CLOSE
Getty Images
Getty Images

11 Fun Facts About the Beatles

Getty Images
Getty Images

John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr are remembered for their instrumental roles in launching the British invasion and bringing the aesthetic of rock and roll to new frontiers with everything from electronic effects to sitars. Their songs are beloved, hated, and exhaustively analyzed by a new generation every few years. (Even Glee is getting in on the action: In tonight's fifth season premiere, the show is putting its own spin on 14 classic Beatles tracks.) Abbey Road was released 44 years ago today; here are a few facts about the Fab Four.

1. John grew up near a place called Strawberry Fields in Liverpool.

Getty Images

From the time he was five years old and all but abandoned by his parents, Lennon lived with his aunt and uncle, Mimi and George Smith, in Woolton. One of his favorite spots to explore with his childhood friends was the garden of the nearby Salvation Army orphanage, Strawberry Fields. McCartney remembered in Barry Miles’ book Many Years From Now that it was “a secret garden. John's memory of it [was]…There was a wall you could bunk over and it was a rather wild garden, it wasn't manicured at all, so it was easy to hide in.” Lennon wrote the song in a reminiscent mood in 1966 while on set in Spain for the film How I Won the War.

“Strawberry Fields Forever” is not the only Beatles song named for a real place—the first Lennon family home in Liverpool stood near Penny Lane—but it might be the only one to have a place named after it: Strawberry Fields is now a memorial section of New York’s Central Park.

2. “Michelle” was inspired by Paul’s favorite technique for picking up girls at parties.

McCartney once shared in an interview that he and Harrison, self-described “working-class boys,” often felt at odds at the boho-chic parties they went to as teens with Lennon (who was older and attending art college). To hold his own, McCartney developed a habit of dressing in black, sitting in a corner with his guitar, and singing in made-up French to see if he could draw over any of the Juliette Greco-type women. It never worked, but one day Lennon suggested that McCartney make “that French thing” into a song. Il faut souffrir pour être belle, man.

3. Ringo’s real name is Richard Starkey.

Richard Starkey, called “Ritchie” by his doting mother, was born in Liverpool in 1940; he began playing the drums in a hospital band at the age of 13 while recuperating from a bout of tuberculosis, and by 17 he had helped to found the Eddie Clayton Skiffle Band. He joined the Beatles in 1962, replacing their first drummer, Pete Best.

Starr/Starkey was always known in the group’s public performances, films, and album covers as Ringo, but in recordings of studio takes Paul can be heard calling out “Ready, Richard?” before counting the band off. The drummer’s first nickname, Rings, reportedly came from his habit of wearing large amounts of jewelry, particularly on his fingers; later, while at a holiday camp, he changed it to "Ringo" to sound more cowboy-ish. In a scene from A Hard Day’s Night where the lads are playing cards in a train compartment surrounded by giggling girls, the other members laughingly accuse him of winning because of his lucky rings.

4. The first lyrics to “Yesterday” were “scrambled eggs.”

Genius often comes out of nowhere, and the melody for the famous melancholy string setting that is Vladimir Putin’s favorite Beatles song apparently just popped into Paul McCartney’s head when he woke up one morning. Until he could find words for it, the McCartney walked around the house humming “scrambled eggs…baby, I love scrambled eggs” so that he wouldn’t forget the tune. 

5. The BBC banned "I Am the Walrus."

Mild string player Harrison was incensed when the BBC banned “I Am the Walrus” for its lyrics “pornographic priestesses” and “let your knickers down.” In an interview with official Beatles biographer Hunter Davies, he revealed a desire to take the Beatles’ edginess in a new direction altogether:

 Why can't you have people f***ing as well? It's going on everywhere in the world, all the time. So why can't you mention it? It's just a word, made up by people... It doesn't mean a thing, so why can't we use it in a song? We will eventually. We haven't started yet.

6. “Norwegian Wood” is not the name of the house.

For Lennon, “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” was an allusion to an extramarital affair; for Harrison, it meant the breakout song for his defining instrumentals on sitar. But the ethereal head-scratcher of a song title actually refers to the cheap furniture of the average 1960s bachelorette apartment.

