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11 Fun Facts About the Beatles

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John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr are remembered for their instrumental roles in launching the British invasion and bringing the aesthetic of rock and roll to new frontiers with everything from electronic effects to sitars. Their songs are beloved, hated, and exhaustively analyzed by a new generation every few years. (Even Glee is getting in on the action: In tonight's fifth season premiere, the show is putting its own spin on 14 classic Beatles tracks.) Abbey Road was released 44 years ago today; here are a few facts about the Fab Four.

1. John grew up near a place called Strawberry Fields in Liverpool.

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From the time he was five years old and all but abandoned by his parents, Lennon lived with his aunt and uncle, Mimi and George Smith, in Woolton. One of his favorite spots to explore with his childhood friends was the garden of the nearby Salvation Army orphanage, Strawberry Fields. McCartney remembered in Barry Miles’ book Many Years From Now that it was “a secret garden. John's memory of it [was]…There was a wall you could bunk over and it was a rather wild garden, it wasn't manicured at all, so it was easy to hide in.” Lennon wrote the song in a reminiscent mood in 1966 while on set in Spain for the film How I Won the War.

“Strawberry Fields Forever” is not the only Beatles song named for a real place—the first Lennon family home in Liverpool stood near Penny Lane—but it might be the only one to have a place named after it: Strawberry Fields is now a memorial section of New York’s Central Park.

2. “Michelle” was inspired by Paul’s favorite technique for picking up girls at parties.

McCartney once shared in an interview that he and Harrison, self-described “working-class boys,” often felt at odds at the boho-chic parties they went to as teens with Lennon (who was older and attending art college). To hold his own, McCartney developed a habit of dressing in black, sitting in a corner with his guitar, and singing in made-up French to see if he could draw over any of the Juliette Greco-type women. It never worked, but one day Lennon suggested that McCartney make “that French thing” into a song. Il faut souffrir pour être belle, man.

3. Ringo’s real name is Richard Starkey.

Richard Starkey, called “Ritchie” by his doting mother, was born in Liverpool in 1940; he began playing the drums in a hospital band at the age of 13 while recuperating from a bout of tuberculosis, and by 17 he had helped to found the Eddie Clayton Skiffle Band. He joined the Beatles in 1962, replacing their first drummer, Pete Best.

Starr/Starkey was always known in the group’s public performances, films, and album covers as Ringo, but in recordings of studio takes Paul can be heard calling out “Ready, Richard?” before counting the band off. The drummer’s first nickname, Rings, reportedly came from his habit of wearing large amounts of jewelry, particularly on his fingers; later, while at a holiday camp, he changed it to "Ringo" to sound more cowboy-ish. In a scene from A Hard Day’s Night where the lads are playing cards in a train compartment surrounded by giggling girls, the other members laughingly accuse him of winning because of his lucky rings.

4. The first lyrics to “Yesterday” were “scrambled eggs.”

Genius often comes out of nowhere, and the melody for the famous melancholy string setting that is Vladimir Putin’s favorite Beatles song apparently just popped into Paul McCartney’s head when he woke up one morning. Until he could find words for it, the McCartney walked around the house humming “scrambled eggs…baby, I love scrambled eggs” so that he wouldn’t forget the tune. 

5. The BBC banned "I Am the Walrus."

Mild string player Harrison was incensed when the BBC banned “I Am the Walrus” for its lyrics “pornographic priestesses” and “let your knickers down.” In an interview with official Beatles biographer Hunter Davies, he revealed a desire to take the Beatles’ edginess in a new direction altogether:

 Why can't you have people f***ing as well? It's going on everywhere in the world, all the time. So why can't you mention it? It's just a word, made up by people... It doesn't mean a thing, so why can't we use it in a song? We will eventually. We haven't started yet.

6. “Norwegian Wood” is not the name of the house.

For Lennon, “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” was an allusion to an extramarital affair; for Harrison, it meant the breakout song for his defining instrumentals on sitar. But the ethereal head-scratcher of a song title actually refers to the cheap furniture of the average 1960s bachelorette apartment.

Lennon and McCartney’s lyrics follow a man who goes to a girl’s apartment for the evening, only to be told to sleep in the bathtub and jilted the next morning; resentful of waking up alone, he sets fire to her apartment and its kitschy contents. McCartney remembers:  “…a lot of people were decorating their places in wood. Norwegian wood. It was pine, really, cheap pine. But it's not as good a title, 'Cheap Pine,' baby. So it was a little parody really on those kind of girls who when you'd go to their flat there would be a lot of Norwegian wood.” Had the song been written today, it might have been called "Ikea Furniture."

