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Originally a high-energy pop band (typified by the early singles "Twist and Shout" and "Please Please Me"), the Beatles, as they progressed, modified their style, influenced by Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, Goffin and King, and the pop-music world in general. Their popularity, very high in the UK after their return from Hamburg, Germany (where they played long hours, added muscle to their delivery, and honed their sound) was aided by their attractive looks, distinctive personalities, and natural charisma; they came across particularly well on television, as evidenced by their thunderous reception when they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and others.
Beatlemania began in the UK and exploded following the appearance of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in the United States, in February 1964. The pop-music band became a worldwide phenomenon with worshipful fans, hysterical adulation, and denunciations by culture commentators and others such as Frank Sinatra. Some of this was confusion over the sources of their music (a similar confusion was evinced in 1956 over Elvis Presley by commentators who were unaware of the tradition of blues, R&B and gospel out of which Presley emerged), and some of it was simply an incredulous reaction to the length of their hair. At any rate, it was regarded by the band members with both awe and resentment.
HistoryLennon met McCartney at a garden fete, and joined his band, The Quarry Men, into which McCartney also recruited Harrison. The band briefly split before regrouping. After going through several changes in name and band members, it finally became "the Beatles" under the EMI's Parlophone label. The Beatles' first full-length album, Please Please Me, was recorded within 12 consecutive hours. In 1964 they held the top five places on Billboard's Top Pop Singles Chart, a feat which has never been repeated.
In 1965 they began experimenting with LSD and were created as Members of the Order of the British Empire. Lennon caused a great backlash against the Beatles the following year when in an interview he claimed that Christianity was dying. Eventually he apologised after being slammed by among others, the Holy See.
That same year the Beatles performed their last concert. Their fortunes took a turn for the worse when their manager, Brian Epstein, passed away, and the band's affairs began to unravel. The various members began to pursue their individual interests and got together less often. In 1969 they recorded their last album, Abbey Road (although in 1970 various songs recorded earlier were compiled into Let It Be). In the same year, the Paul Is Dead hoax sprang up. The band officially broke up in 1970, and any hopes of a reunion were crushed when Lennon was murdered in 1980.
Studio style evolutionBy 1966, the influence of the peace movement, psychedelic drugs and the studio technique of producer George Martin resulted in the albums Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, still widely regarded as classics. Particularly notable, along with the use of studio tricks such as sound processing, unconventional microphone placements, and vari-speed recording, was the Beatles' use of unconventional instruments for pop music, including string and brass elements, Indian instruments such as the sitar, tape loops and early electronic instruments. At the height of their fame in the mid-sixties, bolstered by the two films Help! and A Hard Day's Night, the band discontinued touring. The increasingly sophisticated arrangements of their songs were difficult to perform in front of thousands of screaming fans who typically made such noise that the music could not be heard anyway.
By then, the stress of their fame was beginning to tell and the band was on the verge of splitting at the time of the release of The Beatles ("The White Album"), with some tracks recorded by the band members individually, and Starr taking a two-week holiday — sometimes reported as a temporary break-up — in the middle of the recording session. By 1970, the band had split, with each of the members going on to solo careers with varying degrees of success.
In the moviesThe Beatles also had a limited film career, beginning with A Hard Day's Night (1964). Directed by the up-and-coming American Richard Lester, it was a gritty black-and-white documentary-like account of a short period in the life of a rock-and-roll band. In 1965 came Help!, a Technicolor extravaganza shot in exotic locations with a thin, if not almost transparent plot regarding Ringo's finger! The critically slammed Magical Mystery Tour (the concept of which was adapted from Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters LSD-orientated bus tour of the USA) was aired on British television in 1967, but is now considered a cult classic.
The animated Yellow Submarine followed shortly after, but had little input from the Beatles themselves, save for a live-action epilogue at the film's conclusion, and the contribution of five new songs for the film, including a holdover from the Sgt. Pepper sessions, "Only A Northern Song". Nonetheless, it was acclaimed for its boldly innovative graphic style and clever humour as well as the soundtrack.
Finally, the documentary of a band in terminal decline, Let It Be was shot over an extended period in 1969; the music from this formed the album of the same name, which although recorded before Abbey Road, was (after much contractual to-ing and fro-ing) their final release.
The musicUnlike their contemporaries the Rolling Stones, the Beatles were seldom directly influenced by blues. Though they drew inspiration from an eclectic variety of sources, their home idiom was closer to pop music. Their distinctive vocal harmonies were influenced by early Motown artists in the US. Chuck Berry was perhaps the most fundamental progenitor of the Beatles' sound; the Beatles covered "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Rock And Roll Music" early in their careers on record (with most other Berry classics heard in their live repertoire). Chuck Berry's influence is also heard, in an altered form, in later songs such as "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me And My Monkey" (1968) and "Come Together" (1969). (After "Come Together" was released, Chuck Berry successfully sued John Lennon for copyright infringement of his song "You Can't Catch Me".)
