The Beatles remain one of the most influential and acclaimed bands in the history of popular music. No other group has ever had quite the same affect on young listeners. A combination of musical gifts, good timing, and an ability to reflect, and change with, the evolution of popular culture in the 1960s, the Beatles generated excitement around the world. Despite this, the group began like any other rock & roll group. Guitarist/singer John Lennon (1940-1980) formed a “skiffle” group called The Quarry Men in Liverpool, England in 1957, and he was soon joined by Paul McCartney (born 1942) on guitar and vocals. Later, George Harrison (1943-2001) joined on guitar and vocals and they changed their name to Johnny and the Moondogs.
Skiffle – a type of simple folk music with African American origins, usually with shades of jazz and blues and often performed on homemade or improvised instruments. In 1950’s UK, skiffle boomed in popularity, and this is the music the Beatles began playing.
The lineup grew and they changed their name to the Silver Beatles. By 1960, the name changed for the last time to simply the Beatles. This was a nod to Buddy Holly and the Crickets, an important influence. Pete Best joined on drums in 1960 and the group was hired to perform in clubs in Hamburg, Germany. At this point their repertoire consisted mostly of covers by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, others. In Hamburg, the group worked long hours, playing in dingy after-hours clubs for long stretches. This period of constant performance took it’s toll on the group, and the band began taking “uppers” (pills) supplied by club owners that kept their energy at an artificially high level all night. This rigorous performing schedule did benefit the band in their tightness as a group and their comfort level on stage however. After several trips to Hamburg, the Beatles returned to Liverpool. Stuart Sutcliffe decided to stay in Hamburg with his girlfriend in 1961. This left a hole in the group as they were left without a bass player. After a discussion, Paul McCartney acquiesced and moved to bass.
Upon returning to Liverpool in 1961 the Beatles began regular performances at an underground cellar converted into a performance venue called the Cavern Club and became an ever-popular live act there. Also in 1961, the Beatles recorded “My Bonnie” with singer Tony Sheridan. It became a much requested record at the shop of record store owner Brian Epstein. Epstein, on a whim, approached the group and offered to manage them, and they agreed, marking the beginning of a very prosperous relationship. On of the first things Epstein did was to clean up the group’s leather-clad image, and put them into matching suits, which the group reluctantly agreed to. Eventually Epstein got the Beatles a recording contract with EMI records, a major label in England.
At EMI they worked with producer George Martin (Above in the studio with the Beatles ca. 1965) who had experience producing and arranging classical music as well as producing comedy records. This unusual background proved a blessing as Martin and the Beatles developed a highly creative working relationship. Martin’s influence through the use of experimental sound effects known as music concrete, and the use of classical instruments/arrangements led to him being known as the “fifth Beatle”. One of the first and most important moments of their early working relationship came when Martin advised them that Pete Best was not suitable for recording sessions and he would only record them if he could bring in a professional drummer, though he said he did not care if they kept Best for their live performances. The Beatles realized it was time to fire Best and find a permanent replacement. Soon after this, Pete Best was replaced by Ringo Starr (born Richard Starkey 1940), a well-known drummer in Liverpool who had played in another popular band, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes in the clubs of Hamburg at the same time as the Beatles.
The Beatles: On the Rise
In September 1962, the Beatles recorded “Love Me Do”, their first single. It appeared on their first album, Please Please Me (1963). Already at this early stage in their career, the Beatles displayed a natural musical sophistication compared to many other songwriters. Songs such as “Please Please Me” featured sophisticated vocal harmonies such as the Beach Boys had done, and many chords beyond standard 3-4 chord pop songs. The form of the song is also quite unusual, bearing more of a resemblance to songs written by professionals at the Brill Building rather than amateurs. As you listen to the song multiple times, examine the form which I’ve provided an analysis of in the formal diagram (found in Ch. 10.2 Listening Examples).
Their popularity grew in Britain, but EMI in America (Capitol Records) was not interested in releasing their recordings. After some convincing and a publicity campaign EMI and Capitol released their 2nd album, With the Beatles (1964, the American version was entitled Meet the Beatles). The single “I Want to Hold Your Hand” became their first No. 1 hit on the American charts.
When the Beatles came to America in February 1964, they were followed by the press and thousands of ecstatic fans. They weren’t expecting anything even close to the reaction they received there. They appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in performance bringing them into homes across the country, and with this “Beatlemania” began.
