The Beatles were a group of four musicians who epitomised the popular culture of Britain and the postwar baby boom generation, and, indeed, much of the English-speaking world during the 1960s and early 1970s. The members of the group were John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr (Richard Starkey), all from Liverpool, England. When formed in 1960 as the Silver Beatles, Pete Best was drummer; in 1962, he was replaced by Ringo.
Originally a high-energy pop band (typified by the early singles "Twist and Shout" and "Please Please Me"), as they progressed their style became more sophisticated, influenced in equal measure by Bob Dylan and Chuck Berry. Their popularity was also aided by their attractive looks, distinctive personalities, and natural charisma, particularly on television, including the Ed Sullivan Show. At the height of their fame in the mid-sixties, bolstered by the two films Help! and A Hard Days Night, the band discontinued touring. The increasingly sophisticated arrangements of their songs were difficult to perform in front of thousands of screaming fans. A backlash by conservative religious groups occurred in the United States and other countries after John Lennon described the band as "more popular than Jesus". Radio stations banned the group's recordings, and their albums and other products were burned and destroyed.
By 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, and early electronic instruments. By then, the stress of their fame was beginning to tell and the band was on the verge of splitting by the release of /The White Album with some tracks recorded by the band members individually, and Starr taking a two-week holiday 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.
The 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 Btitish 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 (for instance, the voices of the characters in the movie were not those of the Beatles). 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) the final release.
The influence of the Beatles on rock music was profound. Prior to their emergence as pop superstars, it was common for rock bands to rely on professional songwriters for their material (the Brill Building in New York City was a source of many hit singles in the early 1960s). Whilst by no means the first to do so (Buddy Holly composed his hits), their example made self-composition the standard for rock bands then and since. Although they did not necessarily invent all the new ideas they incorporated in their music, they often competed with and played off of the developing ideas of other prominent acts of the period (such Bob Dylan, The Byrds, and the Beach Boys). As such, they spurred rock music, which hitherto had been largely looked down upon by older music fans, towards becoming an accepted art form. When the Sergeant Pepper album was released, it was hailed by music critics of the time as a major work of art, even compared favorably to classical musicians such as Schubert and Schuman.
Prior to the Beatles, record albums were of secondary consideration to 45s in mass marketing. Albums largely contained filler material along with one or two worthwhile songs. The Beatles, with the ability to produce albums with consistently well-liked material, helped to define the album as the preferred mechanism for releasing popular music, which in turn resulted in the development of new FM radio formats such as "Album Oriented Rock" (AOR) in the 1970s. Even album covers changed during this period, becoming increasingly artistic--works of art in their own right (The Beatles seemed to rebel against this in 1968 when they released their plain white album "The Beatles", known as the White Album). While they were not alone in promoting these developments, they were clearly at the forefront of them. The Beatles' films also anticipated the videoclip, the essential promotional tool of later popular musicians.
The influence of the Beatles even extended beyond their music. Perhaps the most notable was their influence on male fashion. Their relatively long hair, when they burst onto the scene in 1964, was a shocking fashion statement, one that was quickly adopted by other rock bands of the time, and by the 1970s, long hair became standard fashion for men.
Suprisingly for a band as controversial, prolific and as ubiquitous as the Beatles, there have been very few noteworthy parodies of their work and style although one exception is The Rutles, an outfit created by Eric Idle (of Monty Pythons Flying Circus fame) and Neil Innes, formerly of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.
Originally signed to Parlophone/EMI in the UK, the Beatles' (UK) official studio albums (not including compilations and the like) were:
- /Please, Please Me
- /With The Beatles
- /A Hard Days Night
- /Beatles For Sale
- /Rubber Soul
- Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
- /The Beatles (aka The White Album)
- /Yellow Submarine
- /Abbey Road
Of note: The earlier Beatles vinyl albums should be considered based on where they were released:
- England - albums are generally better sound quality and contain all of the songs
- USA - albums are lower sound quality and do not contain all of the songs
Also note: The early Beatles albums were originally released as monaural recordings. They were later remastered as artificial stereo with vocals on one side and music on the other side, much to the disgust of fans. Early CD printings of their albums are in this artificial stereo, though later printings restored the original mono.
- /A Hard Days Night
- /Magical Mystery Tour
- /Yellow Submarine (animated film, artwork by Peter Max, featuring songs by the Beatles but with dialogue voiced by actors)
- /Let It Be