Levy Lecture: History of the Beatles in one hour
Music historian Gary Wenstrup delivered an in-depth and nuanced portrait of the Beatles’ beginning, development, growth and break-up at the Levy Lecture on Tuesday, April 26 in front of an online crowd of nearly 300. . It bolstered its slides and narration with video clips of interviews with and about the band, in addition to song snippets. It was a 60s lovefest from start to finish.
The Fab Four – Paul McCartney on bass, John Lennon on rhythm guitar, George Harrison on lead guitar and Ringo Starr on drums – got their start in Liverpool, England, and their musical influences from rhythm bands and American blues. Wenstrup is an avid Beatles fan. He considers them complete originals and cited some of the ways they were and are unique.
Unlike most other bands or singers, The Beatles wrote, sang, performed and, for the most part, arranged their own songs. They made pop music respectable, worthy of cultural analysis. They were very hardworking, according to Wenstrup, and their production was prodigious. Although they were only together for seven years, during that time they released 13 albums, 10 singles and four movies. Their music, Wenstrup said, is “melodic and totally singable”, whatever the type of music – rockers or ballads, it is always accessible.
What about objective, quantitative evidence of the Beatles’ impact? Wenstrup provided that too: they are the biggest selling musical act of all time – bigger than Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Elton John or Led Zeppelin. They have had more No. 1 hits – 20 – than any other band. They also appeal to music lovers who weren’t even born when the Beatles made music. Wenstrup cited 2019 statistics from Spotify, a music streaming platform, where Beatles music was downloaded 1.7 billion times, and 47% of those downloads came from people between the ages of 18 and 29.
Wenstrup described the band’s history: The Fab Four met as teenagers in Liverpool in 1957 – their homes growing up were within five miles of each other. Lennon had a band and was introduced to McCartney, whose talent he recognized and invited him into the band even though it meant he had to co-star. McCartney recruited Harrison. Their first gig in March 1958 was playing at McCartney’s aunt’s wedding; Lennon was 17 and McCartney and Harrison were 15.
The three guitarists and a series of drummers spent the next two years playing gigs in England and occasionally Europe. In 1960 they had the opportunity to work as a house band in a club in Hamburg, Germany.
As Wenstrup tells the story, a club owner in Hamburg was converting a strip club into a rock and roll club and he needed a band. He asked a friend in Liverpool to send his best rock and roll band to Germany. Liverpool’s top two groups were already booked. The Beatles, third in the list, were available and soon found themselves in Hamburg.
This musical residency turned out to be their “musical apprenticeship”, according to Wenstrup. For the next two years, the Beatles played eight-hour sets, seven days a week, for months. They also made a pact with each other not to repeat any songs when they played, which meant they had to learn hundreds of songs. It was here, in Hamburg, that they learned to be a band.
They returned to Liverpool in 1962. They were popular locally, but professionally they were stuck because they lacked both a manager and a recording contract, Wenstrup said. But in the early months of 1962, their future looked brighter with three major changes: Brian Epstein asked to be, and was hired, as their manager; Epstein connected the group to George Martin, who signed them to a recording contract; Martin recommended that they fire their current drummer and hire a professional he recommended, who turned out to be Ringo Starr.
In March 1963, they released their first album, Please make me happy the first of 11 consecutive Beatles albums to reach No. 1 in the UK. They continued to tour at home and their popularity grew there and throughout Europe, but they were unknown in the United States. That changed in December 1963 with the release of “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, which reached No. 1 on the US charts in January 1964.
Now the American market was eager to see and hear The Beatles. With the US market accounting for 75% of all record sales worldwide, they had to succeed in the US, Wentrup said. Alerted by his talent scouts in Europe, Ed Sullivan booked them for three performances on his weekly variety show. They landed at JFK International Airport on February 7, 1964, in front of a cheering crowd of fans. Two days later, they made a sensational US debut on The Ed Sullivan Show in front of 71 million people in 23 million households – 34% of the country’s total population. Their Sunday night debut is still the second highest-rated TV event, excluding sporting events, based on the percentage of audiences with TVs turned to a particular channel. The only other show with more viewers is the latest episode of MASH POTATOES.
Wenstrup explained why the band was unusual: Most bands, in his opinion, either focus on high-energy stage work or big harmonies, but the Beatles excelled at both. They were charismatic on stage and off. They were cheerful, with a good sense of humor. They made you feel good listening to their music. Returning to England after their US debut, they spent a few months that spring recording their first film, A hard day’s Night. It was released in the summer of 1964 to critical acclaim, much to their surprise.
The band continued to grow and develop musically. Wenstrup said the Beatles followed their own musical instincts, never responding to what audiences wanted, and their musical catalog matured accordingly. In 1965 they shot the movie, To help! to more praise. The following year, McCartney wrote and sang his first solo, “Yesterday”.
“Yesterday” represented a change in their work: it is more personal, more mature and aimed at an older audience. Wenstrup has stated that “Yesterday” is the most-recorded song of all time; somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 different artists have recorded a version of it.
The band decided to stop touring in 1966. They mostly played in stadiums with very poor acoustics. There were so many shouts from the fans that it was impossible for the audience to hear the lyrics of the songs. The Beatles felt these venues weren’t appropriate for showcasing their music, Wenstrup said. They returned to England and in November began work on their new album, sergeant. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released in June 1967.
Wenstrup included this quote from a Rolling Stone magazine album review: “Sgt. Pepper is the most important rock ‘n’ roll album ever made, an unparalleled adventure in concept, sound, songwriting, cover art and studio technology by rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest band. ‘roll of all time.
By the time the Beatles broke up in 1970, they had accomplished everything they wanted to do musically, according to Wenstrup. They also had differences of opinion on how to handle the business side of their group.
Epstein, their beloved manager, had died in August 1967 of an accidental drug overdose. Harrison, Lennon and Starr wanted to hire Allen Klein to replace Epstein, but McCartney was not on board, which led to the beginning of the irritations which culminated in the disbanding of the group in December 1970. For a time, relations between the four frayed, but these were eventually settled and their friendships remained intact. All four had successful solo careers in the years that followed.
Wenstrup’s webinar could not be posted on the Levy Senior Center Foundation’s YouTube channel due to copyright issues, but the presentation garnered positive responses from those who viewed it online. direct. 89-year-old fan Marlene Mitchel commented: “Such a great program! Gary Wenstrup is an outstanding presenter – well-prepared, well-spoken – and I’m so glad everything went technically well today!” Another anonymous commenter wrote, “I can’t think of a more wonderful way to spend a Tuesday afternoon. It made my day. My week. My year. Yes, it was awesome!!!”