Lennon and McCartney’s lyrics follow a man who goes to a girl’s apartment for the evening, only to be told to sleep in the bathtub and jilted the next morning; resentful of waking up alone, he sets fire to her apartment and its kitschy contents. McCartney remembers:  “…a lot of people were decorating their places in wood. Norwegian wood. It was pine, really, cheap pine. But it's not as good a title, 'Cheap Pine,' baby. So it was a little parody really on those kind of girls who when you'd go to their flat there would be a lot of Norwegian wood.” Had the song been written today, it might have been called "Ikea Furniture."

7. The famous Abbey Road picture has a prequel.

Courtesy of The Beatles Bible

The final album cover photograph of four Beatles walking in time was chosen from a series of eight shots, taken on the crosswalk in front of Abbey Road Studios over the course of a single day in 1969. Freelance photographer Iain Macmillan took the official photos, but Paul’s wife, Linda McCartney, happened to be standing by with her camera to catch this small elderly lady talking to Ringo as Paul fixes his jacket collar. We can only hope they came off as nice young men.  

8. Sean Connery royally dissed the Fab Four as James Bond, but liked them enough himself to record a cover.

In the 1964 Bond thriller Goldfinger, Connery purrs, of drinking Dom Perignon at the wrong temperature, “It’s simply not done…like listening to the Beatles without earmuffs.” Young fans reportedly booed the line in theatres, but the actor himself bears no real animosity toward the Beatles. Connery even collaborated with George Martin in 1988 for the Beatles producer’s In My Life album, a retrospective of Fab Four covers by celebrities from Robin Williams to Goldie Hawn. 007’s spoken-word version of the title track is radical, but pleasant, like reaching for the Dom Perignon and getting a surprise glass of well-aged scotch.

9. Lovely Rita may have been a real Meter Maid named Meta.

“Traffic wardens,” as they were called in London of the 1960s, were less common and less reviled in Britain than across the pond, and it took an American friend of McCartney’s commenting on the “meter maids” to inspire the immortal rhyme of the Sgt. Pepper’s track. The woman herself, however, never got her fine. Parking attendant Meta Davis claims to have written a ticket for a car outside of the Abbey Road Studios in 1967 when Paul sauntered out and pulled it off the windshield. “He looked at it and read my signature … He said ‘Oh, is your name really Meta? ... That would be a good name for a song. Would you mind if I use it?’ And that was that. Off he went.” However, McCartney has stated that he wrote the lyrics while walking near his brother's house in Gayton, near Liverpool—some 200 miles north of London.

10. And Lucy the Lennon muse last flew in 2009.

The acronymic rendering of the title of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is LITSWD, but the only three letters that most theorists take any notice of are L,S, and D. The musicians and their fans alike have historically lamented the willingness of some of their critics to look for drug references in song lyrics, and “Lucy,” with its imagery of “marmalade skies” and “kaleidoscope eyes,” is a frequent victim. The inspiration for the strange and colorful song, however, came from a much more innocent place.

When 4-year-old Julian Lennon showed his father a drawing of a girl named Lucy who sat next to him in school, the songwriter was inspired by his childish scrawl of a girl who his son said was “in the sky with diamonds.” Lucy Vodden later moved to London, and remained there until she died from complications related to lupus in 2009 at the age of 46. Julian Lennon rekindled their friendship in the last years of Vodden’s life and frequently sent her flowers.

11. There is a heated international grammatical debate over whether the “the” should be capitalized.

Wikipedia talk pages were ablaze late last year over a small but persistent question: are they The Beatles or the Beatles? Lower-case faction members point to handwritten letters by Lennon which feature a small t in the band’s title, while proponents of the capital T cite grammatical rules over trademarks and the logo atop the Beatles’ official website. Squabbling on the online encyclopedia started in 2004, and recently resulted in several editors being banned from commenting. Lower-case advocate Gabriel Fadden complained of being “cyberstalked” in the Wall Street Journal’s coverage of the rumpus. The two surviving musicians, McCartney and Starr, have refrained from throwing an oar or a drumstick in, but if you’re interested, the talk page is still open and ripe for grammatical speculation.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Boston Public Library, Flickr, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
arrow
History
Remembering Boston's Great Molasses Flood of 1919
Boston Public Library, Flickr, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Boston Public Library, Flickr, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On January 15, 1919, Boston suffered one of history’s strangest disasters: a devastating flood of molasses. The “Great Molasses Flood” tore through the city's North End and deposited so much gooey residue that locals claimed they could still smell the molasses on warm days decades later.