The Beatles: Musical Growth
With each subsequent album the Beatles released, the music grew deeper and more introspective, beyond the early lighthearted songs such as “She Loves You” and “Love Me Do”. The Beatles met Bob Dylan in 1964. Dylan was an established American folk singer whose songs displayed a lyrical and musical depth about subjects such as death, war, restriction of freedom, and political topics that was greatly influential on them. After meeting Dylan, their lyrics began to mature and they began using acoustic instruments more often. Also, George Harrison introduced the electric 12-string guitar, a new invention, on the Beatles 3rd album, A Hard Days Night (1964) This sound became influential on many musicians.
Formally, a “Hard Day’s Night” uses a similar structure as many other Beatles hit songs (found in Listening Examples 10.2). Try identifying it on your own. Listen to the music but pay attention to the lyrics as they might give you the best clues to the form. Is there a chorus/refrain? In other words, is there a section of music where Paul and John sing the same words every time? Is this contrasted with a section that uses different words every time?
The Beatles: Movies
The Beatles made their first film, A Hard Days Night, which showcased their music and their humor in a parody on the lives of the Beatles. The film was directed by Richard Lester and met with financial success and positive reviews.
Their next film, also directed by Richard Lester, involved a more elaborate plot line where the group was up against an evil cult, and was filmed in color. The soundtrack of the film showcased the Beatles’ growing creative depth. “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” shows the influence of Bob Dylan in its’ use of prominent acoustic guitars and greater lyrical depth. The lyrics showcase the form in its use of Verses and Choruses:
Here I stand head in hand
Turn my face to the wall
If she’s gone I can’t go on
Feeling two-foot small
Everywhere people stare
Each and every day
I can see them laugh at me
And I hear them say
Hey you’ve got to hide your love away
Hey you’ve got to hide your love away
How can I even try
I can never win
Hearing them, seeing them
In the state I’m in
How could she say to me
Love will find a way
Gather round all you clowns
Let me hear you say
Hey you’ve got to hide your love away
Hey you’ve got to hide your love away
“Yesterday” (found in Ch. 10.3 Listening Examples) represents one of the first instances where a song was written and performed by only one member of the group. Paul McCartney wrote and sang lead vocals on the song, and the backing instruments featured a string quartet and McCartney on acoustic guitar alone instead of standard rock instruments. The song represents a departure from the electric, full band sound the Beatles had been known for up to that point.
Rubber Soul and Revolver
Rubber Soul and Revolver, released in 1965 and 1966, reveal a considerable leap in maturity from everything the Beatles had done before. New instruments began to be introduced as well. Lyrics to songs such as “Norwegian Wood” (from Rubber Soul) showcase a modern and surreal approach to lyrical content. “Norwegian Wood” also features the first appearance of many on Beatles albums of the Sitar, an Indian classical instrument. George Harrison at this time was becoming interested in the music and culture of India. He would study Indian music and began incorporating it into Beatles records.
Due to the sophisticated structure many Beatles’ studio recordings, many new songs were too complex to perform live. This fact was coupled with growing weariness towards constant touring and live performances where the band members were so high profile and popular that simply leaving a hotel to go perform was complex ordeal. Also, the constant screaming of fans made it nearly impossible to hear what they were playing. The Beatles decided to stop touring/performing in 1966, choosing to work in the studio in seclusion and peace.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
After deciding to stop touring, the Beatles began recording their next album. Released in 1967, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is considered by many to be the greatest Beatles album and also the greatest album of all time. The album is a concept album of sorts; the Beatles organized the music into a circus-like concert atmosphere utilizing sound effects, animal noises, orchestral instruments, segues between songs, and live-concert-style announcements. It does not, however, have a unified lyrical concept/theme as other concept albums such as the Beach Boys Pet Sounds. In fact, lyrical themes are quite varied throughout the album, with many songs containing allusions to psychedelic drugs, spirituality, loneliness, and the surreal. Also were more music concrete techniques on “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” which used spliced pieces of tape of a steam calliope.
This album represents the last unified creative effort between the members. Subsequent albums featured much more independence in songwriting. “A Day in the Life” (in Ch. 10.4 Listening Examples) features two distinct sections, an A section written and sung by John Lennon, and a middle B section written and sung by Paul McCartney. The song also makes use of an orchestral crescendo that builds and builds to a climax of such intensity rarely heard in popular music at that point.
