Why The Beatles are THE greatest musicians of all time – The Science behind the innovation.

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Everybody has an opinion on the four men in this picture. Perhaps with such a perceived legacy and high level of importance, we should respect this by putting away our opinions. Not trying to be cool by calling them ‘overrated’ or trying to look like you are a musical visionary by wearing an Abbey Road T-shirt; but by looking at the bare facts, nothing more. If fact shows them to be the greatest musical innovators the world has ever known then anyone’s opinions are hollow and laid bare to the inferior motives behind them. Factual evidence should not force you to like them; however it should force you to respect them for what they are or are not. This isn’t another look into obvious or popular innovations from them. We all know they invented the music video, the stadium concert, the concept album, the self-run record label, the studio band, made world music mainstream, were the first band to be beamed around the world and the first band to conquer the world. The whole time they were crafting an array of genres and types from Rock Pop to the birth of Heavy Metal and Indie, Folk Rock, Blues Rock, Psychedelica, Electronica, Guitar Ballads, Piano Ballads, Dance Rock as well as taking Rock ‘n’ Roll full circle. These are things that are endlessly hurled at those who question their status and I’ve hurled such facts myself, but perhaps that isn’t convincing evidence to someone who has heard it a million times; too vague to comprehend even if it is all true factual evidence of their standing. To fully and conclusively end the pondering thoughts of whether The Beatles were really the greatest musical innovators this planet has ever known, then you must be taken into a Beatles recording session or be able to dissect a song and pick out each innovation and what made them so special. To be given a full anatomy of their music and the science behind it. Only then when the facts present themselves can we honestly define The Beatles once and for all.

Utilising Guitar Feedback

Not all of The Beatles innovations were by design, but some were happy accidents that they picked up and made into their design. The use of Guitar Feedback is one of those. With the song ‘I Feel Fine’ http://youtu.be/giqQ4n3P6LA from 1964; McCartney strikes an A note on his bass to open the song, but it is picked up by Lennon’s Semi Acoustic guitar and so making the high pitched, grinding sound. From that point Lennon had worked out how to replicate it and the sound would appear again in songs such as ‘It’s All Too Much’ http://youtu.be/0Oes9_poAIg from 1967. By then they were able to manipulate the sound into a rotating rhythm and a much longer and sustained sound.

Direct Input

The Beatles achieved this by plugging their instruments directly into the recording console. McCartney did this with his bass on the Sgt Pepper intro http://youtu.be/Xj2bmQ4P4cM from 1967. It expanded and deepened Paul’s bass line on the song as it rattles in a muffled fashion. Lennon would go on to do the same while recording ‘Revolution’ http://youtu.be/RXMRHf-rNIw in 1968. He plugged his Epiphone Casino guitar straight into the recording console and came close to busting the entire piece of equipment. It resulted in a gritty and chainsaw-like sound as the guitar fuzzed and screeched out feedback. It really packs out a song with such a bold sound but it can also be used to create space in a track as it fades out. Many see this as The Beatles inventing distortion but I think it was simply them developing it and growing distortion as evidence of it is present in earlier tracks albeit to a lesser extent.

Distortion

The Beatles already had a very loud and fuzzy guitar sound in 1966 with songs like ‘Paperback Writer’ http://youtu.be/pz9G5sIS62I which featured a fuzzy guitar lick rather than a clean lick. It wouldn’t expand and roughen the guitars sound as much as Direct Input would do, but it certainly made the guitar sound less clear cut and it is something that is used to no end today. Its sound came from Harrison’s Gibson-SG guitar and was made more prominent by an Automatic Transient Overload Control device developed by EMI for the mastering process and therefore made the song the loudest The Beatles had done at that point.

