The Beatles—John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr—are best remembered for their essential role in launching a British music invasion in America and bringing the aesthetic of rock and roll to new frontiers with everything from electronic effects to sitars. Their songs are beloved by many, hated by some, and exhaustively analyzed by a new generation every few years. On the 60th anniversary of the band's founding, here are some things you might not have known about the Fab Four.
1. John Lennon grew up near a place called Strawberry Fields in Liverpool.
From the time he was five years old and all but abandoned by his parents, John Lennon lived with his aunt and uncle, Mimi and George Smith, in Woolton, England. One of his favorite spots to explore with his childhood friends was the garden of the nearby Salvation Army orphanage, which was known as Strawberry Fields. In Barry Miles’ book Many Years From Now, McCartney remembered 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 Lennons's first 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. There is a heated international grammatical debate over whether the “the” should be capitalized.
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’s official website. Squabbling about this very topic started on Wikipedia in 2004, and resulted in several editors being banned from commenting a few years back. In the Wall Street Journal’s coverage of the rumpus, lower-case advocate Gabriel Fadden complained of being “cyberstalked."
3. The Beatles recorded most of their debut album in one day.
No four people on Earth were more productive on February 11, 1963, than The Beatles. On that momentous day, the lads from Liverpool recorded 10 songs that would appear on their debut album, Please Please Me. At the very end of the 12-hour session, they tackled “Twist and Shout,” a raucous number that required an already-hoarse John Lennon to completely shred what remained of his voice.
“The last song nearly killed me,” Lennon said of “Twist and Shout” in 1976. “My voice wasn’t the same for a long time after; every time I swallowed it was like sandpaper. I was always bitterly ashamed of it, because I could sing it better than that; but now it doesn’t bother me. You can hear that I’m just a frantic guy doing his best.”
4. “Michelle” was inspired by Paul McCartney’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.
5. Ringo Starr’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.
6. Decca Records blew it big time with The Beatles.
On New Year’s Day 1962, The Beatles drove from Liverpool to London and auditioned for Decca Records. They recorded 15 songs in just over an hour, three of them Lennon-McCartney originals. Even if the nervous lads weren’t 100 percent on their game, the recordings present a rock-solid band with hints of future fabulousness. But Decca opted to pass on The Beatles and instead sign local rockers Brian Poole and the Tremeloes. The label also famously told Beatles manager Brian Epstein that “guitar groups are on the way out.”
The Decca disappointment was a blessing in disguise. After the failed audition, The Beatles found producer George Martin, signed with EMI, and replaced original drummer Pete Best with Ringo Starr. Everyone knows where the story goes from there. Things also turned out OK for Decca: They signed The Rolling Stones the following year.
7. 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.
8. People are obsessed with the opening chord in “A Hard Day’s Night.”
In writing the title track for their 1964 cinematic debut, A Hard Day’s Night, The Beatles knew they needed to kick things off in grand fashion. They came up with a ringing intro chord that’s instantly recognizable yet surprisingly hard to identify, musicologically speaking. Beatles fanatics debated for years about the chord, but in a 2001 online chat, George Harrison seemed to clear things up. “It is F with a G on top,” Harrison said, referring to Fadd9, played on a 12-string electric guitar. “But you’ll have to ask Paul about the bass note to get the proper story.”
“Audio spectrum analysis” of the chord suggests McCartney is playing a D note on his bass, while John Lennon is doubling Harrison’s Fadd9 on his acoustic guitar. There’s also some audible piano played by producer George Martin.
9. The BBC banned The Beatles's "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.
10. There was a real Eleanor Rigby.
One of Paul McCartney’s most poignant and memorable songs is “Eleanor Rigby,” all about a lonely old woman who dies in a church with nobody to mourn her. McCartney has always claimed he got the titular name from actress Eleanor Bron, who appears in the 1965 Beatles film Help!, and a shop in Bristol, England, called Rigby & Evens Ltd, Wine & Spirit Shippers.
There’s every reason to believe he’s telling the truth. But the world later learned there’s a gravestone for a woman named Eleanor Rigby in Woolton Cemetery, located near St. Peter’s Church in Liverpool, where Paul first met John Lennon in 1957. John and Paul used to hang around in the cemetery before they were famous, so it’s possible the name entered Macca’s mind subconsciously. Or maybe it’s just an eerie coincidence.
