Levy Lecture: History of the Beatles in one hour

Music historian Gary Wenstrup delivered an in-depth and nuanced portrait of the start, development, growth and breakup of the Beatles at the Tuesday, April 26 Levy Lecture to an online crowd of nearly 300 people. He bolstered his slides and narration with video clips of interviews with and about the band, in addition to excerpts of songs. It was a ’60s lovefest from start to finish.


The Fab Four – Paul McCartney on bass guitar, John Lennon on rhythm guitar, George Harrison as lead guitar and Ringo Starr on drums – got their start in Liverpool, England, and their musical influences from American rhythm and blues bands. Wenstrup is an unabashed fan of the Beatles. He considers them to be total originals and cited some of the ways they were, and are, unique.

Unlike most other groups or singers, the Beatles wrote, sang, played and, for the most part, arranged their own songs. They made pop music respectable, worthy of cultural analysis. They were very hardworking, according to Wenstrup, and their output was prodigious. Although they were only together for seven years, during that time they released 13 albums, 10 singles and four movies. Their music, Wenstrup said, is “melodic and totally singable,” regardless of the type of music – rockers or ballads, it is still accessible.


What about objective, quantitative proof of the Beatles’ impact? Wenstrup supplied that too: They are the best-selling musical act of all time – bigger than Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Elton John or Led Zeppelin. They’ve had more No. 1 hits – 20 – than any other group. They also appeal to music lovers who hadn’t even been born when the Beatles were making music. Wenstrup cited 2019 statistics from Spotify, a music streaming platform, where the Beatles’ music was downloaded 1.7 billion times, and 47% of those downloads were from people 18 to 29 years old.


Wenstrup outlined the band’s history: The Fab Four met as teenagers in Liverpool in 1957 – their homes growing up were within a five-mile radius of one another. Lennon had a band and was introduced to McCartney, whose talent he recognized and invited him into the band even though that meant he had to share the spotlight. McCartney recruited Harrison. Their first gig in March 1958 was playing at McCartney’s aunt’s wedding; Lennon was 17 and McCartney and Harrison were 15 years old.


The three guitarists and a series of drummers spent the next couple of years playing gigs in England and occasionally in Europe. In 1960, they had an opportunity to work as a house band at a club in Hamburg, Germany.


As Wenstrup tells the story, a club owner in Hamburg was converting a strip club to a rock and roll club and he needed a band. He asked a friend in Liverpool to send to Germany his best rock and roll band. The two best bands in Liverpool were already booked. The Beatles, third on the list, were available and soon found themselves going to Hamburg.


This musical residency turned out to be their “musical apprenticeship,” according to Wenstrup. For the next two years, the Beatles played eight-hour sets, seven days a week, for months on end. They also made a pact among themselves not to repeat any songs when they were playing, which meant they had to learn hundreds of songs. It was here, in Hamburg, that they learned how to be a band.


They returned to Liverpool in 1962. They were locally popular, but professionally they were stuck because they lacked both a manager and a record contract, Wenstrup said. But during the first few months of 1962, their futures improved with three major changes: Brian Epstein asked to be, and was hired, as their manager; Epstein connected the band with George Martin, who signed them to a recording contract; Martin recommended they fire their current drummer and hire a professional he recommended, who turned out to be Ringo Starr.

In March 1963 they released their debut album, Please Please Me, the first of 11 consecutive Beatles albums to reach No. 1 in the United Kingdom. They continued touring at home and their popularity grew there and throughout Europe, but they were unknown in the United States. That changed in December 1963 with the release of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” which reached No. 1 on the U.S. charts by January 1964.


Now the U.S. market was eager to see and hear the Beatles. With the U.S. market representing 75% of all record sales worldwide, they needed to succeed in the U.S., Wentrup said. Alerted by his talent scouts in Europe, Ed Sullivan booked them for three performances on his weekly variety show. They landed at JFK International Airport on Feb. 7, 1964, before a crowd of screaming fans. Two days later, they made a sensational U.S. debut on The Ed Sullivan Show before 71 million people in 23 million households – 34% of the entire population of the country. Their Sunday night debut is still the second-highest rated television event, exclusive of sporting events, based on the percentage of the public with televisions turned to a particular channel. The only other show with more viewers is the final episode of M*A*S*H.


Wenstrup explained why the band was unusual: Most bands, in his view, either focus on high energy stagework or great harmonies, but the Beatles excelled at both. They were charismatic on stage and off. They were playful, with good senses of humor. They made you feel good listening to their music. After returning to England after their U.S. debut, they spent a few months that spring taping their first film, A Hard Day’s Night. It was released during the summer of 1964 to critical acclaim, much to their surprise.


The band continued to grow and expand musically. Wenstrup said the Beatles followed their own musical instincts, never catering to what the audience wanted, and their musical catalogue matured as a result. In 1965 they filmed the movie, Help! to more acclaim. The following year McCartney wrote and sang his first solo, “Yesterday.”


“Yesterday” represented a shift in their work: it is more personal, more mature, and appeals to older audiences. Wenstrup said “Yesterday” is the most recorded song of all time; somewhere between 2,000 to 3,000 different artists have recorded a version of it.

The band decided to stop touring in 1966. They were mainly playing in stadiums with very poor acoustics. There was so much screaming from the fans that it was impossible for the audience to hear the lyrics of the songs. The Beatles felt these venues were not appropriate to showcase their music, Wenstrup said. They returned to England and in November began working on their new album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which they released in June 1967.


Wenstrup included this quote from a Rolling Stone magazine review of the album: “Sgt. Pepper is the most important rock ‘n’ roll album ever made, an unsurpassed adventure in concept, sound, songwriting, cover art and studio technology by the greatest rock ‘n’ roll group of all time.”


By the time the Beatles break up in 1970, they had accomplished everything they wanted to do musically, according to Wenstrup. They also had differences of opinion about how to handle the business side of their band.


Epstein, their beloved manager, had died in August 1967 from an accidental drug overdose. Harrison, Lennon and Starr wanted to hire Allen Klein to replace Epstein, but McCartney was not on board, leading to the start of the irritations that culminated in the band dissolving in December 1970. For a while, relations between the four were frayed, but those eventually got sorted out and their friendships remained intact. All four had successful solo careers in the years that followed.


Wenstrup’s webinar could not be posted to the Levy Senior Center Foundation’s YouTube channel due to copyright issues, but the presentation drew positive responses from those who saw it live. One 89-year-old fan, Marlene Mitchel, commented, “Such a great program! Gary Wenstrup is an outstanding presenter – well prepared, well-spoken – and so glad it all went well technically today!” Another anonymous commenter wrote, “I can’t think of a more wonderful way to spend a Tuesday afternoon. It made my day. My week. My year. Yes, it was terrific!!!”


By Wendi Kromash as published in the Evanston RoundTable. Ms. Kromash is a member of the Levy Center Foundation Board; she manages and moderates the Levy Lecture Series.