7. The famous Abbey Road picture has a prequel.

Courtesy of The Beatles Bible

The final album cover photograph of four Beatles walking in time was chosen from a series of eight shots, taken on the crosswalk in front of Abbey Road Studios over the course of a single day in 1969. Freelance photographer Iain Macmillan took the official photos, but Paul’s wife, Linda McCartney, happened to be standing by with her camera to catch this small elderly lady talking to Ringo as Paul fixes his jacket collar. We can only hope they came off as nice young men.  

8. Sean Connery royally dissed the Fab Four as James Bond, but liked them enough himself to record a cover.

In the 1964 Bond thriller Goldfinger, Connery purrs, of drinking Dom Perignon at the wrong temperature, “It’s simply not done…like listening to the Beatles without earmuffs.” Young fans reportedly booed the line in theatres, but the actor himself bears no real animosity toward the Beatles. Connery even collaborated with George Martin in 1988 for the Beatles producer’s In My Life album, a retrospective of Fab Four covers by celebrities from Robin Williams to Goldie Hawn. 007’s spoken-word version of the title track is radical, but pleasant, like reaching for the Dom Perignon and getting a surprise glass of well-aged scotch.

9. Lovely Rita may have been a real Meter Maid named Meta.

“Traffic wardens,” as they were called in London of the 1960s, were less common and less reviled in Britain than across the pond, and it took an American friend of McCartney’s commenting on the “meter maids” to inspire the immortal rhyme of the Sgt. Pepper’s track. The woman herself, however, never got her fine. Parking attendant Meta Davis claims to have written a ticket for a car outside of the Abbey Road Studios in 1967 when Paul sauntered out and pulled it off the windshield. “He looked at it and read my signature … He said ‘Oh, is your name really Meta? ... That would be a good name for a song. Would you mind if I use it?’ And that was that. Off he went.” However, McCartney has stated that he wrote the lyrics while walking near his brother's house in Gayton, near Liverpool—some 200 miles north of London.

10. And Lucy the Lennon muse last flew in 2009.

The acronymic rendering of the title of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is LITSWD, but the only three letters that most theorists take any notice of are L,S, and D. The musicians and their fans alike have historically lamented the willingness of some of their critics to look for drug references in song lyrics, and “Lucy,” with its imagery of “marmalade skies” and “kaleidoscope eyes,” is a frequent victim. The inspiration for the strange and colorful song, however, came from a much more innocent place.

When 4-year-old Julian Lennon showed his father a drawing of a girl named Lucy who sat next to him in school, the songwriter was inspired by his childish scrawl of a girl who his son said was “in the sky with diamonds.” Lucy Vodden later moved to London, and remained there until she died from complications related to lupus in 2009 at the age of 46. Julian Lennon rekindled their friendship in the last years of Vodden’s life and frequently sent her flowers.

11. There is a heated international grammatical debate over whether the “the” should be capitalized.

Wikipedia talk pages were ablaze late last year over a small but persistent question: are they The Beatles or the Beatles? Lower-case faction members point to handwritten letters by Lennon which feature a small t in the band’s title, while proponents of the capital T cite grammatical rules over trademarks and the logo atop the Beatles’ official website. Squabbling on the online encyclopedia started in 2004, and recently resulted in several editors being banned from commenting. Lower-case advocate Gabriel Fadden complained of being “cyberstalked” in the Wall Street Journal’s coverage of the rumpus. The two surviving musicians, McCartney and Starr, have refrained from throwing an oar or a drumstick in, but if you’re interested, the talk page is still open and ripe for grammatical speculation.

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Space
On This Day in 1962, NASA Launched and Destroyed Mariner 1
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NASA // Public Domain

On July 22, 1962, NASA launched the Mariner 1 probe, which was intended to fly by Venus and collect data on its temperature and atmosphere. It was intended to be the first interplanetary craft—the first time humans had sent a space probe to another world. Unfortunately, NASA aborted the mission 293 seconds after launch, destroying the probe in the Atlantic. What happened?

First off, a bit of history. Mariner 1 was based on the pre-existing Block 1 craft used in the Ranger program, which was aimed at gathering data on our moon. Those early Ranger probes didn't do so well—both Ranger 1 and Ranger 2 suffered early failures in orbit. Mariner 1 was a modified version of the Ranger design, intended for a much longer mission to another planet. It lacked a camera, but had various radiometers, a cosmic dust detector, and a plasma spectrometer—it would be capable of gathering data about Venus, but not pictures per se.

The two previous Ranger missions had used basically the same launch system, so it was reasonably well-tested. The Ranger probes had made it into orbit, but had been unable to stabilize themselves after that.

Mariner 1 launched on the evening of July 22, 1963. Its Atlas-Agena rocket was aided by two radar systems, designed to track data on velocity (the "Rate System") and distance/angle (the "Track System") and send it to ground-based computers. By combining that data, the computers at Cape Canaveral helped the rocket maintain a trajectory that, when separated, would lead Mariner 1 to Venus.

