Inside John Lennon’s Beatlemania

The year 1962 was a big one for John Lennon, both personally and professionally. In addition to the untimely death of one of his best mates, Stuart Sutcliffe, and his band scoring a recording contract, the year also saw Lennon tie the knot with girlfriend, Cynthia Powell, on Aug. 23. As with most key events in Lennon’s life, the marriage was not without its own set of mini-dramas: Cynthia had become pregnant in mid-1962, which led John to do the “honorable” thing and make her his bride. This in turn worried Brian Epstein, who fretted over the effect that a married Beatle would have on the band’s ever-growing legion of young female followers. Therefore, it was decreed that the Lennons’ marriage be kept as far under the radar as possible. Adding to the already stressful situation was the fact that Lennon’s Aunt Mimi reportedly was less than fond of Cynthia.

In the midst of Lennon’s stab at domesticity, the Beatles went back to Abbey Road studios for their first official sessions for EMI/Parlophone in early September 1962 and recorded four songs. Although George Martin wanted the band’s version of “How Do You Do It” (later a hit for fellow Brits Gerry and the Pacemakers) to be their first single, the band fought hard for an original tune and Martin acquiesced. Thus the Beatles’ debut single, released on Oct. 5, 1962, in the UK, featured Love Me Do backed with another early Lennon/McCartney gem, P.S. I Love You. (A much slower, bluesier version of Please Please Me was also tracked at these sessions.)

Love Me Do was a solid introduction to the Beatles’ still-developing sound, featuring an insistent Lennon harmonica hook (Lennon reportedly used a harmonica he had shoplifted from a store in Holland) and joint lead vocals from Lennon and McCartney. While the lyrics are relatively simplistic in a “moon-June” sort of way, the melody saved the day in the end. The flip side of the single, P.S. I Love You, sung by Paul, was a brisk, romantic charmer that remains one of the Beatles’ most underrated tunes. The single did respectable business, climbing to no. 17 on the UK charts.

The Beatles’ next single saw them hit their stride, and they never looked back. A revamped, re-recorded and sped up version of Please Please Me (composed primarily by Lennon, although all Lennon and McCartney compositions would carry both of their names on the credits for the band’s duration) rocketed towards the top of the UK charts in early 1963 (it either landed at no. 1 or no. 2, depending on which chart you believed). “Please Please Me was my attempt at writing a Roy Orbison song, would you believe it?” Lennon told Playboy’s David Sheff in 1980. As previously noted, the original version (eventually released on The Beatles Anthology in 1995) was much slower than the officially released take. Producer Martin suggested making the tempo a bit peppier, and a Beatles classic was born. Please Please Me had it all: a killer melody, clever wordplay, a great call and response build up in the chorus (“come on, come on …”), a soulful lead vocal by Lennon and some ace drumming courtesy of Ringo. It was also the first Beatles release in the United States, on the small Vee-Jay label (where a comma was added to the title), but garnered very little attention.

“Please Please Me” was the record that began the Beatles’ launch into the stratosphere, with the group performing it during their first national British television appearance on Thank Your Lucky Stars on Jan. 19, 1963. The following month it was back into the studio, where the lads recorded their debut long-player, also titled Please Please Me (subtitled With Love Me Do and 12 Other Songs). Amazingly, the entire album – save for the four tracks previously released on singles – was recorded in a one-day, 10-hour blitz with Martin again behind the board, where he would remain until the band’s breakup.

Please Please Me featured eight Lennon/McCartney originals and six covers (of American R&B, girl group and show tunes), with a pair of searing rockers book-ending the record. The McCartney-sung I Saw Her Standing There kicked off the proceedings, with its sassy “1-2-3-4” count-in alerting listeners to the fact that the days of the musically ultra-polite teen idols such as Paul Anka, Fabian, Frankie Avalon and others of their ilk were about to come to an end, trampled by a brash new sound. Even more remarkable was the disc-closing cover of the Top Notes’/Isley Brothers’ Twist and Shout, sung by Lennon at the tail end of the session. With a lead vocal that gave new meaning to the term “raw,” Lennon turned in a spectacular performance that drove the song to amazing heights and made it a seminal slice of rock and roll.

In between, Lennon sang lead on a more subdued take of Arthur Alexander’s Anna, a rousing version of the Bacharach-David co-write Baby It’s You and harmonized closely with McCartney on their original compositions Misery and There’s a Place. Lennon also was the main force behind the writing of Do You Want to Know a Secret (inspired by a song he had heard in a Disney movie), which was given to George Harrison to sing lead on. Ringo also took a turn behind the microphone, belting out a spirited version of the Shirelles’ Boys.

