The Beginning of the Beatles

Lesson 4: The Beginning of the Beatles

In this lesson, we will consider the path the Fab Four took from their early days as the Quarry Men to their final destination as the Beatles. We will examine each Beatle’s life individually, noting basic biographical facts about them along with important influences on their formative music making. After noting their beginnings in Liverpool, especially how they got together as a band, we will explore their musical apprenticeship in Hamburg, Germany, followed by their ultimate breakthrough to stardom in 1962–63.

John Lennon: Early Years

In 1938, Alfred Lennon married Julia Stanley in Liverpool, England. Their son John Winston Lennon was born on October 9, 1940. Alfred was a merchant seaman during World War II. He sent checks home regularly to support his wife and son. But the checks stopped in 1944 when he was absent without leave. Since Alfred was away at sea for years and eventually deserted Julia, she took up with John ‘Bobby’ Dykins, living with him in a common-law marriage. She never bothered to divorce Alfred. In 1944, Alfred returned to Liverpool and wanted to reconcile with Julia, but she would have none of that, being pregnant with Dykins’s child. 

Two years later, Alfred returned to Liverpool and convinced Mimi Smith, John’s aunt and present caregiver, to allow him to take John to Blackpool, a vacation resort north of the city. But unbeknownst to Mimi, Alfred was intending on taking his son to New Zealand (just think how the history of music would have changed had Alfred been successful). Julia, accompanied by Bobby Dykins, followed Alfred and John to Blackpool and caught up with them. In the traumatic scene that followed, Alfred forced John to choose between him and his mother. The little boy chose his father (twice!), but then eventually opted to stay with his mother as she walked away. After that incident, John continued to live with his Aunt Mimi.

As a boy, John Lennon always had to be the boss. He was a troublemaker, getting into numerous fights and leading a shoplifting gang. He also liked to tell dirty jokes. Far from an ideal student at the Quarry Bank High School, Lennon was demoted two grades and was caned frequently by the school’s headmaster for his outrageous antics.

But Lennon had definite literary leanings. He loved Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. He wrote poetry and assembled a series of satirical drawings and cartoons.

John Lennon: Musical Background

Lennon had no musical training. He taught himself how to play the harmonica and started listening to Johnny Ray and Frankie Lane on the radio. But in 1955, Lennon became aware of American rock and roll via Bill Haley and the Comets’ song, “Rock Around the Clock.” The song was the theme song of the 1955 social commentary movie, The Blackboard Jungle. Some of you might also remember this song as the theme song of the first year of TV’s Happy Days. Go ahead and listen to it now.

Bill Haley and the Comets (1954/2004). “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock.” On Rock Around The Clock [CD]. New York: Geffen Records.

Skiffle also influenced Lennon. Containing traces of blues, folk, jazz, and country and western, skiffle was popularized by British guitarist Lonnie Donegan before the emergence of rock and roll in the UK in the mid-1950s.

Here’s Donegan’s 1957 recording of “Cumberland Gap,” an Appalachian folk song first recorded in 1924, as well as a contemporaneous picture of him when recording the song, which will give you an idea of Donegan’s persona. This skiffle song is of special historic interest as Lennon sang it with the Quarry Men the day he met Paul McCartney on July 6, 1957 at the Woolton Village Fête at Saint Peter’s Church in Liverpool.

But the biggest initial influence on Lennon was Elvis Presley. In 1956, Lennon was captivated by Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” which topped the record charts in 14 different countries. He saw Presley as his ticket out of Liverpool. From that point on, for Lennon, there was nothing else but rock and roll. Listen now to “Heartbreak Hotel.” Why did it make such an impact on Lennon?

John forms the Quarry Men

Julia Stanley encouraged Lennon’s burgeoning interest in music and love of rock and roll. In fact, Lennon’s mother taught him how to play the ukulele and banjo. Later, Lennon bought a guitar and taught himself how to play. He then formed a skiffle group called the Quarry Men, named after his high school. On July 6, 1957 Ivan Vaughan brought Paul McCartney to hear the Quarry Men play at the Village Fête at Saint Peter’s Church in Woolton. Vaughan was a friend of both Lennon and McCartney and wanted the two to meet because of their mutual love of rock and roll. Here’s a dramatization of that significant meeting from the 2009 film Nowhere Boy. It is accurate in many respects and will give you an indication of what the meeting was like. The Quarry Men play “Maggie Mae,” an old Liverpool ditty about a prostitute who would rob sailors. McCartney plays and sings Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock.” Warning: This video segment contains vulgar dialogue.

