Today is April 19, the day that ‘Around the Beatles’ was aired. To mark this prestigious occasion (Oh just a little prestigious? Oh please?) we explore the exploits of four stoned hippies who expanded what could be done and used in the studio. (On the upside i learned that ‘prostigious’ isn’t a word)
-Experimentation in the studio
In my opinion the most famous thing about The Beatles (besides the mop tops) was their versatility. It’s very easy to see a progression from album to album as John, Paul, George and even Ringo were changing and developing over time. They were improving as song writers, experimenting with technology and bringing new tastes and sounds into the studio.
Early on in The Beatles history it is incredibly hard to find a song that doesn’t include the word love, girl, baby or her in the title, or find a song that wasn’t about a girl, having relations with a girl, touching a girl (mind gutter out), desiring a girl, being spurned by a girl or no longer wanting a girl. Their first 4 albums basically included the same elements; good clean rock and roll, the aforementioned lyrics about a girl in some capacity, 1 or 2 classic rock and roll covers, a song or 2 written by George and Ringo gets given a song to sing (because Ringo must sing on every record for some reason). Then Help and Rubber Soul rolled around.
The first time The Beatles experimented with technology came in 1964 during the recording of ‘I Feel Fine’. After the recording of ‘Beatles for Sale’, Lennon had written a song called ‘I Feel Fine’ and when plugging in his guitar he accidentally stumbled on feedback, which resulted from holding the guitar too close too the amp. Essentially this means that the catalyst for The Beatles experimentation was an accident (C’est la vie). However they waited 2 years before they experimented in that manner again.
Instead experimentation came in another form, and this was moving beyond conventional pop music, both in terms of song styles and lyrics. In the first album of 1965 ‘Help’ they started to experiment with styles like ‘folk’. You can hear it in the Dylanesque ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ and ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face’. They also released their first ballad ‘Yesterday’ (which is the most covered song of all time), and included a string quartet (previously the only extra instruments included in recordings was piano, Hammond organ and various percussion instruments).
1965 was a turnaround year for The Beatles, in some ways even more than 1966 when they quit touring. 1965 was the year that The Beatles really started to grow as songwriters, the truest teller of this is the album that followed ‘Help’ in that year, ‘Rubber Soul’. While ‘Help’ had been a step in the right direction it still followed the same formula of; 14 songs, most of them about a girl, a couple of George Harrison compositions, a song for Ringo and a rock and roll cover. ‘Rubber Soul’ was a different animal entirely. While the majority of songs were still about relations with a female they were written in a more mature way. Previously they had written songs like ‘If I Fell’, ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ and ‘Love Me Do’, exploring very simple themes like being attracted to someone and minor facets of being around them; like being around them, keeping them around or keeping them away from anyone else (not in a creepy way), songs from ‘Rubber Soul’ included songs about devotion (Michelle), rejection (You Won’t See Me, Girl),rejecting temptation (Norwegian Wood) and even love in abstract terms (The Word, In My Life). ‘Rubber Soul’ also featured their first quasi-philosophical songs like ‘Nowhere Man’ (an introspective look inside of the writer John Lennon) and ‘Think for Yourself’ (a warning about being deceived). It was also the first time George introduced his love Indian music into a Beatles song (the sitar in Norwegian Wood).
Of course at this point The Beatles weren’t just experimenting musically. As mentioned above, there was a song on ‘Help!’ that was Dylanesque. That was no coincidence as in 1964 they had met Bob Dylan, who was a great inspiration to them. He also introduced them to marijuana, which besides arguments to the contrary in this case was a gateway drug. To be honest this is not 100% the case, any Beatles fan (particularly of their more psychedelic music) knows that The Beatles also dabbled quite extensively in LSD, however this was ultimately by accident as Lennon and Harrison (the first members to try it) had it slipped into their coffee at a dinner party in 1965 (talk about being slipped a Jimmy), luckily they enjoyed the experience enough to not be annoyed that they had been drugged, and introduced the other members to the drug (however McCartney didn’t try it until 66).
