The birth of the Beatles
The birth of the Beatles
It is 50 years since the legendary first meeting of Paul McCartney and John Lennon, and a cynic might be forgiven for wondering why anybody cares. In the age of the iPod, do the Beatles still matter? Of course they do, just as any other great artists – Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Mozart – still matter.
The comparison is meant only half in jest. Even a skeptical historian like me, born four years after the band broke up and professionally wary of misty-eyed veterans of the 1960s, has to acknowledge the Beatles’ astonishing global appeal. Their music is played and loved on every street corner in the world, and yet its origins could hardly have been less prepossessing.
When Paul McCartney wandered down to the Woolton church fête in Liverpool on July 6, 1957, he was an ordinary 15-year-old who had grown up in suburban English obscurity. He had heard stories about an amateur teenage group called the Quarrymen, headed by a local grammar-school boy called John Lennon, 16 years old, who were supposed to be playing that afternoon; and he was also on the lookout for pretty girls.
The scene was quintessentially English, gently weighted with tradition. The band of the local yeomanry led a procession through the streets; housewives sold homemade cakes and sweets; schoolchildren in fancy dress chased and frolicked in the sunlight; stalls advertised traditional sideshows.
In a field behind the parish church, McCartney heard the music that would change his life: the sound of Lennon and the Quarrymen, playing rock’n’roll hits on a makeshift stage.To young Paul’s amusement, Lennon was singing the Del-Vikings recent hit, “Come Go With Me,” but he had mistranscribed the words from the radio. Instead of singing, “Come go with me, please don’t send me ‘way beyond the sea,” Lennon sang, “Come go with me, down to the penitentiary . . .”
Later, in the church hall, when McCartney showed the other boys his Gene Vincent and Little Richard impersonations, they were impressed by his ability but put off by his casual self-confidence. Yet a week later, a mutual friend told McCartney that Lennon wanted him in the band. Three months later they took the stage for the first time – at, of all places, the local Conservative Club.
Lennon always knew that McCartney was good; indeed, he initially suspected he was too good for their grammar-school band. But during the next few months, the two boys spent hours together, practicing their chords, honing their skills at birthday parties and church dances – and scribbling down lyrics. Lennon would come over to McCartney’s house, and they would sit in the living room with their guitars and an old school notebook. “I would write down anything we came up with, starting at the top of each page with ‘A Lennon-McCartney Original’ . . .” McCartney remembered in Barry Miles’ book “Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now.” “On the next page, ‘Another Lennon-McCartney Original.’ All the pages have got that. We saw ourselves as very much the next great songwriting team.”
The myth endures that the Liverpool music scene was somehow unique because, as a port city, it came into close contact with American blues. But the truth is more mundane. For at the time there were literally thousands of other beat groups in England, appealing to a swollen and newly affluent teenage market.
By the turn of the decade, almost every provincial city, basking in the glow of postwar affluence, universal education and vastly expanded cultural horizons, boasted its own beat circuit of record shops, music papers and jazz clubs.
So what set Lennon and McCartney apart? Hard work, of course; their unquenchable thirst for new influences; their alertness to the cultural trends of the era; their willingness to develop and mature, both as men and as musicians. Then there was the matchless alchemy between them. They were very different characters: While Lennon was caustic and rebellious, McCartney was dependable and emollient. But their differences fueled their collaborative, competitive, ferociously creative drive.
Even at the beginning, smart critics recognized the achievement. In 1963, William Mann, of The Times, stunned the music world by naming the Beatles “the outstanding English composers of the year.” Mann, perhaps partly tongue-in-cheek, praised “the autocratic but not by any means ungrammatical attitude to tonality (closer to, say, Peter Maxwell Davies carols in ‘O Magnum Mysterium’ than to Gershwin or Loewe or even Lionel Bart); the exhilarating and often quasi-instrumental vocal dueting, sometimes in scat or in falsetto, behind the melodic line; the melismas with altered vowels (‘I saw her yesterday-ee-ay’) and which have not quite become mannered, and the distinct, sometimes subtle varieties of instrumentation. . .”
Most readers thought that Mann had gone mad. Time, however, has proved him right: A century from now, when much 20th-century music is completely forgotten, it is a fair bet that people somewhere will still be singing “Hey Jude” or “Penny Lane.”
Like Shakespeare, another provincial Englishman who produced greatness from nowhere, the Beatles surpassed their modest beginnings. They wrote in imitation of the American icons they loved, but they were more than slavish mimics. They drew on the rhythms of their childhoods, the nursery rhymes, sea shanties, working-class ballads and music-hall routines that made up the fabric of everyday English musical life.
Like all great artists, they transcended their immediate historical circumstances. Perhaps nobody has come closer to capturing the vigor, optimism and sheer possibility of being young. While even the sunniest McCartney-Lennon compositions are often flecked with darkness and shadow, it is the bright buoyancy of their attitude to life, the irrepressible cheerfulness of the band once nicknamed the “Yeah Yeahs,” that shines through.
From the church fête onward, with a new world of music in front of them, with their fathers’ war behind them, and in the benign setting of their Liverpool upbringing, theirs was a music of affirmation, of hope, of youth. They were England’s children, but they belong to the world.
Dominic Sandbrook, who teaches history at Oxford University, is the author of “Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles” and “White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties,” the first two volumes of a cultural history of postwar Britain.