Paul McCartney: Early Life

James Paul McCartney was born on June 18, 1942 in a private ward in Walton Hospital, Liverpool, England to James and Mary Mohin McCartney. In 1953, he entered the Liverpool Institute, an outstanding free grammar school that prided itself in sending more students to Oxford and Cambridge than any other state school in the UK. While attending the Institute, McCartney met George Harrison, who enrolled in the school in 1954. The two future Beatles shared the same bus ride from the Speke district of Liverpool, where both lived at the time, to the Institute, which was situated in the city’s downtown area. (played the guitar all the time, bc mother died became obsessed w rock and roll)

Paul McCartney: Musical Background

On October 31, 1956 McCartney’s mother died of breast cancer when he was 14; this was a major turning point in his life. To assuage his sorrow, McCartney started to play the guitar. He became obsessed with rock and roll, learning all sorts of tunes, especially Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock,” which he played for Lennon and the Quarry Men when they first met. Influenced by his father’s playing of jazz and pop standards on the piano when he was growing up, McCartney took up piano playing. As he was learning to play by ear (he initially tried piano lessons but gave up), he began writing songs on the piano, influenced by the British music hall tradition of his father. Not surprisingly, this period saw the composition of McCartney’s famous song “When I’m Sixty-Four.” McCartney also wrote another notable Beatle song at this time, “Michelle.”

Paul is Asked to Join The Quarry Men

When McCartney heard the Quarry Men play at the Village Fête at Saint Peter’s Church in Woolton on July 6, 1957, Lennon and his band were performing several songs, with Lennon singing lead on “Cumberland Gap,” “Maggie Mae,” “Railroad Bill,” “Be Bop A Lula” (by Gene Vincent and the Blue  Caps), and “Come Go with Me” (by the Del Vikings). McCartney was taken by Lennon’s rendition of “Come Go with Me,” because according to him, Lennon was making up words on the spot, making it bluesy through words such as “Down, down, down to the penitentiary.” Let’s listen now to the Del Vikings’ “Come Go with Me.” Try to imagine how McCartney heard a young, drunk Lennon singing the song on that fateful day.

The Del Vikings (1957/1998). “Come Go With Me.” On American Graffiti [CD]. New York: Geffen Records.

Later, when McCartney met Lennon, he got on the piano and played Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” in C major, moving on to the guitar to play Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock.” Approximately one week after that famous meeting, Lennon, impressed by McCartney’s musical abilities, asked him to join the Quarry Men, to which McCartney readily agreed. In 1958, McCartney brought a good friend to Lennon to audition for the group—George Harrison.

George Harrison: Early Years and Musical Background

George Harrison was born to Harold and Louise Harrison on Feb. 25, 1943. He entered the Liverpool Institute in 1954 (a year behind McCartney). Harrison bought a guitar when he was 13; he worked hard, but made slow progress. Besides thinking highly of the skiffle guitarist Lonnie Donegan, he listened to lots of rock and roll, admiring Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, and Carl Perkins.

McCartney Introduces Harrison to Lennon

After Harrison had met McCartney from their bus rides to the Liverpool Institute, the two of them started to hang out together, especially to play songs on their guitars after McCartney’s family moved to their Forthlin Road residence. When McCartney introduced Harrison to Lennon, his age (he was almost 15) made Lennon skeptical about allowing him to join the Quarry Men, despite the fact that Harrison knew more guitar chords than anyone else. In any event, on February 6, 1958, riding home on the top level of a doubledecker bus from a gig at Wilson Hall, Garston, Harrison played Bill Justis’s “Raunchy” for Lennon at McCartney’s instigation, which got Harrison into the Quarry Men. Let’s watch an excerpt from Nowhere Boy that captures this significant moment, as well as depictions of the Quarry Men playing dance halls in Liverpool.

