By the Rev. Dr. Ed Hird
I remember when my older sister Ginny bought her first Beatles record in 1963. Listening to this strange new sound, I wondered what all the fuss was about. Before I knew it, I too was singing “All you need is love.” Little did I know that I was in the middle of a cultural and musical revolution.
One of the most enjoyable books that I have recently read is Mark Lewisohn’s biography The Beatles: All These Years, Vol. 1: Tune In. Lewisohn’s book gave me new insights into what made these four unknown Liverpuddlians into the unforgettable Beatles. I had no idea that the Beatles were originally a Skiffle band modeled after the No. 1 Skiffle artist Lonnie Donegan, who sold over a million copies of ‘Rock Island Line’. Paul McCartney commented: “(Donegan) was the first person we had heard of from Britain to get to the coveted No. 1 in the charts, and we studied his records avidly. We all bought guitars to be in a skiffle group. He was the man.” Skiffle music, using guitars, washboards and the tea-chest bass, was big in North America in the 1940s. In the 1950s, there were around 40,000 UK Skiffle bands. The Skiffle bands became so popular that you couldn’t purchase a guitar in the UK. John Lennon’s first guitar had to be shipped from Durban, South Africa, where Skiffle and Rock had not yet caught on.(1) His Aunt Mimi, who raised John, ironically said: “The guitar’s all right for a hobby but it won’t earn you any money.”(2)
Lewisohn showed how each of the Beatles came from very difficult family backgrounds. The Beatles were raised in mixed Catholic/Protestant families, except for Ringo who was raised in a Protestant family. Church did not have a huge impact on the Beatles, though they sang in the early days at church fairs. John Lennon was fascinated throughout his life by crucifixes, the greatest symbol of God’s love. George Harrison said: “The only thing that came across to me in the church was these oil paintings of Christ struggling up the hill with the cross on his back. I thought, ‘There’s something going on here.’” (3) Paul McCartney failed an audition to become a choirboy at the Anglican Cathedral through deliberately cracking his voice. Paul also abandoned music lessons after four or five weeks, when he was given homework.(4)
Can anything good come out of Nazareth?, the Bible asks. Can anything good come out of Liverpool?, many asked. Liverpool, the birthplace of the Beatles had been devastated by the World War II bombing. Poverty was rampant. Black soot covered everywhere. Fifty thousand Liverpool houses had no bathroom or inside toilet. Youth unemployment was higher in Liverpool than anywhere else outside of London. Violent youth gangs controlled the streets. Almost one-third of the population, 200,000 people, left Liverpool looking for a better life. In 1962, the UK Home Office report identified Liverpool as England ‘s worst for drunkenness with arrests.(5)
John Lennon was known as a Teddy Boy, and seen by some as a delinquent. Lewisohn said that “John Lennon could be a horrible drunk, shedding the humour that vitally checked his roughest edges to become verbally abusive and physically aggressive, an unadulterated, obnoxious pain in the backside.” (6) His girlfriend Cynthia Powell said of John, “His attitude was extremely ‘Don’t look at me’—but he wanted to be loved.”(7) “We knew we could make it,” said John. “We dreamed of being the British Elvis Presleys, and we believed it.”(8)
Richy Starkey, later Ringo Starr, was the last one to join the Beatles. At age six, he was in a near fatal coma for ten weeks and a year in hospital after contracting peritonitis. Ringo experienced a further long spell in hospital at age fourteen, after pleurisy turned into tuberculosis.(9) Ringo’s health challenges led him on a lifelong search for love and for God.
For several years, the Beatles remained undiscovered. Thanks to the influence of Chuck Berry, the Beatles morphed from Skiffle to Rock. John Lennon said of Berry “He’s the greatest rock ‘n roll poet. When I hear rock, good rock of the caliber of Chuck Berry, I just fall apart and have no other interest in life. The world could be ending if the rock ‘n roll’s playing. It’s a disease of mine.” (10) Their biggest break happened when the Beatles began to play extensively in Hamburg, Germany. Lewisohn calculated that the total time spent onstage on their first two German visits was 918 hours: “the equivalent of 612 90-minute shows in just 27 weeks.” As the most experienced rock band at the time, says Lewisohn, Hamburg toughened their voices, seasoned their characters, enriched their personalities and strengthened their voices. (11)
Virtually all of the early Beatle songs were about searching for love. When the single Love Me Do came out in 1962, said Ringo, “the whole of Liverpool went out and bought it en masse. They were proud of it: a group from Liverpool. It was fantastic.” (12)
From there, their fame exploded through the UK and around the world. Recently Ringo at the Grammy Museum in LA, admitted: “I have found God…I stepped off the path there for many years and found my way [back] onto it, thank God.” Finding God has enabled Ringo to give up his sixty-cigarettes a day and move away from alcohol and drug abuse: “I feel the older I get, the more I’m learning to handle life. Being on this quest for a long time, it’s all about finding yourself.”(13) Ringo discovered that the love of God changes everything. Because God is love, all we need is love.
The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, BSW, MDiv, DMin
-previously published in the Deep Cove Crier/North Shore News
(1) Mark Lewisohn, The Beatles: All These Years, Vol. 1: Tune In (Crown Archetype, New York, NY, 2013), p. 115.
(2) Lewisohn, p. 224.
(3) Lewisohn, p. 65.
(4) Lewisohn, p. 62.
(5) Lewisohn, p. 738.
(6) Lewisohn, p. 162.
(7) Lewisohn, p. 228.
(8) Lewisohn, p. 537.
(9) Lewisohn, p. 453.
(10) Lewisohn, p. 169.
(11) Lewisohn, p. 398, John Harris,
(12) Lewisohn, p. 720.
(13) Andrew Hough, The Telegraph, Feb 3rd 2010, “The Beatles’ drummer Ringo Starr admits: ‘I have found God’, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/the-beatles/7142630/The-Beatles-drummer-Ringo-Starr-admits-I-have-found-God.html