How the Beatles Made History
Everyone knows their names, even if one never cared for their music: Ringo, John, Paul, and George. Just 15, 16 and 17 respectively, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and John Lennon came together in 1958young but passionate musicians from Liverpool, England, who wanted to play jazz, blues and folk music on improvised instruments. By 1962, they had added Ringo Starr to the group. With Starr on drums, the groups first single Love Me Do hit the airwaves and changed the face of pop music forever. Beatlemania became a thing and the Beatles themselves became more popular than Jesus, as Lennon put it four years later to a London journalist (Runtagh). The Beatles surely did make history (whether they were ever actually bigger than Jesus was a controversial point): they had more number one singles than any other British band or artist, and there 17 number ones were beaten only in America by Elviss 21 (Vincent). For 14 years, the single She Loves You was the best selling single of all time. The band pushed the boundaries of recording in the studio and, as Kevin Murnane has pointed out, the bands Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band was a of musical and recording creativity that produced the 11x Platinum album. The band used four track recording and bounced tracks one, two and three to the fourth where more tracks were added to fill the final track with as much sound and as many instruments and musical expressions as possible. It was just one of the innovative ways that the Beatles made history. This paper will explore that and the other ways in which the Beatles left their mark on modern pop culture.
Who Were the Beatles?
The Beatles became a huge cultural phenomenon at a time when the Baby Boomer generation was coming of age. It was the 1960sa decade of social and sexual revolution (Jones). The members of the Beatles were themselves born during the war time period: all six boys were born during that conflict (Laing 10). The effects of war and violence had a haunting impact on the young men who made the most popular music in the world in the post-war youth culture that developed as a reaction to the symptoms of the Cold War that followed WW2 in the 1950s and 1960s (Laing 10). The Youth Culture was made up of war babies and baby boomers: they wanted emancipation from the culture that had fostered the war era, which seemed to still be in play, even in the 60s and 70s, with Vietnam drawing a lot of criticism from the hippie movement and the youth movement in America.
In physical terms, the Beatles were very young when they made it big. They were just barely in their mid-20s at the peak of their fame. They went from being four mop-headed British youths wearing dress jackets and ties when performing to being poster boys for the Hippie Generation, with long, shaggy hair, side burns, beards, denim pants, and bell bottoms. For their second to last album Abbey Road, released in 1969, the quartet was photographed crossing the streetthe photo was used as the cover for the album, and as David White notes, it was controversial to say the least: The controversy over the album cover sprang from the rampant rumor that the ambulatory line of pop stars represented a funeral procession, mourning the departed Paul McCartney. John Lennon religiously led the procession in a heavenly white suit, Ringo Starr followed in black as the mourner, George Harrison clad in denim would be the gravedigger and Paul McCartney, barefoot, out of step, stood as a seemingly animated corpse, member of the walking dead (6). Thus, for the cover art of their very last album as a band, the members represented more than their iconic selves: they represented something mystical, something beyond even their own celebrity and fame, something otherworldly, something meta. They were already post-themselves: they had become so big, so famous so fast, that there was nowhere for them to go but their own separate ways before the end of the decade that made them famous came to a close.
In psychological terms, the Beatles were still just trying to figure things out: they were barely adults when their first single topped the charts. The fame, adulation, success, money, and media attention changed them, challenged them, and forced them to respond in different ways. They went to India and chanted Hare Krishna. They grew their hair out and fit right in with all the other young people of the 1960s protesting the Vietnam War on college campuses. Were the Beatles really trend setters or were they simply following the trends set out for the youth by the uber-trend setters in Laurel Canyon? Whatever the case was the Beatles were not shy about voicing their opinions. At the height of their fame, they were struggling with their own personal identities, and by the end of their tenure as the Beatles, they were in full transformation mode: In September 1969 Srila Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement, arrived as a house guest at Tittenhurst Park, John Lennons estate in England. 1969 was for John Lennon a year of intense search for social and personal liberation. He had already been to the Maharishi and later would enter primal therapy and left-wing politics. He was in a major transitional period; he had married Yoko Ono in March (Krishna). The others were moving on as well, each attempting their own solo careers, each with different levels of success. Harrison and Lennon took to Eastern religion. Lennon would be assassinated before long by Mark David Chapman. Yet the legend of the Beatles would live on. They were considered the quintessential pop band: they defined the genre, made it what it was, pioneered all the modern pop sounds.
