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Black and white picture of four men dressed in smart suits identified as British popstars the Beatles
John, Ringo, Paul and George: The Beatles at the start of their careerImage: dpa/picture alliance
MusicUnited Kingdom

How the Beatles' legendary career started

Silke Wünsch
October 5, 2022

Manager Brian Epstein struggled to get the band signed, until they were invited to record their first single, "Love Me Do," which was released 60 years ago.

https://p.dw.com/p/4HjYE

On October 5, 1962, the Beatles' official debut single was released. The song, "Love Me Do," was backed on the B-side by the track "P.S. I Love You." It landed in the charts and marked the beginning of a band that would forever mark music history.

But there's a long backstory to the Beatles' success.

Becoming the Beatles

It began in 1958, when John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote the music to "Love Me Do." They were still teens, had known each other for a year and were regularly jamming rock'n'roll in McCartney's living room.

They formed a band with George Harrison called The Quarrymen, which they renamed Johnny and the Moondogs for a music competition. They didn't win it, but it nevertheless allowed them to find their bassist, Stuart Sutcliffe. They later completed their lineup with Pete Best on the drums.

After trying out different names, the band became the Beatles in August 1960.

Coming of age in Hamburg

Following gigs in their home town of Liverpool, they landed a residency in the red-light district of St. Pauli in the north German city of Hamburg.

Rock'n'roll was all the rage in St. Pauli's clubs, and the wild boys from Liverpool quickly became an insider tip.

The Beatles performing.
The Beatles in 1962 in LondonImage: dpa/picture alliance

After two months of all-night performances, they were thrown out of Germany. They didn't even have a work permit: Stuart and Paul are said to have set fire to their accommodation, while George, who was only 17, was underaged and shouldn't even have been allowed to play in clubs in the first place.

Meanwhile, Stuart got engaged to his German girlfriend, whom he had met in Hamburg, and he stayed on in Germany. Shortly afterwards, he left the Beatles altogether. In April 1962 he died unexpectedly from a cerebral hemorrhage.

After returning to Liverpool, the four other Beatles remained active and their popularity grew.

Their stint in Hamburg had allowed them to develop their repertoire and stamina that saw them performing for hours on end, putting on wild shows.

They became a regular band at The Cavern Club, a hip cellar bar in Liverpool.

black and white photo of a person walking down a road with signs at entrance of The Cavern Club.
On March 21, 1961 they played for the first time in Liverpool's The Cavern ClubImage: Photoshot/picture alliance

They also kept returning to Hamburg, finding their way through St. Pauli's wild nightlife among drug dealers, pimps, drunken sailors and brash bouncers.

It's also in Germany that they recorded their first singles as a backing band, accompanying singer Tony Sheridan, to produce among others "My Bonnie."

'You've never heard of them'

In the autumn of 1961, a young man walked into a Liverpool record store run by a certain Brian Epstein and asked about an album that had been produced in Germany, titled "My Bonnie." The 27-year-old record seller shook his head: "Who's this by?" he asked. "You've probably never heard of them. They call themselves the Beatles," the customer replied.

After this first request, more and more people came into the store asking for the same record. Epstein ordered 25; the copies sold out in no time.

That made him curious, and he went to a Beatles concert at The Cavern Club. At first he found it dreadful there: "…black as a deep grave, dank and damp and smelly," he later decsribed it in his autobiography, "A Cellarful of Noise."

He wanted to leave immediately, but he found the Beatles so exciting that he stayed to offer to become their manager. "He looked capable and rich," John Lennon later recalled. They started working together right away.

Brian Epstein
Brian Epstein, the manager of the BeatlesImage: Northcliffe Collection/Solo Syndication/picture alliance

'Guitar groups are on their way out'

Epstein bombarded major record companies with letters and recordings of the band, and in January 1962 actually managed to get an audition with Decca. But the label's executive, Dick Rowe, didn't see the Beatles' potential: "Guitar groups are on their way out," he is quoted as having said in Epstein's biography.

Disappointed, the Beatles returned to Hamburg's nightlife again. They played their first gigs at the Star Club.

But then, they received a telegram from Brian Epstein, who hadn't given up on them yet: "Congratulations guys. Expecting recording date. Please rehearse new material."

EMI Records wanted to see the band in London. The Beatles immediately traveled back to the UK and auditioned for EMI's George Martin, who reacted politely but didn't say anything at first.

George Martin in the recording studio
Producer George Martin was instrumental in shaping the Beatles' sound from the very beginningImage: Northcliffe Collection/Solo Syndication/picture alliance

Once again, the four boys and Epstein had to be patient. Their gigs continued to grow in size and popularity. They were named best Liverpool band by alternative music magazine Mersey Beat. They had their hair cut and started wearing suits.

Finally, at the end of July 1962, the long-awaited record deal came with the EMI subsidiary, Parlophone. Shortly before, John, Paul and George replaced drummer Pete Best with Ringo Starr.

On September 11 that same year, they hit the studio to record "Love Me Do."

The moment is described in the documentary "The Beatles": "They held onto their guitars as George Martin led them into the studio. 'Tell me if there's anything you don't like,' Martin said. George Harrison replied : 'Well, for a start, I don't like your tie'."

Unfazed by Harrison's cheekiness, Martin immediately told them what needed to be done: He said Ringo Starr wasn't good enough for the band. He put studio musician Andy White on the drums and let Ringo play the maracas and a tambourine instead.

A signed copy of 'Love Me Do'
A signed copy of 'Love Me Do'Image: Heritage Auctions via AP/picture alliance

They needed several takes for "Love Me Do" and went on to record other songs, including what would become the B-side track, "P.S. I Love You."

Martin knew that "Love Me Do," with its iconic harmonica theme recorded by John Lennon, should be the first single.

The song was initially only moderately successful, peaking at number 17 in the British charts. 

But Martin had the right instincts and Epstein's persistence paid off. The follow-up single, "Please Please Me," reached number 1 in the UK charts in February, 1963. And when "Love Me Do" was released in the United States in 1964, it also became a number 1 hit.

And the rest is pop music history.

This article was originally written in German.

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