The Beatles Musical style and evolution
In Icons of Rock: An Encyclopedia of the Legends Who Changed Music Forever, Schinder and Schwartz sum up The Beatles’ musical evolution in these words:
In their initial incarnation as cheerful, wisecracking moptops, the Fab Four revolutionized the sound, style, and attitude of popular music and opened rock and roll’s doors to a tidal wave of British rock acts. Their initial impact would have been enough to establish the Beatles as one of their era’s most influential cultural forces, but they didn’t stop there. Although their initial style was a highly original, irresistibly catchy synthesis of early American rock and roll and R&B, the Beatles spent the rest of the 1960s expanding rock’s stylistic frontiers, consistently staking out new musical territory on each release. The band’s increasingly sophisticated experimentation encompassed a variety of genres, including folk-rock, country, psychedelia, and baroque pop, without sacrificing the effortless mass appeal of their early work.
In his book The Beatles as Musicians, Walter Everett points out Lennon and McCartney’s contrasting motivations and approaches to composition, saying, “McCartney may be said to have constantly developed—as a means to entertain—a focused musical talent with an ear for counterpoint and other aspects of craft in the demonstration of a universally agreed-upon common language that he did much to enrich. Conversely, Lennon’s mature music is best appreciated as the daring product of a largely unconscious, searching but undisciplined artistic sensibility.” Ian MacDonald’s comparison of the two composers in Revolution in the Head describes McCartney as “a natural melodicist — a creator of tunes capable of existing apart from their harmony”. His melody lines are characterised as primarily “vertical”, employing wide, consonant intervals which express his “extrovert energy and optimism”. Conversely, Lennon’s “sedentary, ironic personality” is reflected in a “horizontal” approach featuring minimal, dissonant intervals and repetitive melodies which rely on their harmonic accompaniment for interest: “Basically a realist, he instinctively kept his melodies close to the rhythms and cadences of speech, colouring his lyrics with bluesy tone and harmony rather than creating tunes that made striking shapes of their own.”
The band’s earliest influences include Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry, an artist whose songs they covered more often than any other in performances throughout their career. During their co-residency with Little Richard at the Star Club in Hamburg from April to May 1962, friendships were formed and the singer gave advice regarding techniques for performing his songs. Of Presley, Lennon said, “Nothing really affected me until I heard Elvis. If there hadn’t been Elvis, there would not have been The Beatles”: Other early influences include Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison. The Beatles continued to absorb influences long after their initial success, often finding new musical and lyrical avenues by listening to their contemporaries, including Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa (Freak Out!), the Byrds, and the Beach Boys, whose album Pet Sounds amazed and inspired McCartney. Martin stated that “Without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper wouldn’t have happened… Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds.”
Originating as a skiffle group, the band soon evolved to embrace 1950s rock and roll. As rock and roll faded and Tin Pan Alley’s influence resurfaced in the 1960s, the band’s repertoire expanded to include pop. Demonstrating other styles explored by the group, Lennon said of the 1964 album Beatles for Sale, “You could call our new one a Beatles country-and-western LP”, while Allmusic cite The Beatles as a major influence on The Byrds and the folk rock movement, calling the 1965 Rubber Soul “one of the classic folk-rock records”. Beginning with the use of a string quartet in the 1965 romantic ballad “Yesterday”, they started to incorporate elements of classical music into their songs. As Gould points out however, “it was obviously not the first romantic ballad the Beatles ever recorded … Neither was ‘Yesterday’ even remotely the first pop record to make prominent use of strings—although it was the first Beatles recording to do so … ‘Yesterday’ did not represent some sort of a compositional quantum leap on the part of the Beatles; it was rather that the more traditional sound of strings allowed for a fresh appreciation of their talent as composers by listeners who were otherwise allergic to the din of drums and electric guitars.” Nor can Beatles songs featuring strings be grouped into a single musical genre. Gould says that “The significant musical difference between ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘She’s Leaving Home’ involves the fact that whereas the earlier track was a true hybrid, conforming to no recognizable style or genre of song, ‘She’s Leaving Home’ is cast in the mold of a sentimental Victorian ballad, its words and music filled with the clichés of musical melodrama.”
The band’s stylistic range began to include psychedelic rock in 1966 with “Rain”, described by Martin Strong in The Great Rock Discography as “the first overtly psychedelic Beatles record”, and later followed by “Tomorrow Never Knows”, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I Am the Walrus”. The influence of Indian classical music was also evident in the band’s raga rock numbers such as “Love You To” (1966) and “Within You Without You” (1967), the intent of which was, according to Gould, “to replicate the raga form in miniature”. In his own summary of the band’s musical evolution, writer and pianist Michael Campbell identifies innovation as its most striking feature, concluding, “‘A Day in the Life’ encapsulates the art and achievement of the Beatles as well as any single track can. It highlights key features of their music: the sound imagination, the persistence of tuneful melody, and the close coordination between words and music. It represents a new category of song—more sophisticated than pop, more accessible and down to earth than pop, and uniquely innovative. There literally had never before been a song—classical or vernacular—that had blended so many disparate elements so imaginatively.” Bruce Ellis Benson agrees, saying in his The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue: A Phenomenology of Music, “Composers may be able to conceive new rhythms and chord progressions, but these are usually improvisations upon current rhythms and chord progressions. The Beatles … give us a wonderful example of how such far-ranging influences as Celtic music, rhythm and blues, and country and western could be put together in a new way.”
