Below the beat: The truth behind the story of the Beatles

Jacqueline Cutler, New York Daily News

No one was bigger.

The Stones were bolder. The Who was louder. But the Beatles simply ruled, from their first single in ’62 until their breakup eight years later. The argument can still be made that they ruled.

Everyone knew them, or thought they did.

As Craig Brown’s “150 Glimpses of the Beatles” suggests, to understand them, you must push past the publicity, the myths, the lies. His doorstop of a book digs deep to try to uncover the truth.

It was July 6, 1957, when the Beatles began. John Lennon, surly and nearly 17, was performing at a school event with his band, the Quarrymen. Paul McCartney, just 15, watched nervously. “I wouldn’t look at him too hard, in case he hit me,” McCartney said later.

Afterward, McCartney worked up the nerve to introduce himself. He played a few songs, including “Be-Bop-a-Lula.”

“He was as good as me,” Lennon marveled. “It went through my head that I’d have to keep him in line if I let him join. But he was good, so he was worth having. He also looked like Elvis.”

Just like that, McCartney was in the band. Soon, he brought along a friend, George Harrison, 14. “Just a bloody kid,” Lennon grumbled. But after Lennon heard Harrison play, he invited him into the band, too. By 1960, they had added a drummer, Pete Best.

Calling themselves the Beatles, they turned pro, their gigs at local dances giving way to bookings in Hamburg bars. They were still young, but they were no longer innocent. In between sets, they gobbled amphetamines and had sex with groupies.

“There were usually five or six girls between the four of us,” McCartney said. “The most memorable night of love was when eight birds gathered to do the Beatles a favor. They managed to swap with all four of us – twice!”

No one was getting rich, though. Returning to Liverpool, the Beatles lived mostly at home and played local clubs. Then one day, Brian Epstein, whose family owned a department store, decided to go to a show. He watched them in wonder.

“They are awful,” Epstein told a friend. “But I also think they’re fabulous.”

He signed the group to a management contract. He convinced them to get the grease out of their hair and ditch their blue jeans and leather jackets. Then he started talking them up to record companies, finally getting a cautious yes from Parlophone.

There was only one catch: that drummer had to go.

Given a choice between their friend and a record contract, the business decision was obvious. Ringo Starr quickly replaced Best, on Harrison’s recommendation. The Beatles went on to make their first album and their first million. Best went back to obscurity.

It was a tough break, but none of the Beatles felt sorry for him. “I was a better player than him,” Starr recalled. “That’s how I got the job. It wasn’t on my personality.” Producer George Martin saw it differently. Best’s drumming was OK, he insisted. The problem was “he didn’t say much — he didn’t have the charisma the others have.”

And that is what set the Beatles apart. They weren’t just magnetic; each member had individual appeal, the band offering “a Beatle to suit every taste,” Brown points out. If you liked sarcastic bad boys, you worshipped John. Cute ones? Paul. Deep, mysterious types? George. Lovable puppy dogs? Ringo.

By spring of 1963, the Beatles' first album had gone to No. 1 in Britain, with several singles hitting the Top Ten. By the next year, when they reached America, they were already legends. A generation of tweens – Tom Petty, Chrissie Hynde, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel – heard them and immediately decided to start bands.

Most adults were unconvinced. When the band played “The Ed Sullivan Show” on Feb. 9, 1964, the reviews were withering, a the critic for the New York Times calling them “hoarsely incoherent.” The Daily News, however, pointed out the power they had over fans, admitting “not even Elvis Presley ever induced such laughable lunacy.”

The Beatles were here, and so was Beatlemania. On April 4, 1964, the band held spots 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 on the Billboard “Hot 100” – and seven more slots further down.

Their success opened the charts, and the world, for other British bands. Plenty followed. Of these, the Rolling Stones attracted the most press, with stories pushing their rivalry with the Beatles. But the Beatles never saw them as rivals because they never saw them as equals. Lennon flatly called them copycats and posers.

“John went bananas about all the publicity the Stones were getting for being ‘rough,’ ” recalls a Liverpool music journalist. “The Stones were middle-class boys. While the Beatles had been swearing and whoring it in Hamburg, they had been attending trendy schools.”

As the years went on, the Beatles' popularity held firm. But they changed and, after they quit touring in 1966, began pursuing different, separate interests.

McCartney explored avant-garde music. Harrison delved into Eastern culture. Lennon got deeper into hallucinogens. Starr, meanwhile, kept faithfully showing up for recording sessions and keeping the beat. All of it came together on the “Sgt. Pepper” album, a career high.

They were on a retreat afterward with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi when they heard Brian Epstein had died of a drug overdose. And without him behind them – and, often, in front of them, keeping outsiders at bay – the band began to fall apart.

“Brian’s death kind of opened the floodgates,” McCartney said. “It gave other people the possibility to come in.”

One of them was Yoko Ono. Immediately captivated, Lennon left his wife for the tiny, avant-garde artist. No one else could stand her, though. When Ono started sitting in on recording sessions for “The Beatles” -- universally known as the White Album -- McCartney was outraged. When Lennon took her back to Liverpool to meet his Aunt Mimi, the welcome was not warm.

“Who’s the poison dwarf,” Mimi asked.

The other stranger on the scene was Allen Klein. The Beatles needed a new manager, and having just married Linda Eastman, McCartney suggested her father, Lee, a slick New York attorney. John preferred Klein, a street-wise Newark accountant with, said one friend, “all the charm of a broken lavatory seat.”

Lennon persuaded Harrison and Starr to go along, and a bitter McCartney was voted down. Klein became the band’s new manager.

He would also be their last manager.

After one more album – “Abbey Road” recorded while the tapes for the unloved “Let It Be” sat on a dusty shelf – the band split. Lennon wanted to leave earlier, privately telling McCartney, “I want a divorce” in the fall of ’69. But it was McCartney who went public six months later. He also did it via a press release, using it to plug his new solo album, “McCartney.”

The two had gotten by, with a little help from their friends, for 13 years. But the long and winding road had finally come to a fork. Both characters were now firmly on different paths, and the legendary Lennon/McCartney partnership was done.

“The dream is over,” Lennon announced, on his solo album, “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.”

But their songs would outlast everything.

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