11. 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.
12. “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."
13. It took four men and three pianos to play the final chord in “A Day In the Life.”
Few moments in the Beatles catalog are more iconic than the thundering piano chord that ends “A Day In the Life,” the closing track on 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. To achieve that massive sound, the band needed a little help from roadie Mal Evans, who joined John, Paul, and Ringo in simultaneously playing an E major chord across three pianos. It took nine takes to get the timing right. The resulting chord rings out for 53 spine-tingling seconds.
14. Ringo Starr wrote “Octopus’s Garden” about a real undersea phenomenon.
Things got pretty combative during the sessions for 1968’s The Beatles, aka “The White Album.” At one point, a fed-up Ringo left the studio and then the country, taking his family on a boating vacation. While in Sardinia, he borrowed actor Peter Sellers’ yacht and spent a day yacking with the ship’s captain about octopuses.
“He told me that they hang out in their caves and they go around the seabed finding shiny stones and tin cans and bottles to put in front of their cave like a garden,” Ringo said. (The captain was right; octopuses really do this.) “I thought this was fabulous, because at the time I just wanted to be under the sea too,” Ringo added. “A couple of tokes later with the guitar—and we had ‘Octopus’s Garden!’”
15. Eric Clapton played the guitar solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
Ringo wasn’t the only one having a hard time during the recording of 1968’s The Beatles. George Harrison felt like his bandmates weren’t giving his song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” the attention it deserved. On the way to the studio one day, Harrison asked his pal Eric Clapton to come along and play on the track. Clapton hesitated, but Harrison convinced him, and the strategy worked perfectly. “I said, ‘Eric’s going to play on this one,’ and it was good because that then made everyone act better,” Harrison said. “Paul got on the piano and played a nice intro and they all took it more seriously.”
16. The famous Abbey Road picture has a prequel.
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.
17. Sean Connery royally dissed the Fab Four as James Bond, but liked them enough personally 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.
18. Only one musician ever received a featured credit on a Beatles song.
The label on the 1969 single “Get Back” reads “The Beatles with Billy Preston, an unusual billing for the famously self-contained Fab Four. The Beatles met Preston, an African American keyboardist from Houston, when he was touring with Little Richard in the early ’60s. George Harrison reconnected with Preston in 1969, after he split from a contentious Beatles session and went to a Ray Charles concert featuring Billy on keyboards. Harrison asked Preston to join them on “Get Back,” and the presence of an outsider eased tensions considerably. Preston was so welcome in the studio that John Lennon proposed making him a full-time Beatle. McCartney apparently vetoed the idea, as the group was close to breaking up anyway.
19. There’s only one Beatles song featuring just John Lennon and Paul McCartney—and nobody else.
While honeymooning in Paris with Yoko Ono in 1969, John Lennon began writing a song about the controversy surrounding their recent nuptials. Upon returning to London, he swung by Paul’s house to finish the composition, titled “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” John and Paul promptly booked a session at Abbey Road and recorded the song themselves. Ringo was off filming The Magic Christian with Peter Sellers, so Paul handled drum duties. (He also added piano, bass, and maracas.) George was on vacation, so John played lead guitar.
“John was in an impatient mood so I was happy to help,” McCartney said. “It’s quite a good song; it has always surprised me how with just the two of us on it, it ended up sounding like The Beatles.” Indeed, the song reached #8 in the U.S. and #1 in the U.K. While “The Ballad of John and Yoko” is the only Beatles song featuring John and Paul and nobody else, it’s worth noting that “She’s Leaving Home,” off Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, is just John and Paul singing over orchestral accompaniment—no George or Ringo.
20. “The End” almost wasn’t the end for The Beatles.
The final proper song on the last album The Beatles recorded, Abbey Road, is “The End,” a perfect capper to a career that spanned—and in many ways defined—the ’60s. But the song wasn’t initially slated to end the album. Early track listings for the 1969 LP have what’s known as “The Long One,” the suite of interlocking songs that concludes with “The End,” sequenced on side one instead of side two. Had The Beatles stuck with this configuration, Abbey Road might’ve ended with “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” a far less poetic wave goodbye.
21. the Lucy in "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" was a classmate of Julian Lennon's.
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.