Since their debut in the late 1950’s, and throughout the 1960’s and 1970s’s, The Beatles continually adapted their musical sound and style to suit the rapidly changing times. This ability gave them incredibly potent staying power.
While they transitioned out of the clean cut mop-headed pop-rock quartet and into an experimental shaggy haired hippie group, they became representatives of a much broader social change sweeping the world at that time. It’s almost difficult to discern which came first- did their music influence this change or were they just reflecting this change through their music?
Yet, before all of that, and before the global phenomenon of Beatlemania (which you can read more about here) they were part of an incredibly obscure, and now almost lost, musical genre- skiffle. This is where The Beatles first learned how to adapt to the changing times, making their music timeless.
Skiffle, a hybrid of jazz, blues, country, and American folk, first developed in 1920’s America out of their jazz culture. However, by the 1940’s this obscure genre had all but vanished from the American music scene.
This genre may have been lost to history, were it not for its revival in the U.K. in the 1950’s. This revival stemmed from the harsh economic climate of post-war Britain, yet it was distinctly different from its original counterpart. Hardeep Phull of the “New York Post” refers to this reincarnation of skiffle as “a British cousin to American rockabilly.”
Characterized by influences of old American blues and jug band music, the defining characteristic of British skiffle was the improvised instruments. These could range anywhere from tea chests, cigar boxes, and washboards, occasionally accompanied by an acoustic guitar. In a war-impoverished nation, the youth fashioned instruments out of anything they could find.
In his book “Roots, Radicals and Rockers,” Billy Bragg states: “Skiffle musicians were the first generation of teenagers to use the guitar to separate themselves from their parents.”One of these teenagers happened to be John Lennon. He began in the skiffle group, the Quarrymen, at age sixteen.
On July 6, 1957, the Quarrymen performed at a church event in Liverpool, where a fifteen-year-old Paul McCartney was watching from the audience. After the set, McCartney officially met Lennon, giving a mini audition and showing off his own guitar skills (so the story goes). McCartney would eventually be invited by Lennon to join the Quarrymen, and the rest is history.