While sorting through my ancient file cabinet recently, I came across a number of school papers I wrote, including one from my senior year in high school. The (rather ambitious!) topic was, “The Influence of the Beatles.”
During the pandemic, I have found nothing that can cheer me up as much as listening to my Beatles LPs or watching their films. So I’m going to take up a friend on his suggestion and publish my paper here, in a greatly condensed form. It ought to provide plenty to hoot over. The Beatles had long broken up when I wrote this, but I was still madly in love with all four of them.
I haven’t changed the wording, but I’ve shortened it, and left out the bibliographical stuff. The information herein came from numerous magazine articles that I found through hours of searching The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature (remember it?).
Here it is, with all the profundity one can expect from a 17-year-old:
Who can deny the influence of the Beatles? They were almost as much a part of life in the 1960s as politics and war. They broke records, changed traditions, did things musically that had never been done before, and accumulated a mass of incredible statistics. For example, the Beatles had 30 million-selling records, and their gross worldwide sales came to $750 million.
Yet their first manager, the capable Brian Epstein, came across them performing a shabby act in a squalid, dingy cellar. They looked more like hoodlums than musicians who would influence the world. “Yet,” said Epstein, “I sensed at once that there was something here.”
Epstein cleaned them up. Soon, they fired Pete Best as their drummer and replaced him with a man named Richard Starkey. The combination of Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and John Lennon proved a magical one. In 1962, a Lennon-McCartney composition called “Love Me Do” began climbing the charts. Other songs soon followed: “She Loves You” was the first million-record sale in England, and after it, the Beatles skyrocketed to success.
They were enormously popular in Great Britain by 1963. In that year, they sold more than 2.5 million recordings of their own compositions. Their concerts were sell-outs – joyous, frenzied affairs in which the frantic screaming of their fans drowned out even the heavy beat of the amplified music. Crowds of teenagers followed the Beatles everywhere, fighting just to get a glimpse, a touch, a smile.
In November of 1963, police had to battle with 400 frantic girls who were trying to get tickets to a Beatles concert. At London Airport, a woman reporter whose hand happened to brush the back of a Beatle had that hand kissed repeatedly by adoring Beatles followers. Queen Elizabeth and Sir Alec Douglas-Home were delayed at the same airport by 15,000 fans – not of the queen, but of the Beatles, who happened to be there also.
All this furor was new to the Beatles, who had been playing in the dreary pubs and cheap strip joints of Liverpool and Hamburg, Germany, just over a year earlier. Although they enjoyed the adulation, it inconvenienced their lives more than a little. After concerts, it was all they could do to sneak away without being mobbed. More than once the foursome found themselves slipping down backstage corridors and alleys.
Americans viewed the feverish euphoria with a hint of disdain, wondering if the Britons hadn’t gone daft. Epstein arranged an American tour. On February 4, 1964, they arrived in America to the screams and swoons of 5,000 teenage fans. Ed Sullivan rushed to sign them for an appearance on his show. They were the first performers ever to do three shows in a row on his program and their appearances doubled Sullivan’s ratings; 72% of New York’s viewers were tuned in.
The “unbarbershopped quartet,” as Time magazine called them, toured American with a success unprecedented for a foreign group. They covered 22,500 miles and did 30 performances in 33 days, gathering in $2.11 million. Their performances were sell-outs in New York, Miami, Washington, and many other cities. Teenagers comprised the greater portion of their fans, but many adults had joined the ranks by the time the Beatles returned to Britain.
Even England’s royalty was charmed by the magical group. They played at the Royal Variety Show before Queen Elizabeth and the cream of British society, and soon had them clapping to the beat. The Beatles managed to hang on to a cool, satirical amusement, however. John Lennon told the audience: “People in the cheaper seats, please clap. The rest of you, just rattle your jewelry.”
In 1965, Queen Elizabeth named the Beatles Members of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire – the lowest rank of knighthood. This brought some protests, especially from other members, but many people supported the move. Six members of the House of Commons called the Beatles “the first entertainment group that has captured the American market and brought in its wake great commercial advantage in dollar earnings to this country.”
Already the Beatles had greatly changed the music world. They were giving rock ’n’ roll a widespread respectability it had never quite attained. The young men from Liverpool were the first rock group ever to play in New York’s Carnegie Hall, and there were many adults in the sell-out crowd.
