In all likelihood, The Beatles are the most famous band the world will ever know. They were pioneers of sound and irreverence and became in just seven short years the best-selling band of all time. Constantly pushing the envelope, John, Paul, George, and Ringo threw overboard just about every convention in the book. Many of the new ones they created or were pivotal in establishing are still the order of the day. To better understand the gargantuan mark they left, here are—in no particular order and without the slightest claim to comprehensiveness—six reasons why The Beatles' impact on music and culture cannot be overstated.
1. They revolutionised the use of recording technology
The greatest innovations of The Beatles did not happen on the stage but in the studio. Many ideas and techniques that were later commonly used in recording, and continue to be today, were invented or significantly advanced by The Beatles. Together with their producer George Martin and their sound engineer Geoff Emerick, they pushed the boundaries of how music was made and recorded time and again. It was their fascination with experimental sound and avant-garde composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, Terry Riley, or John Cage and their very own idiosyncracies (John, for instance, often didn't like the sound of his own voice) that propelled their creativity in the studio. Emerick reliably proved a willing accomplice to The Beatles' extravagant demands. A quick but not exhaustive overview of techniques they pioneered includes:
Recording voice through a rotating speaker: For Tomorrow Never Knows, John had a fixed idea of how he wanted his voice to sound like for the last verse: as if the Dalai Lama was singing from a mountain top 25 miles away. No problem at all for Emerick, who used the rotating speaker from the Hammond organ, cut into its circuitry and put John's voice into it.
Looping: Putting tape on loop allowed for the layering of music and was used, for instance, to create the solo in Tomorrow Never Knows (consisting of a sped-up recording of McCartney laughing to sound like a seagull, an orchestral chord, a mellotron playing a flute and a string sound, and a sped-up sitar playing a scale). Today, looping is a commonplace practice in pretty much any recording context and genre.
Artificial Double Tracking/Flanging: Since John famously didn't like the sound of his own voice, he asked EMI sound engineer Ken Townsend to do something to his voice, to make it sound thicker, to 'flange' it up. Townsend came up with two reel-to-reel tape decks running slightly out of sync to each other, so that Lennon's voice was essentially double tracked. This became known as artificial double tracking or flanging and dominated the vocal sound of Revolver.
Tape creativity: The enchantment of The Beatles with experimental sound didn't just make them loop their tapes but also splice and reverse them (backmasking), speed them up and slow them down. In doing so, they popularised techniques so far only employed by composers like Terry Riley and Karlheinz Stockhausen. After a while, The Beatles began insisting that every overdubbing be tried both forwards and backwards. Backmasking not only became a staple of The Beatles sound—from the guitar solo on I'm Only Sleeping to the drums on Strawberry Fields Forever, but also a key feature of the psychedelic sound library in general.
ATOC: The Beatles also utilized EMI's invention ATOC (Automatic Transient Overload Control) to add extra bass without creating problems with the stylus of record players. The Abbey Road Studios' website recalls that this “allowed mastering engineer Tony Clark to cut The Beatles’ Paperback Writer with an extremely high bass factor without causing the needle on a record player to jump”.
Tea towels & sweaters: At Emerick's behest, Ringo put tea towels across his drums to dampen the ring from the metal edges. This became the key to the Abbey Road drum sound. He also stuffed a sweater inside the kick drum, which is still standard recording practice today.
2. They revolutionised the album
Previous to (and in the early years of) The Beatles, recording sessions were usually a tightly scheduled process. Bands would more or less perform their songs live until the producers were happy with one of the versions. That way, whole albums were recorded in the span of a few hours. Consequently, the sound on the album and the sound on stage were more or less interchangeable, albums being a collection of neatly recorded live performances. Moreover, following the logic of the record market at the time, most albums would contain a few bankable singles with the rest as filler.
