On Jan. 1, 1962, The Beatles flunked an audition at Decca Records in London. Label executive Dick Rowe's brush-off: "Guitar groups are on the way out."
It was an inauspicious start for the group that would soon dominate global society and a downbeat Day 1 in the year that saw the scrappy Liverpool lads evolve into the Fab Four who forever altered the course of pop music.
No other entertainers in history have been as popular, as influential, as important or as groundbreaking. The best-selling act ever sold 600 million albums worldwide and racked up 20 No. 1 U.S. singles, a Billboard record that still stands. The band hijacked the entertainment media and transcended music to become a chapter in world history. Its members had political clout, spiritual authority, cultural sway and the ears of the planet.
Fifty years later, the melodic, instantly memorable tunes of The Beatles are ingrained in the DNA of modern civilization. On this golden anniversary, their golden oldies sound as vital and fresh as ever and continue to bewitch new generations.
How did The Beatles become so profoundly enormous and enduring? Even the players couldn't fathom such sovereignty. Paul McCartney expected a brief joy ride when Beatlemania struck.
"Oh, yeah, we thought a couple years, that would be it," he told USA TODAY in 2009, when The Beatles' remastered catalog reignited international excitement. "We never thought it would last at all. You've got to ask, 'Why did it last?' I think the music is very well-structured, like a good house. It's going to stand for a long time. It's nice that I can sit back now and be proud of what we did."
The Beatles sprang from a perfect storm of timing, chemistry, luck, key support and, most critically, talent. And many of those essential factors fell into place 50 years ago.
John Lennon and McCartney met in 1957. George Harrison joined their band in 1958, when they were busking in Liverpool. They adopted the name The Beatles in 1960.
The pivotal year of 1962 saw a rapid coalescence: "Fifth Beatle" Brian Epstein became their indefatigable manager in January. He sent The Beatles, performing in Hamburg, this telegram on May 9: "Congratulations, boys. EMI requests recording session. Please rehearse new material."
On June 4, they signed a contract with Parlophone, a subsidiary of EMI. And on June 6, they entered Abbey Road Studios with producer George Martin for the first time, recording demos of cover tune Besame Mucho and Lennon-McCartney compositions Love Me Do, P.S. I Love You and Ask Me Why. Martin, mildly impressed, lectured the band about its lousy equipment, then asked whether they had any complaints.
Harrison quipped, "I don't like your tie."
In August, drummer Pete Best was fired and replaced by Ringo Starr. First single Love Me Do was recorded on Sept. 4 and released in the U.K. on Oct. 5, setting the stage for a musical and cultural revolution.
World was ready for them
"An incredible convergence of factors contributed to The Beatles' breakthrough and to sustaining their growth," says Beatles scholar Martin Lewis, who since 1967 has worked as a writer, producer, strategist and consultant on official Beatles projects, including The Beatles Anthology.
"They would have been successful at any time, but the speed and magnitude of that success owes in large part to the times. Britain was so poor after World War II. In Liverpool, which had been heavily bombed, the atmosphere was great poverty and sterility and gloom. The Beatles grew up in that, and their first awakenings came from the distant sounds of rock in America."
Inspired by U.S. rock pioneers, The Beatles began to blaze a trail, first with yeah yeah yeahs, moptops and a cheeky air.
"The prevalent attitude among the elite ruling class was that young people had no say in their own lives," Lewis says. "The Beatles made rebellion constructive, articulating it with joyous, giddy exuberance. At a time when cigar-chomping moguls paid people in cubicles to write factory-farm pop songs for teenagers, The Beatles were completely authentic, and kids instinctively understood that."
Their camaraderie, self-deprecating wit, effervescence and non-conformist hair and fashion also appealed to a growing youth culture. Radio, formerly a fixed object in homes, proliferated in transistor form, and an improving economy gave teens a disposable income to buy records.
Lewis also credits integral contributions of "three wise men" guiding The Beatles: producer Martin, who nurtured rather than imposing his vision; publicist Derek Taylor, a perceptive propaganda minister who shaped the band's narrative; and Epstein, a tireless advocate.
Talent, while abundant, was not enough to take The Beatles to the toppermost of the poppermost, to borrow Lennon's pep phrase.
"Unlike vast legions of entertainers before and since, The Beatles' objective in forming a group was not to become famous or rich or have their pick of the opposite sex," Lewis says. "They were motivated by the love of music. It colors your approach. How many kids today make a record on their Mac with Pro Tools and expect it to be No. 1 in 10 minutes?
"From 1957 to 1962, The Beatles played hundreds of live shows in front of very few people, making no money, sleeping in disgusting locales. They had no sense of entitlement. Just drive and commitment."
