13 July 2015

The Beatles’ Influence

by Kirk Woodward

[My friend Kirk Woodward is back again with another contribution to ROT—his latest installment of his ad hoc series on the Beatles and their hold on him over the years.  Those of you who weren’t around in the ’60s or were still too young in the second half of that decade to have experienced the arrival and surge in popularity of the Beatles can only have a second-hand understanding of what that group and their musical and social influence meant to on my generation.  I was a huge Beatles fan myself, buying their 45’s and LP’s as soon as they hit the record stores (no downloading in those days!).  I even became aware of them a little before the earth-shaking début on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 that introduced them to America because I was in high school in Europe and, many of my classmates being British, I started hearing the Beatles as soon as they came out in England.  I was listening to them on the radio—we listened to Radio Luxembourg, the pirate station European teens tuned to for the hottest in rock ’n’ rolland on record players in my dorm.  But I just listened (and, of course, memorized the lyrics virtually by osmosis); Kirk, being musically knowledgeable even then, took his devotion to the Fab Four a step further and listened to the music and musicianship.  As for his late wife, Pat, whose diary about her commitment to Beatle fandom . . . well, dedicated ROTters will have learned about that 2½ years ago.

[“The Beatles’ Influence,” then, is Kirk’s analysis and discussion of that pervasive influence, not just on the generation of fans and musicians that came of age in the late ’60s, but the ones that came after.  Kirk contends, with solid reason, that we are still feeling that influence 46 years after the group broke up.  John and George are gone now, Ringo’s a different kind of star in his own right, and Paul had moved into new areas of music—but the Beatles of our imaginations hangs in there.  The greatest rock band ever!  (Think I’m a generational chauvinist?  What can I say!)

When this blog posted the Beatle diary written by my late wife Pat (see “The Beatles Diary,” 8 January 2013), a friend took note of a sentence I’d written to the effect that the Beatles had changed Pat’s life. Exactly how, he asked, had that happened, or might I be exaggerating their effect on her?

I wrote back:

I think [the Beatles] opened her up to the fact that the world offers more possibilities than we might realize. Her family was basically poor, the one artistic influence in her family (her father was a jazz pianist) was often traveling, and she went to traditional Catholic schools. The Beatles pretty much blasted this background all over the place.

I was in England a few years later on one of Lee Kahn’s theater trips [Lee was my theater teacher and mentor] and heard a number of London theater people say how much the Beatles had opened everything up for them, both in terms of art and of class. I think the[ir and Pat’s] situations were probably parallel.

Although she didn’t remain fanatical about the Beatles as such, I know she never forgot about the possibilities of surprise that art can provide. I’m putting that in a pretentious way, but I just mean that her experience of encountering the Beatles meant that at any time, something wonderful could happen.

I’ve written extensively about the Beatles for this blog (aside from the diary, see also “The Beatles and Me,” 7 October 2010, and “The Beatles Box,” 30 September 2012), and I’m not sure I haven’t already said all I have to say about them, but it might be useful to write specifically about their influence on others – only the subject is so vast that nothing short of a book could adequately cover it. So I’ll try to present what for me are some of the high points of their impact, keeping always in mind that there’s much more to say about each aspect, and that many others have covered the same territory in more detail.

It strikes me that the discussion should have two parts: the effects of the Beatles on Pat, and their effects on all of us. A further qualification: this article is about their influence, not their art, although one can hardly leave their remarkable artistic achievements out of the discussion – the two are closely linked.

If we look at the Beatles the way they must have first appeared to Pat, particularly as their first two albums became available in the United States (early 1964), it seems likely that two things impressed her. One was their clean, straightforward sound – lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass, drums, and mostly unretouched vocals. Compared to their competition, their first records were remarkably simple. (One record company had turned them down with the comment that three-guitar groups were “out,” which illustrates the industry’s faith in more elaborate production at that time.)

