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11 Fun Facts About the Beatles

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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.

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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.

Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain
Would You Be Able to Pass a World War I Military Literacy Test?
Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain
Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain

Though reading and writing might not come to mind as the first requirement for trench warfare, during the early 20th century, the U.S. Army became increasingly concerned with whether or not its soldiers were literate. Thousands of World War I soldiers couldn't read printed directions on basic military tasks. The Army didn't implement its first major literacy program until the 1940s, but literacy tests were included in a battery of psychological evaluations World War I recruits went through to determine their mental fitness and intelligence, as the blog Futility Closet recently highlighted.

These unconventional literacy tests largely took the form of a yes or no questions with obvious answers, according to the 1921 report from the U.S. Surgeon General, Psychological Examining in the United States Army. Edited by pioneering intelligence-testing psychologist Robert Yerkes, who developed the military's first psychology exams for new recruits (and was also famous for his support for eugenics), the volume is a lengthy compilation of all of the methods the U.S. Army used to test the intelligence of its future soldiers. Many of these tests are now considered racist and culturally biased—some of the "intelligence" testing questions required recruits to know things like what products Velvet Joe (a figure used in tobacco campaigns) advertised—but some of the literacy questions, in particular, simply come off as weird in the modern era. Some are downright existential, in fact, while others—"Is a guitar a disease?"—come off as almost poetic.

A long questionnaire to test literacy, including questions like 'Is coal white?'
Psychological Examining in the United States Army, Google Books // Public Domain

One test, the Devens Literarcy Test, asked recruits questions like "Is genuine happiness a priceless treasure?" and "Does success tend to bring pleasure?" Another section of the test asked "Do boys like to play?" and "Do clerks enjoy a vacation?"

Other questions seem like they're up for debate, like "Are painters ever artless individuals?" and "Is extremely athletic exercise surely necessary?" Surely the answers to questions like "Should criminals forfeit liberty?" and "Is misuse of money an evil?" depend on the opinions of the reader. The answer to "Do imbeciles usually hold responsible offices?" might be different depending on how the person feels about their Congressional representative, and could surely be the spark for an hour-long argument at most dinner parties.

Still others are tests of cultural knowledge, not reading skill—a major modern criticism of Yerkes's work. Despite being arguably a pretty literate person, I certainly don't know the answer to the question "Do voluntary enlistments increase the army?" A question like "Are 'diminutive' and 'Lilliputian' nearly identical?" isn't exactly a test of literacy, but a test of whether or not you've read Gulliver's Travels, which doesn't exactly seem like a necessity for military success.

Luckily, some of the questions are pretty obvious, like "Is coal white?" That one I can answer. The full list of questions used in the various versions of the Devens test is below for you to test your own Army-level literacy.