While most of us probably think of molasses as a tasty ingredient in treats like gingerbread, the sticky stuff has quite a few other uses. With a little know-how, one can turn molasses into rum or industrial alcohol fairly easily, and the Purity Distilling Company had built the gigantic tank in Boston’s North End in 1915 to supply its booze-making operations.

The steel tank was enormous: 50 feet tall, 90 feet across, and capable of holding 2.5 million gallons of molasses. (Although Prohibition kicked in with Nebraska’s ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment the very next day after the 1919 disaster, the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, Purity Distilling’s parent company, still had a license to distill alcohol for industrial applications.)


By Unknown - Anthony Mitchell Sammarco. Boston's North End. Arcadia Publishing, 2004, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The massive tank was nearly full on January 15, thanks to a recent infusion of 2.3 million gallons of molasses from Puerto Rico. Just after noon, something went horribly wrong. Witnesses later recalled hearing a noise like gunfire as the tank’s rivets popped and the steel sides ripped open. Suddenly, 26 million pounds of molasses were tearing down Commercial Street in a 15-foot wave.

A SHOCKINGLY DESTRUCTIVE FORCE

A giant wave of a sticky foodstuff sounds like something from a cartoon, but the surging molasses was a shockingly destructive force. The wave moved at upwards of 35 miles per hour, and the power was sufficient to rip buildings off of their foundations. The molasses snapped the support girders from an elevated train track and smashed multiple houses. The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities’s website claimed the property damage alone totaled around $100 million in today’s dollars.

The human cost of the disaster was even more grim. The wave of molasses moved so quickly and so forcefully that anyone who was unlucky enough to be in its way didn’t stand much of a chance. They were either knocked over and crushed or drowned in the goo. The flood claimed 21 lives, and another 150 people suffered injuries. Any flood would have been disastrous, but the viscous nature of molasses made rescue attempts even trickier. Medics and police officers arrived on the scene quickly but had to slog through waist-deep goo to reach victims.


Boston Post, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Even after the victims had been pulled from the muck, cleanup crews quickly learned that getting rid of 2 million gallons of molasses is no small task. In his book Dark Tide, Stephen Puleo wrote about one of the chief obstacles to the cleanup: firefighters couldn’t just use their hoses to blast the molasses off of buildings and streets with fresh water. Eventually they realized that saltwater would cut the hardened molasses and enable them to hose it down the streets into gutters. Thanks to all the foot traffic of rescue workers, cleanup crews, and rubberneckers, the sticky mess quickly moved around the city via people's shoes. In all, the cleanup effort required over 80,000 man-hours.

THE BLAME GAME

How did this tragedy happen in the first place? The United States Industrial Alcohol Company was quick to blame everyone’s favorite early 20th-century scapegoats: anarchists. The company claimed that since its alcohol was an ingredient in government munitions, anarchists must have sabotaged the tank by detonating a bomb. Another theory explained that the molasses had fermented inside the tank, which led to an explosion.

Investigators soon found the real culprit, though: shoddy construction work. The company had been in such a hurry to get the tank built back in 1915 that it didn’t cut corners so much as it ignored the corners completely. Modern studies have found that the tank walls were both too thin and made of a steel that was too brittle to withstand the volume of molasses.

The man who oversaw the construction wasn’t an engineer or an architect; in fact, he couldn’t even read a blueprint. The tank needed to be an engineering marvel to hold all that weight, but the company never even consulted an engineer on the project. Basically, it threw up a gigantic tank as quickly and as cheaply as possible, skimped on inspections and safety tests, and hoped for the best.


Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In light of these details, it’s amazing that the tank held together for four years. Nearby residents reported that the tank had leaked since its construction. Rather than fix the problem, the United States Industrial Alcohol Company had painted the tank brown so the leaks would be less noticeable.

