The Beatles were many things simultaneously: they were the most famous celebrities of their day…the best songwriters of their age…and, ultimately, the most beloved band of all time. And one more thing: The Beatles were also the most creative single force to ever hit popular music. The band influenced generations, and the group still continues to have a profound impact. The Beatles not only changed the way music was being made, they forever changed music.
The fifth Beatle: Producer George Martin worked on all but one of The Beatles’ albums.
Through ceaseless inventiveness, The Beatles set musical trends that are still being followed. They never rested on their achievements, constantly stretching the boundaries of pop music. There is a chartable creative progression that begins with the first Beatle album and ends with the last. It should also be noted that The Beatles were assisted greatly by studio wizard George Martin, who produced every Beatle album (except Let it Be) and helped the band with their various sonic experiments.
Trying to list The Beatles’ various creative achievements would take forever, but we can zero in on five songs that demonstrate the band’s technical mastery.
I Feel Fine (Beatles ’65, 1964)
How It Changed Music: The first intentional use of feedback in a pop music recording.
Filming the video to accompany “I Feel Fine,” Ringo plays exercise bike. On the record, he employs a rhythm that can be traced to Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.”
In 1964, the idea of musicians actually trying to get their instruments to produce distortion was radically new. And although The Beatles certainly didn’t invent feedback and weren’t the first to incorporate it into their live act (The Who or The Kinks probably have that distinction), The Beatles were the first to release a single that featured feedback.
How It Happened: It was all due to a happy accident in the studio, when John propped his Gibson acoustic/electric against a switched-on amplifier. The guitar erupted with feedback, which stopped Lennon and McCartney in their tracks. The uniqueness of the sound impressed Lennon so much, he instantly asked producer George Martin if they could somehow use feedback in the recording. The producer suggested tacking it onto the front of the song and the rest is Rock ‘n’ Roll history. On the final master, John plucks the A string on his guitar. The note at first stings then buzzes and finally dissolves into an ear-piercing wail. A million bands may have incorporated feedback into their sound, but The Beatles were the first to put it on record.
Eleanor Rigby (Revolver, 1966)
How It Changed Music: Rock songs don’t always need to have happy endings – or traditional drums and guitars – to become hits.
Each song on the album Revolver has a unique, fully formed sound, but none more distinctive than Paul McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby.” A grim song about alienation (“Ah…look at all the lonely people!”), “Eleanor Rigby” tells the story of a lonely woman (who eventually dies) and a lonely minister (who presides over her burial). The song was a shock to Beatle fans that were used to upbeat love songs from the Fab Four. This was a song with no happy endings. Nonetheless, despite the somber subject matter, the song spent four weeks topping the British pop charts. More than 60 pop artists have covered the song since then.
Revolver marks the point when The Beatles stopped being a live performing act and became a full-time studio band. Aside from the general exhaustion of touring, The Beatles were becoming more ambitious about their music and had already mastered conventional multi-track recording techniques. Individual songs were being crafted with more time and creative techniques. In recording “Eleanor Rigby,” McCartney’s genius was to suggest the use of an eight-piece string section. In fact, none of The Beatles actually play instruments on the recording. Instead, the song is driven by its churning cello, mournful violas and stabbing violins.
How It Happened: There was a real Eleanor Rigby, who worked as a scullery maid in a Liverpool hospital and died in 1939. As teenagers, Lennon and McCartney hung around near a cemetery bearing her tombstone. It’s been suggested that McCartney absorbed the name subconsciously and used it years later when penning the song. By the way, “Father MacKenzie” started out as “Father McCartney,” until Paul feared that people would think he was describing his own father.
Tomorrow Never Knows (Revolver, 1966)
How It Changed Music: Experimentation is good: Part One.
Backward beats: The Beatles usher in their psychedelic period with “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
The Beatles were still a unified force in 1966, but Revolver demonstrated the individual gifts of each Beatle. Paul scored high marks with “Eleanor Rigby,” while George Harrison contributed one of his best songs (“Taxman”) and drummer Ringo Starr sang lead on the innocent anthem, “Yellow Submarine.” As for John Lennon, he added the album’s closing track – a stunning piece of early psychedelic music called “Tomorrow Never Knows.” The lyrics, inspired by The Tibetan Book of the Dead, were strange enough (“Listen to the color of your dreams”) but the song itself sounded like virtually nothing the band had recorded up to that point.
