The Fab Four rejuvenated Britain’s image and, as Dominic Sandbrook reveals in eight landmark moments, defined British society in the sixties…
John and Paul’s big bang moment
Woolton Church Fete, 6 July 1957
It was a sunny afternoon in the summer of 1957, and all seemed right with the world. Twelve years after the end of the Second World War, Harold Macmillan’s Britain was booming, the economy buoyant, the “affluent society” in full swing. And in the comfortable Liverpool suburb of Woolton, everybody was looking forward to the St Peter’s parish church fete, a highlight of the summer calendar.
On the surface, it all seemed entirely unremarkable, a sign of the underlying conservatism of British life in the late 1950s. The band of the Cheshire Yeomanry led a procession through the streets, and floats of Scouts and Guides, Cubs and Brownies, Morris dancers and schoolchildren in fancy dress all followed in their wake. In the field behind the church a makeshift stage had been set up, surrounded by stalls selling home-made cakes and sweets, fruit and vegetables and hardware, and sideshows like bagatelle, hoopla and shilling-in-the-bucket.
Here was fifties Britain in miniature: an affluent, booming society, but also an intensely nostalgic, self-consciously traditional one, caught between the consolations of the past and the excitements of the future. It was only from this world, with its blend of old and new, that the Beatles could ever have emerged.
And it was here, just after four o’clock, that the 15-year-old Paul McCartney had a meeting that would change his life. A keen musical enthusiast, McCartney had come to the fete hoping to meet some girls, but he had also heard reports of a local skiffle band called the Quarry Men, fronted by a teenager called John Lennon. And as he strolled onto the field, the Quarry Men were already on stage, playing a recent hit by the Del-Vikings.
When the band had finished – yielding the stage to a display by the City of Liverpool Police Dogs – the two boys went over to the church hall for a chat. When McCartney did his Gene Vincent and Little Richard impersonations, borrowing a guitar and reeling off lyrics and chord changes from memory, Lennon’s eyes widened with admiration. Two weeks later, he invited McCartney to join the band. And with that, the most celebrated collaboration in pop music history was born.
A rough new world for youth culture
Hamburg, 17 August 1960
On the evening of 17 August 1960, a battered cream and green Austin van sputtered into the German city of Hamburg. In the back were the five young members of a band called the Beatles – Lennon, McCartney, George Harrison, Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best. None had been to Germany before. But they had just agreed a deal to play for three months in a Hamburg nightclub – and not surprisingly, they were feeling nervous.
For a young Englishman at the turn of the 1960s, Hamburg could hardly have been more exotic. It was a port city, famed for its club scene, red-light district and rough-edged atmosphere. The newcomers played at the Indra club, a dingy cellar that doubled as a strip joint. Often their audiences consisted only of the local prostitutes and their clients.
Yet the Beatles’ Hamburg residency was part of a wider story – a symbol not just of the globalisation of popular culture, and of Britain’s deep links with mainland Europe, but of the expanding horizons that travel, entertainment and the nascent mass-market youth culture brought for so many young people in the early 60s.
With Britain’s skiffle market saturated, canny promoters had started bringing bands to the continent to entertain sailors and American soldiers in major West German towns. In Hamburg alone the curious punter might expect to see Dave Lee and the Staggerlees from Cornwall or the Nashville Teens from Weybridge. And it was here that the Beatles became used to dressing up and playing in front of a live crowd. It was in Hamburg, in other words, that they grew up.
All hail the darlings of the establishment
Royal Variety Performance, 4 November 1963
Despite the headlong economic growth of the day, Britain in the early 60s often seemed an intensely deferential, backward-looking society. Few cultural occasions loomed larger than the annual Royal Variety Performance, and invitations were highly prized. Never, though, had there been bigger crowds than those assembling outside the Prince of Wales Theatre, Leicester Square, on the evening of 4 November 1963. Most were in their teens, and the vast majority were girls. And they had come to see only one act: the Beatles.
