1963 – 1969

The Beatles

Track analysis for “Rain

The Beatles were to rock music what Louis Armstrong was to jazz. Both artists began by studying and thoroughly assimilating artists that had come before. By doing so, they essentially created their respective art forms, by combining what had previously been isolated characteristics of individual artists into cohesive approaches to music. And they both went on to symbolize and advance their respective art forms, having such monumental influences that it would be impossible for any later artists to be untouched by their work.

The Beatles began by studying a broad set of musical influences, including early Rock and Roll, Blues, Rhythm & Blues, Country & Western, girl groups, Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, and Broadway show tunes. They went on to exemplify and solidify all of the aesthetic elements of rock music discussed in this book.

First on the list of The Beatles’ many talents were the songwriting skills of Lennon and McCartney. Unlike most of their contemporaries, they were not content to simply throw three chords together and cobble together a melody. They took the songwriting craft very seriously, and as a result, their compositions were often covered by other recording artists, in vocal and instrumental forms. Their songs were varied, with each effort standing on its own as a unique achievement.

Next on the list of their gifts were their voices. John and Paul both had wonderful singing voices: expressive, controlled, flexible and attractive. But all four of them could sing to some degree, and their harmonies and multi-layered vocals were hallmarks of their style. Again, as with their compositions, the uses they made of their vocals were many and varied, with differing arrangements on every song.

The Beatles also had a seminal bonding between the group’s members. As Ringo recalls:

There were some really loving, caring moments between four people: a hotel room here and there — a really amazing closeness. Just four guys who really loved each other. (Beatles 2000)

This closeness had practical benefits for their art. It allowed them to work together intimately, stepping outside of their roles as individual songwriters, singers and musicians, to come together as a cohesive whole.

Perhaps their strongest talent, especially in the context of a rock aesthetic, was their ability to find the perfect expression of each song in the studio. While many rock groups took a loose, bluesy, improvisational approach to their music, the Beatles took a more formal, structured approach to their recordings. Every element of a track was worked out to perfectly blend with and complement the other elements of the song. In this sense they were like painters. Every sound on a track was like a brush stroke placed on canvas by a master: existing for its own sake, but also for its relationship to all the other components of the work, ultimately achieving a perfectly balanced whole. The Beatles were probably the rock group that best captured the spatial nature of rock music, its existence in two dimensions: length and depth. Every musical element was perfectly formed and positioned as part of this two-dimensional landscape. As Paul McCartney commented in a recent interview, after re-listening to the Beatles hits that made up the 1 compilation: “The main thing I thought as a craftsman was how well structured the songs were — that there was nothing that shouldn’t have been on them, and you couldn’t have put one extra thing on.” (McCartney 2001) (McCartney 2001)

The easiest way to understand this element of their art is to listen to practically any recording of a Lennon and McCartney tune recorded by someone else, and then compare it to the original recording released by The Beatles. Other recordings retain the beauty of the original compositions, yet no matter how well intentioned, sound flat by comparison. This is because they are missing an entire dimension of the original recording: the drumming, the bass patterns, the rhythm guitar, the vocal arrangements. For The Beatles, these other elements were not mere window dressing, not just ornamentation added to the underlying composition — these were essential elements of their art. In this regard, Ringo and George, while not prolific songwriters or frequent singers, were essential to The Beatles’ music. Both were versatile musicians in that they were able to play in whatever style best supported the material being recorded, subsuming their personal styles into the demands of the work at hand. At the same time, they both had keen abilities to add something unique and wonderful to each song, adding to and complementing the other musical elements.

Another element that contributed to the Beatles’ music was their awareness of a broader expanse of artistic endeavor. John had gone to art school, and produced writings and drawings. The Beatles often attracted, and hung out with, artists and students. As Paul indicates below, art was part of who they were.

We were always slightly studenty. We used to make fun of the other bands who weren’t. I received a poetry book once, in Hamburg: Yevtushenko. A girlfriend sent it to me.... The point was that we had a book of poetry; it was part of our equipment. It was part and parcel of what we all liked — art. (Beatles 2000)

Finally, what also separated The Beatles from many of their lesser contemporaries was a relentless desire for discovery and experimentation. They were never content to stop at a particular plateau and set up camp — as soon as they had explored a new territory, they were ready to push on to something new. They were the Lewis and Clark of rock music, forever wanting to find new frontiers.

Having heaped all this praise on the Fab Four, I need to also point out a few of their limitations. First, their lyrics were neither deep nor subtle. As lyricists, they were skilled artisans, but lacked inspiration. Yet this was not a critical failing in the context of their other artistic ambitions. More than perhaps any other serious rock artist, their message was in their music. If their lyrics were mostly just endless variations on the ups and downs of love, then this was because the underlying theme of their music was the importance of attraction, of strong positive feelings, of love in the broadest sense. This theme was visible in their relationships to each other, to their fans, and to their music.