How It Happened: To give Lennon’s chanting vocal the desired “sound of a guru on a mountaintop,” producer Martin ran the vocal track through a Lesley spinning speaker, a type of speaker that produced an odd, wobbly sound. John’s vocals were also doubled by using an Automatic Double Tracking (ADT) system. Meanwhile, Ringo used a unique drum pattern for his rhythm tracks and his drums and cymbals were recorded and played in reverse, as was Harrison’s sitar. The Beatles also gave the song an added layer of weirdness by adding 16 six-second-long tape loops of various sounds (most of which were played in reverse), which producer Martin interspersed through the song. The resulting final track was an amazing, riveting piece of music that predicted the band’s next stage: psychedelia.
Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967)
How It Changed Music: Experimentation is good: Part Two.
John Lennon points to the poster that inspired “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”
Things were getting pretty crazy in groovy 1967, and that influence colors the album that many critics regard as not only The Beatles’ best album, but the best Rock album of all time. Sgt. Pepper is loaded throughout with one innovation after another, but “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” capably demonstrates the band’s daring musical experimentation. The song’s lyrics, which tell of an upcoming old-style circus event, were inspired by an antique music-hall poster that Lennon had acquired.
Lennon used direct quotes from this 124-year-old circus poster.
How It Happened: Much of Lennon’s lyric was taken word-for-word from the original handbill. For one musical passage within the song’s middle eight bars, a collection of different pieces of audio was gathered. Each tape contained a different type of carnival music. Producer George Martin, unhappy with their attempts to find one signature carnival sound, had all of the tapes cut into small pieces, which were then thrown into the air and onto the studio floor. The studio engineer then randomly picked up the pieces of tape, which were re-assembled in precisely that order to create a flowing montage of circus sounds.
I Want You (She’s So Heavy) (Abbey Road, 1969)
How It Changed Music: Simplicity can be a lot deeper than you think.
Even though the foursome would soon part company, The Beatles were still in-step when recording the band’s final masterpiece, Abbey Road.
After the dense, multi-layered psychedelic rumble that The Beatles pioneered during the Pepperera, most of Abbey Road (which was the last Beatle album recorded, although Let it Be would be released after it) was marked by a simpler sound that didn’t seem to rely quite so much on audio “tricks.” But even at their simplest, The Beatles’ music contains multiple levels. And that was certainly the case for “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” which took a simple blues-type song and stretched it out to nearly eight minutes
How It Happened: Songwriter Lennon answered criticisms of the primitive lyric (“I want you…I want you so bad…I want you…I want you so bad it’s driving me mad”) by saying that it was an urgent love song that required a simple lyric. (Lennon used the example of a drowning man, who doesn’t scream, “Excuse me, but could you please possibly throw me that float and save me?” when “Help! I’m drowning!” is more to the point.) Then there are the song’s special effects, which were tacked onto the building instrumental that dominates the back half of the song. The bizarre sound of an increasing, howling wind (created by Lennon playing a Moog synthesizer) was grafted onto the song, with the white noise becoming louder as the song’s thundering chords repeat over and over.
The end of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” is also technically interesting, because there really is no ending, per Lennon’s idea. The instruments keep hitting the main theme over and over (with the wind SFX now up to hurricane force) and then the song just unexpectedly goes silent. No final chord or drumbeat: just pure silence. An amazing and unexpected finish to a song that was more complex than originally judged…and one of the very last Beatle songs to be mixed by the group itself.
Even The Simpsons have paid tribute to The Beatles with this Abbey Road parody.
Creativity on Tap
The Beatles’ music still shines decades later, thanks to the careful craft that went into every Beatle recording. Each member of the band quickly became a master of the audio studio arts. Their early music shows The Beatles’ progression as audio producers who were bent and determined to give the world a new kind of sound.
The Beatles’ legacy lives on. The John Lennon Educational Tour Bus can help teach you how to become a music producer. And thanks in large part to The Beatles, audio production continues to attract creative and musical people of all ages.