Compression

The Beatles were the first band to have organ sounding guitars when Lennon compressed his Rickenbacker-325 for the rhythm section of ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ http://youtu.be/3MHkgwA8t-g from 1963. The sound that is created alters the guitar riff to make it undulate and swell. The same can be heard for both guitars on ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ http://youtu.be/70QfHtKdh_0 from 1964, In a guitar sound that would be copied extensively throughout the rest of the decade and beyond.

Using a Loudspeaker as a Microphone

This was an innovation born out of Lennon’s request to simply have a fuller and better bass sound. In working with the EMI engineers for Paperback Writer, they decided to try putting a loudspeaker directly in front of McCartney’s bass speaker. The moving diaphragm of the loudspeaker culminated in an electric current being produced to enhance the bass sound.

Leslie Speaker

The Beatles use of a Leslie speaker is one of the earliest recorded. When recording the Steinway piano intro for the simple ‘You Like Me Too Much’ http://youtu.be/uCWq2xOYBp0 from 1965; the Leslie Speaker oscillates and rotates the sound of the piano and almost duplicates the intro to the song. They would go on to use it several times throughout their time together and Lennon even decided to put his vocal for the spectacular ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ http://youtu.be/rTMOSCh7aJU from 1966 through the Leslie Speaker as it made his voice sound haunting and machine like in an eerie fashion as it rotated and altered.

Using Classical Forms

Full classical arrangements had never mixed with mainstream rock music until they started to become a feature in McCartney’s tracks. The first was notably ‘Yesterday’ http://youtu.be/ONXp-vpE9eU from 1965. The strings were added after the other Beatles believed they couldn’t add to the song with their arsenal of instruments, but the strings evoked the emotion and feel of a simple song about heartache. McCartney would use string arrangements for the urgent and staccato sound for ‘Eleanor Rigby’ http://youtu.be/51UH_u7WxCo from 1966. Perhaps the greatest use of Classical Instrumentation by The Beatles and any popular artist was in the thought provoking and at times terrifying classic that is ‘A Day In The Life’ http://youtu.be/pPSR9K7tzPc from 1967. Lennon had asked for the Orchestra to progress from their lowest to their highest note that results in a horrifying way to progress a song. It heightens all the senses and the Classical Instrumentation is also used to power drive the song to its conclusion after McCartney’s intermission in the middle of the track. This is perhaps one of the most unconventional uses of classical musicians ever.

Close Micing

While using many of these classical instruments; McCartney wanted to achieve an immediate and isolated sound from them with the song ‘Eleanor Rigby’. This was achieved by simply placing the microphone directly in front of the instruments. Producer George Martin had to instruct the Cello players on the song to not move so as to not disrupt the microphone just millimetres away and to maintain the full sound. This is also something that would be applied to Ringo’s percussion recording from then on. With tracks such as ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ http://youtu.be/mqwxn8DzER8 from 1966; McCartney has the microphones placed into the bells of the brass instrumentation to heighten the impact they make. From that point, such practices would be standard for recording those instruments.

Artificial Double Tracking

ADT was the brainchild of EMI engineer Ken Townsend after Lennon expressed his distain at having to sing a long exactly to his own vocal recordings to achieve a double tracking effect. All of this while not being a particular fan of his own vocal performances. Townsend decided to duplicate the original vocal recording onto a second tape machine at a delayed speed. This gave the double tracking effect without having to sing with the original vocal recording exactly. If anything The Beatles ran with it and made enhanced double track vocals to alter how they sounded. Lennon made his vocal sound muffled and distorted by singing through a Leslie speaker and then delaying the second tape machine. He did this to great effect with ‘I Am the Walrus’ http://youtu.be/SyPvGsSPsZg from 1967. It almost acts like a makeshift vocoder and autotuner when such things did not exist and would not be used in music until the late 70s and late 90s respectively.

