There were four Beatles. John Lennon, rhythm guitar. Paul McCartney, bass guitar. George Harrison, lead guitar. Ringo Starr, drums. And of course, the muse of musical genius, who dwelt among them for the duration of the band’s existence. The Beatles are my favorite band, and the only reason for that is because they are the greatest musical group in the history of the world. Alright, that’s exaggerated. The greatest musical group in the twentieth century, at least. There was something about the four of them, because in their individual solo careers, none of them ever achieved the same level of greatness. I like each of their solo stuff, and there is certainly some really good stuff there, but nothing like what they had when they were together. One plus one plus one plus one equaled something far more than the sum of their parts.
There’s often talk about a fifth Beatle. Let’s look at some of the candidates.
- Pete Best. Drummer before Ringo joined the band. Yes, he was indeed a Beatle for a time. But they were mostly a cover act then. He may have contributed to the raw energy of their earliest stuff, but he didn’t contribute to their creativity.
- Stu Sutcliffe. Another original member of the band. Sutcliffe played bass (Paul was just another guitar at that point.) He was certainly an important figure in the formation of the band, but again, wasn’t around by the time the band became a force of nature. Sadly, he wasn’t even alive to see it, having died in 1962.
- George Martin. Martin was producer of almost all of the Beatles albums. He brought an attention to detail and a precision to the recordings that helped define the Beatles’ sound, especially after their touring days were over, and they became an experimental, studio-bound band. If you want to hear the level of Martin’s contribution, take a close listen to Let It Be, their penultimate album, which he did not produce. I find there is a muddiness to that album that just doesn’t sound Beatlesesque to me.
- Brian Epstein. Brian was the manager of the Beatles until his death in 1967. While he did not contribute directly to their creativity the way Martin did, Epstein was hugely important in orchestrating their rise to fame. He oversaw all their business affairs and public image. After his death, the Fab Four (and mostly Paul) took it upon themselves to handle all that, and there were several business disasters along the way. (Including the reason why Paul and Yoko do not have the legal rights to Lennon/McCartney songs.) Both Paul McCartney and George Martin have said that if there is a fifth Beatle, it’s Brian.
- There are a few others, too. Neil Aspinall (road manager), Derek Taylor (press officer), Tony Sheridan (early musical collaborator), and Billy Preston (later musical collaborator).
I have to say, for my money, I’d vote for George Martin. But Martin himself would vote against that, so what do I know. Here’s what I know: the Beatles did not become what they were on their own. There were many, many people around them who assisted and contributed in all sorts of ways. But there was something holy about the Four themselves. It’s so hard to determine who the Fifth would be because everyone else was in orbit around John, Paul, George, and Ringo. It’s almost as though the whole entourage was itself the Fifth Beatle, so crucial to who they were, but not holding a candle to the four themselves.
Five is slippery, at least in terms of the Beatles. Four is such a stable number, a perfect square or rhombus, trying to add a fifth just slips off. But five never gives up. People will be debating over the “Fifth Beatle” long after all candidates are long dead.