In a way, the Beatles’ sound was home-grown – one of its major sources was the “skiffle” craze in England in the 1950s, which used household implements like washboards and tea chest basses as musical instruments. While the Beatles were not themselves a skiffle group, they kept the skiffle spirit, in particular the idea that art could spring up in unlikely places and use unlikely materials.

The Beatles’ music was also home-grown in the sense that from the beginning they wrote and recorded their own songs, in addition to recording songs written by others. The message, which took a while to sink in, was that art wasn’t a possession of the elite – anyone could create it. Not all singers and groups started recording their own material right away, of course; but the next wave of leaders did, including the Rolling Stones and the Who.

Am I going too far to talk about “art” when their realm was entertainment? I would say no – art is where you find it, and it quickly became apparent that although the Beatles themselves refused to claim any significance for their music, it had plenty. And they were not “certified” artists, either – no one had given them an artistic license! They did the work themselves. It began to look like anyone could do the same, if they were able.

The other thing that would have impressed Pat was the Beatles’ personalities, which quickly began to manifest themselves. They were only a few years older than Pat was, and they sounded young – again, unlike many older and/or more packaged entertainers. They also sounded unique at that time because they were not only British, but from Liverpool, with its own characteristic working class accent. And they were cheerful – not that other entertainers were not, but there was nothing lugubrious about them at all, unlike, to pick a radically opposite example, Johnny Ray (1927-1990) and his hit song “The Little White Cloud That Cried” (1951). The Beatles liked Johnny Ray, but nothing they recorded ever sounded remotely like him.

The fact that the Beatles freely shared their personalities made it possible for others to do the same. Now, of course, we probably know more about celebrities than we wish we did.

Not only were the Beatles cheerful – it quickly became apparent that they were downright funny – and occasionally downright outrageous – particularly, in the early days, at their press conferences. It became not only permissible for performers to say humorous things, it became almost mandatory. A documented example of this is that after John Lennon made his famous quip at the Royal Variety Show in London on November 4, 1963 (“In the cheaper seats, you clap your hands. The rest of you, just rattle your jewelry”), it was noted in following years that rock groups felt they had to try to equal or top John’s remark, and tried to.

The Beatles also stood up for their work. They didn’t care what people said about their hair, but they didn’t tolerate foolishness about their music. (When the press quoted a dismissive remark Noel Coward was said to have made about them, they refused to meet with him, finally sending a reluctant Paul McCartney out for a perfunctory chat.) Practically by force of will, they earned a respect for rock music that had not previously existed, and that continues to this day.

The Beatles’ collective and individual sense of humor is well known. In one sense humor is a surprising clash of attitudes, and I think that the Beatles’ humor may have had something to do with the extraordinary relationship they had with their audiences. No matter how pleased the group’s members might have seemed with the applause and even the screams they received, all of them – even Paul McCartney, the most outgoing on stage of the four – seemed to be holding something back, some reserved opinion, some secret observation. I’ve always felt that the crowds screamed at them to get their full attention – sensing all the while that they couldn’t, that the Beatles would never entirely give themselves away.

One additional thought about why the Beatles would have influenced Pat’s early life: I am certain that they pointed her toward her life’s work, which was performance, and in particular theater. They had complex and powerful rapport with audiences. Their performances were literally theatrical – to quote some synonyms from Merriam-Webster, “amazing, astonishing, awesome, eye-opening, fabulous, marvelous, surprising, wonderful.” Whether they did or didn’t seem that way to everyone, they did to Pat, and if their work could have that effect on her, why couldn’t her work have that effect on others? So she made that her own goal, and others felt the same way, as is clear from the remarks by London theater people that I cited above.

I admit that the way I’ve described how Pat might have felt about the Beatles in their first days is also the way I felt. Still, I’m guessing.  (I wish I could ask her.) When we move on to the influence of the Beatles on everybody, we’re on surer ground, because there’s no question that their impact has been immense, as demonstrated for example by the shelves of books that have been written about them. It’s hard to find anything new to say about them, but at least I can synthesize. . .