By this point, the Beatles were already very well known, having broken through to nationwide success at the turn of the year. By the autumn of 1963, ‘She Loves You’ was top of the NME singles chart, ‘Twist and Shout’ was top of the EP chart, and ‘Please Please Me’ was top of the LP chart. But it was their debut at the Royal Variety Performance that really turned the Beatles into household names. When ITV broadcast the tape of the concert a few days later, almost 26 million people tuned in. “Night of Triumph for Four Young Men,” was the Daily Mail’s verdict. “Yes – the Royal Box was stomping.”
The irony is that only a few years earlier, most newspapers had been sworn foes of rock and roll. But now they embraced the Beatles as national heroes. “You have to be a real sour square not to love the nutty, noisy, happy, handsome Beatles,” explained the Mirror. “The Beatles are whacky. They wear their hair like a mop – but it’s WASHED, it’s super clean. So is their fresh young act.”
“Yeah! Yeah! USA!”
Ed Sullivan Show, 9 February 1964
It’s impossible to overstate the impact of the Beatles’ arrival in New York in February 1964. Before they landed, no British group had had a serious break in the United States, and British popular culture was generally seen as stuffy and old-fashioned. By the time they left, the picture had changed forever.
The key moment was their appearance on CBS’s Ed Sullivan Show, watched by 73 million people, then the largest audience in American television history. The next day’s papers claimed that the streets of New York were deserted as people huddled in front of their television sets – even the evangelist Billy Graham broke his rule about not watching television on the Sabbath so that he could see what was getting his daughters so excited.
In the United States, Beatles merchandise was everywhere. In the aftermath of the group’s triumphant appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, 100,000 Beatles dolls poured into the shops of New York, while various companies produced an estimated 35,000 Beatles wigs a day. And at home, their success was treated as a kind of national vindication after years of retreat. “YEAH! YEAH! USA!” roared a triumphant headline in the Mirror. The Americans quickly adopted the now-famous term already being used in British media: Beatlemania.
Almost overnight, Britain’s image had been reborn, from a tired old colonial empire to a modern, youthful, dynamic fashion capital. “If any country is in deficit with us,” said the new Conservative prime minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, “I have only to say the Beatles are coming.” The New Musical Express went on to agree: “We may be regarded as a second-class power in politics, but at any rate we now lead the world in pop music!”
Creative highs, financial angst
Revolver, 5 August 1966
The Beatles’ seventh studio album, Revolver, marked the moment they reached artistic maturity. With its electronic experiments, psychedelic effects and intricate song lyrics, it transcended their previous material and broke new ground in demonstrating what a pop group could achieve. Even at the time, in August 1966, some listeners recognised it as a masterpiece. The jazz musician and critic George Melly wrote that the Beatles had broken “right through the conventions of the very best traditions of popular song”, adding that pop had finally “come of age”.
But one of Revolver’s less celebrated songs tells an unexpected story about Britain in the mid-1960s. The band were now enormously, colossally rich – so rich they had left their old lives far behind.
Since their breakthrough, the picture had begun to darken for Britain’s economy. Many British industries were increasingly uncompetitive, losing market share to their foreign competitors. Prices were rising; so, almost unnoticed, was unemployment. And for rich men like the Beatles, there was another anxiety: tax. The top income tax rate under Harold Wilson’s Labour government was 90 per cent, which explains why newspapers were already fretting about a “brain drain”, as high earners moved to Australia, South Africa or the United States.
Having grown up in a Liverpool council house as the son of a bus driver and a shop assistant, George Harrison had never felt guilty about wanting to do well. Filling in a questionnaire about his ambitions before the Beatles became famous, he had written: “To retire with a lot of money, thank you.” Now he poured his financial anxiety into the song ‘Taxman’, a howl of protest against the Inland Revenue’s demands.
When Victorians reigned again
Sgt Pepper, 26 May 1967
Britain in the 1960s was a society obsessed with its own past. Now that the British empire had faded into history, John Bull was busy reinventing himself as a joke – a kind of carnival turn – and nothing captured that better than the Beatles’ eighth and most celebrated album, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released at the end of May 1967.
For many contemporary listeners, Sgt Pepper was an extraordinary, even bewildering experience, with its continuous stream of sound, its studio banter, steam organs and animal noises, its combination of cartoonish psychedelia, circus vaudeville, driving rock music and gentle ballads. Perhaps the most striking thing, though, was the influence of the old-fashioned Victorian music hall, from the jaunty love song ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ to the fairground sound on ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’ – a clear nod to the traditions with which the Beatles had grown up in northern England.