Part of the problem involved in handling two separate radars was that there was a slight delay—43 milliseconds—between the two radars' data reports. That wasn't a problem by itself. The Cape computer simply had to correct for that difference. But in that correction process, a problem was hiding—a problem that hadn't appeared in either of the previous Ranger launches.

To correct the timing of the data from the Rate System—the radar responsible for measuring velocity of the rocket—the ground computer ran data through a formula. Unfortunately, when that formula had been input into the computer, a crucial element called an overbar was omitted. The overbar indicated that several values in the formula belonged together; leaving it out meant that a slightly different calculation would be made. But that wasn't a problem by itself.

The fate of Mariner 1 was sealed when the Rate System hardware failed on launch. This should not have been a fatal blow, as the Track System was still working, and Ground Control should have been able to compensate. But because that overbar was missing, calculations on the incoming radar data went wonky. The computer incorrectly began compensating for normal movement of the spacecraft, using slightly incorrect math. The craft was moving as normal, but the formula for analyzing that data had a typo—so it began telling Mariner 1 to adjust its trajectory. It was fixing a problem that didn't exist, all because a few symbols in a formula weren't grouped together properly.

Mariner 1's rocket did as it was told, altering its trajectory based on faulty computer instructions. Looking on in horror, the Range Safety Officer at the Cape saw that the Atlas rocket was now headed for a crash-landing, potentially either in shipping lanes or inhabited areas of Earth. It was 293 seconds after launch, and the rocket was about to separate from the probe.

With just 6 seconds remaining before the Mariner 1 probe was scheduled to separate (and ground control would be lost), that officer made the right call—he sent the destruct command, ditching Mariner I in an unpopulated area of the Atlantic.

The incident was one of many early space launch failures, but what made it so notable was the frenzy of reporting about it, mostly centered on what writer Arthur C. Clarke called "the most expensive hyphen in history." The New York Times incorrectly reported that the overbar was a "hyphen" (a reasonable mistake, given that they are both printed horizontal lines) but correctly reported that this programming error, when coupled with the hardware failure of the Rate System, caused the failure. The bug was identified and fixed rapidly, though the failed launch cost $18,500,000 in 1962 dollars—north of $150 million today.

Fortunately for NASA, Mariner 2 was waiting in the wings. An identical craft, it launched just five weeks later on August 27, 1962. And, without the bug and the radar hardware failure, it worked as planned, reaching Venus and becoming the first interplanetary spacecraft in history. It returned valuable data about the temperature and atmosphere of Venus, as well as recording solar wind and interplanetary dust data along the way. There would be 10 Mariner missions in all [PDF], with Mariner 1, 3, and 8 suffering losses during launch.

For further reading, consult this Ars Technica discussion, which includes valuable quotes from Paul E. Ceruzzi's book Beyond The Limits—Flight Enters the Computer Age.

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This Just In
Lincoln’s Famous Letter of Condolence to a Grieving Mother Was Likely Penned by His Secretary
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Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain

Despite his lack of formal schooling, Abraham Lincoln was a famously eloquent writer. One of his most renowned compositions is the so-called “Bixby letter,” a short yet poignant missive the president sent a widow in Boston who was believed to have lost five sons during the Civil War. But as Newsweek reports, new research published in the journal Digital Scholarship in the Humanities [PDF] suggests that Lincoln’s private secretary and assistant, John Hay, actually composed the dispatch.

The letter to Lydia Bixby was written in November 1864 at the request of William Shouler, the adjutant general of Massachusetts, and state governor John Albion Andrew. “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” it read. “But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.”

Unknown to Lincoln, Bixby had actually only lost two sons in battle; the others had deserted the army, were honorably discharged, or died a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, word of the compassionate presidential gesture spread when the Boston Evening Transcript reprinted a copy of the 139-word letter for all to read.

Nobody quite knows what happened to Bixby’s original letter—some say she was a Confederate sympathizer and immediately burnt it—but for years, scholars debated whether Hay was its true author.

During Hay’s lifetime, the former secretary-turned-statesman had reportedly told several people in confidence that he—not Lincoln—had written the renowned composition, TIME reports. The rumor spread after Hay's death, but some experts interpreted the admission to mean that Hay had transcribed the letter, or had copied it from a draft.

To answer the question once and for all, a team of forensic linguists in England used a text analysis technique called n-gram tracing, which identifies the frequency of linguistic sequences in a short piece of writing to determine its true author. They tested 500 texts by Hay and 500 by Lincoln before analyzing the Bixby letter, the researchers explained in a statement quoted by Newsweek.

“Nearly 90 percent of the time, the method identified Hay as the author of the letter, with the analysis being inconclusive in the rest of the cases,” the linguists concluded.

According to Atlas Obscura, the team plans to present its findings at the International Corpus Linguistics Conference, which will take place at England’s University of Birmingham from Monday, July 24 to Friday, July 28.

[h/t Newsweek]

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