Another limitation was their lack of any real feel for jazz, or for instrumental virtuosity in general. As they progressed beyond simple rock and roll, they became increasingly dependent on George Martin, their producer, and classically trained musicians orchestrated by Martin, to augment their musical palette. Yet again this was not a critical limitation, given the nature of their aesthetic goals. While in other groups an instrumental solo might be valued on its own merits, as an interesting, unusual or talented musical display, within the context of The Beatles each musical part had value only for its relationship to the whole, as part of the larger artistic effort. And for this purpose, the musical talents of The Beatles were more than adequate.

The evolution of The Beatles’ recorded output from 1963 to 1969 not only gave focus and meaning to this particular group’s musical efforts, but to all of rock music. Because of their unequaled commercial, cultural and aesthetic stature, they were able to act as leaders for the rock community during their recording career. While this evolution resulted in distinct differences between recordings produced at different phases of their career, each phase has its own virtues, and almost all of their recorded work is worth repeated listening.

It should be noted that British record releases during the Beatles’ career were often different from their American releases in terms of how the tracks were packaged into records. On the British releases, the Beatles’ music was released on a combination of singles, EPs and LPs, with little to no duplication. In contrast, the American releases included no EPs, and tracks released as singles were generally included in albums as well. When the Beatles’ catalog was released on CD, the British packaging was used as the model, since this was the truest to the group’s original intentions.

Recommended CDs

Album Title: Past Masters Vol. 2

Original Release Date: 1988

Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)

A collection of their later singles. See above for an overall description of the Past Masters volumes.

 

Album Title: Past Masters Vol. 1

Original Release Date: 1988

Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)

The two Past Masters volumes collect all their original British singles into two CDs, organized chronologically. Since the album CDs follow the original British packaging model, the Past Masters tracks are not duplicated on the other albums as released on CD.

While not strictly intended as “greatest hits” compilations, these two volumes contain many of their most popular songs, and are consistently first-rate efforts.

 

Album Title: 1

Original Release Date: 2000

Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)

This latest Beatles compilation is named 1 because it contains all of the Beatles singles that hit the top of the charts (depending, of course, on how you count: “Love Me Do” is included, even though it didn’t make number 1 on its original release, but did on its rerelease in 1982; “Please Please Me” is not included, even though it hit number 1 on several charts, because it never made it to the top position on the Record Retailer list).

What the title also means, though, is that this is the Beatles album to buy if you insist on buying only 1. This is a generous collection (almost 80 minutes) of indisputably top-notch rock music, although there are better choices if you want a richer selection of the group’s material.

 

Album Title: Please Please Me

Original Release Date: 1963

Rating: 4 Stars (Recommended)

This is The Beatles’ first album, recorded in a single marathon 24-hour session in the studio. If Lennon’s vocal on “Twist and Shout” sounds a bit strained, then this is not mere affectation, but the natural result of George Martin intentionally leaving this song to be recorded last. This album contains a mixture of great cover versions and Beatles originals. The Beatles’ live act originally became popular based on the success of their cover versions, and you can hear why on these early albums: the selections of songs are impeccable and eclectic, and The Beatles demonstrate a thorough mastery of their early influences while at the same time adding their own stylistic touches.

 

Album Title: With the Beatles

Original Release Date: 1964

Rating: 4 Stars (Recommended)

Although only about half of this album is original material, and that half excludes their biggest early hits, this is still a wonderful collection. The cover versions here are terrific: “Please Mister Postman,” “Roll over Beethoven,” “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” and “Money” are all great songs and great recordings, as well as invaluable for tracing the early influences on The Beatles. The covered songs were all staples in their live shows of the time, and show just how good a band The Beatles were, even before they began writing and recording their own material. The self-penned tunes are also good and varied.

 

Album Title: Hard Day's Night

Original Release Date: 1964

Rating: 4 Stars (Recommended)

This is their first album on which all the songs were penned by The Beatles. This is also the first album on which the songs begin to sound like more than hasty recordings of their live performances (as good as those were). Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting skills were beginning to mature by this time.

 

Album Title: Beatles for Sale

Original Release Date: 1964

Rating: 3 Stars (Worthy)

Apparently this album was thrown together quickly in order to get something out in time for the 1964 Christmas season. As a result, it is not as strong as some of their other efforts. There are quite a few covers here, and not all of them are particularly winning. There is more of a Country and Western influence here than on most of their other albums. Still, “I’ll Follow The Sun” and the cover of Buddy Holly’s song “Words Of Love” are absolutely great, many of the other tracks are good, and there is nothing here that won’t grow on you with time.

