‘Where are we going, lads?’
‘To the toppermost of the poppermost, Johnny!’
When the Beatles were feeling in need of a pep talk, Paul, George and Ringo would ask this question to John, and that would be his answer. The Beatles. The biggest and best-selling band of all time. A gang of four that changed popular music and culture for the better. A rare time for the charts in which the mainstream was a showcase for some of the most inventive, innovative and intelligent pop music the world has ever known, and that’s in large part thanks to John, Paul, George and Ringo. Beatlemania and Merseybeat conquered the number 1 position of the charts like nothing before or since, and in total the Beatles scored 17 number 1s – more than any other group to this date. They also conquered America and changed music there too, something no UK act had yet done. By the time the Fab Four split, pop had grown up and become an art form. Their break-up left a void that took some time to fill.
As a teenager, 1963 was my musical year zero, and as a 16-year-old in 1995, I was envious of anyone that was my age when the Beatles were ruling the charts. Working on this blog has, if anything, made that envy more intense. Up to this point, bar the classics, many of these artists and songs have been new to me. I’ve been looking forward to blogging about the Beatles for so long, and now I’m here – what do you write about a band that’s been written about more than any other?
I’ve already covered many key aspects of the Beatles’ pre-fame years, and the story has been told countless times in books, film and TV, but for those who are unaware, 16-year-old Liverpudlian John Lennon formed a skiffle group with school friends known as the Quarrymen in 1957. That summer, Lennon met Paul McCartney for the first time, and soon after he became their rhythm guitarist. The following year, his friend, George Harrison auditioned for them on a bus and became their lead guitarist. By 1959 the other band members had left, and the trio became known as Johnny and the Moondogs. In January 1960, Lennon persuaded his art school friend Stuart Sutcliffe to buy a bass guitar, and he suggested they become the Beatals, as a tribute to the Crickets. In May they became the Silver Beetles, by July they were the Silver Beatles, and finally in August they settled on the Beatles. That month they hired Pete Best as their drummer and their unofficial manager Allan Williams arranged a residency for them in Hamburg, Germany.
For two years they would return there, and perform through the night, often relying on the drug Preludine to keep them going. Sutcliffe preferred to focus on being an artist and left the group early in 1961, so Paul McCartney became the bassist. Sutcliffe later died of an aneurysm, aged only 21.
Later that year they made their recording debut as the Beat Brothers, backing Tony Sheridan. That November, Brian Epstein saw the band performing at the Cavern Club. The canny local record store owner saw an inherent star quality in the foursome, and he became their manager in January 1962. He began trying to organise them a UK record deal, but Decca told them guitar groups were ‘on their way out’. Three months later they signed to Parlophone and got lucky in finding a sympathetic producer in George Martin, who, like Epstein, knew there was something special about this group. However, he wasn’t sure about the drummer, and neither was Epstein, or the others, so Best was sacked and replaced with Ringo Starr from Rory Storm and the Hurricanes.
Finally, things fell into place, despite a shaky start between Martin and Ringo on debut single Love Me Do. On Martin’s advice the band sped up their song Please Please Me and it became their second single, and it was a smash-hit, reaching number 1 on several charts in early 1963 – but not the chart that is now considered to be official (see my blog on How Do You Do It? for further info). Around this time, Epstein encouraged the foursome to clean up their act if they wanted to be really big, and they became more family friendly by dressing in suits, and ceasing swearing on stage. Parlophone wanted to capitalise on Please Please Me‘s success, and they swiftly recorded their debut album with the same name in one long session, climaxing in their raw version of Twist and Shout.
Paul and John had written From Me to You on a coach while they were on tour with Helen Shapiro. They had been inspired by ‘From You to Us’, the name of the letters section in the New Musical Express. Back then, McCartney and Lennon’s songs (this song dates from before they swapped their surnames around in their credits) were often written face to face and From Me to You was no exception. Lennon later recalled coming up with the first line, in the famous Playboy interview shortly before he was murdered in 1980. He also said it was originally much bluesier, and it seems they weren’t too enamoured with it at first. Neither was singer Kenny Lynch, who was also on the coach. When he heard the band performing their falsettos – soon to become one of their trademarks, he allegedly branded them a bunch of ‘fucking fairies’.
Nonetheless, Martin asked the band for a song as strong as Please Please Me, and they presented him with this. He suggested the harmonica, and for the vocal addition to the opening lick, and this achieves something rarely (if ever) achieved by a number 1 up to this point. The recording starts with the entire group performing its raw opening with the catchy refrain presented upfront, almost as if the listener has walked into the song halfway through its performance.
From Me To You is for me their least impressive single. It’s not as effective as the bluesy Love Me Do and deceptively filthy Please Please Me (have another listen if you don’t believe that’s a song about oral sex). Lyrically it’s okay, but pretty basic lightweight pop by their later high standards. However, it is structurally unusual, which is something the Beatles were good at doing without even seemingly trying, and although I’m no musician and am poor on musical terms, it is something recognisable even to idiots like myself. The Everly Brothers-inspired harmonies are in place and a stand-out, and the falsettos add a layer of excitement that teenage girls understood, even if Lynch didn’t. From Me to You became the band’s first officially recognised number 1 single, and stayed there for seven weeks – longer than any other song that year. During its reign, their debut album also went to number 1. They were toppermost of the poppermost, but they were only getting started.
In the news during that spring and summer: National Service ended, with the last servicemen released from conscription on 7-13 May, and on 5 June, John Profumo, Secretary of State for War, admits to misleading Parliament over his affair with the model Christine Keeler. The UK wasn’t used to political scandals like this yet, and it’s believed the Profumo affair caused the Government irreparable damage.
In the world of football, Everton won the Football League First Division title on 11 May, and four days later, Spurs became the first British team to win a European trophy when they defeated Atlético Madrid 5-1 to take the European Cup Winners Cup. Ten days later, Mancehster United beat Leicester City 3-1 in the FA Cup final. An emotional victory for a team which was nearly wiped out in the Munich air disaster five years ago.
Written by: Paul McCartney & John Lennon
Producer: George Martin
Weeks at number 1: 7 (2 May-19 June)
Actress Natasha Richardson – 11 May
Actor Jason Isaacs – 6 June
Novelist John Cowper Powys – 17 June