  • Do dogs bark?
  • Is coal white?
  • Can you see?
  • Do men eat stones?
  • Do boys like to play?
  • Can a bed run?
  • Do books have hands?
  • Is ice hot?
  • Do winds blow?
  • Have all girls the same name?
  • Is warm clothing good for winter?
  • Is this page of paper white?
  • Are railroad tickets free?
  • Is every young woman a teacher?
  • Is it always perfect weather?
  • Is the heart within the body?
  • Do clerks enjoy a vacation?
  • Is the President a public official?
  • Would you enjoy losing a fortune?
  • Does an auto sometimes need repair?
  • Is it important to remember commands?
  • Are avenues usually paved with oxygen?
  • Do we desire serious trouble?
  • Is practical judgment valuable?
  • Ought a man's career to be ruined by accidents?
  • Do you cordially recommend forgery?
  • Does an emergency require immediate decision?
  • Should honesty bring misfortune to its possessor?
  • Are gradual improvements worth while?
  • Is a punctual person continually tardy?
  • Are instantaneous effects invariably rapid?
  • Should preliminary disappointment discourage you?
  • Is hearsay testimony trustworthy evidence?
  • Is wisdom characteristic of the best authorities?
  • Is extremely athletic exercise surely necessary?
  • Is incessant discussion usually boresome?
  • Are algebraic symbols ever found in manuals?
  • Are tentative regulations ever advantageous?
  • Are "diminutive" and "Lilliputian" nearly identical?
  • Is an infinitesimal titanic bulk possible?
  • Do all connubial unions eventuate felicitously?
  • Is a "gelatinous exaltation" ridiculous?
  • Are "sedate" and "hilarious" similar in meaning?
  • Is avarice sometimes exhibited by cameos?
  • Can a dog run?
  • Is water dry?
  • Can you read?
  • Do stones talk?
  • Do books eat?
  • Do cats go to school?
  • Are six more than two?
  • Is John a girl's name?
  • Are there letters in a word?
  • Is your nose on your face?
  • Can you carry water in a sieve?
  • Do soldiers wear uniforms?
  • Does it rain every morning?
  • Are newspapers made of iron?
  • Are "forward" and "backward" directions?
  • Do many people attend motion-picture theatres?
  • Do handkerchiefs frequently injure human beings?
  • Do magazines contain advertisements?
  • Are political questions often the subject of debates?
  • Are empires inclosed in envelopes?
  • Are members of the family usually regarded as guests?
  • Is genuine happiness a priceless treasure?
  • Do imbeciles usually hold responsible offices?
  • May chimneys be snipped off with scissors?
  • Is moderation a desirable virtue?
  • Are apish manners desired by a hostess?
  • Do conscientious brunettes exist?
  • Do serpents make oblong echoes?
  • Do voluntary enlistments increase the army?
  • Is hypocrisy approved by honest men?
  • Is virile behavior effeminate?
  • Do alleged facts often require verification?
  • Do pestilences ordinarily bestow great benefit?
  • Are painters ever artless individuals?
  • Do the defenders of citadels sometimes capitulate?
  • Do physicians ameliorate pathological conditions?
  • Is embezzlement a serious misdemeanor?
  • Do vagrants commonly possess immaculate cravats?
  • Are "loquacious" and "voluble" opposite in meaning?
  • May heresies arise among the laity?
  • Are piscatorial activities necessarily lucrative?
  • Do tendrils terminate in cerebral hemorrhages?
  • Does a baby cry?
  • Can a hat speak?
  • Do hens lay eggs?
  • Is a stone soft?
  • Is one more than seven?
  • Do the land and sea look just alike?
  • Are some books black?
  • Does water run up hill?
  • Are stamps used on letters?
  • Do 100 cents make a dollar?
  • Are we sure what events will happen next year?
  • Do ships sail on railroads?
  • Do stones float in the air?
  • May meat be cut with a knife?
  • Are ledges common in mountain districts?
  • Does success tend to bring pleasure?
  • Are diamonds mined in mid-ocean?
  • Is misuse of money an evil?
  • Should criminals forfeit liberty?
  • Is special information usually a disadvantage?
  • Are attempted suicides always fatal?
  • Are exalted positions held by distinguished men?
  • Does confusion favor the establishment of order?
  • Is a civil answer contrary to law?
  • Is a dilapidated garment nevertheless clothing?
  • Are textile manufacturers valueless?
  • Do thieves commit depredations?
  • Does close inspection handicap accurate report?
  • Do transparent goggles transmit light?
  • Do illiterate men read romances?
  • Is irony connected with blast furnaces?
  • Do avalanches ever descend mountains?
  • Are scythes always swung by swarthy men?
  • Do pirates accumulate booty?
  • Are intervals of repose appreciated?
  • Are intermittent sounds discontinuous?
  • Is an avocational activity ordinarily pleasurable?
  • Are pernicious pedestrians translucent?
  • Are amicable relationships disrupted by increased congeniality?
  • Are many nocturnal raids surreptitiously planned
  • Are milksops likely to perpetrate violent offenses?
  • Are "precipitancy" and "procrastination" synonymous?
  • Is snow cold?
  • Can a dog read?
  • Do houses have doors?
  • Has a horse five legs?
  • Are three more than ten?
  • Do mice love cats?
  • Does a hat belong to you?
  • Do animals have glass eyes?
  • Should fathers provide clothing for children?
  • Is it true that lead is heavy
  • Do poor men have much money?
  • Is summer colder than winter?
  • Can a horse tell time by a watch?
  • Is a city larger than a country town?
  • Does Christmas ever fall on Tuesday?
  • Do Christians often overlook faults?
  • Are difficult problems easily solved?
  • Do convicts sometimes escape from prison?
  • Should the courts secure justice for everybody?
  • Are scoundrels always intoxicated?
  • Is a guitar a kind of disease?
  • Do jugglers furnish entertainment?
  • Should we build on insecure foundations?
  • Do annual conventions take place biweekly?
  • Does persistent effort favor ultimate success?
  • Is a shrewd man necessarily admired?
  • Is manual skill advantageous?
  • Are elaborate bonnets inexpensive?
  • Are petty annoyances irritating?
  • Are false arguments valid?
  • Do you approve of ruthless massacres?
  • Do blemishes occur in complexions?
  • Is air found in a complete vacuum?
  • Do robins migrate periodically?
  • Are weird tales sometimes gruesome?
  • Do felines possess locomotor appendages?
  • Do demented individuals frequently have hallucinations?
  • Are laconic messages sometimes verbose?
  • Are perfunctory endeavors usually efficacious?
  • Would a deluge extinguish a smouldering trellis?
  • Are devastated suburbs exhilarating vistas?
  • Are "contingent" and "independent" alike in meaning?