Flanging

This is the variation of ADT that was developed by The Beatles. It was used on a more widespread level to channel their pioneering psychedelic music. The developed effect would generally add a swooshing and disorientated sound. The earliest this was applied to a track was likely ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ http://youtu.be/yDl0qPfkSRw from 1967. It is one of a vast array of aforementioned methods applied to the track as a whole however; they would go on to apply the effect to isolated elements such as George Harrison applying it to the lead guitar of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ http://youtu.be/F3RYvO2X0Oo from 1968. This is now in widespread, digital use as ‘phasing’.

Pitch Shifting

This was a method popularised by The Beatles that involved them having the variable controller of the device at half a step higher for their instrumentals against their vocals which were half a step lower on the controls. A vast amount of their material from 1966 and 1967 was recorded using pitch shifting. It was used with full instrumental structure on ‘Rain’ http://youtu.be/T3znOTuT4K8 from 1966 and with acoustic tracks such as ‘I’m only sleeping’ http://youtu.be/1MMDugt8ZRk from the same year. It would become a standard feature of most psychedelic tracks.

Echo or Reverb

Back in The Beatles day this was such a difficult thing to accomplish and it is an even more difficult thing to explain. To put it simply, in order to create reverb on their tracks; The Beatles would feed their tracks into the echo chamber at Abbey Road studios. This recording was then fed back through the recording console and printed onto a second tape machine. When the original recording is paired with the echo chamber recording, then such an effect was created. The earliest known use of it is in ‘I Saw her Standing There’ http://youtu.be/DsgWfAilIEM from 1963. Harrison’s guitar solo sounded particularly advanced for the time and again it is standard practice today and much easier to achieve.

Remixing

The Beatles were also the first musicians to remix tracks albeit their own more often than not. They would sometimes completely deconstruct and song and reconstruct it again in a different fashion. Perhaps the best example of this is shown with the eerie wonder that is ‘Blue Jay Way’ http://youtu.be/MNLcXj5yR68 from 1967. On occasion backwards versions of the song are injected at various parts that sound like wails and ominous calls for help in a song about being lost and alone.

Samples & Sound Collages

This is something that has been used extensively in the last twenty years but rewind another thirty and The Beatles were pioneering Sampling. They first used a sample in ‘Yellow Submarine’ http://youtu.be/3jmdLpsK_k8 from 1966. In it, is a Sousa march in the middle of the track but the original tape was cut up, rearranged and spliced back together again. It was more extensively used in ‘Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite’ http://youtu.be/vCiG7xoEb2Y from 1967. With it, circus sounds and features were inserted regularly and come to a head at the end of the track as all the samples cross over. BBC Radio 3 productions of King Lear were inserted at the conclusion of ‘I Am the Walrus’ as the multitude of sounds die off. The use of random tape loops and a vast array of random sounds and effects resulted in the terrifying and simply weird ‘Revolution 9’ http://youtu.be/wdPvN7HOLh8 from 1968. What perhaps make it more scary is how people are only just catching up to this song today with The Knife and Damon Albarn getting as close as anyone has ever dared venture, a venture into the realms and depths of The Beatles darkest and unsettling song. Words of warning though; do not listen to this song backwards if you wish to keep your sanity.

Backmasking

This is one of the most impressive techniques The Beatles perfected and it is a technique still beyond many. In a variety of tracks such as ‘Rain’, ‘I’m only Sleeping’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ there are vocal and instrumental parts recorded backwards in the forward versions of the songs. They were all quite satisfied with the sounds and new opportunities it opened up for them. In some cases, Harrison learned the backwards guitar parts so that when they were played backwards they would sound like a forward guitar part but more broken and off beat. He did this to great effect with the classic ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ http://youtu.be/9r4mJ3aEhHo from 1967. This track like so many others, have hidden messages in them when played backwards and how this is achieved is beyond me. Perhaps it is something to do with the messages being taped over with several layers or perhaps they manipulated their vocals to reveal such messages. Whatever the case, it is a sign of their intelligence as musicians and they proved so effective that some ‘Bible belt’ States in the U.S banned backmasked records in fear of what they believed to be satanic messages entering their children’s subconscious. Of course that is clearly not the case and if anything it was a showcase for The Beatles random and at times dark humour with McCartney being the butt of many of the messages which led a group of Michigan students to conclude Paul McCartney died in 1966 and was replaced… but um that is sort of impossible. Perhaps their backmasking did make some people go mad after all. Here are some humorous and likewise haunting examples http://youtu.be/T0bXZcaTj-c