A lot of people attribute this drug use to the changes in Beatles music and creativity, and what better evidence of that is their next album ‘Revolver’. This is when their interest in experimenting with sounds and technology had returned. The frequently used backwards guitar (I’m Only Sleeping, Tomorrow Never Knows), double tracking vocals (Eleanor Rigby, I Want To Tell You), sound effects (Yellow Submarine), layered guitar (And Your Bird Can Sing, Docter Robert) and experimenting with different instruments (Sitar in ‘Love You To’, harmonium in ‘Doctor Robert’, strings in ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and horns in “Got To Get You Into My Life’).
The band didn’t just get creative with sound but also lyrics, no longer were they a band writing pop songs about girls, instead they wrote about their experiences or about what they thought about people or organizations. Harrison wrote Taxman, the first protest song of the group, which complained about how high taxes were in the 1960s, McCartney wrote 2 heart wrenching ballads, ‘Eleanor Rigby’ about 2 people shrouded in loneliness who find each other just too late (who else analyzed it as a poem in English class in high school?) and ‘For No One’ about a love that has gone stale, one person who wants to save the relationship and another who is going through the motions, Lennon wrote the majority of the psychedelic fare with ‘She Said She Said’ which was about a story about a near death experience told to the band by Peter Fonda during and acid trip, ‘Doctor Robert’ a song which is subject to contradictory reports, however a running theme through all the theories is that there was a man called Doctor Robert who gave them drugs, and of course ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ which is probably the trippiest song ever written by The Beatles, inspired by The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which included lyrics “Turn off your mind relax and float down stream.” and my personal favourite “listen to the colour of your dreams.” Ringo of course was just happy to be there, he was given a song about a Yellow Submarine to sing.
As stated above 1966 was the year The Beatles stopped touring, which was of little surprise considering that Revolver was full of songs that could not be played live, and weren’t played live (to my knowledge only ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ was ever played live). The Beatles seemed to like the idea of creating songs in the studio that could not be played live as they went into Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.
They specifically created songs that could not be re-created live. They also took the idea of psychedelia and ran with it, however they combined ‘flower power’ into their psychedelia, and while before it was grey and technical, now it was colourful and creative.
While Revolver had been an album of trying things out, Sgt Pepper was The Beatles taking what they’d tried in Revolver and implementing it in new and creative ways. They used distortion in the title track ‘Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.’. In ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ they used lead guitar through a Leslie speaker (which modifies the sound of the guitar), as well as the tamboura (good old George and his Indian instruments) and organs. They also continued their use of double tracking with double tracked vocals in ‘She’s Leaving Home’, ‘Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite’,’Good Morning Good Morning’ and ‘Getting Better’, and double tracked vocal and guitar in ‘Fixing A Hole’.
Sgt Pepper also saw the increase in the use of session musicians, there were french horns in ‘Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’, strings and harp in ‘She’s Leaving Home’, an assortment of Indian instruments, 8 violins and 4 cellos in ‘Within You Without You’, Clarinet in ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’, Saxophone in ‘Good Morning Good Morning’ and of course the full orchestra in ‘Day in the Life’ that was there to create a wall of noise (and succeeded). The Beatles also played a greater variety of instruments. George of course brought in his sitar and tamboura, while Paul and John used a variety of pianos and organs and Ringo had a whole range of percussion to play with. There was also a greater use of sound effects and hand claps, they even brought in kazoos (what a novelty!).
Their lyrics also carried the same level of sophistication as before, especially with a concept to adhere to, although this was no adhered to for long and only 3 songs on the album could be considered as part of the narrative of the album, the intro ‘Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’ which introduces the band and then brings on the star Billy Shears (Ringo) in ‘A Little Help From My Friends’ and finally the outro that leads into ‘Day In A Life’ (the last track on the album) ‘Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band Reprise’, which was inspired by their time on stage, where they would say goodbye to the crowd and play one last song.