The Beatles were also the first British group to attain such popularity outside of England. Before, Britons had always listened to American pop music; now it was the other way around. In 1964, for the first time since 1956, Elvis Presley had no gold album or single. During the week of April 4, 1964, the top five songs in America were all Beatles songs.
But the Beatles’ influence was not limited to music. Beatles wigs – styled after their pudding-bowl mops of hair – sold by the thousands. Other boys merely let their own hair grow. Skirts became miniskirts, after the fashion already popular in England. Anything with the Beatles’ name attached to it – sweatshirts, dolls, posters or magazines – was likely to sell.
The Beatles even influenced the financial world. Northern Songs, Ltd., which had stock in their compositions, went public in February of 1965. Between then and October, its stocks climbed from 5 shillings, 11 pence, to 8 shillings, 7 pence. In the fiscal year ending April 30, 1965, Northern Songs made $1.72 million over earlier expectations. Britain’s Electronic and Musical Industries, which sold Beatles records, had a year of record-breaking sales. In the first three years of their real success, the Beatles wrote 88 songs which were recorded in 2,921 different versions and sold 200 million copies. Total sales came to almost half a billion dollars.
One of the most endearing characteristics of the quartet was their clever wit. When ridiculous questions were tossed at them, they came up with answers that managed to be even more ridiculous. Asked by a reporter why he wore as many as six rings on his fingers, Ringo replied drolly, “Because I can’t fit them all through my nose.”
But almost everyone thought that their popularity would soon wane. Only a few disagreed, like Northern Songs manager James, who predicted that the records of the Beatles “will still be playing in 2000 A.D.”
In July of 1967, the Beatles released an album which profoundly changed the music world. It sold 1.5 million copies in the U.S. alone in two weeks; by the end of three months it had sold another million. Before its official release, a million copies had been ordered in advance, and radio stations were bidding up to $1,000 for bootleg copies of it.
There was little innocence inSergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Beneath the levity and charm lay irony almost to the point of cynicism. The music was full of melody and harmony and rhythm, but intellectuals found significant social commentary in the lyrics. Critics analyzed it until no one was sure what it meant. Nearly all major reviewers considered the album the most momentous work of 1967. To this day, many still regard it as the greatest rock album in the history of music.
Musically, Sergeant Pepper was a surprise. It used almost 50 different instruments, many of which were new or unusual to the rock world. “She’s Leaving Home,” which composer Ned Rorem labeled “equal to any song that Schubert ever wrote,” used stringed instruments, a harp, and a cello. “Within You, Without You” used cellos and violins, plus Indian instruments like the table-harp, dilruba, sitar, table, and tamboura.
Musicians were also fascinated by the album’s use of sophisticated electronic techniques. It helped make electronic stereo music a new art form.
This had always been one of the most important effects of the Beatles. They were not always the first artists to experiment with new styles and techniques, but they were the performers that could popularize them.
But their influence extended far beyond music. Fans, especially teenagers, related to them as leaders, revolutionaries, spokesmen for the feelings the teens could not express themselves. The Beatles were not adults speaking to them across a gap of years. They sang of ordinary life, but in unique and original ways.
Sergeant Pepper was full of drug references, which worried parents. But its true message went beyond drugs – it was an exhortation to seek a better, new reality. Along with Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, and others, the Beatles helped express social discontent.
After Sergeant Pepper, there were almost no bounds to the Beatles’ popularity. Each new album was eagerly anticipated, and when it appeared, stores could hardly keep up with demand. The two-disk white album sold 1.1 million copies in the first five days after its release.
A new album was a critical and social event as well as a musical one. Its songs would be played on radio stations and record players across the country, while critics delighted in analyzing the lyrics. Teachers examined the songs in classes; ministers used songs for topics of sermons. As Ellen Sander of the Saturday Review put it, “The world is more fun for a little while.”
The Beatles’ influence was widespread. “All You Need is Love” was written and performed for a BBC-TV broadcast which was shown across both oceans to an audience of approximately 600 million.
Their influence extends into today. Even the oldest Beatles albums are still being sold, and may be selling at the turn of the century. Their impact was so great that it is impossible to describe the music and society of the 1960s without paying tribute to John, Paul, George, and Ringo.
Gail Binkly — who wrote this term paper back in the 1970s — is editor of the Four Corners Free Press.