The British Invasion: how ‘The Beatles’ Revolutionized Rock ‘N’ Roll

If the history of rock ‘n’ roll music is a series of revolutionary blows against the established practices of time, the Beatles can be viewed as the most important of these moments, as well as the most innovative (Inglis, 2000, p. 95). February 9, 1964, marked the beginning of a craze that swept the nation.

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The Beatles stood under the lights, waiting for Ed Sullivan to officially introduce them to the screaming teenagers of America. Once introduced, they immediately launched into their song All My Loving. During their second set on the show, the band sang their first U.S. single to top the charts, I Want to Hold Your Hand. The crowd went wild, thus beginning the American love affair with British rock ‘n’ roll. The Beatles set off on an exhaustive touring schedule, taking the world by storm and experiencing ‘Beatlemania’ everywhere they went.

By the summer of 1965, the Beatles had toured the globe, reaching international fame and all the highs and lows associated with it (Womack, 2010, p. 266). Once that tour reached its conclusion, the band was given a six-week hiatus from everything music. After this well-deserved vacation, the group filed back into Abbey Road studios to record. The band was bored with doing the same thing, so they set out to record something that wouldn’t sound like anything they had done before (Spitz, 2006, p. 584). Two important developments had occurred: the use of more sophisticated production techniques, due mostly to their relationship with producer George Martin, and a new depth of substance present in their song lyrics (Price, 1997, p. 219). The three-year, four album period, between 1965 and 1967, introduced some of the most innovatively produced music in rock ‘n’ roll history, revolutionizing the way music was made.

Rubber Soul (December 1965)

In Norwegian Wood, John Lennon wrote a song about an extra-marital affair he had. Paul McCartney added to the confession, creating an elaborate story to develop an almost fable-like quality for the song. The track was also the first instance of George Harrison playing the sitar, which was the first time it was ever used on a pop record (Turner, 2009, p. 137). George Martin, their producer, referred to the song as a bitter little story, but the band was moving toward much more mature subject matter.

In Nowhere Man, the group that only ever sang about love broke through a barrier and sang a song about a lack of belief. John Lennon claims that he wrote the song after hours of failing to write. He went out and partied, fell asleep, and woke up with the concept in his head. Paul McCartney believes the song was about John’s failing marriage and how hopeless he felt at the time. Either way, it is a poignant tale of a man who has lost his place in the world, trying to figure out what’s next.

Revolver (August 1966)

Revolver marked a new era for the Beatles, specifically regarding their sound. They made the decision, as a group, to discontinue touring before the beginning of this album. This allowed for a new degree of freedom, because their songs no longer had to be performed live; they could create sounds in studio that did not need to be replicated on stage. They recorded whenever they wanted to, ignoring curfews and leaving only when satisfied Spitz, 2006, p. 600). The result was an eclectic group of songs compiled onto one album, a common occurrence today. Artists of today have the Beatles Revolver to thank for that.

In Eleanor Rigby, Paul McCartney wrote a woeful ballad of two lonely people. Eleanor Rigby, the main character, lived a solitary life, cleaning up churches after weddings. Father McKenzie, a priest at the church, watched as couples came in and out of his life. The two lonely people are brought together at the literal end; Father McKenzie stands over the grave of Eleanor Rigby, having just performed her funeral. Paul wrote the song while having a fiddle around with the piano (Spitz, 2006, p. 598).

In Yellow Submarine, Paul McCartney had the idea to sing a song about different colored submarines that children could sing along with (Turner, 2009, p. 168). To record this song, the studio crew ransacked a closet to find every oddity they could lay their hands on to create all the different sound effects for the silly children’s song (Spitz, 2006, p. 612). They used chains, bells, glassed, a cash register, and a plethora of other things, and they had countless volunteers to create the sounds. They laughed and hooted as they all danced around the room, having a party as they sang the lighthearted tune.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (June 1967)

Sgt. Pepper was conceived, by Paul McCartney, as a show staged by a fictional brass band (Turner, 2009, p.184). It was one of the first concept albums that tells a story through both song selection and song order. The album, released during The Summer of Love, was suffused with the belief that there should be no limits to the imagination and everything was possible, musically, through the magic of the recording studio.

In Strawberry Fields Forever, John Lennon wrote a song about an abandoned orphanage that was a five-minute walk from his house. He would sneak there, sometimes with friends and sometimes alone, and explore the grounds, comparing it to Alice’s adventures down the rabbit hole (Turner, 2009, p. 189). The feeling of entering another world was as close to psychedelia without drugs as one could get, and the song is about all the creativity that came alive during those outings.

In Within You Without You, George Harrison introduced the world to his new philosophies, having become interested in Eastern thought through Ravi Shankar teaching him how to play the sitar (Turner, 2009, p. 204). The song, written as a conversation that the writer remembered, was believed to be about finder one’s greater consciousness through thought and experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs. George became serious and introspective when he discovered LSD, and this song is a testament to that fact.

Magical Mystery Tour (November 1967)

Magical Mystery Tour was an experimental television feature, fifty minutes in length, that the band financed, cast, scripted, and directed (Turner, 2009, p. 214).

In Fool on the Hill, Paul McCartney wrote a poignant song about a man sitting alone, on top of a hill, that the world has overlooked because of his differences. While Paul had yet to meet the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the parallels between his fool and gurus like the Maharishi are uncanny. The straightforward delivery and lack of cluttered effects give the song and almost standout-like feeling on the album (Spitz, 2006, p. 723).

In I Am the Walrus, Joh combined three songs that he was working on into one sprawling and disjointed venture: a song inspired by hearing a police siren, a melody about his garden, and a nonsensical song about sitting on a corn flake (Turner, 2009, p. 232). With references to the ‘elementary penguin’ and the ‘egg-man,’ the lyrics couldn’t have been further from the straight-laced message of Fool on the Hill. The band experimented with a mellotron, an electro-mechanical keyboard, to create different sounds before George Martin decided to also use violins, cellos, the clarinet, a 16-piece choir, the horns, and the Beatles to create the cacophony that is I Am the Walrus.

The Beatles had a remarkable career, with their music outliving at least half of the members, and will probably outlive them all. The songs they sang, the words they wrote, and the images they projected continue to resonate throughout rock ‘n’ roll and all other genres of music. It is difficult to find an artist of band today that does not name the songs of the Beatles as an influence in their music. These four albums, as well as their later work on The White Album and Let It Be, stand out as a turning pint in their music. Gone were the immature pop artists, only interested in making money and scoring girls. Then boys had grown into men and started to experiment with their look, words, and sound, all of which combined to revolutionize the music of their time and lead the industry into a time of imagination, creativity, and artistry.

References

Inglis, I. (2000). The Beatles are coming! Conjecture and conviction in the myth of Kennedy, America, and the Beatles. Popular Music and Society,24(2), 93-108.

Price, C. G. (1997). Sources of American Styles in the Music of the Beatles. American Music,15(2), 208.

Spitz, B. (2006). The Beatles: The Biography. New York, NY: Back Bay Books, Little, Brown and Company.

Turner, S. (2009). The Beatles A Hard Day’s Write: The Stories Behind Every Song. New York, NY: MJB Books.

Womack, K. (2010). “Nothing’s going to change my world”: Narrating Memory and Selfhood with the Beatles. Style,44, 261-281.

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