After the success of Sgt. Pepper, the group began to experience hardship. The Beatles manager Brian Epstein died in 1967 and this contributed to the growing distance between the members. The TV film Magical Mystery Tour and its soundtrack were released the same year, and while the music was well regarded, the film represents the first critical failure of the Beatles.
- “Norwegian Wood”
- “Nowhere Man” live 1966
- “Eleanor Rigby” from Revolver dispensed altogether with standard rock instruments and used a string quartet or orchestra for accompaniment.
- “Tomorrow Never Knows” from Revolver is an early example of psychedelic music. It includes many innovations including reverse guitar, tape loops, surreal lyrics, “field recordings”, and was played over a single chord (unusual in 60’s pop music).
- “A Day in the Life”
The “White Album”
The Beatles (self-titled, but widely known as “The White Album”) was released in 1968 as the Beatles first double album, and represents a departure from previous efforts into more individual creative domains. It also represents the first indication that the band was no longer working as a cohesive unit and frustrations/tensions were beginning to show themselves.
The influence of Lennon’s new partner, American artist Yoko Ono, is reflected in the use of sound effects in many songs. A wide variety of instrumentation and styles are represented, from straight rock and roll, to folk song, to complex horn arrangements, to avant-garde electroacoustic music.
The White Album is indicative of the individual directions of the different group members. Often each Beatles was in a different studio working on their own song, and many songs only feature some members, not all four. Most of the songs were written individually by the individual members instead of collaborations. This is a departure from their previous albums and working methods.
The Beatles entered Twickinham studios in late 1968 to begin a project that would eventually turn into their album “Let it Be”. The original idea was to film the writing of material for an album which would be performed and recorded at a live concert, though this didn’t materialize as intended. Let it Be was produced by Phil Spector instead of George Martin, a break with the usual routine for the group, but was not released until 1970.
“Abbey Road” was the final recording by the Beatles and the group again worked with George Martin. It is notable for the conceptual second half that features songs the segue into each other. It has a more collective and collaborative sound than the White Album or Let it Be, but the group was already beyond the point of staying together, and a break up was very near at this point.
“Something” was written by George Harrison, who by this point had matured into an excellent songwriter but was nevertheless only featured through 2 or 3 songs per album. The song features many interesting chords changes, descending bass lines, orchestral strings, and a sophisticated vocal melody. Formally, the song consists of a verse and chorus/refrain repeated multiple times with George as the solo vocalist, a dramatic bridge section of contrasting music where Paul sings a high harmony with George’s lead vocal and the orchestral strings rise dynamically, followed by a guitar solo and then a final verse where Paul sings the harmony over the original melody. (See Ch. 10 Listening Examples for a formal diagram and audio)
John Lennon quit the group in September 1969, but the decision wasn’t made public as Abbey Road was to be released days later. Paul McCartney publicly announced his own departure from the group in April 1970, a week before the release of his solo album. “Let it Be” was finally released in May 1970, becoming the final Beatles album to be released. The members all went on to have successful solo careers.
- Excerpt from the Beatles Anthology on The White Album
- “Dear Prudence” was written primarily by John Lennon. It features a descending bass line throughout, and slowly builds in intensity with the introductions of more instruments and harmonized vocals as the song goes on.
- “Yer Blues” also by John Lennon showcases a back-to-roots sound the was evocative of the Beatles early days. The song uses a form we know a lot about. Listen to the lyrical scheme and see if you can identify the form. The lyrics themselves represent the frustrated and depressed state of mind John Lennon must have been in, possibly due to the difficulties in working with the other Beatles around this time.
- “Martha My Dear” by Paul McCartney showcases yet another stylistic thread from the White Album. The song uses piano and horns throughout to accompany Paul’s voice. The band themselves only play for part of the song. A sophisticated arrangement and catchy melodies characterize this song.
- “Don’t Let Me Down” live at the Apple Rooftop concert January 1969
“Something” Formal Diagram:
Intro AB AB C *AB* AB
Intro – Short electric guitar line acting as a pickup into the verse. It also serves as the final musical statement of the song.
A (Verse) -“Something in the Way…”
B (Chorus/Refrain) -“Don’t want to leave her now…”
C (Bridge) – “Your Asking me will my love grow?”
*AB* – A variation on the verse and chorus/refrain with a guitar solo instead of vocals