None of this was an accident. Victoriana was everywhere in the popular culture of the mid-1960s, from the art nouveau fabrics in home-improvement magazines to the colossal popularity of The Forsyte Saga, which was running every week on BBC Two in the first half of 1967. Even fashion, abandoning the space-age look popular a few years earlier, was now turning nostalgic. The current vogue, declared the Daily Sketch that summer, was for “Indian jackets and dresses, kimonos, Victorian dresses, elaborately patterned, beaded and flowing twenties and thirties dresses, bell-bottomed trousers and brocade waistcoats”.
What best captured this new aesthetic, though, was Sgt Pepper itself – meaning the physical artefact. Jann Haworth and Peter Blake’s cover shows the Beatles as moustachioed Victorian bandsmen, surrounded by their cultural heroes, from Sir Robert Peel, Aubrey Beardsley and Edgar Allan Poe to Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde and HG Wells – a Who’s Who of eminent Victorians.
The magic wand of spiritualism
Meeting the Maharishi, 24 August 1967
In August 1967, three of the Beatles, minus Ringo, pushed their way through the crowds into the Park Lane Hilton for a lecture. The speaker was the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a self-professed Indian holy man with a grey beard, long robes and garlands of flowers. Having studied transcendental meditation for 13 years in the Himalayas, he already had some 250 worldwide meditation centres and 10,000 British converts. None, however, were as famous as the Beatles. After the Hilton lecture, they were granted a brief audience. “You have created a magic wand in your name,” he told them. “Wave it so that it will move in the proper direction.”
In the press, the Beatles’ flirtation with the Maharishi, which included spiritual regeneration retreats in north Wales and the foothills of the Ganges, was a sensation. In bohemian and artistic circles the east had long been seen as glamorous and mysterious. And by 1967 some British students were already embarking on the so-called “hippie trail”, travelling overland through Turkey and Iran towards Afghanistan and India.
But it was the Beatles who really turned the fascination with the east into a more mainstream preoccupation. By the end of the 1960s, Buddhism, Hinduism and transcendental meditation had become immensely fashionable.
The popularity of the sitar musician Ravi Shankar owed much to his friendship with George Harrison, who had developed a love for Indian music. And in 1971 Shankar and Harrison co-organised the pioneering Concert for Bangladesh – the first major rock concert for a charitable cause.
- Read more | When Live Aid rocked the world
A dream dies as recession beckons
Break-up, April 1970
The Beatles phenomenon was born of affluence and optimism, a product of the buoyant economic growth and booming teenage markets of the Macmillan years in the early 1960s. It was fitting, then, that the band broke up at the moment the economic and political skies were darkening, as the heady utopianism of the Swinging Sixties gave way to the anger and anxieties of the following decade.
In retrospect, the Beatles were probably doomed as early as 1968, when the four members began to quarrel about musical and business issues. Both Lennon and Harrison were keen to try new individual ventures and by early 1969 the former’s new wife, Yoko Ono, was proving to be a destabilising influence. By that autumn, the band was effectively dead. But it was not until the following April, when Paul McCartney issued a statement that he had no plans to work with the Beatles again, that they formally broke up.
Today it’s often said that the dissolution of the Beatles was the moment the sixties ended. Certainly, as the seventies dawned, their sound – daring, confident, youthful, experimental – appeared the product of a bygone era. Within just a few years, economic growth would come grinding to a halt, with the OPEC oil shock pushing the western world into recession. And in Edward Heath’s Britain, public life took on a harsher edge, typified by strikes, inflation, terrorist atrocities and political breakdown.
- Read more | The death of John Lennon: what happened?
So if the Beatles had stayed together, perhaps they would have struggled to find a place in the uneasy world of the 1970s. Theirs was the music of youth and hope, a reminder of a vanished age of utopian idealism. And so, by and large, it remains today.
Get Back, Peter Jackson’s three-part series on the making of the Beatles’ album Let it Be, is available on Disney+ now
This article first appeared in the Christmas 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine
Get Back is available on Disney+. To watch you need a Disney+ account (£79.90 a year and £7.99 a month)