Why The Beatles Are Important

9 05 2012

On a recent episode of Mad Men, the Beatles figured as part of the story line. The show went so far as to have a Beatles song (Tomorrow Never Knows from Revolver) play during the episode. Of course, this once again generated comments from people who either gush over how they are “the best and most important band ever” or dismiss them as relatively insignificant. If you actually look at what happened to rock and popular music, and try to look objectively, I think it becomes clear that the Beatles were supremely important to the advancement and development of rock and pop. They affected the business and the art in many ways, both good and bad. Are they the most important? One could argue that they are, and provide substantial evidence to support that argument. However, to do so would minimize the meaningful contribution of other artists, and to downplay other factors that changed the face of pop music. That being said, they are certainly one of the more important groups, and are one of the most successful.

Rock ‘n Roll and The Teenager

To understand the importance of the Beatles, I think it is first useful to understand the state of “rock ‘n roll” as it had developed through the 1950’s. The roots of rock really started in the late 1940’s, with a growing interest in blues music, primarily some of the more up-tempo numbers. The generation of children that were born just before or during World War II war nearing their teenage years. The economic slump that occurred shortly after the war was starting to recover, and the end of the 1940’s saw the rise of a new social phenomenon: the teenager. The modern teenager is characterized by a young adult focused primarily on education but with a surprising amount of free time. The concept of the “teenager” as embodied in the 1950’s really didn’t exist prior that time. Consider that a substantial number of teenaged children would be looking at work (either on the farm, in factories or in local retailers) even as they were hitting their high school years. Many went from “child” to “adult” without much of a transition. A shift in focus onto education, as well as a surplus of income that allowed teenagers some degree of free time, also freed them up to become a cultural influence.

Part of this “new” teenager included a historic amount of rebellion. However, prior to the late 1940’s, teenagers really didn’t influence culture to a large degree. As the 1950’s began, that would start to change, at least when it came to music. The new sound of “rock ‘n roll” was really a melding of up-tempo blues, swing and boogie woogie, producing a sound that was rather different than the traditional “big band” or “crooner” types of music, as well as jazz. An emphasis on smaller bands (typically a drummer, one or two guitarists and a stand-up bass) meant for simpler music. The complexity would be implied in the melody, backed up by lyrics which tended to be more topical (and in some cases rather scandalous).

The transformation of AM radio was occurring at the same time. Prior to the 1950’s, the radio was a source of general purpose entertainment and news. It was music, dramatic or comedic story telling and news in one medium. The rise of the television meant that the “story telling” dramas, comedies and mysteries would abandon radio, leaving news and music. With more time for music, more music was needed, and the importance of the disc jockey grew. Radios also got cheaper and smaller, no longer relegated to the tabletop or the floor, which made them portable (and something you could put into a car). Rather than one or maybe two radios in a household, now there were several, and it wasn’t unusual for teenagers to have their own radio, as well as the increasingly popular portable record player.

The rise of the car changed things as well, giving teenagers more mobility. The car, and the drive-in facilities (food, movies) that came with it, gave teenagers places to go. They wanted a “soundtrack” as it were, and pop music filled that role. The fact that their parents didn’t approve made it all that more compelling, and teenagers and young adults bought rock music albums and singles in increasing numbers. The music “spoke to them”, in part because the songs were generally about teenage and young-adult issues. No more songs about sitting under apple trees or taking trains. Now it was about dancing and lost (or found) love.

Fixed Structures, Proven Formulas

This new music industry brought to it a somewhat fixed structure, and the songs generally followed a set formula. An important concept in the structure of the industry was “A&R”, or “artists and repertoire”. While there were always exceptions, there was a fairly clear delineation between those that wrote the songs (composers and lyricists, the “repertoire” part of A&R) and those that performed the songs (the “artists”). Some artists would try to write their own songs, but often they played from a standard catalog of songs owned by the label, or performed new songs as they were added. This structure was important because is allowed the labels considerable control over the royalties. The composer’s and artist’s cut would be smaller, because they had only contributed to part of the success. An artist who also composed could make the case that the success was theirs, and theirs alone, and shouldn’t be shared.

The songs themselves generally followed a pattern. For most of the 1950’s there was little attempt at truly revolutionary composition or production. The labels kept it simple, and stuck with a formula that developed quickly and they felt worked. Songs were generally 2:30 to 3:30 in length. Enough to “tell a story” in some cases, to make the song memorable, but to avoid it becoming too repetitive. It was also the right length to fit on the smaller 7″ vinyl disc that was played at 45 rpm. Songs generally followed a set pattern, one that is still fairly prevalent today:

  • Intro/chorus
  • Verse
  • Chorus
  • Verse
  • Chorus
  • Bridge (instrumental, occasionally spoken)
  • Chorus
  • Verse
  • Chorus
  • Exit

Again, there was occasional variation of this form, but those were the exception. The lyrics often dealt with contemporary teenage “issues” like lost love, heartbreak, new love, or just having a good time. Occasional novelty songs would appear, but for the most part, the songs stuck to fairly light themes (although they were certainly important to teenagers).