The album remained entrenched at the top of the British charts for seven months while the Beatles toured Britain incessantly (taking some time out to tour Sweden as well). Two more singles were released in the spring and summer of ‘63, with both From Me to You and the kinetic She Loves You snagging the coveted top spot in the UK charts. There was still no sign of the group making a dent in the U.S.A., but folks at Capitol Records (EMI’s U.S. arm) had to have been taking notice of the hysteria surrounding the Beatles in their homeland, even as small labels such as Vee-Jay and Swan released the band’s singles in the U.S. to little or no attention.

On April 8, 1963, in the midst of the whirlwind, John and Cynthia Lennon celebrated the birth of their son, John Charles Julian Lennon. Over the years, Lennon would often lament the fact that he was something of an absentee father to Julian, a fact that certainly affected his son. “Sadly, I never really knew the man,” Julian wrote in a letter posted on his website in 2000. “I think that the work he produced was incredible and so was what he achieved with his three friends, Paul, George and Ringo. But his work hasn’t given me a clear insight into what his real life was about or how he truly felt about it.” In 2005, Julian wrote on his website, “Dad was a great talent whose music and ideals are an inspiration to millions. Yet I have always had very mixed feelings about Dad. He was the father I loved who let me down in so many ways.”

As a sign of the Beatles’ burgeoning popularity in their homeland, they were invited to perform at the prestigious Royal Variety Performance on Nov. 4, 1963, before an audience that included the Queen of England. While introducing Twist and Shout, Lennon let loose with a classic, cheeky one-liner: “For our last number, I’d like to ask your help. Will the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands … and the rest of you, if you’d just rattle your jewelry.” Also performed that evening were From Me to You and Till There Was You, which Paul humorously introduced as being “by our favorite American group, Sophie Tucker.” Not long after, the British newspaper the Daily Mirror coined the term “Beatlemania,” thanks to the hysterical fan reaction the Beatles had started receiving.

As 1963 neared its end, the Beatles released their second long-player in the UK, titled With the Beatles. Again, the release shot straight to no. 1, as all but one of the original Beatles albums would during the Beatles’ lifetime (Yellow Submarine charted at no. 3). With the Beatles was another compelling mixture of Lennon/McCartney originals, which sat comfortably alongside covers of Chuck Berry (a smoking Roll Over Beethoven), Smokey Robinson (John and George harmonizing on You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me) and Motown (another throat-shredding Lennon lead vocal on Money [That’s What I Want].) The album also featured George Harrison’s first composition on a Beatles record, the speedy-yet-dark-hued Don’t Bother Me.

With the Beatles found the songwriting tandem of Lennon and McCartney improving steadily, with tracks such as It Won’t Be Long (with a typically impassioned Lennon lead vocal) and All My Loving showing a marked sense of musical growth. (Lennon’s quickly strummed rhythm guitar on All My Loving is one of his finest six-string moments, and one that propelled the tune and helped provide it with its signature sound.)

With no singles being lifted from With the Beatles, the band took the unusual tack of releasing a brand-new track as a single just one week after the release of the album. The result was I Want to Hold Your Hand and This Boy hitting the shops on Nov. 29, 1963. Lennon recalled the genesis of the classic A-side and his songwriting partnership with Paul McCartney to Playboy’s David Sheff in 1980: “We wrote a lot of stuff together, one on one, eyeball to eyeball. Like in I Want to Hold Your Hand, I remember when we got the chord that made the song. We were in Jane Asher’s (McCartney’s girlfriend) house, downstairs in the cellar playing on the piano at the same time. And we had, ‘Oh you-u-u/ got that something …’ And Paul hits this chord and I turn to him and say, ‘That’s it!’ I said, ‘Do that again!’ In those days, we really used to absolutely write like that — both playing into each other’s noses.”

The B-side was a tender Lennon ballad that featured some gorgeous three-part harmonies from John, Paul and George, but it was the A-side that blew the doors wide open for the band, not only in America, but internationally. Suddenly the rest of the world caught up with the UK and went absolutely nuts over the band that was affectionately dubbed “The Fab Four.”

