50 Years After The Beatles Split, PEOPLE Celebrates the Band in a Special Edition
“Things can’t get more hysterical,” said John Lennon in 1963. Read an excerpt about their early years from PEOPLE’s The Story of The Beatles
When The Beatles broke up 50 years ago, an era ended. In fact, just a decade had passed since John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and their pre-Ringo Starr bandmates, Stu Sutcliffe and Pete Best, performed as the Beatles for the first time at Hamburg’s Indra Club in the summer of 1960. But by 1970, they had changed music forever.
Far from being a mere nostalgia act, the Beatles remain popular today, less with screaming fans than with streaming fans: Within days of going on sale last year the 1969 album Abbey Road scored 1.7 billion Spotify streams, nearly half of them by people born after the band’s demise. The two surviving band members, McCartney, 78, and Starr, 80, remain close. This summer McCartney released a remastered version of “Beautiful Night,” a song he and Starr made in 1997. When the two hit the studio, said McCartney, “right away it was just like the old days.”
Now PEOPLE is revisiting those remarkable early days in a photo-filled special edition, The Story of The Beatles. In the chapter excerpted below, The Beatles were experiencing a dizzying first wave of success in the UK and at least one member of the band thought they had peaked.
The Beatles were cooling their Cuban boot heels in a dressing room inside a North London theater under siege by fans in January 1964. By order of police fearful of riots, the Beatles had arrived at the theater before schools discharged their fans in the afternoon—and hours before showtime.”We’re open-air lads, really,” John Lennon told a Life correspondent cooped up with them. “But we haven’t seen any open air for so long.”
Oxygen in short supply was as good an explanation as any for the loopiness that now engulfed England. The path to that moment of mass hysteria began back in November 1961, when destiny arrived in the unlikely guise of a 27-year-old department-store heir. Brian Epstein, an immaculately dressed classical-music lover, could not have been more out of his element once he’d descended the Cavern Club’s steps into Liverpool’s beat-music underworld. He had come to see the Hamburg-hardened band after an excited 18-year-old came to Epstein’s music shop in search of a record called “My Bonnie.” The disc in question was a single from an album by Tony Sheridan, whom the Beatles, billed on the label as the Beat Brothers, had backed on a recording session in Germany. As the Beatles were playing nearby, Epstein decided to go.
He left the Cavern that day transported. “I dropped in at the smoky, smelly, pretty squalid cellar where these four youths were performing,” he told Life two years later. “Their act was ragged, they were undisciplined, their clothes were a mess, and yet … I sensed at once that there was something here, something big.”
Within weeks Epstein was serving as their manager and on New Year’s Day 1962 he delivered them to London for an audition with Decca Records. Alas, he was told, guitar groups were “on the way out.” (Once Decca’s brass were proved so spectacularly wrong, the label’s head, Dick Rowe, was spared a lifetime of kicking himself when, on a tip from George Harrison, he signed another up-and-coming group: the Rolling Stones.)
Looking back, Epstein admitted he’d practically lost hope after shopping the Beatles’ demo tape to every major label. “They weren’t in the least interested.”
Then, in April 1962, on a do-or-die trip to London, Epstein planned to knock on one last door—that of Embassy, a nickel-and-dime label distributed through a single outlet, Woolworths. Before calling on them, he stopped at an HMV store to have the demo tape converted to disc. Jim Foye, a sound engineer who routinely made acetates for walk-in customers, heard something in Epstein’s tape that the best ears in the business had missed. Foye turned to Epstein and said, “There’s one of EMI’s executives upstairs at a meeting,” referring to HMV’s parent company. “Would you mind if I asked him to listen to this?”
Said executive was as enthused by what he heard as Foye had been; he happened to have a friend named George Martin, who was the head of an EMI subsidiary label, Parlophone. With his aristocratic bearing (he was, in fact, from a modest background), Martin, 36, seemed as apart from the Beatles’ world as their manager. When he asked them after an early recording session if there was anything they were unhappy with, George Harrison had a go. “Well, for a start,” he said, “I don’t like your tie.”
