January 03, 2022
Director Peter Jackson’s recently released documentary series, The Beatles: Get Back, has prompted debate around the Fab Four’s legacy as pioneers of popular music.
Fifty-two years following the Beatles’ breakup, it’s worth examining what made their vocal harmonies and arrangements so innovative and enduring. But understanding the Beatles requires context; it requires understanding the era in which they bloomed.
Still reeling from the Second World War, the U.K. in the 1950s was draped with a dreary aura that permeated most facets of life and culture. While war-time rationing persisted and unemployment soared, rock-and-roll was still inchoate. In its primal state, pop music was channeled by such American artists as Buddy Holly, Elvis, and Check Berry; in Britain, reams of angsty teenagers still looked for a cultural unifier.
It was on Oct. 5, 1962, that “Love Me Do,” the Beatles’ first single, blared out of radio stations across Britain. It wasn’t just the hooky harmonica riff and supple harmonies that sowed the seeds of Beatlemania and the British Invasion. With their debut single, the Beatles vehemently fought their record label, insisting they introduce themselves to British airwaves with an original song, rather than through the standard practice at the time: recording a cover of an already popular track.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney continued to hone their songwriting while shunning formal music education. They feared it would stunt their creativity. Instead, they experimented with unorthodox chord progressions and scales, eschewing preconceptions about which chords “should” follow which, swapping minor chords in place of majors, and so forth.
They were so engrossed in the results of their spontaneity that they would take up new instruments once guitars grew stale. In his 1994 book, Revolution in the Head, music critic Ian MacDonald noted that Lennon admitted to first composing on the piano purely due to his inexperience with the instrument — “so I surprise myself,” he explained.
Within two years, the Beatles had released their third album of original material, A Hard Day’s Night; had scored their first American number-one; and were the most popular band on the planet. Their influence had also begun to spread to their contemporaries. Enthralled by the Lennon/McCartney writing duo, the Rolling Stones’ manager insisted to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards that they too learn the craft and move away from recording blues standards.
As the Beatles continued to write and record, they assembled an eclectic discography that few artists can contend with. With the help of George Martin, they didn’t just record interesting songs, but in an era where singles still reigned supreme, they fashioned cohesive albums. The popularization of the 40-minute album is among the Beatles’ most long-standing achievements.
Throughout their recording career, the Beatles were never adapting to a changing musical landscape; they were part of the tour de force that was inventing it as they went along. Their music fused everything from Bach to the blues, to psychedelic trances, Indian classical music, and avant-garde experimentations.
The Beatles helped originate and inspire countless new genres and offshoots of rock music. Hard rock, for example, can be traced back to their take on “Twist and Shout,” or “Hard Day’s Night.” Art rock hearkens back to “Tomorrow Never Knows” (that Lennon and McCartney wrote and recorded this arrangement a paltry four years after the comparatively glib “Love Me Do” is perhaps the best example of their artistic growth).
Critics often compare the Beatles to their American contemporaries, the Beach Boys. But while the vocal surf progenitors were largely propelled by Brian Wilson, the Beatles’ output contained contributions from all four members of the band. While Ringo Starr’s reserved and consistent drumming was paramount to the band’s sound, guitarist George Harrison was responsible for some of the band’s highest achievements (“Something,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Here Comes the Sun”).
Leonard Bernstein, in his final interview with Rolling Stone magazine, lauded the Beatles as the best songwriters since George Gershwin, adding that “they were our age’s Franz Schubert.”
Today, a half-century after their breakup, there is yet no clear contender for our generation’s Beatles. Presiding over a career lasting less than a decade, the Liverpool troupe enshrined a legacy in the apogee of pop music that will last for generations.
Originally Published at The Washington Examiner