Liverpool, a city 202 miles northwest of London that holds down the right bank of the River Mersey, is the second largest port in the British Isles. Rock ‘n’ roll music made its way to England through the port of Liverpool. Liverpool was the entry point for cotton and other imports, including American records, from the United States. As a result, compared to the rest of the people in Britain, the people in Liverpool had a stronger exposure to American music. Another factor that contributed to the Liverpudlians’ familiarity with American music was the presence of RAF Burtonwood, a U.S. military base a few miles northeast of Liverpool. It had the most United States Army Air Forces personnel and facilities in Europe during World War II.
All four Beatles were born into the working class, amid the raining down of German bombs and the wailing of air-sirens during World War II. By the time they were teenagers, in the 1950s, things were only starting to settle down – Britain was crippled financially, food rationing continued, and the terrain was still jagged with blast marks and craters.
In the early 1960s, Great Britain still had vast unemployment and stultifying class disjunction, while America, on the other hand, was devastated by the Kennedy assassination and the realities of the Cold War.
The 1960s was a period defined by the Cold War and the relative economic prosperity of capitalism in the west. It was an era marked by rock concerts, peace demonstrations, and local pockets of activism and community. The Beatles’ early success symbolized a break with the absence of innovation and quality of late 1950s music, and at the same time it was a continuation of the legacy of the 1950s, as the songwriting of Chuck Berry and the vocal style of the Everly Brothers, among many other contributing factors, were integral to the formation of the Beatles own stylistic identity.
Popular culture was not thought to play a role in political controversy or in society at large, but that was until the end of the Second World War. The Cold War suddenly made popular culture controversial. Actor John Wayne was popular mostly because of the political positions with which he was associated. The need to compete with television led the movies to risk controversial subjects, such as anti-Semitism, homosexuality, and juvenile delinquency. Elvis Presley’s introduction of rock ‘n’ roll music to a white, mainstream audience solidified the association between youth and popular music. By the 1960s, the music helped to establish for teenagers a powerful sense of generational identity.
This period had burning issues that mobilized enormous segments of society. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. magnificently translated the Civil Rights movement, primarily a minority issue, into a universal eliciting of consciousness regarding equal rights for all. The Vietnam War funneled the moral outrage of the youthful secularists into a consciousness that is said to have persisted into the present day.
Bob Dylan, the central figure in the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll’s cultural importance, had established himself as the leading young folk music performer and as a writer of powerful topical songs. He helped politicize a vast segment of rock culture including the Beatles, inspiring the group to accept its popularity as an opportunity to define and speak to a vital youth constituency. The Beatles’ music and rock music, in general, became a medium for addressing the issues and events that affected that generation.
There appears to be a connection between the cultural revolution of the sixties and the Beatles’ music. Beat music, which is exemplified by the music of the Beatles, became popular in the 1960s, and at the same time, youth propagated more egalitarian and informal ways of communication as the new standard for social interaction. The communication code of the peer group is characterized by an open and almost permanent negotiation of feelings and opinions. The Beatles’ songs could articulate the vocabulary of the rising youth culture so well.
The first flourishes of rock n’ roll in the form of Bill Haley and His Comets aligned music with rebellious youth. Particular rock and roll idols following after started the ball rolling for the Beatles. This is topped by none other than Elvis Presley who’s dubbed as the guy who lit the Beatles’ fuse. The rock artists who had a major impact on the Beatles ranged from Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly, little Richard, to Chuck Berry. The list goes on. To the Beatles, Elvis may have represented the music style that they wanted, but he wasn’t quite the complete package. He sang brilliantly and looked fantastic.
All these musical influences were quickly spread to a mainstream audience of young people during the 1950s and 60s. Before TV took over as a multi-purpose medium for spreading this, radio was king. That well-known Beatle sense of humor came about partly because of the radio comedians they listened to as kids. At the same time, it was also via the airwaves that they first heard the strains of rock and roll. At their time, TV sets were a definite luxury, but one commodity that could probably be inside all of their homes was the radio. During the mid-50s the only British channels that people could tune into were those of the government-controlled British Broadcasting Corporation. The BBC basically transmitted what the adults wanted to hear, easy listening, all the way from Vera Lynn to Frankie Laine. Rock ‘n’ roll music was no way to be broadcasted then. Radio helped to shape the Beatles’ musical tastes and their sense of humor.