The four Liverpudlians changed all that. Having grown weary of touring in 1966 and having acquired the clout to just rent out Abbey Road Studios for as long as they wanted, they began redefining how music was conceived and produced. That is to say, the recording studio became an instrument of its own, perhaps the most important one. As they experimented with sound, splicing and reversing tape, maxing out the potential of 4-track and eventually 8-track machines, they created a sound that was not reproducible on stage. And so they simply did not try to reproduce it and instead became a studio band through and through. This also allowed them to reimagine album narration, most imperatively so with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Representing a fictional performance by The Beatles' alter egos, Sgt. Pepper had a single (albeit loose) overarching principle weaving all of the songs together, rather than just being a random collection. This made it (one of) the first concept albums of all time.
3. They brought album covers to the next level
Artistic album covers first entered the music scene in 1938 when Columbia Records hired their very first art director by the name of Alex Steinweiss. But it was The Beatles who spearheaded the evolution of the album cover functioning as a mere marketing tool to a work of art in its own right. Most notable in this regard were the covers for Revolver by German artist and friend of the band from their Hamburg days Klaus Voormann and the one for Sgt. Pepper by pop artist couple Peter Blake and Jann Haworth. Both covers won a Grammy for Best Recording Package in 1967 and 1968 respectively.
Going against the vogue of colorful album covers at the time, Voormann opted for a strict black and white composition so that the cover would mark a transition in the musical development of the band. Illustrating a shift away from their previous pop music style towards a new psychedelic vibe, his album art consisted of stylised drawings of John, Paul, George, and Ringo interspersed with images that photographer Bob Whitaker had taken of them. This combination of the different techniques of line drawing and collage gave a sense of surrealism and otherworldliness and invoked parallel spheres of consciousness. Like Rubber Soul, the band name was not found on the cover since The Beatles were already “more famous than Jesus” by John's own sarcastic admission.
Sgt. Pepper, the album on which The Beatles slipped into their alter egos to free themselves on a creative and emotional level, then came with an even more self-aware cover. Bringing together people (and their faces) from all walks of life in a photomontage, Blake and Haworth made visible a combination of high and low (popular) culture that The Beatles themselves stood for more than any other artist. The album cover interrogates what it means to be caught between the two dimensions of music—that of a commodity (and The Beatles themselves were one, too, as they were painfully aware) and that of an aesthetic object. Being The Beatles, they were as playful with that question as with everything else they touched. Sgt. Pepper was also the first album to display the lyrics on its packaging, inviting listeners to explore the record's intellectual content as well.
4. They helped kickstart youth culture
The idea that youth culture is separate from adult culture is a matter of course today. But it wasn't until the 1960s, and most prominently, until the advent of The Beatles that this sense of generational awareness broke out. The success of The Beatles and the Beatlemania which ensued (first in the UK, then in Europe, and after their performance on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, also in the US) was also a form of protest against the adult world, much like the entire counter culture of the 1960s.
To a historically unprecedented degree, young people experimented with music, art, fashion, sexual desire, drugs, morality, and advanced questions of identity and female liberation—and The Beatles provided a catalyst for this. As this generational conflict played out, the majority of the adult world stood by in awe and not without shock, and it was not before long that marketers started realising the enormous importance of popular culture and the extent to which young people had become its consumers and pioneers.
The Beatles guided this revolutionary change of lifestyle in the Western hemisphere. Their arrival may have been coincidental with youth and counterculture at first, but it inspired them to write songs that would become beacons of freedom and cultural transformation (e.g. All You Need Is Love). The Beatles themselves became projections for and icons of youth culture and change (first and foremost John Lennon), which for the first time in history became inextricably interwoven.
5. They were pivotal in the development of music videos
In the band's early years, clips for the hits were simply compiled from recordings of live and television performances. But the Fab Four can certainly be considered pioneers of the music video. Short films for music tracks already existed in the 1940s, when so-called “soundies” of the latest hits were produced for film jukeboxes. The Beatles were the first band, however, to use the video clip as a PR tool and they soon discovered its artistic possibilities.