[h/t Futility Closet]

10 Not-So-Small Facts About the Volkswagen Beetle

While Volkswagen has announced—for a second time—that it's going to cease production on the Beetle, people are still singing the praises of the quirky little car. Here are 10 not-so-small things you need to know about the German car that was once named one of the top four cars of the century.


Adolf Hitler checks out a VW Beetle
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It’s long been said that Adolf Hitler was the man behind the Beetle, and that’s sort of true. The dictator wanted German families to be able to afford a car, so he enlisted automaker Ferdinand Porsche (yes, that Porsche) to make “the people’s car.” But the basis for the Beetle had been around since long before Hitler’s demand; the Bug was heavily influenced by Porsche's V series. Rumors that Hitler directly designed the car are probably false; though he was the one who reportedly said that the car should look like a beetle, because “You only have to observe nature to learn how best to achieve streamlining,” it’s likely that he was regurgitating something he had read in an automotive magazine. Still, one thing is for certain: Hitler himself placed the cornerstone for the Porsche factory in Wolfsburg, Germany.


Perhaps still wary of anything imported from Germany, Americans shunned the Beetle when it was introduced in the States in 1949: Only two were sold in the first year. But after that, sales grew quickly. By the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Bugs were sold every year, topping out at 570,000 in 1970.


A pink VW Beetle

We have the public to thank for the car’s distinctive nickname. Originally known as the Volkswagen Type 1, the car’s curves and rounded top led to its later, insect-like moniker. Volkswagen must have realized they had a good thing on their hands, because they started referring to the car as the VW Beetle in the late 1960s.


The UK and the U.S. aren’t the only countries that bestowed a new name on the Volkswagen Type 1. In France, it's called Coccinellewhich means ladybug. It's Maggiolino and Fusca in Italy and Brazil, respectively, both of which mean "beetle." Mexico calls it Vocho; it's Peta (turtle) in Bolivia; and Kodok (frog) in Indonesia. 


In 1999, Advertising Age declared the car's not-so-small ad campaign to be the best campaign of the last 100 years, besting Coca-Cola, Marlboro, Nike, and McDonald’s. The quirky concept and copy—which, according to Advertising Age, “Gave advertising permission to surprise, to defy and to engage the consumer without bludgeoning him about the face and body”—was a game-changer for the entire industry.

The "Think Small" line and accompanying self-deprecating copy was written by Julian Koenig, who was also responsible for naming Earth Day and coming up with Timex’s “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking” tagline. He’s also half-responsible for daughter Sarah Koenig, whom you may know from NPR’s This American Life and Serial.


Herbie the Love Bug

Because of their distinctive aesthetic, VW Bugs have been associated with everything from the Beatles to Transformers. A few highlights:

  • The Beetle with the license plate “LMW 28IF” on the cover of The Beatles' Abbey Road album was sold at an auction for $23,000 in 1986. It is now on display at Volkswagen's AutoMuseum at the company’s headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany.
  • The Fremont Troll sculpture in Seattle, a huge statue lurking under the Aurora Bridge, clutches an actual VW Beetle. An in-progress picture shows that the car was once red. It also once contained a time capsule of Elvis memorabilia, which was stolen.
  • The Herbie the Love Bug series was a big hit for Disney in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of the original Herbies sold for $126,500 at an auction in 2015.
  • In the original Transformers cartoon, Bumblebee transformed from a VW Bug. The car was changed to a Camaro for the live-action movies.


The so-called “blumenvasen,” a small vase that could be clipped to the dashboard, speaker grille, or windshield, was porcelain when it was originally offered. The nod to flower power became such a symbol of the car that it was incorporated into the 1998 redesign. Sadly, it didn’t make the cut for the most recent overhaul: The vase was eliminated in 2011 by marketing execs apparently seeking to make the car more male-friendly.


When the millionth VW Beetle rolled off the line in 1955, the company capped the achievement by plating the car in gold and giving it diamante accents. They also created a Bug with a wicker body in collaboration with master basket-maker Thomas Heinrich.


After WWII, the VW factory in Wolfsburg, Germany, was supposed to be handed over to the British. No British car manufacturer wanted to take responsibility for the company, though, saying that "the vehicle does not meet the fundamental technical requirement of a motor-car," "it is quite unattractive to the average buyer," and that "To build the car commercially would be a completely uneconomic enterprise." Whoops.


The last VW Bug
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Beetle #21,529,464—the one celebrated by the mariachi band—is now at Volkswagen's AutoMuseum.


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