In the autumn of 1963, a raging epidemic was spreading rapidly across Britain and the European continent and would soon conquer American soils. This frenzied mass hysteria, never witnessed before and never to be seen again was summarised in one word: Beatlemania.
1960’s England was a nation finally overcoming the huge economic consequences of the greatest armed conflict in history, World War II, which raged from 1939 to 1946. The changes brought about in British society during the sixties were widespread, both geographically and demographically, influencing almost everyone in every sphere, from politics to popular culture.
Improved production proficiency enabled increased wages and lower costs of consumer goods. The percentage of British households boasting a refrigerator soared from 8 percent in 1956, to 33 percent in 1962 and 69 percent in 1971. Likewise, households possessing television sets climbed from 75 percent in 1961 to 91 percent in 1971. The growth in ownership of labour saving appliances afforded more people more free time to dedicate to hobbies and socialising.
For too long, the war had overshadowed everyone’s lives, but the newly emerging consumer society could finally see a light at the end of the tunnel of oppression. Growing wages abolished the necessity to work day in day out just to survive. The people wanted more than survival, they wanted to have fun and being able to afford it led to a towering demand for entertainment.
Purchasing power led to a consumption boom and the diminishing of boundaries between the classes. The youth of Britain were finally afforded the opportunity to satisfy their desire for pleasure, highlighting their distaste for the uptight ‘Victorian moral code’ and promoting a more liberal society. Individuals were able to express themselves through music, which became the pivotal ingredient of a commercialised popular culture.
New forms of media injected a powerful momentum into the rapid growth of the Beatles as they were plastered across every television screen and newspaper and had their songs blaring out from every radio. Their appearance, in particular their hair, grew many admirers and their cheeky, fun-loving attitude, balanced by a self-depreciating honesty proved irresistible. Above all, their refusal to conform and the ability to contest authority in a witty and confident manner struck a chord with the youth of Britain. They did not just influence fashion, they were fashion.
The Beatles were influenced by the 1960’s hippie movement in the United States, protesting against the war in Vietnam and promoting peace and free love. Drugs and popular music were at the heart of the flower power movement, climaxing towards the end of Beatlemania with the ‘acid summer’ of 1967 and Woodstock music festival in 1969, headlined by the great Jimi Hendrix.
The 1960’s gave birth to several human rights movements, with minorities striving for equal rights, such as gays, lesbians and feminists, although the fight for equality of black people was the most notorious, associated with icons Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. It was the cultural emancipation of black people that influenced the Beatles, who drew inspiration from black musicians Roy Orbison, Chuck Berry and the Isley Brothers.
The 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is not only the most critically acclaimed Beatles album, but a landmark in the evolution of popular music. It was the first concept album, whereby the songs are constructed as a whole, rather than individually. Famous concept albums inspired by this pioneering release include Tommy by The Who in 1969, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars by David Bowie in 1972 and Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd in 1973. The album also printed the lyrics on the back of the sleeve, a novel creative touch, which is now adopted by all and sundry.
Another of Britain’s most successful bands in music history, Queen, were influenced by the Beatles, as guitarist Brian May once admitted: “The Beatles were our bible, it has to be said, the Beatles just did so many things right.” Described previously as a fashion, the Beatles did what all fashion guru’s do, they moved with the times, not only in their choice of threads and hairstyles, but with their lyrics and this was crucial to their longevity.
From 1962 to 1965 a staggering 86 songs out of 100 recorded referred to love, with zero mention of social criticism, injustice, political issues or discontent. Concerned at the dangers of becoming stale and provoked by the emotional response to Bob Dylan’s protest songs, the so-called rebels started to live up to their reputation in 1966, releasing Eleanor Rigby from the album Revolver, a blatant attack on the apparent worthless Victorian morals of older generations. In 1967 The Fool on the Hill from the album Magical Mystery Tour criticised those who were too quick to label others as fools, if they failed to fit their ideals.
Openly flaunting their drug usage became commonplace and the release of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album in 1967, appeared to describe the bizarre images or irrational thought processes one might encounter whilst under the influence of LSD or marijuana. The bands references to the sexual revolution are even argued to have influenced the 1976 Abortion and Sexual Offences Acts, making abortions more accessible for women and putting an end to the prosecution of homosexuality.
This may seem implausible, but they were undoubtedly responsible for the anglicisation of music, inspiring people all over the world to learn English so they could understand and sing a long to their songs. When John Lennon described the band as being “more popular than Jesus now”, he was far from the only person that thought so. The Beatles following had reached a uniquely spiritual level by the end of the sixties, but understandably, this left little room for further elevation.
Despite the evolution of the Beatles and the interest that followed the members of the band for many years to come, they never again reached the dizzy heights of Beatlemania. This golden era in 1960’s Britain is for so many, the single most defining period, not just in popular music history, but in the history of British popular culture.
Having sold over 400 million records during their active career and an estimated 1 billion records to date, the Beatles are the most successful band in history, but the real influence of the Beatles is simply immeasurable.