So What Did The Beatles Do?

While the Beatles first released music starting in 1962, their true influence on the business didn’t start to become substantial until 1964. What we generally think of as “’50’s music” really continues past the 1950’s and into the early 1960’s. The break from “traditional” rock ‘n roll really starred in 1964,  not surprisingly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The loss of the President was a watershed moment for the United States, and in some ways marks the divide between two generations.

Several things happened in music in 1964. The first album consisting of all Beatles songs, A Hard Day’s Night, was released. The Rolling Stones made their appearance with their debut album, and the soul/blues fusion that would become Motown started to see its rise. The early development of folk rock, blues rock and even country rock would begin. These songs were different. Their sound was different from typical 50’s-style music. It included exclusive use of the electric bass guitar, more use of the solid body guitar, and more experimentation with form and production. The year 1964 would be the beginning of a 10-year (or so) run of music that tried to break conventions, and start to address issues beyond the simplicities of love and having fun. Starting around 1974-1975, the variation would slow, and we saw the rise of disco, the partial stagnation of various forms of rock (hard, classic, progressive, etc) and see other forms like punk and heavy metal trying to find direction. But in 1964, the eyes and mind of the music world was beginning to truly open, and the Beatles were a catalyst in that reaction.

Singer/Songwriter

What made the Beatles different from most groups was that they didn’t just play music, they wrote it. They were one of the pioneers in the concept of singer/songwriter. Remember, up until this point there was fairly clear delineation beween “artists” that performed and “repertoire” lyricists and composers who wrote. New artists often had to cover existing songs for their first albums, sometimes getting 2 or so tracks for new music. For the Beatles, their first 2 albums (the UK/international versions, not the oddball US packaging) features mainly cover tunes with a few of their own tracks in the mix. With The Beatles and Please, Please Me are, for the most part, pretty pedestrian affairs. What stands out are the Lennon/McCartney and Harrison songs. They jump out, and are rather different from the cover tracks.

Their last album with a substantial number of cover songs was Beatles For Sale, released in late 1964. After that, it would be almost exclusively songs written by Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr.

Experimenting With Sound

The group would also experiment with different sounds, different instruments and different technologies. Things like cutting up audio tape of calliope music, tossing the pieces in the air, then splicing the mess back together to get a new sound (as used on For The Benefit of Mr. Kite on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). Close miking, artificial doubletracking, playback synching and other techniques were used. For the Beatles, the studio and its equipment became just another musical instrument. In many cases, there was no way to recreate the sounds live. The band also experimented with varying musical styles and added full orchestras to the mix. No instrument was off-limits.

It isn’t that other groups weren’t trying these sorts of things, and it wasn’t as if the Beatles were the only experimenters. But often they were one of the first to try these things, in part because they had success that granted them the leeway to experiment. They were given the equipment and as much studio time as they wanted. Few other bands had that kind of latitude.

Had a tragic accident not occurred in February of 1959, the landscape may have been different. Buddy Holly was apparently interested in try to break out of the structure that the industry was relying on. It was rumoured he wanted to experiment and try new approaches to composition, performance, recording and production. But the plane crash that claimed his life, along with the J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Ritchie Valens, ended that possibility. The music of the 1950’s would carry on pretty much as it was for another 4-5 years in the early part of the 1960’s. It took the Beatles to help start the transformation.

The Songs, Not The Performers, Were Extraordinary

What made the Beatles different or “special” wasn’t necessarily their talent as singers and instrumentalists. As singers, the Beatles were “good” but not necessarily “great”. None of them had extraordinary vocal range. They had generally adequate voice control. As instrumentalists, again they were “good” but not outstanding. There were more talented people on keyboards or strings. Ringo Starr was actually one of the better drummers of his era, but this is sometimes overlooked because he and George generally took a back seat to Paul and John.

What made the Beatles different were the songs. The lyrics weren’t necessarily profound, but they were generally clever, and sometimes irreverent. They had no problem poking fun at existing institutions, including their own industry on occasion. They didn’t shy away from telling what they thought was “the truth:” listen to Revolution 1 on the white album. It sounds like it should be a protest song, but it isn’t. It is a cynical statement on the state of the so-called “revolutionaries”, pointing out how ineffective many of them were. Needless to say, the “revolutionaries” didn’t like the song, and some apparently felt betrayed by a group they had hoped would support their “cause”.

The music itself has something extra in it: sometimes a more complex set of vocal harmonies, sometimes an usual use of an instrument. To truly understand how they stand out, you need to go back and listen to their first two albums all in one go. The Beatles-authored tracks generally stand out. The cover tunes seem a bit weak and thin in comparison.