. . . because the Beatles in many ways were synthesizers themselves. Bernard Shaw used to stress that pioneers are not the ones who gain fame and fortune; those belong to their followers, who build on what the pioneers have created. William Shakespeare, for example, didn’t pioneer blank-verse drama; he took it and made something vibrant out of it.  Only occasionally did the Beatles do something that no one else had done before; often, though, they did it conclusively, with great effect on others.

They didn’t invent rock, but they constantly acknowledged their influences, in particular black artists. Chuck Berry, for example, commented on getting a nice little bulge in his royalty checks after the Beatles’ recording of “Roll Over Beethoven” (1956 by Berry; 1963 by the Beatles)! They incorporated musical sounds that had originated in the American black community, and didn’t try to “sound black” while singing them, but they made their admiration of artists like Berry,  Little Richard (“Long Tall Sally,” 1956), and Smokey Robinson (“You Really Got a Hold On Me,” 1962) clear, and this in itself increased awareness for those artists and others.

The Beatles rethought rock, revitalized it, and built on it, applying their own high standards of excellence. As a result rock became a respected and admired musical genre, a trend that picked up speed in the 1970s. The Beatles specialized in learning and performing versions of “B” sides (the more obscure songs that accompanied hits on 45 RPM records), which helped expand the rock repertoire. They didn’t invent the star (or Starr) drummer, since Gene Krupa (1909-1973) and Chick Webb (1905-1939), among others, had held that seat before, but after Ringo the drummer would seldom be an invisible member of a rock band.

They didn’t invent Indian, electronic, or country music, needless to say, but they incorporated all three in their work and created enormous interest and even popularity for them, influencing other groups (an important example being the Byrds), at the same time affirming the values of differing kinds of music. They didn’t invent “art rock” either, but they quickly grasped the importance of Bob Dylan’s approach to songwriting and incorporated their own version of his approach into their music and in particular into their lyrics, beginning with their song “I’m a Loser” (1964). They weren’t the first to write popular songs that weren’t love songs and weren’t for dancing – it’s unlikely that anybody would dance or cuddle to “I Am the Walrus” (1967) - but they were the first to win a huge audience over to those possibilities.

Obviously, there are some areas in which the Beatles simply did things first, beyond items like dominating the Top Ten listings for months. For example, they pioneered stadium shows with the famous first Shea Stadium concert (August 1965), and stadium shows remain a staple of rock performances. They were the first to use a sitar on a popular record, the first rock group to record a song with a background of strings alone, the first in England to bring the bass line to prominence in the sound balance of a recording, the first to record a song with no ending (“I Want You/She’s So Heavy,” 1969).                        

Technically, too, the musical influence of the Beatles was enormous.  They – meaning the Beatles, their producer George Martin, and the engineers that worked with them – used tape loops, deliberately recorded feedback, overdubbing and “flanging” (John invented the word – officially called Artificial Double Tracking or ADT, the process of double-tracking vocals without the singer having to repeat the song), distortion effects, ad libs and chatter, randomly recorded sounds, and unique ways of using a microphone, all of which are now commonplaces in recordings.

In their records they included influences as varied as old musicals (“Till There Was You,” 1963; from The Music Man, 1957 ), references to old movies (“Honey Pie,” 1968), and old blues (“Matchbox,” 1964; from Carl Perkins, 1956, and previously, Ma Rainey, 1924), all the way to the aural landscapes of Karlheinz Stockhausen (“Revolution 9,” 1968). They made or achieved the first substantial popularity for music videos (later the basis for MTV), the “concept album” (1967’s Sergeant Pepper was quickly followed by the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Past and by The Who Sell Out, both 1967), and the rock suite (the “long medley” at the end of Abbey Road, 1969, an inspiration in particular for Pete Townshend with Tommy, 1969, and Quadrophenia, 1973).

