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Definition: Beatles from The Macquarie Dictionary

British band, formed in 1959, generally considered one of the most popular and influential of pop groups; members were John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr; before 1962 the group included Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best.

See Also: John Lennon Paul McCartney George Harrison Ringo Starr

Summary Article: Beatles, The (1959–1970)
from Encyclopedia of the Sixties: A Decade of Culture and Counterculture

The Beatles are perhaps the best-known rock-and-roll band of the 1960s, and their innovations and evolution in style over the years helped define the state of rock and roll and led many other musicians to experiment in different stylistic directions as well. Formed in 1956 as the Quarrymen by school friends John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the band solidified by the addition of young guitarist George Harrison in 1959. After some personnel changes, the band evolved from a skiffle group to more of a traditional rock band. At that point the band was comprised by Lennon, and McCartney on vocals and guitar, George Harrison on lead guitar, bassist (and artist) Stu Sutcliffe on bass, and Pete Best on drums. During this period, the band took an extended residence in Hamburg, Germany, where they honed their musical chops playing lengthy sets. Sutcliffe stayed behind in Hamburg where he worked on his art until his untimely death of a brain aneurysm in 1962.

The Beatles soldiered on as four piece with McCartney switching to bass, and after gigging successfully back in Liverpool at the Cavern Club, they soon replaced Best with drummer Ringo Starr (born Richard Starkey) and cemented their place as the most popular band in Liverpool. In 1961, they came to the attention of record storeowner Brian Epstein, who took over as the manager of the group, soon getting them a recording contract with EMI (after being rejected by almost every other record label). After touring successfully in England, several appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show starting in February 1964 broke them in America. The phenomenon of “Beatlemania” had begun with countless Beatles products flooding the market, stadium tours across the country, and playing to crowds of overenthusiastic fans that sometimes drowned the band out as with their screams.

The Beatles also proved adept as actors, as demonstrated in the critically acclaimed films A Hard Day's Night and Help, which demonstrated their wit and depth as comedic actors (later films such as the misguided Magical Mystery Tour and the groundbreaking Yellow Submarine were produced without as much input from all the band members). Sadly, manager Epstein died in 1967, and many critics attribute the Beatles' later financial missteps to the lack of his guidance. Although the Beatles were the most popular band in the world, controversy did sometimes follow them. For example, Lennon's offhand comment in August 1966 that the Beatles were “bigger than Jesus now” caused outrage and the mass burning of Beatles records in the South. Lennon clarified his remark, saying he was not trying to make a value judgment, just stating a sad fact. This mollified critics, and the band's success continued unabated through the decade. After releasing several highly acclaimed and best-selling records, the band began to feel constrained by the narrow limits of acceptable rock and pop records, and in 1965 and 1966 released two of the most innovative rock albums to that time, Rubber Soul and Revolver. But they had only started their experimentation and began to work more closely with longtime producer George Martin to define their vision.

The Beatles, from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967. Shown (from left): Ringo Starr, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison.

(© Capitol Records/Photofest)

As the Beatles had stopped touring, they had more time to work in the studio at their own pace, and enough artistic and creative control to put out music that fit their new vision of what rock and roll could become. The result in 1967 was Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which dazzled both audiences and other musicians with its innovative use of orchestra and diverse song styles. The Beatles continued to innovate but were hitting creative roadblocks. Feeling they lacked a spiritual center, and after experimenting with psychedelic drugs, the Beatles decamped to India in 1967 and studied under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. But they quickly became disenchanted with the all too human Maharishi, and except for Harrison, who converted to Hinduism, they soon left. Lennon in particular was so cynical about the experience that he wrote the song “Sexy Sadie” about the Maharishi's lust for Mia Farrow's sister.

The Beatles stayed on their experimental path and The White Album (actually called The Beatles) combined group and solo songs, where they played on each other's songs, sometimes almost as session men, unlike the more group-oriented collaborations they had done previously. Their next release, Abbey Road, was intended as a return to form for the group and was fraught with internal tensions as they were clearly growing tired of working with each other. The Beatles performed live one last time on the roof of the Apple Corps building, a performance that was filmed and included in the documentary that accompanied their last record, Let It Be (recorded before Abbey Road but released after it). Many, including some in the band, were disappointed by the overproduction of the notorious Phil Spector, who overdubbed strings on many songs (leading to a 2003 rerelease of the original recordings as Let it Be Naked). Tension in the group, particularly between McCartney and Lennon (which many blamed on Lennon's new wife, Japanese conceptual artist Yoko Ono), culminated in their dissolution, first signaled by McCartney's statement on December 31, 1970, that he had left the band.

The Beatles' legal situation was complicated, and the ensuing litigation led to many of the band's properties being dissolved, such as their boutique label Apple records, which fell apart amid much rancor. After the demise of the group, all the members went on to successful solo careers, especially Lennon and McCartney. Lennon was murdered by crazed fan Mark David Chapman in 1989, and Harrison died of cancer in 2001. The Beatles' legacy is still secure, with thousands of their records sold every day and more new fans as a result of the release of the Beatles Rock Band game in 2009. And their reputation as the most popular band in the history of rock music is unassailable. They were the key band that defined rock and roll music in the '60s and continue to be just as popular three decades after they last released new music.

  • Egan, Sean, ed. The Mammoth Book of the Beatles. Running Press Philadelphia, 2009.
  • Harry, Bill. The British Invasion: How the Beatles and Other UK Bands Conquered America. Chrome Dreams London, 2004.
  • Lewisohn, Mark. The Complete Beatles Chronicle: The Definitive Day-by-Day Guide to the Beatles' Entire Career. Chicago Review Press Chicago, 2010.
  • Miles, Barry. The British Invasion: The Music, the Times, the Era. Sterling New York, 2009.
  • Stokes, Geoffrey. The Beatles. Rolling Stone Press New York, 1980.
  • Cogan, Brian
    Copyright 2012 by James S. Baugess and Abbe Allen DeBolt

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