Martin, who had in his teens led a dance band called the Four Tune Tellers, was the producer of some of the Liverpool lads’ favorite Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan records. He was polite when Epstein first played him his HMV demo disc. “There was an unusual quality—a certain roughness,” Martin would tell author Philip Norman. “I thought to myself, ‘There might just be something there.'”
After an audition in June 1962, Martin offered them a deal. But not before he told Epstein that Pete Best’s “drumming isn’t at all what I want.” By September, when they returned for the recording sessions that would yield their first single, “Love Me Do,” the band had a new drummer. And George Harrison had a black eye, suffered in a melee at the Cavern Club where the Beatles, now with Ringo Starr on drums, were attacked by furious Pete Best fans.
In November Martin was miffed when his new band insisted on recording another Lennon-McCartney original rather than the sure-fire single he had found for them, “How Do You Do It?,” which did become a hit for Gerry and the Pacemakers. “The whole session was a joy,” Martin later admitted, even after the Beatles recorded their own song “Please Please Me.” “At the end, I pressed the intercom button and said, ‘Gentlemen, you have just made your first No. 1.'”
Neither Martin nor Epstein nor the Beatles themselves could have prophesied what was to come: a string of No. 1 hits and a debut album—recorded in a single 12-hour session—that topped the charts for 30 weeks. It was knocked from No. 1 by their second album, released in the U.K. on Nov. 22, 1963. Two months later they made their American LP debut with Meet the Beatles.
The first major outbreaks of mania among England’s teenage population were reported in the fall of 1963 when, in the wake of their first national television appearances and a series of BBC radio shows, the Fab Four—a coinage claimed by Beatles’ publicist Tony Barrow—began a five-week tour. At Hull, in Yorkshire, 50 cops struggled to control 2,000 fans who’d queued up all night. In Carlisle ambulances carted away teens injured when a ticket line devolved into a riot; in Newcastle 4,000 waited in a drenching rain. “Pinched, wind-bitten faces of many who had queued 48 hours made it look more like a death watch than prelude to a joyous Beatle event,” observed the Daily Telegraph.
“I touched a Beatle last night,” wrote a Daily Herald reporter. “Two fans, little more than 12 years old, grabbed me later and kissed my gloved hand.” Fleet Street dubbed it Beatlemania, and reporters assigned to cover the phenomenon rejoiced to discover that the supposed northern bumpkins delivered great quotes. Ringo especially proved a quip machine:
REPORTER: Why do you wear so many rings?
RINGO: Because I can’t fit them all through me nose.
REPORTER: What do you think of Beethoven?
RINGO: I loved his poems.
The most-quoted line belonged to John, as he introduced “Twist and Shout” from the stage of London’s Prince of Wales Theatre during the annual Royal Variety Performance—as far from the Reeperbahn as you could get. “Would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands,” he said to an audience that included the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret (Queen Elizabeth was then pregnant and palace-bound). “And the rest of you if you’ll just rattle your jewelry.”
At another tour stop, Ringo revealed that Beatlemania had infected even his own family. “My dad’s gone right off his nut with excitement over it. He’s a painter, you know, but he doesn’t talk like one anymore. He’s full of the ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah’ and the ‘Wow Wow Wow’ and flicking his fingers.”
With reporters, photographers, television producers “and teenagers who have wrangled interviews” crammed into their dressing room, Ringo chatted about his musical tastes. “I’m dead keen on the blues,” he said, adding that he once hoped to move to the U.S. “I went to the American consulate in Liverpool to get my visa, and they gave us forms to fill in with questions like ‘Is your grandmother’s best friend’s dog a communist?’ So I gave up.”
He needn’t have; in one of pop music’s most spectacular coincidences, American variety show host Ed Sullivan was passing through a London airport in October 1963 just as fans were going nuts over the band, who were returning from Sweden. Recognizing a phenomenon when he was nearly deafened by one, Sullivan decided to book the band.
To that point, the Beatles welcomed the uproar from fans at home. “They can make as much row as they like,” said John, who reckoned that after nine more months Beatlemaniacs would move on to something else. “The day they desert us, I’ll be wondering how I’m going to pay for my whiskey-and-cokes. At the moment,” he added, “we’re at the peak. Things can’t get much more hysterical than they are now.”..He was, of course, very, very wrong.