The largely working-class North End residents who had lost their homes and loved ones in the disaster predictably turned their rage towards the United States Industrial Alcohol Company. USIA soon found itself named as the defendant in 125 lawsuits, which led to a legal battle that nearly matched the flood’s scale.

The Massachusetts Superior Court named Colonel Hugh Ogden as the auditor who would hear the evidence and report back on the cause of the disaster. It took Ogden nearly six years to hear testimony from 3,000 witnesses. When he finally penned his report, he concluded that there was no evidence to support the company’s theory of anarchist saboteurs. Instead, Ogden found that the “factor of safety” in the tank’s construction and inspection had been woefully low. USIA was liable for the damage and paid around $7,000 to the family of each victim.

The Great Molasses Flood still seems like a tragedy that could have been averted, but the disaster really drew attention to the potential repercussions of shaky construction. The case helped prompt Massachusetts and many other states to pass laws requiring that engineers and architects inspect and approve plans for major construction projects.

This story originally appeared in 2011.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
William Lovelace, Getty Images
arrow
History
12 Historic Facts About Martin Luther King Jr.
William Lovelace, Getty Images
William Lovelace, Getty Images

Monday, January 15, 2018, marks what would have been the 89th birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the federal holiday created in recognition of the Atlanta native, who became one of the most important figures in the civil rights movement. Signed by President Reagan in 1983, the holiday marked the culmination of efforts that began just four days after King’s assassination in 1968, when Representative John Conyers of Michigan began 15 years of introducing and reintroducing a bill to establish the holiday. (Stevie Wonder joined the chorus of Americans backing Conyers' efforts; in 1980 he wrote the song "Happy Birthday" to help create a groundswell of support.)

While it would be impossible to encompass everything King accomplished in a mere list, we’ve compiled a few intriguing facts that may pique your interest in finding out more about the man who helped unite a divided nation.

1. MARTIN LUTHER KING WAS NOT HIS GIVEN NAME.

One of the most recognizable proper names of the 20th century wasn't actually what was on the birth certificate. The future civil rights leader was born Michael King Jr. on January 15, 1929, named after his father Michael King. When the younger King was 5 years old, his father decided to change both their names after learning more about 16th century theologian Martin Luther, who was one of the key figures of the Protestant Reformation. Inspired by that battle, Michael King soon began referring to himself and his son as Martin Luther King.

2. HE WAS A DOCTOR OF THEOLOGY.

Using the prefix "doctor" to refer to King has become a reflex, but not everyone is aware of the origin of King’s Ph.D. He attended Boston University and graduated in 1955 with a doctorate in systematic theology. King also had a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from Morehouse College and a Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary.

3. HE TOOK 30 TRIPS TO JAIL.

Dr. King leading a march from Selma, Alabama to its capital, Montgomery, in March 1965.
Dr. King leading a march from Selma, Alabama to its capital, Montgomery, in March 1965.
Getty Images

A powerful voice for an ignored and suppressed minority, opponents tried to silence King the old-fashioned way: incarceration. In the 12 years he spent as the recognized leader of the civil rights movement, King was arrested and jailed 30 times. Rather than brood, King used the unsolicited downtime to further his cause. Jailed in Birmingham for eight days in 1963, he penned "Letter from Birmingham Jail," a long treatise responding to the oppression supported by white religious leaders in the South.

"I'm afraid that it is much too long to take your precious time," he wrote. "I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else is there to do when you are alone for days in the dull monotony of a narrow jail cell other than write long letters, think strange thoughts, and pray long prayers?"

4. THE FBI TRIED TO COERCE HIM INTO SUICIDE.

King's increasing prominence and influence agitated many of his enemies, but few were more powerful than FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. For years, Hoover kept King under surveillance, worried that this subversive could sway public opinion against the bureau and fretting that King might have Communist ties. While there's still debate about how independently Hoover's deputy William Sullivan was acting, an anonymous letter was sent to King in 1964 accusing him of extramarital affairs and threatening to disclose his indiscretions. The only solution, the letter suggested, would be for King to exit the civil rights movement, either willingly or by taking his own life. King ignored the threat and continued his work.