In The Songwriting Secrets of The Beatles, Dominic Pedler too draws attention to the way The Beatles combined genres, but emphasizes the effect it had on their musical evolution, saying, “One of the greatest of The Beatles’ achievements was the songwriting juggling act they managed for most of their career. Far from moving sequentially from one genre to another (as is sometimes conveniently suggested) the group maintained in parallel their mastery of the traditional, catchy chart hit while simultaneously forging rock and dabbling with a wide range of peripheral influences from Country to vaudeville. One of these threads was their take on folk music, which would form such essential groundwork for their later collisions with Indian music and philosophy.” As the relationship of the band waned, their individual influences became more apparent. The minimalistic cover artwork for The Beatles (1968) contrasted with the complexity and diversity of the album’s music, which encompassed Lennon’s musique concrète composition “Revolution 9” from the influence of Yoko Ono, Starr’s country song “Don’t Pass Me By”, Harrison’s rock ballad “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and the “roaring proto-metal” of McCartney’s “Helter Skelter”.
Contribution of George Martin
George Martin’s close involvement with The Beatles in his role as producer earned him the moniker “the fifth Beatle”. He realized the significance of the band’s sessions in the recording studio in between other demands on their time, later saying, “Coming into the studio was a refuge for them. It was the time and place when nobody could get at them. The strange hours for their sessions were really necessary because of the frenetic life they were forced into. Recording was important but it had to be squeezed in between everything else.” As he worked with the band, Martin brought his classical musical training to bear. They were initially unenthusiastic when he suggested adding a string quartet accompaniment to “Yesterday”, but the result was a revelation to them. Martin began to use the sessions to act as their music teacher and this, coupled with his willingness to experiment with suggestions they started to make such as adding “something baroque”, enabled their creativity to develop in new directions. As well as scoring orchestral arrangements for Beatles recordings, Martin was frequently numbered among the performers, playing instruments including piano, organ and brass.
Looking back on the making of Sgt. Pepper, Martin said, “‘Sergeant Pepper'” itself didn’t appear until halfway through making the album. It was Paul’s song, just an ordinary rock number and not particularly brilliant as songs go … Paul said, ‘Why don’t we make the album as though the Pepper band really existed, as though Sergeant Pepper was making the record? We’ll dub in effects and things.’ I loved the idea, and from that moment on it was as though Pepper had a life of its own.” Recalling how strongly the song contrasted with Lennon’s compositions, Martin spoke too of his own stabilizing influence:
Compared with Paul’s songs, all of which seemed to keep in some sort of touch with reality, John’s had a psychedelic, almost mystical quality … John’s imagery is one of the best things about his work—”tangerine trees”, “marmalade skies”, “cellophane flowers” … I always saw him as an aural Salvador Dalí, rather than some drug-ridden record artist. On the other hand, I would be stupid to pretend that drugs didn’t figure quite heavily in The Beatles’ lives at that time. At the same time they knew that I, in my schoolmasterly role, didn’t approve … Not only was I not into it myself, I couldn’t see the need for it; and there’s no doubt that, if I too had been on dope, Pepper would never have been the album it was.
In his own recollections, Harrison echoed Martin’s description of his stabilizing role, saying, “I think we just grew through those years together, him as the straight man and us as the loonies; but he was always there for us to interpret our madness—we used to be slightly avant-garde on certain days of the week, and he would be there as the anchor person, to communicate that through the engineers and on to the tape.”
In the studio
The Beatles took innovative approaches to the use of technology, treating the studio as an instrument in itself and working closely with recording engineers, urging experimentation and regularly demanding, “Just try it […] it might just sound good.” At the same time they constantly sought ways to put chance occurrences to creative use, examples being accidental guitar feedback, a resonating glass bottle or a tape loaded the wrong way round so that it played backwards, and incorporated the resulting sounds into their music. The Beatles’ desire to create new sounds on every new recording, combined with Martin’s arranging abilities and the studio expertise of EMI staff engineers such as Norman Smith, Ken Townsend and Geoff Emerick, all played significant parts in the innovative sounds of the albums Rubber Soul (1965), Revolver (1966) and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). Along with studio tricks such as sound effects, unconventional microphone placements, tape loops, double tracking and vari-speed recording, The Beatles began to augment their recordings with instruments that were unconventional for rock music at the time. These included string and brass ensembles as well as Indian instruments such as the sitar in “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” and the swarmandel in “Strawberry Fields Forever”. They also used early electronic instruments such as the Mellotron, with which McCartney supplied the flute voices on the intro to “Strawberry Fields Forever”, and the clavioline, an electronic keyboard that created the unusual oboe-like sound on “Baby, You’re a Rich Man”.