Ringo Starr: Early Years and Musical Background

Richard Starkey, a.k.a. “Ringo Starr,” was born on July 7, 1940 to Elise and Richard Starkey (his father was originally a “Parkin,” but he adopted the surname of his stepfather when his mother remarried). Starr’s parents divorced when he was three years old; his mother subsequently remarried. Starr was frequently sick as a boy; at 13, he developed pleurisy and stayed in the hospital for two years. Influenced by the skiffle craze, Starr got interested in drums as a teenager, subsequently forming a skiffle group with friend Eddie Miles.

Ringo Becomes a Star

Later, Starr joined Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, who shared a stage with the Beatles for hours on end at the Kaiserkeller club in Hamburg, Germany in 1960. It was there that Starr met the Beatles. He would sometimes sit in as a drummer when they played (as well as in the UK after they all returned) and definitely hung out with them afterhours, something that then drummer Pete Best would not do. Starr was asked to join the Beatles in the summer of 1962, replacing Best. Dubbed the “luckiest man alive,” Starr had no qualms about the decision, regarding himself as a much better drummer than Best, which in actual fact he was.

Starting Out

By 1959, Lennon and McCartney had written about 100 songs together. Only one really survived, “Love Me Do.” The Quarry Men, comprised of  Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and various others, were playing gigs in and around Liverpool. Stuart Sutcliffe, an art college friend of Lennon, had joined the group as its bass player. Going through various name changes such as “Johnny and the Moondogs,” the “Beatals,” the “Silver Beetles,” and the “Silver Beatles,” by mid-August 1960 the group finally decided to call themselves the Beatles, a pun on beat music and insects, as well as a tribute to idol Buddy Holly and the Crickets. That same year, drummer Pete Best of the Blackjacks joined the group, which helped the Beatles, since they had problems retaining drummers.

In August 1960, the Beatles traveled to Hamburg, Germany to play at the Indra club. At that time, they wore velvet or leather jackets, tight black jeans, white shirts, black ribbon ties, and pointed shoes. Their hair was greased back so that they would look like actor Tony Curtis. The Beatles were encouraged to make as much racket as possible (“Mach schau!”).

They had to play for eight hours; consequently, they got very good as a band. Later, the Beatles went to the Kaiserkeller and took turns playing sets with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes (whose drummer was Ringo Starr) for twelve hours straight. In order to get through these grueling nights, the Beatles took amphetamines (known as “prellies”).

Pivotal Turning Point

The 1960 residency in Hamburg was a pivotal turning point for the Beatles in several ways. First, because they had to play such long sets, the Beatles had numerous opportunities to hone their musical skills both individually and as a group, getting immensely better as a result. Second, due to its libertine nature, Hamburg was an eye-popping experience for the group, in short, a lawless underworld of gangsters, drunken sailors, prostitutes, strippers, drugs, and sex that were in plentiful abundance. Third, the Beatles met university art students Klaus Voorman, Jürgen Vollmer, and Astrid Kircherr. (Incidentally, Voorman later played bass for the British group Manfred Mann and Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, as well as designed the cover for the Beatles’ album Revolver and the artwork for the Beatles Anthology albums.) This trio was a part of the mod European art-student elite, whose persona the Beatles now assumed. Known as “Exis” because they read existentialist philosophy, Voorman, Vollmer, Kircherr, and other like-minded individuals viewed rock and roll as a supreme act of artistic rebelliousness, akin to that found in 20th-century artistic movements such as Dadaism or surrealism. Besides being the lover of Sutcliffe and taking famous photos of the Beatles in Hamburg in 1960, Kircherr is often credited as being the catalyst for the Beatles changing their rock-and-roll haircuts to a “French” hairstyle with bangs, which she herself wore and which would eventually become the famous Beatle “moptop” of Beatlemania.

The Beatles’ Club Act

In the final analysis, the Beatles were developing as a band in a surrealistic scenario: Here was a British working-class musical group playing American rock and roll to German club goers—just 15 years earlier, the UK and US were fighting against Germany in World War II.