The first sign of this occurred when Capitol Records rush-released the I Want to Hold Your Hand single in the United States on Dec. 26, 1963, albeit with a different B-side, I Saw Her Standing There. The second sign that something was afoot was when the Beatles touched down on American soil for the first time in New York on Feb. 7, 1964. Their debut U.S. single had been selling like hotcakes, but the Beatles were amazed when thousands of fans – many of them crying, screaming young girls – were on hand to welcome them. At a press conference, the band patiently fielded ridiculous questions from the media (“Does all that hair make you sing better?”) and cracked wise with reporters. (Reporter: “Will you sing something?” John Lennon: “We need money first.”)

Two days later, the Fabs’ legendary appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show took place, with an estimated 73 million viewers tuning in. The group performed five songs that evening, officially kicking off the cultural phenomenon known as “Beatlemania” to a worldwide audience. Two days later they played their first U.S. live date in Washington, D.C., to complete pandemonium. Their first album on Capitol Records, “Meet The Beatles!” reached the top spot on the album charts on Feb. 15, 1964, and stayed there for 11 weeks.

The album borrowed the cover art from With the Beatles, but subtracted five of the six cover versions from that record, adding instead the two tracks from the first U.S. single and This Boy. This was the first instance of Capitol Records’ manhandling of the Beatles’ catalog in the United States; for the next two and a half years, the Fabs’ U.S. and UK album releases would vary wildly, creating confusion and consternation among fans and reportedly even the Beatles themselves. It’s rumored that one of the reasons the Beatles decided on an “offensive” album cover photo (later recalled) depicting them in butcher smocks with pieces of raw meat and decapitated baby dolls for 1966’s Yesterday and Today LP was in protest of Capitol’s treatment of their albums.

Two days later, the Fabs’ legendary appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show took place, with an estimated 73 million viewers tuning in. The group performed five songs that evening, officially kicking off the cultural phenomenon known as “Beatlemania” to a worldwide audience. Two days later they played their first U.S. live date in Washington, D.C., to complete pandemonium. Their first album on Capitol Records, Meet The Beatles!, reached the top spot on the album charts on Feb. 15, 1964, and stayed there for 11 weeks.

The album borrowed the cover art from With the Beatles, but subtracted five of the six cover versions from that record, adding instead the two tracks from the first U.S. single and This Boy. This was the first instance of Capitol Records’ manhandling of the Beatles’ catalog in the United States; for the next two and a half years, the Fabs’ U.S. and UK album releases would vary wildly, creating confusion and consternation among fans and reportedly even the Beatles themselves. It’s rumored that one of the reasons the Beatles decided on an “offensive” album cover photo (later recalled) depicting them in butcher smocks with pieces of raw meat and decapitated baby dolls for 1966’s Yesterday and Today LP was in protest of Capitol’s treatment of their albums.

Having quickly conquered the music scene, Lennon and the Beatles set their sights on other forms of media. In the spring of 1964, Lennon’s first book of short stories, poems and drawings, titled In His Own Write, was published. Lennon’s pun-filled, free-associative style was very clever, charming and Lewis Carroll-like, and some of the material served as a forerunner of sorts for the semi-nonsensical, imaginative song lyrics that Lennon would pen later in his career, such as Come Together and I Am the Walrus. The book became a best seller and Lennon followed it up with a similar volume in 1965, A Spaniard in the Works. (The title was a typical bit of Lennon’s whimsical wordplay; “a spanner in the works” is British slang akin to “throwing a monkey wrench into the plans.”)

In July 1964, the Beatles crossed over into the world of cinema as their debut feature film, A Hard Day’s Night, premiered in London. Directed by Richard Lester and shot in black and white as a sort of mock documentary detailing a few days in the lives of the Beatles, the film solidified the Beatles’ personas: John was “the smart Beatle,” Paul the cute one, George the quiet one (although some of his one liners in the film rival Lennon’s) and Ringo was the court jester. Never one to suffer fools gladly, Lennon’s caustic sense of humor was on display throughout the film, particularly in his put-downs of the band’s fictional manager and road manager. The film received rave reviews across the board and its success led to a follow up in 1965, titled Help! Lennon talked about the Beatles’ second film to David Sheff from Playboy in 1980:

“The movie was out of our control. With A Hard Day’s Night, we had a lot of input, and it was semi-realistic. But with Help!, Dick Lester didn’t tell us what it was all about. I realize, looking back, how advanced it was. It was a precursor for the Batman ‘Pow! Wow!’ on TV — that kind of stuff. But he never explained it to us. Partly, maybe, because we hadn’t spent a lot of time together between A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, and partly because we were smoking marijuana for breakfast during that period. Nobody could communicate with us, it was all glazed eyes and giggling all the time. In our own world. It’s like doing nothing most of the time, but still having to rise at 7:00 a.m., so we became bored.”

