Behold, a technological revolution. Between the wars, the gramophone record came of age. It was, though, a pretty limited thing. Playing at 78rpm (78 revolutions per minute) and made of a compound know as shellac was both noisy, breakable, wore out easily and of pretty ropey sound quality.
The revolution was vinyl. PVC enabled the record to be ‘micro-grooved’, which allowed a 12-inch record to play more than 20 minutes worth of music. However, long playing records were expensive and the mostly the preserve of classical music, jazz and esoteric things like folk.
Instead, a cheaper and more compact vinyl format was dominant: the 7-inch. Its standard format was one roughly 3 minute song per side. Usually, the main feature, the A-side and is equivalent of the B-movie, the B-side.
When rock and roll came, it was the 7-inch single that was its recorded vehicle. In truth, early British rock and roll wasn’t much to write home about: anyone for Cliff?
By the ‘sixties there were the first stirrings of great British guitar music. Johnny Kid & the Pirates Shakin’ All Over has decent claims to being the first great British rock and roll record (hear it here). Cliff’s sometime backing band, The Shadows, had the first great British guitarist: Hank Marvin (whose influence can clearly be heard in the playing of the Beatles’ very own George Harrison).
By 1962, The Beatles were an experienced and rather brilliant rock and roll band, honed by their famous residences in Hamburg and gigs aplenty in the likes of Liverpool’s legendary Cavern Club (they are in Hamburg below: with original members Pete Best, far left, and Stuart Sutcliffe, far right).
When Brian Epstein became their manager, he looked to make them into stars. The leather jackets and drainpipe trousers gave way to suits and the famous mop top haircuts. For all that, they were famously turned down by Decca Records, because guitar bands were on the way out. EMI took them under their wing. The producer they gave them, George Martin, was better known for his comedy records than his music.
But he saw, as the world would, The Beatles had something different. Most of all, that can be summed up in two words: Lennon/McCartney. They wrote their own songs.
Their first release, Love Me Do wasn’t that great, nor a smash hit. But, Please Please Me hit number 2, and From Me to You was the first of 11 consecutive number 1s. They’re great pop songs. They made albums too, as the iconic cover of their first reminds us.
The other thing Martin gave them was the sound. When I first heard these records, they sounded tinny and thin. They weren’t. For the technically minded, they had been badly remixed into stereo (bizarrely, with the vocals on one side, the instruments on the other). In the ‘sixties, most fans listened in mono: the same sound in both ears. When the original mixes came out: wow. The Beatles rocked, and Martin had turned it up. This is their take on The Isley Brothers’ Twist and Shout.
But, most of all, it was their own songs. On 26th June, 1963, the band had played Newcastle’s Majestic Ballroom. That night, on the tour bus and in their hotel room, Lennon and McCartney wrote a song they would finish at McCartney’s family home the following day.
She Loves You is still one of the great pop songs.
The Beatles would go on to become the biggest act on the planet. They had an unbroken run of 11 number 1 hit singles. In April 1964, the top five singles in America’s Billboard chart were by The Beatles (seen here heading to New York).
Their first film, A Hard Day’s Night, and the album it spawned were entirely self-penned.
The title song begins with that famous chord on George Harrison’s 12-string Rickenbacker
In those years of Beatlemania, they were touring incessantly (if often inaudibly, given the limited application and almost unlimited adulation of the screaming girls, as seen in Indianapolis, below).
The important medium was still the 45 rpm single, and the Beatles singles were all Lennon/McCartney songs: there wasn’t a dud among them. Their first film was one of the few genuinely good pop movies, helped along by the bands’ natural wit and something of a star turn from Ringo Starr. Help! wasn’t as good, though it opens with a very good joke.
For some time now Lennon and McCartney had been writing separately as often as not. The demands of incessant touring seemed to have affected McCartney more than Lennon. By the time of Help!, Lennon seemed to be the band’s leading songwriter, penning and singing lead on their last four singles, and on the song chosen to lead the film.
Help! was, in some ways, no departure from the format that had seen the band achieve such spectacular success. Interestingly, Lennon had written it as a mid-paced ballad, a fact which showed through in the fact that the song had an emotional depth the band hadn’t shown before. Very much under the influence of Bob Dylan, Lennon’s writing was starting to head somewhere new.
But McCartney had an ace up his sleeve. According to George Martin, Yesterday had been written as long ago as January 1964, some 18 months before it was recorded. Even then, it wasn’t recorded until the very end of what were some rushed and rather desultory sessions for Help! (and album that contains a lot of fillers, as does its predecessor Beatles for Sale). In the end, Yesterday was recorded right at the and of the sessions, and featured McCartney alone among the band.
In part its brilliance is simply explained: the melody (well, the verse and chorus especially) is stunning, well nigh perfect, and original. The melody had, McCartney claims, come to him fully formed: he was continuously asking friends whether they had heard it before. Something else was added though: Martin and McCartney’s string arrangement. Eschewing the mass strings of conventional pop, Martin persuaded McCartney to add a string quartet. The result fits the yearning restraint of the song perfectly
The effect that would have on McCartney and the band would be profoundly liberating. McCartney’s love affair with the actress Jane Asher had already introduced him classical music: he would take that interest somewhere altogether new in the next two years.
Meanwhile though, something else was happening. The previous year, the had met Bob Dylan in New York. Musically, Lennon in particular had come under his influence (You’ve got to Hide Your Love Away, above; or Norwegian Wood). There was another influence: marijuana. Dope was one reason why the making of the movie Help! was not a success. Then, in early 1965, Lennon and Harrison had been introduced to LSD: again, more of which here, and here (to come).
Like Yesterday, Lennon’s Ticket to Ride was an artistic breakthrough. Mid-tempo, dissonant and drone-like (its opening chord takes up ten bars), with Starr giving it a broken drum pattern, it is also influenced by Indian music. Martin had already used studio technology, commonly double-tracking Lennon’s vocals (that is, we have two Lennons singing on many Beatles records of this period). Now he used varispeed too, to alter pitch and achieve that drone-like feel.
These experiments would be taken further, though that would have to wait until the touring schedule eased and the band got time in the studio: the band played their final UK tour in 1965, and their last live gig of all the following year.
In the two years which followed, the interest in classical music, Indian music and psychedelia would see a musical revolution: psychedelia, and beyond. it would see the advent of a new medium too, in many ways pioneers by Bob Dylan: the LP record as an art form in itself. Not like those early albums, a hastily assembled bunch of songs, but the fully crafted album.
For now, in 1965, the boys were leaving the heady days of Beatlemania well behind and were embarking upon, along with the others who were so often in their wake, what Ian MacDonald called a Revolution in the Head that would change the face of popular music and with it, western culture itself. Now, there’s a claim.
Meanwhile, back in 1964:
And here in the great book on the. Beatles’ music.