In emotional terms, they handled their success rather well. No one fell into drug use or committed suicide. No one wound up in jail. They became disillusioned with what they could do musically as a band, each wanting to explore different approaches to music. However, prior to their breakup they were the hottest act anywhere in the world. The press called it Beatlemania: they were met by screaming fans in the mid-1960s. Their youth, their clean cut looks, and their pop music, which was basically straight out of the cannon of the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly as they themselves admitted (Sheff), all came together in a fusion of the just the right stuff that the world was looking for in the 1960sfun, fresh, subtly rebellious yet not so overtly anti-establishment that it caused many mothers to worry about what their daughters were listening to, the Beatles filled an emotional void in a gash that the 1950s had opened and that the harder edged rock n roll of the 1970s had not yet crawled out of.
The Beatles represented something real, authentic, vital and relevant for the youth culture in Britain and America. They resonated because their music was poppy yet original in the way that it tinkered with traditional sounds and styles. The Beatles would later go on to embrace the beat scene and Lennon would even be called a bohemian Teddy boy by Paul McCartney (Laing 17) by the end of their time togetherbut in the beginning, they were straight out of the 1950s rock scene: the sprang from the same loins as did Elvis in many waysthe King was just American, and the Beatles were Britishthat was the main difference. Elvis had already gone platinum before the Beatles made their big splash in 1962. Elvis essentially set the stage for the Beatles: the hysterics, the screaming young girls, the adoration and adulationit was all part of the culture by the time the Beatles arrived in America. Yet the Beatles whipped it up even more. Whereas Elvis was only one man, there were four Beatles.
The Beatles, were unique, still further in that they themselves were supported by their parents in their musical endeavors. They were so young and fresh when they started out that it really could not have been any other way. They were not beach bums or professional musicians, or Laurel Canyon projects like the Doors and so many other bands to come out of that Californian den; they were basically four very young talented musicians who could copy the styles of music that were making waves at the time. Their early beginnings, coming from their parents patronage, contrasts sharply with the idea that rock n roll created a large generation gap: it was not the case in their case, as their parents gave their children encouragement to follow their musical ambitions (Laing 17). The Beatlesunlike other musicians of the later rock decadesactually had for the most part quite a bit of musical training. They had all received formal training in music to some degree; it was simply part of the education they had received, and their parents were major supporters. Unlike the other British acts that would followparticularly the punk groups like The Sex Pistolsthe Beatles had nothing of the type of verve that is now so frequently associated with the spirit of rock n roll when they first started out. They looked like every other young bandsmart, snappy, and handsomebut their songs were zesty and full of the pop sound that drove audiences wild. That was why they succeeded from the start. There was nothing anti-establishment about them in the beginning. They were very establishment. It was only as the culture around them evolved and they reflected that evolution that the Beatles really embraced the counter-culture status.
Essentially, John and Paul, the stars of the Beatles, came from families that had a history of professional music-making, (Laing 26) which helped to shape the group and point them in the direction of becoming the music-making pop artists and icons of youth culture that they would become. Even before they were the Beatles, some of them were the Quarrymen, which was nothing revolutionary in and of itself (this was the original band that Lennon started when he was 16 and that Paul was part ofand then later George as well). But in the Beatles, together they found their voice, a voice that would indeed grow and morph over the years. Prior to their vast promotional activities, however, they were still trying to produce their first hit single, which came in the early 1960sLove Me Do (Laing 26). There was nothing really revolutionary about this hit, but it was pure pop, which catered to the rock n roll tastes of this era, which had not yet grown into the protest era that would come later.