Using Their Environment

The Beatles were known for making makeshift instrumentations from things that were just lying around. The high pitched zipping sound heard in ‘Lovely Rita’ http://youtu.be/Se5JLYKQfDU from 1967; was done using a comb and a piece of paper. Ringo can also be heard tapping a box of matches and slapping his lap in ‘I’m Looking Through You’ http://youtu.be/Ra5drgntKOI from 1965.

Vocal Arrangement

The Beatles vocal arrangement was pretty unique at the time and more advanced than many of their counterparts. They could sing in turns or in unison. At times they could even sing separate parts at the same time. In addition to this, they revolutionised the vocal harmony and the anatomy of it. Lennon would often act as the vocal anchor and so allowing McCartney to explore his higher range and Harrison to find the underlying vocal sound. All were capable of interchanging however. The prime example of The Beatles vocal textures would be ‘Help!’ http://youtu.be/vUlARtE9yGQ from 1965 and ‘Happiness Is a Warm Gun’ http://youtu.be/PUhIEEwSSSo from 1968. They produced some of the greatest vocal unisons of all time with tracks like ‘Because’ http://youtu.be/LG5squHcOyI from 1969.

Musical Arrangement

This was another distinct differentiating factor of The Beatles success at the time. The notion of a lead guitar, bass, rhythm guitar and percussion is something that is taken for granted today, but it was quite a fresh idea at the time, in how they interchanged and the scope that gave them. In a track such as ‘Day Tripper’ http://youtu.be/rXlBZFcDUMI from 1965; Lennon plays the jangling riff with Ringo hitting the snare drum or tambourine to expand it. Harrison is playing the main melody over that as well as the guitar solo and so this gives McCartney the freedom to come up with a fluctuating and busy bass line. Of course there are several different examples and different instruments included to provide an array of examples. The roles are reversed for example with ‘Get Back’ http://youtu.be/xKeXUTreeGA and ‘Come Together’ http://youtu.be/cAmn4eMusZk from 1969. Without such a set up, it would have been difficult to generate the sheer noise and power of ‘Helter Skelter’ http://youtu.be/ueBUFUWSXHs from 1968.

So that is just about everything I can amass using the top of my now very sore head, streams of websites, book references and straight hours of psycho-analysing The Beatles music to show that their real innovation took place underneath the comparative token gestures of Music Videos and Stadium Concerts etc. If anything this has only heightened my respect for what they have done and I feel that even I have slightly underestimated just how innovative they are from above the surface, but delving deep into the science of The Beatles has confused, intrigued and immersed me. If all of the innovation on the surface was not enough to convince you of their pivotal role in Culture and Music; then there is no hiding away from the fact that underneath they were craftsmen of the future. Whether it is a group of singing monks or Kanye West, all of them will be creating music that has had at least a part of The Beatles influence on it and after this I defy anyone who doesn’t. I do believe they have a rightful place next to Beethoven and Mozart as they smashed the boundaries like they did, but unlike those eighteenth century greats, The Beatles gave their genius for the whole world to enjoy. Though the three billion people would turn to seven billion and though the end of the Cold War occurred two decades after; their music is as popular as ever with a much expanded fanbase reflecting a much expanded world. It is only a shame with The Beatles only growing in popularity that recently no one has really tried to push their innovations further or come up with innovations of their own. Maybe there will never be such creative forces ever again, but if they ever arrive then they have The Beatles as a blueprint of what is possible.

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