Beatles Revolutionize Popular Music

After generating hysteria in their native England, the Beatles, four youths from Liverpool, visited the United States and revolutionized rock music, becoming among the most influential cultural phenomena not only of the 1960’s but also of later decades. The Beatles’ creative output between 1963 and 1965, especially, ranks among the greatest in the history of rock and pop.

Summary of Event

At the beginning of 1963, the Beatles had evolved from a ragtag group of working-class young men into a unique amalgam of personalities and talents on the brink of stardom. In 1957, sixteen-year-old John Lennon had met fourteen-year-old Paul McCartney while the two were performing with different groups at a church event in a suburb of Liverpool, England. The two would form the nucleus of a band that would include McCartney’s young friend George Harrison, Lennon’s art-school colleague Stu Sutcliffe Sutcliffe, Stu , and Pete Best Best, Pete , a drummer with a following on the Liverpool music scene. Beatles, the
Rock and roll
British Invasion
[kw]Beatles Revolutionize Popular Music (Jan., 1963-1965)
[kw]Music, Beatles Revolutionize Popular (Jan., 1963-1965)
Beatles, the
Rock and roll
British Invasion
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[g]North America;Jan., 1963-1965: Beatles Revolutionize Popular Music[07510]
[g]United States;Jan., 1963-1965: Beatles Revolutionize Popular Music[07510]
[g]United Kingdom;Jan., 1963-1965: Beatles Revolutionize Popular Music[07510]
[c]Music;Jan., 1963-1965: Beatles Revolutionize Popular Music[07510]
[c]Popular culture;Jan., 1963-1965: Beatles Revolutionize Popular Music[07510]
[c]Cultural and intellectual history;Jan., 1963-1965: Beatles Revolutionize Popular Music[07510]
Lennon, John
McCartney, Paul
Harrison, George
Starr, Ringo

Moving gradually from small local clubs to relatively high-paying gigs in Hamburg, Germany, the group—variously calling itself the Moondogs, the Moonshiners, and the Silver Beatles, among other names—refined its repertoire of American rock and roll and began composing original material. By the summer of 1962, Sutcliffe had died of a cerebral hemorrhage, Best had been replaced by Ringo Starr, and the group, now known as the Beatles, had attracted the attention of Brian Epstein Epstein, Brian , a record-store manager who saw potential in the group. Epstein landed the band a record contract, and the band released its first single, “Love Me Do,” “Love Me Do” (Lennon and McCartney)[Love Me Do] in August, 1962. It became a minor hit that fall.

In January of 1963, the Beatles recorded “Please Please Me,” “Please Please Me” (Lennon and McCartney)[Please Please Me] which became their first number-one single in Great Britain, followed in turn by “From Me to You,” “Twist and Shout,” “She Loves You,” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” By the spring of that year, audience screaming became part of their performances; by the fall, the riotous welcomes greeting the band at airports had been dubbed “Beatlemania.” In the early 1960’s, though, England and Europe were still popular music backwaters, and it remained to be seen whether the group could succeed in the vast American cultural and commercial market.

The early signs were not auspicious. “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (Lennon and McCartney)[I Want to Hold Your Hand] leased to a small independent label in the United States, appeared at the bottom of the American pop charts in late 1963 and went virtually unnoticed. After Capitol Records Capitol Records
Record labels;Capitol invested $50,000 to promote the group, however, their records began to sell. On February 7, 1964, the Beatles arrived in New York to mass hysteria, with thousands of screaming teenage girls following their every move, entrepreneurs hawking licensed products (for which the Beatles received shockingly little), and their music flooding the airwaves and record stores. The first of their three appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show
Ed Sullivan Show, The (television program) drew seventy million viewers, and a brief tour that followed received national press coverage, largely focusing on the band members’ long hair, their sense of humor, and the silliness of the furor surrounding them.

In their wake, other British rock groups (among them Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Dave Clark Five, and, of course, the Rolling Stones) also enjoyed success in the United States, a phenomenon observers dubbed the “British Invasion.” The Beatles remained the preeminent figures in this movement. In April of 1964, Beatles songs simultaneously occupied the top five positions on Billboard magazine’s pop chart—a feat that has never been equaled. That summer, the group’s first movie, A Hard Day’s Night, Hard Day’s Night, A (Lester)[Hard Days Night] was released to wide acclaim and was followed the next year by Help!
Help! (Lester)[Help (Lester)] A series of tours between 1964 and 1966 made John, Paul, George, and Ringo household names around the world (fifty-five thousand fans saw the group at New York’s Shea Stadium in 1965, the largest concert audience ever at the time). In recognition for their achievements, Queen Elizabeth made the four Members of the Order of the British Empire. Some members of this august group, appalled that a rock band would be so honored, turned in their medals. (Lennon himself would do the same in 1969 to protest Great Britain’s role in the Vietnam War.)