While Beatles like Lennon consider the other tracks as songs that “could be on any other album.”, I have another interpretation. Sgt Peppers isn’t a show with one band but a variety show. The songs were different enough in style to be different performances, perhaps with Billy Shears as a compere and Sgt Peppers as the backing band. Alternatively the band playing is Sgt Peppers but beyond the first 2 songs they need no further narration until the reprise when they once again directly talk to the audience and play one more song.
In terms of lyrical content, there was an ongoing pattern from Revolver. McCartney once again wrote a heart wrenching ballad ‘She’s Leaving Home’ about a girl leaving her boring suburban life (and putting her parents through hell i might add), it occurs to me that if you wanted to add an extra depressing element you should listen to ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ afterwards. McCartney also wrote his first ‘novelty songs’ that he would continue to write throughout his time in The Beatles, he wrote 2 playful pops songs ‘When I’m 64’, a sweet ditty about having someone to look after and be looked after by when you are old, and ‘Lovely Rita’, about his joy about getting a parking ticket (i suppose it made him feel a little more normal, in an interview with the BBC in 1964 he had said that the thing he misses about normal life was ‘riding the bus’). He also wrote two rock songs, ‘Fixing a Hole’ was written in the ‘baroque pop’ style of music (which he had previously used for ‘Yesterday’) and was about his fear of there being a hole in his home which crazed fans could get through, the other was ‘Getting Better’ which had Jazz influences, this was a collaborative effort between Lennon and McCartney, it was a song of improvement from the perspective of a person who had done wrong, it was a fusion of Lennon’s pessimism and McCartney’s optimism with McCartney’s lines in the chorus being “A little better all the time.” and Lennon’s “Can’t get no worse.”.
Lennon continued writing the more Psychedelic fare. He wrote ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ (which was probably about LSD), a song heavy with imagery and metaphor, lyrics like “follow her down to a bridge by a fountain, where rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies” that display a walk in a fantasy land and evoke a feeling of pleasantness (or an acid trip, just sayin). ‘Good Morning Good Morning’ was inspired by a Kelloggs advert and seems to convey a average day in suburbia through the eyes of a man in his young 20s, through the words it displays how both hectic, tedious and lonely this day is as this man goes to work, takes a walk before going home to dinner and television alone, he then goes to town and flirts with young girls before watching a show and hoping the girl he desires goes too. ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’ is about a circus that gets more an more ludicrous as it goes from Mr Kite jumping over all manner of things “men and horse, hoops and garters.
Lastly from a hogshead of real fire”, a horse dances “Henry the horse dances the waltz” and finally Mr Kite defies physics and “ten somersaults he’ll undertake, on solid ground. The last John Lennon written song on the album is in ‘Day in the Life’ (which happens to be my favourite song on the album), this Lennon-McCartney collaboration is actually a mixture of two songs with Lennon’s sections being about a number of articles of a newspaper, a car accident by “a lucky man who made the grade” and a film review about a movie where “the English army won the war”, the song then leads into an interlude where we turn our attention to the perspective of a working man (presumably in London) who gets up and gets the bus, we then return to the newspaper with a nonsensical story about “4000 holes of Blackburn, Lancashire.” (presumably pot holes that the council had failed to fill) and “how many holes it takes to fill the Albert hall.”
Harrison’s contribution to the album is another song influenced by Indian music, the song is about the space between people and that prevents peace and love. Not gonna lie of all the songs on the album, this is the most ‘flower power’, particularly because it requires me to use the words ‘peace’ and ‘love’ while describing it. Essentially it’s about how deception and lack of transparency prevents people from different places (physically or spiritually) from getting close and having “love we all could share.”, it also talking about ‘the man’, men who have “gain the world and lose their souls.” Ringo as stated above is given a song to sing, this time he gets a staring role! Billy Shears!
