Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Beatles: History and Classics


The Beatles are almost universally regarded as the greatest act in the history of post-war popular music, and that claim is hard to deny when one considers their status as the biggest selling musical act in history, their universal critical acclaim, and the never duplicated hysteria that surrounded the band during the height of “Beatlemania” in the Sixties. The cult of the Beatles is alive and well around the world more than 40 years after the band’s demise.

The group got its start in Liverpool, in the Fifties, as a John Lennon-led skiffle band called the “Quarryman.” Lennon was a rebellious Liverpool youth who had been introduced to rock and roll music from the recordings brought across the Atlantic and into Liverpool by English merchant sailors. It was from these recordings that Lennon and his generation in England were first introduced to the likes of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Little Richard, Fats Domino, and other early fathers of the music. Eager to emulate his new heroes and make a name for himself, Lennon recruited some schoolmates to join him in his new band. Members would come and go until the band settled with a lineup of Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Stuart Sutcliffe, and Pete Best, a drummer.

The band changed their name to the Silver Beetles for a time and then finally settled on “The Beatles.” The band acquired an avid local following in Liverpool and became a fixture at the Cavern Club, where they performed inspired sets on a regular basis. While the band was playing clubs in Hamburg, Germany, Sutcliffe fell in love with a German girl and decided to stay behind, leaving the Beatles a four man outfit. Sutcliffe would die of a brain hemorrhage at age 21 in 1962.

The group made its first recording as the backing band for singer Tony Sheridan on the single, “My Bonnie,” which received airplay in Liverpool area. The popularity of this record inspired Liverpool record shop owner Brian Epstein to attend one of the Beatles’ Cavern shows, and when Epstein witnessed the wild reaction of the audience, he convinced the group to take him on as their manager. Epstein convinced the band to drop drummer Pete Best from the group in favor of Ringo Starr from a rival Liverpool band, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. The final roster of the Beatles was set with Lennon and Harrison on guitar, Paul McCartney on bass, and Ringo Starr on drums. The group would record the moderately successful single, “Love Me Do,” before the end of 1962.

Epstein then began to search for a record label to sign his band. After numerous rejections, the band was finally signed by the Parlophone label. The Beatles recorded their first album for the label, “Please Please Me,” in 1963. The album was recorded in a single day, apparently to capture as close as possible the immediacy of their live shows. Although Epstein had trouble finding a U.S. label to sign the band, he managed to get the Beatles booked on the Ed Sullivan TV Show in April, 1964. New York disc jockey, Murray the K, hyped the Beatles upcoming TV appearance, setting the stage for the birth of Beatlemania. The Beatles appearance on the Sullivan show was a sensation seen by millions of Americans, and the Beatles become international superstars overnight.

The Beatles thus began an exhausting two years of near constant recording and touring. The early Beatles records were released separately in the U.S. and U.K., sometimes with different titles. For example, “Please, Please Me,” the band’s first U.K. album was released in the U.S. as “Meet the Beatles.” The names of the albums don’t matter much as everything this band recorded is essential, and any collection of Beatles music is guaranteed to be of high quality. Titles to look for from the 1964 albums are:” With the Beatles,” “Twist and Shout,” “A Hard Days Night,” “Beatles for Sale,” and “Beatles 65.” The Beatles’ music would soon change from light poppy love songs to darker and more introspective fare as the group attempted to expand its musical horizons.

With the release of the album, “Help” (1965), the Beatles began the process of reinventing themselves. The title track, “Help,”  “Yesterday,” and the very Dylanesque, “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” saw the group moving into previously uncharted territory. Their songs were still just as catchy, the harmonies still as sweet, but the material had become darker and more intriguing.

This artistic growth continued on the next album, “Rubber Soul” (1965), and for the next five albums. This string of albums represents the Beatles’ best work and some of the best albums of popular music ever recorded. On Rubber Soul, the band begins to experiment musically with the inclusion of sitar on “Norwegian Wood,” and several songs such as “Michelle,” “If I Needed Someone,” and “In My Life” which could easily be classified as “folk rock.” 

The Beatles’ following studio release, “Revolver” (1966), sees the Beatles at the peak of their powers. Revolver is an astonishing collection of songs representing a myriad of styles from the art rock of “Eleanor Rigby” and “Good Day Sunshine” to the hard rock of “Taxman” and full blown psychedelic experimentation in “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

The release of Revolver coincided with the band’s retirement from live performances. Freed of life on the road, the Beatles would dedicate themselves to experimentation in the recording studio. With the able support of their producer, George Martin, the group would again reach new heights of creativity in the studio with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (1967). This album’s overt experimentation was an attempt by John Lennon and Paul McCartney to outdo the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson who had raised the studio bar with his work on the Beach Boys’ classic recording, “Pet Sounds,” during the previous year. “Sgt. Pepper,” which is often cited as the Beatles’ magnum opus, is every bit as thrilling as Revolver with epic songs such as “Lovely Rita,” “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” “She’s Leaving Home,” and ‘A Day in the Life.”

The Beatles kept rolling with the double album simply titled, “The Beatles” (1968). Its unadorned, solid white cover earned it the nickname, “The White Album,” among fans. The album is amazingly eclectic and contains nary a bad tune amid its myriad of tracks. Among the album’s classic tunes are, “Blackbird,” “Mother Nature’s Son,” “Revolution,” “Back in The USSR,” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

In 1969, The Beatles would release their last true studio album, “Abbey Road.” Group in-fighting that had lasted for several years was becoming intolerable and Paul McCartney was tiring of holding things together. McCartney would later signal the demise of the band by releasing his first solo album in 1970. Abbey Road was another brilliant effort that contained classic tracks such as “Come Together,” “Here Comes the Sun,” and most impressively, the medley of short, connected songs that finishes the album.

“Let It Be,” which was recorded prior to Abbey Road, would be released in 1970 with the title track, “Let it Be,” and Lennon’s “Across the Universe” as standout tracks.

Chitika