Let’s now get an idea what the Beatles sounded like in Hamburg. Although the songs you’re going to hear that were played by the Beatles at the Star Club in Hamburg were recorded by Ted “Kingsize” Taylor in late December 1962, they definitely give you an idea of the rawness and vitality of the Beatles’ club act.

Breakthrough to Stardom, 1961–63

Upon returning to Liverpool after Harrison was deported for working past 10:00 p.m. each night at age 17, the Beatles became the resident group at the downtown Cavern Club from January 1961 to February 1962. They went back to Hamburg in April 1961, where, two months later, as the Beat Brothers, they recorded “My Bonnie” with Tony Sheridan, who was not only a former star of the British pop music show Oh Boy! but also an Elvis clone. This song is a great example of early 1960s rock and roll as dynamic vocals and instruments drive the track to an exciting conclusion. The Beatles will continue to develop this sound in the early years of Beatlemania, driving their fans into a frenzy. Let’s listen to it.

In July 1961, the Beatles returned to Liverpool; however, Sutcliffe stayed behind with Kircherr. As a result of him leaving the group, McCartney became the band’s bass player. In addition, Neal Aspinall became the Beatles’ road manager. In April 1962, Sutcliffe died of a brain hemorrhage, which devastated Lennon. 

Brian Epstein of the North End Music Store (N. E. M. S.) in Liverpool got many requests for “My Bonnie” from customers who frequented the store (a place that his family owned). His curiosity peaked by the requests and by the Beatles’ growing fame, Epstein went to the Cavern Club in November 1961. Although turned off by their unprofessional dress and stage manners (the Beatles were dressed in leather outfits and ate, drank, and cursed between songs), Epstein became the Beatles’ manager, tidying them up in the process. He got an audition for the Beatles with Decca Records on January 1, 1962. Mike Smith of Decca judged the Beatles unimpressive and did not grant them a contract. As a result, Epstein contacted other record companies, but with little success. In the meantime, the Beatles went to Hamburg again and played at the Star Club. Finally, on June 6, 1962, they got an audition with George Martin of Parlophone Records, a division of E. M. I. In July 1962,  Parlophone signed the Beatles to a recording contract. Martin was not impressed by the Beatles’ original songs, judging the best one to be “Love Me Do,” which  they recorded on September 11, 1962. That song went to no. 17 on the British charts. 

But events would soon spiral out of control after that, with the emergence of British Beatlemania and several no. 1 singles and two popular albums in 1963, all of which will be discussed in Lesson 6. Let’s close this lesson by listening to “Love Me Do.” Why did Martin consider this song as good? Moreover, can you hear the influence of Buddy Holly (listen to how many chords are in the song) as you heard McCartney maintain in the Buddy Holly video from Lesson 3? And how about the influence of the Everly Brothers on Lennon and McCartney’s vocals, especially on the climactic word, “Please.” Finally, notice the harmonica part: it shows the Beatles as being influenced by current songs, namely Bruce Channel’s “Hey Baby” of 1961. After listening to this song and considering the points I have articulated, go to Angel for a Discussion Board Assignment.

Submitted by SCOGGIN, SIERRA (SVS5399) on 9/20/2015 4:04:50 PM

Points Awarded


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When Paul McCartney was a teenager in Liverpool, he wrote:

  1. A) “When I’m Sixty-Four” and “Michelle”
  2. B) “Yellow Submarine”
  3. C) “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun”
  4. D) “Help!” and “The Night Before”

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What was the first Beatles’ song that George Martin of Parlophone Records recorded on September 11, 1962?

  1. A) “Please Please Me”
  2. B) “Michelle”
  3. C) “My Bonnie”
  4. D) “Love Me Do”

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Before the group went to this city in 1960, the newly name Beatles included, in addition to John, Paul, and George:

  1. A) Ringo Starr
  2. B) Eric Clapton and Pete Townsend
  3. C) Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best
  4. D) Keith Moon and Charlie Watts

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Musical influences on George Harrison included:

  1. A) Little Richard
  2. B) Carl Perkins
  3. C) Elvis Presley
  4. D) All of the choices
  5. E) Lonnie Donegan

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Which of the following was NOT one of the songs played by Lennon and his Quarry Men at the Village Fete at Saint Peter’s Church in Woolton?

