When the Beatles first arrived on the world music scene, no one could have predicted how the quartet would revolutionize popular music and set a precedent for all other bands to follow. Prior to the Beatles, many singular musical artists of the ‘50s and ‘60s, (with the notable exception of Elvis Presley) were almost all invariably associated with a particular decade, forever intertwined with a specific time and place. The Beatles, however, transcended several decades to create a lasting legacy. In addition to being the first band with enough longevity to have grown up along with their fans, the Beatles were the first band comprised of four distinct personas.This aspect would take them on a long and winding road that would eventually splinter them in four separate directions. The very thing that made them so special was what ultimately deigned their end.
Prior to the Beatles, most well-known figures who had carved a foothold within popular music were solo artists, or an outstanding frontman or guitarist or two in a group who would eventually strike out on their own. The Beatles, however, seemed to have created an archetype of their own, invoking “Four as the Magic Number” comprising a single entity and laying the groundwork for other fabulous foursomes to emerge on both a musical scale and other realms of pop culture.
Part of what made the Beatles so unique were the four distinct personality types that rounded out the group. Sure, you can quibble that Pete Best was the original drummer and that the Beatles started out as a quintet. However, it was the Fab Four as they initially reached the world’s stage that sealed the deal that it could only be the Beatles with the combination of John, Paul, George, and Ringo—accept no substitutes.
Although Lennon and McCartney wrote the bulk of the band’s compositions and took turns as lead vocalists on most of the Beatles’ hits, it was the additionally distinct personas of George Harrison and Ringo Star that made them such a well-rounded foursome.
While there have been many quintets that have been successful, the focal points of a band with five members usually splits down the middle with two members taking center stage (in most cases, the lead singer and the lead guitarist) and the other three members resigned to the role of “the other three members.” Aerosmith had their Toxic Twins, Tyler and Perry. Guns N’ Roses in their original incarnation (before they started adding more members than The Waltons and Axl Rose turned the group into a solo project) revolved around Axl and Slash. AC/DC focused on either lead singer, Bon Scott or his replacement, Brian Johnson alongside the group’s schoolboy shorts-sporting mainstay, guitarist Angus Young. Even the Beatles’ equally successful contemporaries/antithesis, the Rolling Stones, had five members—yet it was Mick Jagger and Keith Richards that reaped the lion’s share of the spotlight.
In order for each member to have a shot at a certain level of recognition, there must be four. Four elements, four corners, four points on the compass—the Fab Four knew what it was all about. In turn, the Beatles’ “gang of four” archetype system was successfully replicated by the Who, Led Zeppelin, Mötley Crüe, U2, and perhaps most notably, KISS. Gene Simmons himself once noted that his original concept for the band was to create a “heavy metal Beatles”. Simmons also seems to recognize the importance of retaining (or at least retaining the illusion) of the original four members—or the band at their peak of popularity with the fans.
While U2 has kept the same lineup intact throughout the duration of their career, the other bands mentioned have seen members either die off or replaced. While the Crüe saw Vince Neil and Tommy Lee depart for some time and continued without them, they flopped miserably without the originals. After the band reunited the originals, they’ve seen a strong measure of success as elder statesmen of rock. On the other hand, although the musicianship of Ace Frehley and Peter Criss’s replacements exceeded their KISS predecessors, the group wasn’t as successful without them. When they reunited with the original four and put the makeup back on, the band received a resurgence in popularity. Although Ace and Peter were dismissed yet again, the band’s trademark kabuki character makeup allows KISS to maintain the illusion of the four archetypes that put the band on the map.
Further proof of this “gang of four” archetype system manifests on stage and screen, too. Take a look at The Golden Girls, Sex and the City, and Designing Women as prime examples of employing four distinct personality types to comprise a whole. Adding to the crackpot theory that “Four Is the Magic Number”, The Golden Girls and the ladies of Sex and the City all remained incredibly popular in the Nielsons, finishing on top at the series’ respective ends. Designing Women, however, started floundering when Delta Burke left the show and was replaced by two additional characters, taking the show’s focus from a foursome to a five-way split.
The Beatles’ “Four as the Magical Mystery Number” formula can be applied to any of your favorite foursomes. Think of your favorite band that’s been around for over a decade. Chances are, if it’s a quartet and unless they have a female lead singer (which usually trumps any evenly distributed focus right out of the gate), you can likely name all of the group’s members and quite possibly name the drummer or bassist as your favorite personality.