Young adults worshiped the Beatles with an intensity reminiscent of the hysteria provoked by the early Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley Presley, Elvis . Cynical adults tended to look at Beatlemania as a cheap commercial rip-off, while more sociologically minded observers offered grief over the recent death of John F. Kennedy or the sublimated sexuality of girls as explanations for the hoopla. In any case, as the weeks turned into months and months into years, it become increasingly clear that the Beatles were not simply a passing fad.

Meanwhile, the band continued making records, and its music showed increasing lyrical and musical sophistication. McCartney’s elegiac “Yesterday,” “Yesterday” (McCartney)[Yesterday (Maccartney)] complete with a string arrangement, became one of the most-recorded songs of all time, while Lennon’s “Help!,” “Help!” (Lennon)[Help (Lennon)] one of the biggest hits of 1965, showed an uncommonly mature sense of vulnerability. By this time, the group was being directly influenced by the work of Bob Dylan Dylan, Bob , who himself had just become a convert to rock and roll; together, the two acts would profoundly influence the course of popular music in the next five years, injecting new levels of complexity, diversity, and social protest into what had previously been considered a limited musical form.


Following the consolidation of their talents in 1963 and their conquest of the United States in 1964, the Beatles emerged as one of the most influential forces in the development of modern popular music. In synthesizing a number of strands in Anglo-American musicology, in stylistic innovations and the use of studio technology, in relying on their own songwriting as the cornerstone of their recordings, and in articulating the social and political possibilities of cultural celebrity, the group blazed a path followed by many others. These achievements were not altogether evident in the early 1960’s, and in the decades to follow, it was the Beatles of the late 1960’s who were remembered as cultural pioneers. Yet it is also clear that, whatever the group went on to achieve, the creative burst of 1963 to 1965 represents one of the great flowerings in rock and roll history.

In order to understand just how striking the Beatles sounded in those early years, it is worth recalling the enervated state of popular music in the years prior to the group’s arrival in the United States. By 1962, the early excitement generated by Elvis Presley had ebbed, and Presley’s two-year stint in the Army seemed to have taken the edge off his work. Buddy Holly was dead, Chuck Berry was in jail, and Jerry Lee Lewis had disappeared from the scene in disgrace after marrying an adolescent cousin. Insipid, highly commercialized crooners such as Pat Boone sang heavily diluted versions of songs that had far more vitality in their original (often African American) versions. While some interesting records continued to be made—notably those of the Beach Boys, the Drifters, and the Ronettes—there was a widespread perception that rock and roll’s fortunes were not as high as they had been five years before.

The Beatles, meanwhile, had been avid fans of American popular music, especially black music, and performed it regularly. Growing up in England, however, the group was relatively isolated from the most current stateside trends, and they overlaid such influences with native accents (this is particularly true of McCartney, whose work bears the unmistakable stamp of English dance-hall music). In an odd way, the Beatles’ attempts to mimic American music failed, and in so failing the band created something new. Listeners who compare, for example, Junior Walker’s version of “Money” “Money” (Strong)[Money (Strong)] to the Beatles’ rendition of the same tune can hear two different songs: The former is a good-natured, even warm, lament; the latter—distinguished by Lennon’s snarling vocal—becomes a fierce affirmation of crass materialism.

The overall mood of the Beatles’ early records was buoyant, however. Songs such as “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” “She Loves You,” “All My Loving,” and “Can’t Buy Me Love” are marked by a joyous energy that transcends the simple pieties of the lyrics. These are strongly collaborative records, not only in the songwriting between Lennon and McCartney but also the exuberant blend of voices and instruments that sounds unlike anything produced in the United States at the time.

While many observers considered the Beatles a fad, more acute listeners recognized the potential for something more lasting. Perhaps the group’s most important fan was Dylan. “They were doing things nobody was doing. Their chords were outrageous, just outrageous, and their harmonies made it all valid,” he recalled. “It seemed to me a definite line was being drawn. This was something that never happened before.”

As Dylan’s music became more complex under the Beatles’ influence, the Beatles’ lyrics became more complex under Dylan’s influence. Songs such as “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” “Paperback Writer,” “In My Life,” and “Nowhere Man” convey an emotional richness and ambiguity far more complex than that of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The Beatles’ palette would range still wider in years to come, especially after the use of hallucinogenic drugs led the group to write surrealistic songs about their experiences.