Even with their newfound cinematic stardom, it was the music that remained of the utmost importance to Lennon and the other Beatles. A Hard Day’s Night was released as a single in Britain on July 10, 1964, the same day the album of the same name hit the shops. The single went directly to the top of the charts — as did every subsequent Beatles single in the UK through 1966 — with the LP staying at no. 1 for 21 weeks. (In the U.S. the album was a movie soundtrack released on United Artists, with seven songs featured in the film and four of George Martin’s orchestral tracks.)

The Hard Day’s Night record was a milestone of sorts for Lennon and McCartney: it was the first Beatles album comprised entirely of their original songs. The duo really hit their songwriting stride here, composing 13 tracks that each sounded like a hit single. Can’t Buy Me Love had, in fact, been released as a single back in March, but tracks such as the beautiful And I Love Her, Lennon’s raucous Anytime at All, the charming Things We Said Today or the harmony vocal exercise I’ll Be Back (which Lennon claimed was built around the chords to a Del Shannon song) all would have been excellent candidates as well. The marvelous If I Fell, Lennon’s first attempt at a ballad proper, is also here, dispelling the notion that Paul was the sweet balladeer and Lennon could only write the upbeat rockers. The album also marked the first use of George Harrison’s Rickenbacker guitar, which helped to provide many tracks on A Hard Day’s Night with a warm, jangly sound that not only inspired contemporaries such as The Byrds, but laid the foundation for the work of an entire generation of Beatles-influenced power-pop artists (including the Raspberries, Tom Petty and countless others) in the ‘70s and beyond.

One look at the cover of the Beatles’ fourth album, Beatles For Sale, released on Dec. 4, 1964, and it was obvious: the boys were tired. Constant touring and radio and television appearances, along with the never-ending glare of the media spotlight, had placed the Fab Four smack dab in the middle of a whirlwind that must have left them absolutely exhausted. Coupled with the fact that it had been a mere four months since their last full-length record, it made sense that Beatles For Sale returned to the formula of only eight Lennon/McCartney originals and six covers. While most of the ‘50s rock and roll covers seemed relatively rote — John sings Chuck Berry, Paul does Little Richard, both George and Ringo take on Carl Perkins — the bulk of the originals took on more of a somber, downcast hue, perhaps reflecting their mood.

Lennon’s I’m a Loser was particularly noteworthy: “Although I laugh and I act like a clown/beneath this mask I am wearing a frown.” (His apparent dissatisfaction with himself and the state of his life is something he will again broach on Help!) I’ll Follow the Sun, No Reply (where Lennon’s lead vocals were effectively double-tracked), Baby’s in Black and I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party all dealt with loss, pain and disappointment, which was pretty heavy stuff for the time. The jaunty Eight Days a Week, released as a single in the U.S, was more typical of the happy-go-lucky Beatles sound of the era.

Shortly before the release of Beatles For Sale, the group released a classic non-LP single that certainly rocked harder than anything on the upcoming album: I Feel Fine/She’s a Woman. Lennon was the driving force behind I Feel Fine, as he explained to Playboy’s David Sheff in 1980: “That’s me completely. Including the electric guitar lick and the record with the first feedback anywhere. I defy anybody to find a record – unless it’s some old blues record in 1922 – that uses feedback that way. So I claim it for the Beatles. Before Hendrix, before The Who, before anybody. The first feedback on any record.” McCartney was primarily responsible for the creation of the B-side, which found him using his soulful, Little Richard-style voice to maximum effect. According to Lennon, the line “turn me on when I get lonely” was a thinly veiled reference to marijuana.

Towards the beginning of 1965, with their popularity as strong as ever, the Beatles reconvened in the studio to record songs for what would become the Help! LP. After finishing up the sessions in late February, the foursome dove headfirst into the filming of their second movie. A teaser from the album was released on April 9 in the UK: the Ticket to Ride/Yes It Is single. Ticket to Ride was another track of which Lennon was justifiably proud, although he curiously referred to it as “one of the earliest heavy metal records made” when discussing it in the 1980 Playboy interview. It was driven by a keening guitar riff, imaginative drumming from Ringo, and a typically unforgettable Beatles chorus. Yes It Is was a sleepy-eyed ballad that harkened back to the sound of Lennon’s This Boy, and was not included on the Help! album.