They were the first rock group to have its own record label, Apple, founded by in 1968 (which led to plenty of problems, but others subsequently made the concept work, and individual labels are now commonplace), the first to print their lyrics on an album cover (for Sergeant Pepper), and participants – and major attractions – in the first global satellite broadcast (June 1967).

The list I have just made is by no means exhaustive. The social influence of the Beatles was equally powerful. I have already noted that their insistence on “being themselves” led to a greater exposure of the personal lives of performers – whether this was a positive effect or not.  John Lennon led the way for performers to express both their political and their religious opinions; he was in the forefront of opposition to the Vietnam War, and his comment that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus” had huge reverberations. Slightly less so, the group’s interest in Transcendental Meditation, and George Harrison’s espousal of Hinduism, opened the door to Asian religious practices for many. I have already suggested that the Beatles had a significant influence on theater.

The Beatles also had a huge impact on class systems – most importantly perhaps in Great Britain, which suddenly saw people on the lower social rungs mounting extraordinarily high. That leveling effect reached the United States too – in fact it was felt around the world, wherever a youthful population was interested in changing the social order. In the old Soviet Union, for example, young people bootlegged and passed around the Beatles’ records as a sort of sound track for the drive for freedom, as proven years later by Paul McCartney’s giant concert in Moscow’s Red Square (October 28, 1991), with members of the crowd waving their once forbidden copies of the Beatles’ songs.

It’s interesting to speculate how different the Beatles’ impact would have been if they had had different  personalities. I by no means idolize John, Paul, George, and Ringo, but they brought some important personal characteristics to the table. For starters, they had integrity. The composer and bass player Paul Guzzone notes that when the Beatles hit it big, they had already signed up for appearances at various bazaars and church basement socials across England. They kept those engagements! They could have wiggled out of them, but having made the obligations, they lived up to them.

The Beatles also set an example for hard work, one of course not always followed by other musicians, but one that surely must be counted as a positive influence. To read The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions by Marc Lewisohn (Hamlyn, 1988) is to be overwhelmed by how diligently – not to say successfully – they put in the long hours creating their music. (Along the way, for better or worse, they also pioneered the all-night recording session.)

The Beatles were also extraordinarily collegial. The story of their support for the Rolling Stones (frequently referred to in the press as their rivals) has often been told; they wrote the Stones’ second single (“I Wanna Be Your Man,” 1963; covered later the same month by the Beatles), and Paul McCartney has reported that the two groups coordinated the releases of their records. I was astonished to read in the autobiography of Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees that they and the Beatles were friends. The Monkees had been deliberately created as an attempt to cut into a share of the Beatles’ market. This didn’t matter at all to the Beatles. Their support of and respect for other musicians was consistent.

It may seem odd that in this piece I haven’t stressed the influence of the Beatles on the era we call the Sixties (which actually reached its fruition in the 1970’s, after the Beatles had broken up as a group). They did influence that period of time, of course, and they were influenced by it, but both interactions in my opinion have been overemphasized.  The Sixties didn’t create the Beatles, any more than the Eighteenth Century “created” Mozart. There were reciprocal influences, but great artists transcend their eras; they take what their times offer and transform it. We don’t treasure the Beatles only because they represent the Sixties to us – or if we do, we’re missing a great deal of what they offer. We treasure the Beatles because they took an enjoyable kind of entertainment and created amazing art out of it.

Topic of discussion: what would our lives be like if the Beatles had not existed? Obviously that question can be the subject of endless speculation. Some of the factors I’ve listed above would almost certainly have developed with or without the Beatles; recording techniques, for example, would not have stood still as technology grew in sophistication. Culture, like nature, abhors a vacuum; where there were gaps, something would have filled them. Still, one answer to the question “Where would we be without the Beatles” is, it seems clear to me, is: much poorer.

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