From Liverpool with love
Only war-battered Liverpool and its sociopolitical dynamics could have produced The Beatles, says David Bedford, author of Liddypool: Birthplace of The Beatles and founder of the new online Beatles Social Network. Yet he marvels that any disruption of the chance meetings and coincidences critical to the band's formation could have foiled destiny. At every turn, circumstance favored The Beatles' rise.
"Just as the U.K. charts were growing tired and predictable, the United States, which had taken the lead with the great rock 'n' roll artists of the '50s, was in need of something new. What happened in Dallas in November (1963) sent the public into mourning for the loss of a president who promised so much. How could the country rise again? Four lads from Liverpool, who were funny, charming and different, came over to try their luck."
They came, they conquered, drawing 73 million viewers with their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964.
"Will we ever see the stars align this way again? Unlikely," Bedford says. "In the end, it all comes back to one thing: the music. The songs are as good today as when they were written."
The bulk of those songs, arguably history's most influential, grew from the imagination and combustible chemistry of Lennon and McCartney, says Dennis Mitchell, host for 21 years of syndicated radio show Breakfast With The Beatles.
"The odds are incredible that two individuals with that kind of musical acumen met and made all this music together," he says. "What they created was totally original, a starting point for so many bands that followed. Millions of fans and musicians were inspired and motivated to a degree we've never seen."
The genius of Lennon-McCartney
Though various junctures and backdrops fleshed out the Beatles phenomenon, Lennon and McCartney were the only two crucial components, says Mark Shipper, author of Paperback Writer, a satiric revisionist history of The Beatles.
"Working together, they were absolute geniuses," Shipper says. "The other two Beatles were little more than journeymen who spent most of their time desperately trying to keep up.
"Doubt this? Ringo certainly does. He seriously thinks he's the world's greatest living drummer. To those who share his opinion, I say, put Ringo in the Rolling Stones. There could be no Stones. And yet Charlie Watts, if he really needed a paycheck, could have played in The Beatles.
"As for George, he ruined every early album with his incessant clankers on guitar and the later ones with that god-awful sitar. He sang very good harmony with Paul. But that's it."
Lewis disagrees, arguing that all four brought skill, personality and grit to the unorthodox ensemble, a leaderless gang of musical omnivores.
An important key to their longevity was "the sheer eclecticism of the music, cultural and literary influences they absorbed," he says. "Unlike many musicians today, who narrowcast what they listen to, The Beatles had a voracious appetite for an incredibly diverse range of music. Their initial heroes were the Everly Brothers and Little Richard, but they drew from the American songbook. They listened to folk, Gershwin, Cole Porter, vaudeville. They were sponges."
Had The Beatles not used their influences and curiosity to push boundaries, they might have had the shelf life of a hula-hoop craze, Lewis says.
"What added depth to their credibility was a continuing thirst to break new ground. This was in an era when it was the norm to lay the same golden egg over and over. You were not expected to become more polished. But The Beatles set out on a voyage of discovery."
Historical events and the cultural climate didn't matter much, says Steve Marinucci, Beatles columnist on Examiner.com and webmaster for AbbeyRd's Beatles Page (abbeyrd.best.vwh.net). The Fab Four were unstoppable.
"The older generation scorned rock 'n' roll at that time, and for The Beatles to make it through on that level was a heck of an achievement," he says. "It's astonishing how everything revolved around them. That's all you heard between 1964 and 1969. Nobody can have that kind of impact again. It was a different world. We didn't have the Internet, and people weren't so jaded."
Analyzing Beatlemania, Harrison once said, "The world used us as an excuse to go mad."
'No one can explain it'
Perhaps the band's unprecedented exploits simply defy logic, says Matt Hurwitz, Beatles historian and Mix magazine contributing editor.
"I've never figured it out, and I don't think anyone has ever been able to," he says. "Even their publicist Derek Taylor told me, 'It's something I've never been able to put a finger on. They just had an inexplicable charisma.'
"There's never been an experience like Beatlemania before or since. No one can explain it. We all just love it. It's exciting, and it makes us happy."
One momentous aspect tends to be overlooked in theories of Beatle magnitude, undiminished since the band's acrimonious 1970 split or the deaths of Lennon in 1980 and Harrison in 2001.
"They had the good sense to break up at the height of their creativity," Lewis says. "It wasn't planned, but it was the best move ever. The result is we never had to endure the embarrassment of The Beatles going disco or getting a middle-age paunch.
"They left seven years of brilliantly recorded music and a perfect corpse that kept the mystique and beauty of The Beatles intact."