vocal pop combo, at bottom, a hard hitting rock and roll band, and at center, a self-contained songwriting/production unit. No other pop group, before or since has had this exact combination of qualities. As the decade wore on, these qualities made the band unstoppable.
While it seems ridiculous to try to explain The Beatles appeal fifty years later, there does seem to be one simple aspect of their music that may come close. It was no coincidence that The Beatles first conquered America at a time when the nation was in mourning. With the assassination of President Kennedy just three months earlier, the nation’s youth was ready for a whimsical diversion. Polls showed that of all Americans, the nation’s youth was hit hardest by the president’s death. Kennedy was a man who represented youth and a brighter future; no that he was so tragically taken, Americans needed something to make them feel better. The Beatles had, from the beginning, a bright whimsical quality to their music that made people happy. No matter how many ways their music changed over the decade, this bright aspect to their music was always present. And it still is today. As George Harrison sang near the end of their time together, here comes the sun.” It still shines brightly today.