17 years before MTV, The Beatles starred in their first major motion picture A Hard Day's Night, which in hindsight can be said to have preempted the music video, both in terms of its marketing aspect but also in terms of style and content. The film serves as silent drama with the music overlaid, while rhythmic cross-cutting, contrasting long shots and close-ups were used to create unity between the film and the music. Director Richard Lester often joked in later years that people called him the father of MTV. When The Beatles no longer toured or appeared on TV shows to promote their music, they simply substituted by making playful and chaotic music videos for songs like Paperback Writer, Hello Goodbye, Strawberry Fields Forever, and Penny Lane.
From the beginning, they found it simply too silly to just play a band while playing themselves. They interrogated and broke the rules of the new media at the time and what it meant to be a star in it. In I Want To Hold Your Hand, they play in front of the newspaper headlines they caused, with Ringo enthroned on a huge camera. In From Me To You, they play a beat band in the theater, Paul resembling a poodle, John grinning like a wolf. They ride scared through the parks in Penny Lane; while a bust of Charles Darwin stands between them in Paperback Writer; and the musicians from the symphonic orchestra sit there with phallic noses in A Day In The Life. Why? Simply because they could.
6. They made damn good music
This last and most important way in which The Beatles shook up the world of music is for everybody to find out at home with their record player or their headphones. Two anecdotes about the band's rivalry with (and impact on) its contemporaries convey what it meant when recording innovation, a busload full of creativity, two if not three of the best songwriters of all time, and more than a pinch of irreverence came together in the studio to create music that would last forever.
Creating Heavy Metal: When Paul McCartney read in the weekly music magazine Melody Maker that The Who claimed to have written the loudest and hardest rock song of all time in I Can See For Miles, he naturally couldn't let that stand. Deciding that The Beatles had to claim the title for themselves, he set out to write Helter Skelter. When The Who heard the song, they must have turned green with envy. McCartney screams his head off at the mic, Ringo tears apart his drum kit to his heart's content, and the guitars sound so distorted that one can only come to one conclusion. With this song, The Beatles paved the way for heavy metal.
Giving The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson a nervous breakdown: While The Beach Boys had always maintained a friendly rivalry with The Beatles, Brian Wilson was very down indeed when he heard Sgt. Pepper for the first time. Inspired, if not incited, by Rubber Soul to write the masterpiece Pet Sounds, Wilson tried to beat The Beatles to leading the way into the future of rock music. Following the success of Pet Sounds, Wilson was working on an album called Smile, seeking to create a completely new sound and turn every convention in rock music on its head. But Pet Sounds, in turn, had encouraged McCartney to conceive Sgt. Pepper. When Wilson heard it for the first time, he allegedly pulled over in his car, broke into tears and said, “They got there first”. He subsequently stopped working on Smile and sank into a deep depression.
Perhaps due to anecdotes like these, legend has it that Bing Crosby feared Frank Sinatra, who feared Elvis Presley, who in turn feared The Beatles—and The Beatles feared no one. Without a doubt, the musical output of The Beatles became increasingly bold. Reinventing themselves with every album, sometimes just in the span of a few months, John, Paul, George, and Ringo transformed popular music into an irrefutable art form in their own right. Just about every pop and rock artist who came after has relied on them as a chief influence. It is hard to comprehend from today's point of view, but the reality is this: in just seven short years, four working-class moptops from Liverpool turned the world of music upside down.
Put on your favourite pair of headphones and enjoy these iconic tunes by The Beatles.
Cover Credit: The Beatles, The Ed Sullivan Show, New York. 1964. Gotfryd, Bernard, photographer / Alamy
Writer | Jan-David Franke
Jan-David is a journalist from the motherland of fun: Germany. He loves merging with good music and being in the moment. Oh, and he is still trying to find out where the wild things really are. If you have seen them, please let him know.