Meanwhile, the band was experimenting musically as well. Nowhere is this spirit more evident than in the 1965 album Rubber Soul. Rubber Soul (the Beatles) On “In My Life,” “In My Life” (Lennon and McCartney)[In My Life] for example, a tape of a piano is speeded up to sound like a harpsichord, while Lennon’s elliptical “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” (Lennon and McCartney)[Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)] shows an Eastern influence that would later become a staple of Harrison’s songwriting. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released in 1967, is generally assumed to be the group’s greatest achievement, but many critics consider Rubber Soul, with its unique balance of simplicity and complexity, to be the Beatles’ true masterpiece.

Indeed, one could argue that the years following 1965 marked a long, slow decline for the Beatles as a group. After that date, Lennon and McCartney collaborated less frequently, and a series of centrifugal forces—the death of manager Brian Epstein in 1967, Lennon’s divorce and his increasing involvement with Yoko Ono, Harrison’s growing restlessness under Lennon and McCartney’s tutelage—would eventually lead to the group’s breakup. While it would be a mistake to consider the period between 1965 and 1970 as nothing more than the prelude to the band’s unraveling, for much remarkable music was made during that period, such an angle on the group’s history does allow one to appreciate just what the Beatles did achieve in their early years.

Even if it ultimately precipitated their undoing as a group, the Beatles’ greatest achievement was a capacity for growth and change. The band almost single-handedly made it possible to imagine rock and roll as a vehicle for artistic expression over the course of a lifetime (even if, in the case of Lennon, who was murdered, that lifetime was tragically short). Moreover, the Beatles endowed rock with a sense of cultural legitimacy that other performers ranging from Joni Mitchell to Michael Jackson could follow. As such, their legacy extends far beyond a body of work that shows no sign of fading from popular memory. Beatles, the
Rock and roll
British Invasion

Further Reading

  • The Beatles Anthology. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2000. A comprehensive oral history, considered by many the definitive collection on Beatlemania from the perspective of the Beatles themselves. Includes more than thirteen hundred photographs and reproductions of posters and other documents, many in color. Indexes.
  • Brackett, David, comp. The Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader: Histories and Debates. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. A comprehensive collection on all aspects of the history of pop, rock, and soul music, including several essays on the Beatles.
  • Harrison, George. I Me Mine. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2002. Originally published by Simon & Schuster in 1981. Harrison was the only Beatle to write his own memoir, but this book is less an autobiography than a published scrapbook of memorabilia, including song lyrics, photos, and reminiscences.
  • Marcus, Greil. “The Beatles.” In The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, edited by Jim Miller. Rev. ed. New York: Rolling Stone Press, 1980. A brief but evocative essay that suggests the breadth and depth of the Beatles’ achievements. Marcus is particularly strong in analyzing the larger cultural resonance of the band.
  • Norman, Philip. Shout! The Beatles and Their Generation. 1981. Rev. and updated. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. Perhaps the best general account of the Beatles’ history. Norman, who has also written distinguished biographies of the Rolling Stones and Elton John, is particularly strong on the financial aspects of the Beatles empire and its collapse.
  • Schaffner, Nicholas. The Beatles Forever. New York: Cameron House, 1977. In a market flooded with books on the band, this one ranks among the finest—solid writing, interesting photographs, and extensive discographies and charts. An excellent reference source.
  • Stokes, Geoffrey. “Roll Over, Frankie Avalon” and “Brits Rule.” In Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll, by Ed Ward, Geoffrey Stokes, and Ken Tucker. New York: Rolling Stone Press, 1986. These two chapters do a good job of placing the Beatles in the larger context of British and American music of the early 1960’s.
  • Szatmary, David P. “The British Invasion of America: The Beatles.” In Rockin’ in Time: A Social History of Rock-and-roll, by David P. Szatmary. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007. A thorough social history of the Beatles’ arrival by storm in the United States.
  • Trynka, Paul, ed. The Beatles: Ten Years That Shook the World. Foreword by Brian Wilson. London: Dorling Kindersley, 2004. Considered one of the best works on the Beatles, this collection of articles first published in the 1960’s by leading rock journalists covers the details of the band’s tours and concerts, their day-to-day lives, and happenings from the band’s early days that were published only in local newspapers.
  • Wenner, Jann. “The Rolling Stone Interview: John Lennon.” In The Rolling Stone Interviews, 1967-1980, edited by Peter Herbst. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981. This discussion, conducted in 1971 in the immediate aftermath of the Beatles’ breakup, is a classic in the magazine’s history of distinguished interviews. A must for all interested in the band’s history.
  • Womack, Kenneth, and Todd F. Davis, eds. Reading the Beatles: Cultural Studies, Literary Criticism, and the Fab Four. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006. Examines the cultural and intellectual significance of the Beatles and their “resounding impact on how we think about gender, popular culture, and the formal and poetic qualities of music.” Argues that the Beatles as a group and a cultural phenomenon warrant serious academic study.

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