A significant and acknowledged musical influence was the Beach Boys, who were in turn spurred on by the work of the Beatles. The song Back in the USSR contains an overt allusion to the Beach Boys, but many other songs exhibit the kind of attention to vocal harmony for which the Beach Boys are also famous.
The Everly Brothers were another major influence on the Beatles, with Lennon and McCartney consciously trying to copy Don and Phil Everly's distinctive two-part harmonies.
The songwriting of Goffin and King was yet another influence upon the Beatles, and it could be said that one of the Beatles' many achievements was to marry the relative sophistication of Goffin and King's songs (which used major-seventh chords, for example) with the simplicity of Buddy Holly, Berry and the early rock-and-roll performers.
Individually, the four Beatles drew further inspiration from different sources. John Lennon's early style owed a huge debt to Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison ("Misery" from 1963 and "Please Please Me" from 1963). After becoming acquainted with the work of Bob Dylan, Lennon became influenced heavily by folk music ("You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" and "Norwegian Wood" from 1965). Lennon played the major role in steering the group toward psychedelia ("Strawberry Fields Forever" and "I Am the Walrus" from 1967), and renewed his interest in earlier rock forms at the close of the Beatles' career ("Don't Let Me Down" from 1969).
Paul McCartney is perhaps best known as the group's romantic balladeer: beginning with "Yesterday" (1965), he pioneered a modern form of art song, exemplified by "Eleanor Rigby" (1966) and "She's Leaving Home" (1967). Meanwhile, Paul maintained an affection for the driving R&B of Little Richard in a series of songs which John Lennon dubbed "potboilers", from "I Saw Her Standing There" (1963) to "Lady Madonna" (1968). "Helter Skelter" (1968), which is the closest The Beatles ever came to heavy metal music, is a McCartney composition.
George Harrison derived his early guitar style from 1950s rockabilly greats such as Carl Perkins, Scotty Moore (who worked with Elvis Presley), and Duane Eddy. "All My Loving" (1963) and "She's A Woman" (1964) are prime examples of Harrison's early rockabilly guitar work.
In 1965, George Harrison broke new ground in the West by recording with an Indian sitar on "Norwegian Wood". A result of his long and continued collaboration with Sir Ravi Shankar, a famous Indian classical musician, many of his following compositions were based on Indian forms, most notably "Love You To" (1966), "Within You, Without You" (1967), and "The Inner Light" (1968). Indian music and culture also influenced the band as a whole, with the use of swirling tape loops, droning bass lines, and mantra-like vocals on "Tomorrow Never Knows" (1966) and "Dear Prudence" (1968). George retained Western musical forms in his later compositions, where he emerged as a significant pop composer in his own right, occasionally reprising major themes that indicated his new relationship with Indian classical music and the Hindu god Krishna. His later guitar style, while not displaying the virtuosity of Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, became distinctive with its use of clear melodic lines and subtle fills ("Something" , "Let It Be" ) in contrast to the increasingly distorted riffs and rapid-fire guitar solo work of his contemporaries.
Ringo Starr's contributions to The Beatles' sound are widely underestimated. While he is mostly appreciated for his gentle comic baritone ("Yellow Submarine" 1966, "Octopus's Garden" 1969), steady drumming, and everyman image, he was likely responsible for the group's occasional interest in surprisingly authentic country sounds ("What Goes On" 1965; "Don't Pass Me By" 1968).
In the Beatles' later music, the pace of the songs tends to be moderate, with more of the interest usually (but not always) coming from the melody and the orchestration than the rhythm. Penny Lane (1967) is a good example of this style; it is a song you might emulate if you wanted to create a recognizably "Beatlesque" sound. Their earlier songs were often a bit faster paced. Throughout their career, their songs were rarely riff-driven. "Day Tripper" (1965) and "Hey Bulldog" (1968) are among the exceptions.
Their music is still performed in public by tribute bands such as the Bootleg Beatles.
Song InfluencesAs stated above, a lot of Beatles songs had some psychedelia in them ("Yellow Submarine", "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds", "I Am The Walrus" from 1967) but these also link to The Goon Show and the work of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Both "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Field(s)" are places in Liverpool, but the song In My Life (1965) also invokes such ideas. The song "Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite" (1967) is based on a Music Hall poster, and the song "All Together Now" (1968) is based around children's rhymes. A handful of Beatles songs both musically and lyrically border on the dadaist or absurd ("Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey", "You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)", and "Why Don't We Do It In The Road", from 1968).
While romantic themes permeate the Beatles' work, in contrast to the Rolling Stones, The Who, and The Doors, songs with overtly sexual themes are rare in The Beatles' catalogue. "Norwegian Wood" very obliquely refers to sexual infidelity, and "Lovely Rita" (1967) alludes to casual sex. "Happiness is a Warm Gun" (1968) is a rare Beatles song that deals with erotic imagery. The "Ballad Of John and Yoko" (1969) also raised some eyebrows with a sexual pun ("we're only trying to get us some peace"), as well as the use of "Christ" as an expletive in the chorus.