Without further belaboring the point, let’s pull ourselves away from sitcoms and various and sundry bands that followed and refocus on the Fab Four themselves and the template they put in place. Mathematically speaking, with four equal pieces of the pie, although you will see some personalities emerging more than others, it’s not unreasonable to see something special and identifiable from all four corners. While “John” and “Paul” are usually the most popular answers to the eternal “Who is your favorite Beatle” question, it’s not entirely unheard of to have someone answer “George” or “Ringo.” Moreover, it’s perfectly acceptable to claim either George or Ringo as your favorite Beatle without finding yourself on the receiving end of a raised eyebrow. The same can’t really be said for someone who enthusiastically declares Charlie Watts as their favorite Rolling Stone. (No disrespect to Charlie, but I’ve yet to encounter a rabid Watts devotee, much less an entire society of them.)
In the beginning, the Fab Four had similar musical influences. Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, and Chuck Berry all provided musical inspiration for their early sound, as well as an abundance of songs the group would cover.
At their outset, the Beatles’ early albums featured a cohesiveness of sound. In spite of the fact that there were multiple frontmen in the group, McCartney’s meticulous songwriting style had carved out a distinct sound for the band, implanting their upbeat, optimistic odes to young love in the hearts and minds of teens during the initial phase of the British Invasion. Although “Love Me Do,” “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and other early Beatles songs lack the thought-provoking nature of the band’s later compositions, they were memorable, catchy, and unmistakably recognizable as the Beatles.
In addition to the uniformity of sound, the band possessed a uniformity of image with each member sporting slim, streamlined suits and the distinctive Beatle haircut which helped to create the aura of four loveable, mop-topped lads from Liverpool. (This image overhaul can partly be attributed to the guidance of their manager, Brian Epstein.) The early Beatles were wholesome enough to appeal to teenyboppers, yet still raw enough to give off just enough of a subtly subversive air to set the Reverend Billy Graham on edge after their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
The press and public became enamored with them, particularly after their first interviews with each member immediately establishing his own character within the band. John was the smart-ass intellectual, the charismatic one who was viewed as the leader. Paul was dubbed “the cute one”, although it was highly evident that behind the “I could be your boyfriend” exterior, there was a lot more substance beneath the surface. (Shortly, Paul’s “Type A” personality as a songwriter manifested, which only cemented his image as a sensitive artist who cared about his craft.) George was the shy, quiet one and Ringo was the likeable goof with a solid sense of humor.
Not just mere musicians, The Beatles had elevated themselves to the status of a collective of cultural icons. As their musicianship evolved in a short span of time, the personas behind the music became even more intriguing—so intriguing that the band become movie stars. While they weren’t the first band or musical artists to appear on film, Elvis never played himself, or at least a broad caricature of himself. The perceived personalities as they appeared in the public conscious all but wrote the scripts themselves for A Hard Day’s Night and Help!. While the movies were vehicles for the Beatles’ songs, these lighthearted, Marx Brothers-esque comedies further intensified the band’s unique aura as musicians and celebrities.
As the musical landscape had changed from the carefree, teen-centric sound of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, so did the Beatles. The Vietnam conflict, Kennedy’s death, and other sobering, faith-shaking factors shifted popular music towards a more globally conscious level with folk and protest-laden acid rock marching towards the forefront. The Beatles stayed relevant by growing up along with their audience, their music informed by current events and the new ventures each Beatle found himself diving into. They ditched the suits and Beatle cuts and forged separate sartorial paths emblematic of who they really were and defining a more individualistic style for the band.
Different people handle success in different ways. Noting the four, strong personalities that made up the Beatles, it wasn’t surprising that once their star had ascended, each member would more fully come into his own and develop divergent musical tastes and leanings that would flavor the band’s ever-evolving sound.
With early rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, and rockabilly serving as the common ground the Beatles stood on in their early years, each member would find himself falling in love with additional genres on his own.