Essentially, the Beatles were emblematic of the emerging youth culture in the post-War era, in that they were supported by their parents, yet they were partaking in a cultural shift that would drive a wedge between their generation and the previous one that had worked to support them. This was a gradual shift, but its roots were planted in the kitschy pop musical hits of those early formative years, which would put the Beatles on the radar, from where their talents and hair would grow to great lengths, mirroring the dissatisfaction of the youth for their elders campaigns against the peace and love that the group and its audience would promote through their music and their philosophy of living as exampled throughout the 1960s.
The Beatles released seven studio recorded albums from 1963 to 1966 before retiring from live performances. The final five studio albums plus the Magical Mystery Tour of 1967 marked a new direction in their sound as the group became more experimental. The first seven were:
Please Please Me (1963)
With the Beatles (1963)
A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
Beatles for Sale (1964)
Rubber Soul (1965)
The sound on these was mainly poppy, though by Revolver the group had begun to experiment with psychedelic rock in songs like She Said She Said, which was described as having an acidy sound and whose lyrics included lines like, She said I know what its like to be dead. This song was reminiscent of the music and poet culture of the times. Acid had arrived on the scene and even the U.S. President Kennedy was said to have dropped acid with friends (Morley)so it was only natural that a group as counter-culture as the Beatles was becoming by the mid-60s would embrace the psychedelic drug culture, too. Also on the same album, however, were hits like Good Day Sunshine, which was reminiscent of the Beatles early poppy sound. Notably, the latter was written by McCartney and the former acidy, psychedelic song was written by Lennon.
As the two main create forces in the band this marked difference in styles on Revolver was an indication of the rising tension in the band and the two different directions that the two start writers wanted to take their work. Lennon wanted to get more experimental. McCartney was more traditional and conventional in his approach. Another Lennon song on the album Tomorrow Never Knows was as acidy and trippy as She Said She Said and had lines like, Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream. With songs like these the Beatles crossed over from warm pop to psychedelic pop. But it in no way determined their future trajectory. They still remained highly musical, as Sgt. Peppers, Abbey Road, and Let it Be all showed. Still, to the end McCartney remained the most conventional of the four, penning Let it Be, Get Back, and The Long and Winding Road on the final album.
Revolution #9 on the White Album was an example of how experimental the Beatles were willing to get. The 8 minute song is more like a musical modernist art piece, with no melody or harmony or rhythm, just snippets of soundmore like a collage of soundfrom various sources: news media, symphonies tuning up, radio waves, people talking, one sound fading and blending into another, or several sounds laying on top of one another. The album also had hits Helter Skelter, which was McCartneys version of raw rock n roll ala The Who, and Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, another poppy McCartney tune. Lennons Happiness is a Warm Gun also appeared on the album, an ironic title given that Lennon would be gunned down two decades later by a crazed gunman. Let it Be was the groups most spiritual song and it was, again, one written by McCartney and despised by Lennon, who felt it was much too churchy to count as good music (White).
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the Beatles have more sales than any other musical group in history: All-time sales have been estimated by EMI at over one billion discs and tapes to date. In 2001, they had been certified for album sales of 163.5 million in the US alone. The band has numerous other world records, including that for most recorded song – Lennon and McCartney’s Yesterday had 1,600 versions recorded between 1965 and January 1, 1986. Also, their album titled 1, released on November 13, 2000, sold 13.5 million copies around the world in its first month, making it the fastest-selling album (IGN). They have the most consecutive No. 1 singles in the UK with 11 from 1963 to 1966 starting with From Me to You and ending with Yellow Submarine. They also had the most No. 1 hits in the U.S. with 20 from 1964 to 1970 (IGN). They have 33 Platinum certificates (most ever) and most multiplatinum albums (13). The Beatles are tied for first with most number of albums on the US. Top 200 at seven in 1979 (IGN). There are many other records, but the point should be clear by now: the Beatles were the biggest and have remained the biggest musical group since they came out the door in 1962.