What is more interesting is how the Beatles didn’t try to lock themselves in with a “signature sound”. For contrast, look at the Rolling Stones, They have made some great music over the years, and have had tremendous success. But let’s face it, most of their songs are simple 2-chord and 3-chord affairs. It isn’t that they all sound “the same”, but boy do they sound similar. Or take bands like Supertramp or U2: again, they both have some great songs, but in many cases, there is a musical or playing style (like the “ringing/chiming guitar” sound that The Edge effects on so many of their tunes) that is largely mimicked from song to song. Band after band has developed, and often relied on, a signature sound that appears over and over in their music.

While there wasn’t much the Beatles could to do alter their vocals, their musical style varies considerably from song to song, and from album to album. You don’t generally find a song that is a repeat of another, at least in terms of style of sound. Even within an album, each song is generally distinct, sometimes standing in dramatic contrast to other songs on the album.

Prodigious Output, Sort Of

It seems as if the Beatles produced an enormous amount of music. In reality, they have a rather modest catalog. What makes it seem like so much more is the sheer number of top-40 (and number 1) songs in their repertoire. Most albums would be lucky to see 1 or 2 songs released as singles, let along rise to the top of the charts. The Beatles seemed to have double (or more) the number of singles per album, and so many more shot to the top.

Consider their actual output: from 1962 to 1970, the recorded 13 albums (not including the repackaging that was done in some countries like the United States). For comparison, the Rolling Stones released 15 albums in that same period of time. The Beach Boys released 16 albums. But the Beatles also released 50 singles, many of which made it to the top-40 or top-10 (or number 1) in a number of countries. The Rolling Stones, again, released about 36 in that same time. The Beatles had more singles, but their album output wasn’t that unusual for a hit group.

There Was Good and Bad?

Superstars and Touring

The Beatles changed many things, both good and bad. They were, in most ways, the first, true “superstars”. Audiences reacted to them in ways that few artists had seen before. The media paid attention to them in ways that were somewhat unprecedented. Bands to follow would continue in this mould. They would insist on more control of what songs they performed, what albums were made and generally how the band was managed and used.

The Beatles also broke the cycle of “tour, record, repeat”, making their last live appearance in 1966. There was always pressure to tour for bands to promote their albums, but not all bands were well suited to live performances. As the Beatles music continued to evolve, live performances of newer songs became nearly impossible. On top of that, the pressures and stress of touring can start to wear. The ability for bands to push back and say “no” to touring (either initially or even at all) was helped, in part, by the Beatles.

The Singer/Songwriter Divide

The breakdown of the formal divide between singer and songwriter was further fostered by The Beatles. They weren’t necessarily the first to do this, but they were the most visible and the most adamant about it. Of the 13 albums they produced, 3 feature primarily cover tunes, and one (Yellow Submarine) includes music from other composes and performers. But the remaining 9 (A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, Revolver, Rubber Soul, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles (aka the white album), Magical Mystery Tour, Abbey Road and Let It Be) are almost all comprised exclusively of Lennon/McCartney, Starr or Harrison compositions.

This breakdown is good and band. It opened the possibility for groups who had their own material to perform it. But it also allowed groups to write songs when they probably shouldn’t. For some groups, it was about ego, and not because they had actual talent. There are times when a performer is a better performer, and not really a composer or lyricist.

Groups also started to pay more attention to who owned the resultant works. Typically, artists didn’t own the music they made, in part because they were performing someone else’s song (or the song you wrote was performed by someone else). The Beatles were one of the first to insist that the copyright for their catalog be in their control in some way. They wanted to have a say in how the music was used (particularly since pop music was seen more and more often in TV shows, commercials and movies). It allowed them to refuse the use of songs for products they didn’t want to endorse through implication. It meant they could determine the terms for a song’s use, and the royalties, in other media. Again, this isn’t exclusive to The Beatles, but they were the most visible group to insist on this, and pay attention to it.

Are They The Best?

So, are the Beatles the best? That is too hard a distinction to make. They were “the best” at selling lots of records. But beyond that, they were certainly good. They had a significant string of hits in a fairly modest period of time. They were agents for change within the music industry, not just in how music was written and performed, but in how sound was produced and how albums were crafted.

They were certainly influential, but they weren’t necessarily alone in that respect. However, their highly visible status in the industry, and their popularity, gave them clout that other bands didn’t have at the time. It allowed bands that followed to set terms and conditions they might not have been able to set had music continued along the 1950’s model and structure.

The Beatles were ultimately one of the more important bands in the 1960’s, and did a lot to set the tone and direction for rock music. Their acts and their performances allowed other performers to experiment, branch out and explore in ways that the somewhat-rigid 1950’s music industry would have resisted. It would be irresponsible to overlook the importance of other artists, like Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys and others. But the Beatles deserve credit (good and bad) for the substantial part they played in reshaping rock and pop music, and the music industry.

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