Paul McCartney was surprisingly the most eclectic – dividing his interests across a broad scope of styles from story-telling folk to the acid rock and metal that would see him pen the almost uncharacteristically pummeling “Helter Skelter”. To a degree, McCartney’s willingness to open himself up to a variety of genres may have stemmed from his musical upbringing. His father played in a jazz band as a trumpeter and pianist, stressing Paul’s musical education. Combine that with Paul’s “Type A” personality that saw him examine all aspects of songwriting craft, it was only logical that McCartney would pull from all ends of the spectrum to fulfill his own musical vision.
John Lennon was the flipside of McCartney in that he played it fast and loose, carving out chunks of albums in scant hours whereas Paul agonized over the smallest details. Each was a creative force in their own right, yet represented two sides of the same coin. It was Lennon’s Stateside meeting with Bob Dylan that influenced most of his musical style, leaning towards more folk-influenced, socially conscious lyrics and jangly rhythm guitar. The rebellious, yet eternally idealistic side of Lennon’s personality shone through in his music in songs such as “All You Need Is Love” and the protest rocker anthem,“Revolution”.
“Revolution” itself was written during the ill-fated Beatle trek to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in India. George Harrison had gotten into Indian spiritualism and meditation, which had begun to influence his own musical style and wanted to share it with the band. Almost as eclectic as McCartney, George found inspiration in a variety of genres, including folk, classical, and Indian music, culminating in “Within You Without You” on 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Both “Within You Without You” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” proved the quiet Harrison capable of writing lyrics as thoughtful and introspective as Lennon’s.
Ringo, on the other end, seemed to create his own sort of style. Prior to joining the Beatles, Richard Starkey was in a band called Raving Texans, (later Rory Storm and the Hurricanes). Although they didn’t play country, Ringo took to the cowboy-sounding name and crafted the stage name “Ringo Starr” because it sounded like something a gunslinger would be called. Much like his unique brand of drumming which he tailored to draft a rhythmic blueprint on each Beatles’ song, Ringo’s musical direction was more stylistic than it was technical, informed by his personality trait of being able to twist a turn of phrase into an entirely new beast. (“A Hard Day’s Night” is just one of several “Ringo-isms” that found their way into the Beatles’ lyrical lexicon.) Noting both Ringo’s Western fascination and his seemingly flighty nature, his country-inflected composition, “Don’t Pass Me By” and the ethereal “Octopus’s Garden” were distinctly different songs, yet both could be easily pegged as Ringo contributions to the band’s catalogue.
As each Beatle found himself influenced by new forms of music, the time when these contributions flowed together came to a sonic halt in 1968. The fragmented sound of The Beatles (better known as The White Album) saw the band at odds with each member making their own contributions and some of the members deriding the others. The result was what seemed to be miniature solo ventures slapped together under the banner of a Beatles album. Although critics panned The White Album, Beatlemania was still alive and well for the fans as it followed the triumphant Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Nothing good lasts forever, however. The delicate balance of four was upset when John attempted to bring his wife, Yoko Ono in as a contributing force. John set up shop in the studio with Yoko by his side with his missus offering a running commentary on how the band should sound. This was not well-received by Lennon’s bandmates. Although he claimed he and Yoko were partners, Paul, George, and Ringo stood by their long-standing agreement that spouses and significant others would have no part in The Beatles. Following the release of Abbey Road in 1969, The Beatles parted ways.
Although Yoko stands as the mythical catalyst that may or may not have splintered The Beatles, it’s only natural that a band so prolific and innovative, made up of such distinctive personalities could only thrive as a single entity for so long.
For one brief, shining moment, the Beatles were music’s answer to Camelot. John, Paul, George, and Ringo were seated in a circle like their fellow, British knights of the Round Table (Ironically, Sir Paul McCartney actually is a knight now). Fancy that with no one component greater than the other, each one a necessary part of the wheel. In the short time that the Beatles had created music as a foursome, they left an indelible impression and laid the groundwork that countless bands would attempt to build upon and follow. It was this precise combination of personalities that helped to create such a being. Although they initially weren’t as prolific with their songwriting contributions, George and Ringo sustained the musicianship and foundation for Lennon and McCartney to flesh out their creations while still remaining iconic in their own individual quadrants of the group. And perhaps, George and Ringo might not have ever been pushed to make their own songwriting contributions to the band if they had never been in such close proximity to the creative forces of John and Paul. Although some have come close, the formula hasn’t been replicated since.
And for the record… my favorite Beatle was George.
// Notes from the Road
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