What It Means
The Beatles represented a paradigm shift in the latter half of the 20th century. They tapped into a cultural change that was occurring among the people their own age all over the West. They inspired countless later musicians, from Kurt Cobain of Nirvana to the infamously indie Daniel Johnston, whose own songs have been covered by popular artists in our own time. It was not just the music itself that inspired, however; it was also the way the group worked. For instance, with Sgt. Peppers the group put a lot of time and energy into the arrangements of each track, trying to pack as much sound into each track before bouncing it. As Murnane put it, Making music this way demands a lot of time spent practicing so the musicians can play through long passages without making mistakes. The almost 40 minutes of music on Sgt. Peppers took over 700 hours of studio time to produce and much of this time was spent working out arrangements and practicing the songs. The Beatles were toying with sound and technology to see how far they could push the boundaries of studio recording. They wanted to be innovative and succeeded in many ways.
For example, again on Sgt. Peppers the group wanted Ringos drums to sound huge, larger than life. They needed to capture a drum sound in a new and creative way, which ultimately meant recording the Ringos drums in ways that had not been tried before (Murnane). Thus, one approach they tried was to have Ringo tune his toms very low by loosening the skins on the drum heads, then removing the skins from the bottom of the toms; [next they] wrapped a mic in a tea cloth, put it in a glass jug, and placed it on the floor under the drums. The result was the huge, tympani-like drum sounds you hear on the verses in A Day in the Life (Murnane). This level of creativity helped to push the whole music scene in new directions, especially as the capabilities and possibilities of electronic and digital recording continued to improve.
Now while other groups were also doing similar things, experimenting with sound, no other group was as big as the Beatles was in the mid-1960s. Thus, for the Beatles to experiment in this way was seen as groundbreaking, innovative, and big for the industry. For the culture, it helped to inspire musicians and artists to try similar things. People who were moved by the raw energy and creative spirit of the Beatles on their later albums saw this as a way of truly freeing their mind.
At the time, the counter-culture was in full swing. Woodstock, Hippies, war protests and later the shootings at Kent State on top of the Watergate scandalit all added to this desire among the young to follow something new and innovative. That was the Beatles. They stuck their noses up at the old world and, even though McCartney was the most musically conventional in terms creating a harmony and melody for most of his hits, the band as a hole was very happy to take things in new directions.
The Beatles made history by becoming the biggest band from Britain to ever grace the stage. They helped to kick off the British Invasion in America. They defined the tastes of the Baby Boomer generation. Later generations would be as in love with them as their parents and even grandparents as the case may be today. They resist categorization. They could write pop tunes as well as they could write edgy, trippy, counter-culture music. They were capable of seemingly doing it all musicallymainly because they had four writers who had four different musical tastes and styles (even Ringo was allowed to write a tune here and there). The fact is that the Beatles were forerunners of the musical artists writing today, artists who have been in pop bands and who have gone on to write music for the screen, operas, symphonies and so on. The Beatles prefigured the epic works of Pink Floyd, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Radiohead.
But could the Beatles have been the Beatles had it not been for the 1960s? The 1960s was a decade of upheaval. The Feminist Movement got underway in 1963, one year after the Beatles came out with their first single. Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963 and it advocated for women to get out of the homes, quit being the domestic servants of husbands, and embrace a life out in the public square. Gloria Steinem followed with Ms. Magazine and before anyone knew it, Feminism was in the air. It even entered into the Beatles via Yoko Ono, who married Lennon and pushed him beyond the limits of anything he had done before. Her intrusion in the band was considered by many fans to be such an upheaval that they blamed her for breaking up the band. The whole situation was satirized in the epic mockumentary This is Spinal Tap, a comedy about a British hair band that gets busted up because one band member falls in love and lets his new wife start introducing all sorts of crazy concepts and ideas into the bands artistic works. The Beatles were as much an influencer of the 1960s and the 1960s were of the Beatles.
If there is one band that embodies the spirit of popular music in the 20th century, it is the Beatles. Beloved of many (though not by all), their range allowed them to create some of the most enduring hits of latter half of the 20th century and some of the most compelling sounds and musical experimentation. They embraced the counter-culture once it got underway and their fame and status enabled them to give the . They stared in films, became bigger than Jesus (as Lennon believedthough he did not anticipate it being a statement that would really cause much hype, even satirically clarifying that if he had said TV was bigger than Jesus people probably would not have protested half so much), and they topped the charts with one release after another. They made history because they were the biggest band to ever hit the stage. Throughout the 1960s, they were music.
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