 

Album Title: Help

Original Release Date: 1965

Rating: 4 Stars (Recommended)

This album includes several essential recordings — the title tune, “Ticket To Ride,” “I’ve Just Seen A Face” and “Yesterday” — and the rest of the album is all very listenable as well.

 

Album Title: Rubber Soul

Original Release Date: 1965

Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)

This album marks a real turning point in The Beatles’ career. This is the juncture at which the group began to feel more comfortable in the studio, allowing themselves to experiment with different instruments and sounds, moving away from simply recording their live shows. This more deliberate creation in the studio is reflected in the quality of the music, which is uniformly excellent. This is also the first album on which their lyrics began to wander outside of the narrow pop sensibilities that had taken them this far. The songs about relationships became more personal and detailed, while songs on other subjects, like “Nowhere Man” and “The Word” began to appear. The Beatles would continue to evolve past this point, but arguably they would produce no richer or more rewarding rock music than is available on this collection.

 

Album Title: Revolver

Original Release Date: 1966

Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)

This is very much a companion piece to Rubber Soul and shares most of its generous virtues. Another dazzling collection by arguably the premier rock group working at the peak of its creative powers.

 

Album Title: Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band

Original Release Date: 1967

Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)

This album is an unparalleled achievement in rock music. The rich orchestral layers added to The Beatles’ instrumentation, the sophistication of the lyrics, the intensity of the work done in the recording studio, the musical and thematic cohesion of the album as a whole, and the overall themes of altered states of perception and consciousness all mark this as a singular, monumental achievement. The release of this album set a high-water mark for rock artistry, based if nothing else on the sheer amount of labor that obviously went into recording the work. Whereas even the best rock up to this point had always suffered by being viewed as derivative, imitative, unoriginal, commercial and recreational, Sgt. Pepper’s was clearly intended to be an aesthetic endeavor, and the first and most lasting effect it had on its audience was due primarily to the sheer extent of its ambition.

Having said all this, it is important also to note that the album has some significant flaws. The natural appeal of much of the group’s earlier music was often lost in the vast musical arrangements of the songs, which in retrospect can seem somewhat ponderous. While earlier efforts, no matter how long they were labored over in the studio, had the virtues of seeming relaxed and natural, much of this album seems forced and affected.

Even The Beatles seemed to view Sgt. Pepper’s as the end of a certain evolutionary path, and later efforts would see them intentionally regressing in some ways in order to get back to a more natural and simpler connection with their music.

Yet this album still stands today as a monument to the possibilities of the art form. In retrospect, the album’s chief failing may be that it was too obvious and extreme in its reliance on artifice that could only be produced at great effort in the recording studio. At the same time, though, this was also the album’s greatest achievement, in that it made listeners, journalists and critics aware that rock music could indeed be an intentional creative act, and not merely a sometimes inventive popular pastime.

 

Album Title: Magical Mystery Tour

Original Release Date: 1967

Rating: 4 Stars (Recommended)

This album is a collection of songs written for a British television special, thrown together with the contemporaneous singles from the group, so it doesn’t have the conceptual or stylistic integrity of some of the other Beatles’ albums. The music generally shares the psychedelic flavor of Sgt. Pepper’s. The album includes a number of great recordings, and almost all are eminently listenable. The Beatles were nothing if not perfectionists.

 

Album Title: Beatles

Original Release Date: 1968

Rating: 4 Stars (Recommended)

In their quest for a path forward that retreated somewhat from their more ambitious studio efforts, The Beatles produced this double album that began to treat band members more as individual artists, rather than components of an integrated group. This was perfectly consistent with a maturing audience and emerging rock journalism that began to see individual idiosyncrasies as essential elements of an enduring art form that took itself seriously. This double album contains some of the group’s most eccentric pieces, such as “Revolution 9,” that defy expectations of beautiful compositions, low-key lyrics and smooth vocals. Whereas earlier albums achieved balance by combining the group’s talents on individual tracks, this larger effort achieves a similar balance only when considered as a whole, with individual tracks betraying more individual authorship. Having said all this, the album still succeeds on its own terms and contains lots of great recordings.

 

Album Title: Abbey Road

Original Release Date: 1969

Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)

This was the last album recorded by the group. Thankfully, this recording consolidates the strengths of most of the group’s later efforts. It manages to preserve the individual characters of the group’s members, yet returns to the collaborative work on each song that had always marked their best efforts. Musically, it retains the virtues of patient studio craftsmanship yet relies primarily on the instinctive musicianship of the four Beatles themselves. A great work to go out on. After this, The Beatles split and began separate recording careers.

 

Next: Rain