These techniques were continued to be used throughout the remainder of their psychedelic period (which had essentially finished at the end of 1967), their last album for that period was the soundtrack for the flop ‘Magical Mystery Tour’. This album featured the obscure lyrics of “I am the Walrus.” (written specifically to sound meaningful but have no meaning), ‘Blue Jay Way’ which sounds like a pleasant wail and it sounds like an Indian song with a Hammond organ instead of a sitar, the folk sounding ‘Fool on the Hill’ which was a song laden with metaphor and a great range of wind instruments,
‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ a classic psychedelic track by Lennon fully capturing the childhood wonder of exploring the garden of a children’s home while creating a trippy experience at the same time and of course there was ‘Flying’, an instrumental that most likely inspired many progressive rock tracks in the future, the pleasant sounds of the guitar strums working perfectly with the sharp sound of the organ and mellotron before leading into the dreamy vocals of “la lala la la.” which finishes with backwards sounds effects, creating a thoroughly psychedelic experience (I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be in anyone’s top 10 ‘trippy songs’ to be honest). This however was to be the last album that forms part of their experimental phase.
In 1968 The Beatles returned with a plethora of songs written from their time with the Maharishi, 30 of these songs would become the white album, however this time they didn’t go into the studio as the four happy go lucky likely lads, but four individuals with different tastes and inspirations. They were now experienced musicians who were fully aware of what did what in the studio with no need to experiment, instead trying songs they had written in various styles and seeing how they turned out on playback. McCartney was eager to keep with pop trends writing mostly Rock and Roll (albeit with a hardened sound) or ballads, with 4 exceptions, ‘Honey Pie’ a dance hall jazz song, ‘Rocky Raccoon’ an old western country song, ‘Ob La Di Ob La Da’ a song inspired by the reggae and ska movement that had arose at the time and ‘Wild Honey Pie’ an avant-garde song which is 52 seconds of someone singing “Honey Pie” and strumming a guitar (I don’t like it that much).
Lennon provided the majority of artistic tracks, the most famous being ‘Revolution 9’ which is essentially 8 minutes of noise (or art apparently), many of Lennon’s lyrics were laden with avant-garde metaphor and imagery like ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’ (very Freudian there) and ‘Glass Onion’ which was packed with references to The Beatles earlier career. He also contributed ballads (Julia, Cry Baby Cry) and a couple of rock and roll tracks (Yer Blues, Everybody’s got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey).
Harrison had 4 songs accepted into the album. A folk song ‘Long Long Long’, a soul infused rock and roll song ‘Savoy Truffle’ (about Eric Clapton’s chocolate addiction, not even kidding), a ‘baroque pop’ song written as a satire of the upper classes called ‘Piggies’ and ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ in my opinion the best ballad written by a beatle and quite possibly the best ballad ever written. Ringo got 2 songs to sing! He even wrote one himself, the country song ‘Don’t Pass Me By’, and was given Goodnight to sing at the end of the album.
The White Album would be the last time The Beatles experimented in the studio, there next album that was recorded ‘Let It Be’ returned them to their rock and roll roots. The album was a collection of bluesy rock tracks and pop ballads (most likely as they had intended to play the album live, and in fact did once on top of Abbey Road studio). ‘Abbey Road’ (last to be recorded but second to last released) was similar, featuring mostly rock and pop songs, ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ (McCartney’s obligatory music hall song) and the psychedelic sounding ‘Sun King’ and ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ (unsurprisingly written by Lennon).
The Beatles had a long development which can be tracked from album to album, starting from 1965 where they matured as artists, to 1966 when they quit touring to put more time into the studio, to 1967 when they perfected studio techniques, to 1968 when they began to branch out to their own interests and as separate artists, to finally in 1969 when in an unsuccessful attempt to stay together they returned to their roots. There are a number of artists who can thank The Beatles for the work they did in the studio, particularly progressive rock bands.