5. A SINGLE SNEEZE COULD HAVE ALTERED HISTORY FOREVER.

Our collective memory of King always has an unfortunate addendum: his 1968 assassination that brought an end to his personal crusade against social injustice. But if Izola Ware Curry had her way, King’s mission would have ended 10 years earlier. At a Harlem book signing in 1958, Ware approached King and plunged a seven-inch letter opener into his chest, nearly puncturing his aorta. Surgery was needed to remove it. Had King so much as sneezed, doctors said, the wound was so close to his heart that it would have been fatal.  Curry, a 42-year-old black woman, was having paranoid delusions about the NAACP that soon crystallized around King. She was committed to an institution and died in 2015.

6. HE GOT A "C" IN PUBLIC SPEAKING.

King’s promise as one of the great orators of his time was late in coming. While attending Crozer Theological Seminary from 1948 to 1951, King’s marks were diluted by C and C+ grades in two terms of public speaking.

7. HE WON A GRAMMY.

At the 13th annual Grammy Awards in 1971, a recording of King’s 1967 address, "Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam," took home a posthumous award for Best Spoken Word recording. In 2012, his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame (it was included decades later because its 1969 nomination was beaten for the Spoken Word prize by Rod McKuen's "Lonesome Cities").

8. HE LOVED STAR TREK.

It’s not easy to imagine King having the time or inclination to sit down and watch primetime sci-fi on television, but according to actress Nichelle Nichols, King and his family made an exception for Star Trek. In 1967, the actress met King, who told her he was a big fan and urged her to reconsider her decision to leave the show to perform on Broadway. "My family are your greatest fans," Nichols recalled King telling her, and said he continued with, "As a matter of fact, this is the only show on television that my wife Coretta and I will allow our little children to watch, to stay up and watch because it's on past their bedtime." Nichols' character of Lt. Uhura, he said, was important because she was a strong, professional black woman. If Nichols left, King noted, the character could be replaced by anyone, since "[Uhura] is not a black role. And it's not a female role." Based on their talk, Nichols decided to remain on the show for the duration of its three-season original run.

9. HE SPENT HIS WEDDING NIGHT IN A FUNERAL PARLOR.


Getty Images

When King married his wife, Coretta, in her father’s backyard in 1953, there was virtually no hotel in Marion, Alabama that would welcome a newlywed black couple. A friend of Coretta's happened to be an undertaker, and invited the Kings into one of the guest rooms at his funeral parlor.

10. RONALD REAGAN WAS OPPOSED TO A KING HOLIDAY.

Despite King's undeniable worthiness, MLK Day was not a foregone conclusion. In the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan largely ignored pleas to pass legislation making the holiday official out of the concern it would open the door for other minority groups to demand their own holidays; Senator Jesse Helms complained that the missed workday could cost the country $12 billion in lost productivity, and both were concerned about King’s possible Communist sympathies. Common sense prevailed, and the bill was signed into law on November 2, 1983. The holiday officially began being recognized in January 1986.

11. WE'LL SOON SEE HIM ON THE $5 BILL.

In 2016, the U.S. Treasury announced plans to overhaul major denominations of currency beginning in 2020. Along with Harriet Tubman adorning the $20 bill, plans call for the reverse side of the $5 Lincoln-stamped bill to commemorate "historic events that occurred at the Lincoln Memorial" including King’s famous 1963 speech..

12. ONE OF KING'S VOLUNTEERS WALKED AWAY WITH A PIECE OF HISTORY.

King’s 1963 oration from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, known as the "I Have a Dream" speech, will always be remembered as one of the most provocative public addresses ever given. George Raveling, who was 26 at the time, had volunteered to help King and his team during the event. When it was over, Raveling sheepishly asked King for the copy of the three-page speech. King handed it over without hesitation; Raveling kept it for the next 20 years before he fully understood its historical significance and removed it from the book he had been storing it in.

He’s turned down offers of up to $3.5 million, insisting that the document will remain in his family—always noting that the most famous passage, where King details his dream of a united nation, isn't on the sheet. It was improvised.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios