Without the Fab Four to stand up to the record industry bosses, the sound of the Swinging Sixties would have been sanitised
The Beatles are a legendary pop group – but what if they’d never formed?
The runaway success of American stars like Frank Sinatra, Johnnie Ray and Elvis Presley ensured that by 1957, Britain’s teenage market for short, catchy songs delivered by handsome men was firmly established and clamouring for home-grown talent. But if a 16-year-old tearaway from Liverpool called John Lennon had decided not to enlist the services of one James Paul Mccartney into his skiffle group, The Quarrymen, they might never have become The Beatles. And whatever happened next, it almost certainly would not have preoccupied us for the next 60 years.
A self-confessed know-it-all, Lennon could easily have dismissed the younger Mccartney out of hand, no matter how impressed he was that the kid could play Twenty Flight Rock and knew all the words. But early the following year, George Harrison joined at Mccartney’s suggestion and the die was cast. Fame and fortune would soon follow.
Had Lennon ploughed on without them, it’s likely that The Quarrymen would have remained a mystery to the world, although after enrolling in Liverpool College of Art in 1957, their leader could well have pursued a more solitary creative path.
Mccartney had the chops and the charm to follow his own star and may have done well in showbiz – as a TV presenter, perhaps. Harrison, too, had the talent, looks and ambition to make it – maybe as a guitar prodigy; an Eric Clapton of the North. At that time, Ringo Starr was making his Written by Nick Churchill
name as a drummer-for-hire, and would certainly have done very nicely out of that before a later career in acting beckoned, or maybe as a booking agent, or even a life as a promoter.
By 1962, as The Beatles scored their first hit,
Love Me Do, Britain’s nascent pop music industry was hitting its stride. Tommy Steele, Adam Faith, Helen Shapiro and, most significantly, Cliff Richard – Britain’s answer to Elvis – were big stars, but they were safe, sanitised and as likely to be popular with parents as they were with the kids. They did as they were told, sang the songs they were given and toed the line.
That was never enough for The Beatles, who from the outset challenged the status quo by writing their own material, then turned their backs on touring and demanded unlimited studio time with complete creative freedom. As long as they remained bankable, the industry was in no position to refuse them. But without them to lead the charge, what would have become of their immediate musical contemporaries?
The Rolling Stones would still have formed, but without Lennon and Mccartney to gift them their first Top 20 hit – I Wanna Be Your Man – they would either have continued to ape American rhythm and blues, or given in to Mick Jagger’s attraction to fame and fortune and churned out a series of Tin Pan Alley hits.
Similarly, the members of The Kinks and The Who would have found one another through London’s R&B and jazz scenes, but if they’d never heard The Beatles’ early originals, would Ray
Davies have co-opted music hall to create a new musical vernacular, or Pete Townshend have found the courage to cook up a rock opera?
In America, Brian Wilson herded The Beach Boys into a maelstrom of creativity as a direct result of The Beatles’ Rubber Soul album, but without that catalyst, perhaps his demons would have consumed his talent even more completely, making it easier for the group to simply follow the money.
Dylan would still have happened, but The Byrds would never have married his vision of folk music to a Beatles beat and sounded the West Coast psychedelic sirens, leaving only the dystopian distortions of New Yorkers like The Velvet Underground or Midwestern agitproppers the MC5 to drive the creative imperative.
In a world without The Beatles, something else would have filled the commercial vacuum, as technology drove a new kind of teen audience through transistor radios, portable record players and the telly, but it would have looked and sounded very different indeed.
“Mccartney may have done well as a TV presenter”