Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry. In the original post below he looks at the Beatles in January 1959 and January 1969.
In the cold of January 1959, the core of what would become the Beatles—John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison—were having trouble picking up even occasional gigs. The previous January (1958), Lennon and McCartney had faked their way onto the Cavern Club’s traditional jazz program by describing their repertoire as blues; but the owners knew rock ‘n’ roll when they heard it. Over the next few years, the group seemed condemned to playing basements from Mona Best’s Casbah in Liverpool to Bruno Koschmider’s Indra in Hamburg.
However, 1959 held promise in the success of a local hero. On 16 January, Decca released Billy Fury’s “Maybe Tomorrow,” demonstrating that a working-class kid from Liverpool could both write a hit song and perform it. The recording would take over a month to break into the charts and eventually crack the national top 20. Nevertheless, Fury’s example would not have been lost on Lennon and McCartney. London impresario Larry Parnes had almost overnight transformed aspiring teenage songwriter Ronald Wycherley (who was only a few months older than John Lennon) into Billy Fury. Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison would take a longer route out of their subterranean haunts, but they too sought a transformation.
The following ten years would see the Quarrymen become the Beatles as they launched into their tragic arch. January 1969 found the group in a cold London film studio attempting to realize Paul McCartney’s film concept of them rehearsing music for a new album followed by a suitably exotic premiere performance. As with their previous attempt at film, the project that would become Let It Be severely underestimated the challenges. George Harrison, alternately disagreeing with McCartney and Lennon, became the second Beatle to walk out of the band in less than a year. John Lennon (with Yoko Ono attached) seemed only interested in heroin. And by the end of the month, they had added money to their arguments, at which point American accountant Allen Klein insinuated himself into their enterprise.
But on Thursday 30 January, they finally made it to the top. Just down the street from the Royal Academy of Arts, the Beatles had situated their Apple offices in a district better known for its bespoke haberdashery than for rock bands. They engaged Michael Lindsay-Hogg—who had only the month before filmed The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus—to direct, perhaps in an effort to avoid the problems they had created for themselves with Magical Mystery Tour. When acrimony dissolved their hastily assembled plans, they improvised a finale that, while pitiful in comparison to past triumphs, briefly reignited the spark that had first illuminated the Cavern Club.
The wind whipped past them leaving Ringo quivering as they launched into their last public performance, this time on the rooftop of Apple at 3 Saville Row. The populace emerged from their offices and daily routines to witness the end of the Beatles, lining the street like gawkers on an execution route, unsure if they should applaud or cry. None knew that this represented the last performance, but the optimism of “Maybe Tomorrow” had devolved into “Get Back” with the past now preferable to the future. The Beatles still had a few tricks up their collective sleeves, but in the dead of that winter, they seemed reconciled to their aesthetic mortality and began preparing the end.