On June 12, 1965, it was announced that Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II had appointed the four Beatles to be Members of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). This was a prestigious honor that both stunned and amused the Beatles, and angered some conservatives, who felt that pop singers should not receive such an honor. “We thought being offered the MBE was as funny as everybody else thought it was,” Lennon said. “Why? What for? We all met and agreed it was daft. It all just seemed part of the game we’d agreed to play … We agreed in order to annoy even more people who were already annoyed.” (From The Beatles: Quote, Unquote Arthur Davis, Crescent Books, 1995.)

The Help! LP arrived in the summer of 1965, with 10 of the 14 tracks penned by Lennon and McCartney (Harrison wrote two and there were two covers, including a rip-roaring, Lennon-sung take of Larry Williams’ Dizzy Miss Lizzy that closed the album). This would be the last Beatles LP to include any cover versions (save for Maggie Mae on Let It Be), and that helped to make the album more cohesive than its immediate predecessor. (Once again, the U.S. version differed wildly from the UK release, with the U.S. album being an original soundtrack containing seven of the UK album’s cuts, alongside non-Beatles instrumental music.)

Lennon’s title track, which on the surface seemed to be nothing more than another well-written, upbeat number, had a much darker underbelly, as Lennon admitted to Playboy’s David Sheff in 1980: “Most people think it’s just a fast rock ‘n’ roll song. I didn’t realize it at the time; I just wrote the song because I was commissioned to write it for the movie. But later, I knew I really was crying out for help. The whole Beatle thing was beyond comprehension. I was eating and drinking like a pig and I was fat as a pig, dissatisfied with myself, and subconsciously I was crying for help.”

Of the seven songs that actually appeared in the movie, Lennon’s weary acoustic ballad You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away was probably the other most notable track, as it was a radical departure from anything the Beatles had cut up to that point. Clearly channeling his inner Bob Dylan on this folk-based, introspective tune, it’s very nearly a Lennon solo track. (Historical note: This was the first Beatles tune to use an outside musician. Johnnie Scott contributed the flute solo at the close.) Speaking of near-solo tracks, Help! also included McCartney’s sadly beautiful magnum opus Yesterday, which would go on to become the most covered song in pop music history.

You’re Going to Lose That Girl is another under-the-radar Lennon tune that would have made an excellent single, and is notable for Ringo’s rather manic conga playing running just under the surface throughout the song. Of the non-movie tracks, both Harrison’s You Like Me Too Much and Lennon and McCartney’s Tell Me What You See featured prominent use of keyboards, played by John and Paul, respectively, for the first time on a Beatles album. (Paul’s Little Richard-styled rave-up, I’m Down – which was released as the B-side of the Help! 45 – also was aided by a prominent keyboard part, played frenetically by Lennon on a Vox Continental organ. Footage of the Fabs performing this live at New York’s Shea Stadium in 1965 before a crowd of more than 50,000 is priceless, as it shows Lennon playing the keyboards with his elbow, sending McCartney into spasms of laughter.)

Just in time for Christmas ‘65 came a new Beatles album, titled Rubber Soul. (The album title was reportedly coined by McCartney, who can be heard intoning “Plastic soul, man, plastic soul,” after an outtake of I’m Down included on The Beatles Anthology 2 collection in 1996.) The album was a sophisticated leap forward for the Beatles, with varied instrumentation, unique song structures, and a definite “flow” from beginning to end. It was a turning point in the Beatles’ career, one that saw them fully make the leap from a “teenybopper” band to true craftsmen and song stylists.

From the tinkling piano and mature sentiments contained in the grand In My Life to the wholly original sound of George Harrison’s sitar and Lennon’s detailing of an illicit affair in Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown), Rubber Soul was light years away from With the Beatles, even though only 24 months had passed. Lennon’s songwriting chops in particular had grown dramatically; in addition to the classics mentioned above, he also played a major role in the chiming, harmony-filled Nowhere Man, the smooth, titillating Girl, and The Word, whose hopeful lyrical theme foreshadowed future Lennon classics such as All You Need is Love. Also released the same day as Rubber Soul was another non-LP single, the two-sided winner Day Tripper/We Can Work it Out.

The year 1965 saw another major event in Beatles history, albeit one that had nothing to do with music. Sometime in the spring, John, George and their wives had their drinks spiked with LSD by a dentist friend of theirs at a dinner party. Eventually all four members of the Beatles would experiment with the drug, although Lennon would take to it more than the others, likening his consumption of acid to eating candy. As 1966 began, the effects of the drug would begin to manifest themselves in his music. The results would be unlike anything ever heard before.

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