  1. A) “Be Bop A Lula”
  2. B) “Cumberland Gap”
  3. C) “Come Go With Me”
  4. D) “Tutti Frutti”
  5. E) “Maggie Mae”

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John Lennon had a troubled childhood, due to being

  1. A) abandoned by his father Alfred Lennon and mother Julia Stanley, and raised by his aunt Mimi Smith,
  2. B) deserted by his father Alfred Lennon and raised by his mother Mimi Smith,
  3. C) raised in an orphanage
  4. D) deserted by his father Bobby Dykins and raised by his mother Julia Stanley,

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Who was the person who introduced John and Paul to each other?

  1. A) Brian Epstein
  2. B) George Harrison
  3. C) Ivan Vaughan
  4. D) Ringo Starr

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From January 1961 to February 1962, the Beatles were the house band at the

  1. A) The Cavern Club in Liverpool
  2. B) Crawdaddy Club in London
  3. C) Whiskey A-Go-Go in Los Angeles
  4. D) Studio 54 Club in New York

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Which Beatle’s mother taught him how to play the ukulele and banjo?

  1. A) George Harrison
  2. B) Paul McCartney
  3. C) John Lennon
  4. D) Ringo Starr

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From 1960–62, the Beatles honed their musical skills by playing 8 hours per night in:

  1. A) London, England
  2. B) Dresden, Germany
  3. C) Liverpool, England
  4. D) Hamburg, Germany
  5. E) Dublin, Ireland

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John Lennon’s early literary influences included:

  1. A) Timothy Leary's "The Psychedelic Experience"
  2. B) J. R. R. Tolkien's "The Hobbitt"
  3. C) C. S. Lewis's "The Chronicles of Narnia"
  4. D) John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath"
  5. E) Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass"

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Who was the youngest member of the Beatles?

  1. A) Paul McCartney
  2. B) John Lennon
  3. C) Ringo Starr
  4. D) George Harrison

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What was the American movie from 1955, which was noted for its theme song by Bill Haley and the Comets, “Rock Around the Clock?”

  1. A) Go Johnny Go
  2. B) The Blackboard Jungle
  3. C) The Girl Can’t Help It
  4. D) Don’t Knock the Rock

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The song that impressed the Beatles’ producer the most when he signed them to a recording contract in 1962 was

  1. A) “From Me to You”
  2. B) “My Bonnie”
  3. C) “Please, Please Me”
  4. D) “Love Me Do”

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Before George Harrison joined the band that was to become the Beatles, he hung out and played guitar with:

  1. A) John Lennon
  2. B) Paul McCartney
  3. C) Bill Wyman
  4. D) Keith Richard

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Before he became the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein:

  1. A) ran an important record store in Liverpool
  2. B) saw the Beatles perform in Scotland and urged them to come back to Liverpool
  3. C) worked as an employee at the Cavern Club in Liverpool
  4. D) ran a former jazz club in Liverpool where the Beatles gained immense popularity

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Astrid Kircherr is credited as being the catalyst behind the Beatles’ distinctive:

  1. A) collarless jackets
  2. B) humor
  3. C) haircuts
  4. D) shoes

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Of the 100 or so songs written by Lennon and McCartney by 1959,:

  1. A) only one really survived (“Love Me Do”)
  2. B) only one really survived (“Honey Pie”)
  3. C) about half were still being played by the Beatles before Ringo joined the band
  4. D) only a few were still being sung by them by 1962

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Which Beatle wrote poetry and drew satirical cartoons when he was young?

  1. A) Ringo Starr
  2. B) Paul McCartney
  3. C) George Harrison
  4. D) John Lennon

Table for Individual Question Feedback

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What were characteristics of the “Exis” that the Beatles became friends with in Hamburg?

  1. A) They viewed rock and roll as a supreme act of artistic rebelliousness akin to that found in 20th-century artistic movements such as Dada or surrealism
  2. B) They were part of the mod European art-student elite
  3. C) All of the choices
  4. D) One of them (Astrid Kircherr) was the catalyst for the Beatles changing their rock-and-roll haircuts to a “French” hairstyle with bangs; this became the famous “moptop” of Beatlemania


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