The Beatles as Musical Experimentalists. (Forum on the Arts)

By Thurmaier, David | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

The Beatles as Musical Experimentalists. (Forum on the Arts)

Thurmaier, David, Phi Kappa Phi Forum

What is it about the Beatles that still fascinates and captivates many of us? Surely even the surviving Beatles were surprised when their collection of number-one hits, Beatles 1, was one of the biggest-selling albums of 2000 -- thirty years after the last song on the album was recorded! For many years, the literature about the Beatles has focused on the story of their origins, on the value of their memorabilia, and on establishing their place in music and cultural history. A few books have even highlighted the more sordid aspects of their storied career. To be sure, anyone interested in writing seriously about the Beatles must know these sources to gain an overall picture about their impact.

Until recently, only a few serious studies dealt with them as musicians. Unfortunately, most of these studies treated them too clinically, as if the essence of the Beatles' music could be distilled to a chord or pattern of notes. Fans know such musical facts as who was responsible for placing guitar feedback on "I Feel Fine" (John), who plays the Eastern-influenced guitar solo on "Taxman" (Paul), who brought Indian music to the group (George), and who took only one drum solo in all their recorded output (Ringo). However, those looking to understand the Beatles' importance as composers and performers have had to wait until the publication of some recent books that I will mention throughout this article. As both a professional musician and a serious fan, I believe that their music tells the story and explains why the Beatles have remained such an influential musical force thirty-nine years after their arrival in America.

Above all, the Beatles remained curious about all types of music, and they continually reinvented their own music by injecting it with fresh influences from multiple cultures. This experimentation adds a dimension to their work that separates it from their contemporaries' music. In the second volume of his book The Beatles as Musicians, Walter Everett explains that "rock musicians' interest in Indian sounds multiplied rapidly" after George Harrison introduced the Indian sitar to the song "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)." Also, the string quartet on 1965's "Yesterday" would make its way into the music of other groups around the same time. This exchange of musical innovations worked both ways; for example, the Beatles were able to take elements from Bob Dylan's music and meld them into their own. Their relentless experimentation and questing for the "new" is one strong element that makes the Beatles' music attractive and rewarding for study and enjoyment.

To offer some concrete examples of musical experimentation and innovation, I will focus on two songs from perhaps the most famous Beatles album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Before doing so, it is useful to consider their single that was recorded and released in February 1967, immediately before Sgt. Pepper, "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane," to gain a more complete picture of these advances. For example, "Penny Lane" contains a prominent piccolo trumpet inspired by a performance of Bach's second Brandenburg Concerto, which Paul McCartney first heard on television. "Strawberry Fields Forever" was even more innovative in its scope. What began as a wistful song played only on the guitar (as heard on 1996's Beatles Anthology 3) turned into a highly polished and orchestrated song. Especially noteworthy was the display of studio wizardry by producer George Martin to unify two separate performances, each in different keys. The use of cellos and a peculiar keyboard instrument called the Mellotro n add a mysterious quality to the song. Some of these sounds and techniques would make their way onto Sgt. Pepper.

Sgt. Pepper was released at the height of the "Summer of Love" on June 1, 1967, and received widespread acclaim. Critics remarked about the unique album cover, replete with members of the "Lonely Hearts Club Band" (including such notables as Marlon Brando, Bob Dylan, Albert Einstein, and Marilyn Monroe). …

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