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Exploring The Innovation Of The Beatles


The story of how the Beatles took the world by storm is one which continues to intrigue millions, even today. In the insanely short span of eight years, they managed to define the zeitgeist of their generation.


If we are to take a look at the popular bands in England before The Beatles exploded onto the scene, we find several bands which were influenced by the American rock-and-rollers like Chuck Berry and Elvis. The influence, however, did not extend both ways across the pond. While early British beat groups like Gerry and The Pacemakers, Bill Fury and the Tornadoes, etc. enjoyed great fame and success in the UK, they remained virtually unknown in America. On the off chance that a British band did get to tour the US, they were not usually well received. The Beatles were the band that changed this stereotype forever.


On their first tour of the US in 1964, the Beatles were greeted at JFK Airport by a crowd of three thousand screaming fans, fighting and scrambling to get a look at them. Their new single, "Love Me Do" had been doing exceptionally well in the US charts, and word had spread. The Beatles were swarmed by such crowds of hysterical fans wherever they performed on their US circuit.


It was absolutely unheard of for a British group to spark such excitement in the US. Baffled American journalists dubbed this phenomenon as "Beatlemania." Such was the frenzy generated by this band that when the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, they drew the largest viewing audience in US television history. An estimated 73 million households had tuned into their performance — or about thirty percent of the American population!


This wild and unprecedented success of the Beatles in America opened the floodgates to a cultural upheaval which is now referred to as "The British Invasion". All of a sudden, British rock bands like the Dave Clark Five, The Rolling Stones, etc. were enjoying mainstream popularity in American pop culture.


The Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger had this to say about the influence of the Beatles:

"Their success in America broke down a lot of doors that helped everyone else from England that followed. And I thank them very much for all those things."


In 1963, The Rolling Stones were not quite as famous as The Beatles, and were still struggling for a commercial breakthrough. Believe it or not, it was Lennon and McCartney who gave the Stones an original song of theirs which went on to become their first big hit, I Wanna Be Your Man.


The Beatles came up with their own style quite literally too what with their distinct hairstyle and pristine suits that marked the swinging sixties. Their originality was no less than a brand of its own that completely revolutionised the lifestyle of youths.


The vast musical knowledge shared by the four band members George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, resulted in them experimenting with various instruments and genres, often in unconventional and previously unthought of ways. For instance, they became the first ever Western rock band to use the sitar on a commercial record, with the release of Norwegian Wood, following which Harrison took personal sitar lessons from none other than the maestro Ravi Shankar himself.


The Beatles were also pioneers in the studio. They were always open to experimenting with novel concepts, such as on the track "Tomorrow Never Knows". This enchanting song, featured at the end of their album Revolver, was one of the first rock songs to use tape loop "samples" for a psychedelic effect. John Lennon was also keen on experimenting with vocal effects on this song. According to EMI sound engineer Geoff Emerick, Lennon asked him to make his voice "sound like a thousand Tibetan monks, chanting from the mountains." Faced with this abstract request, Emerick improvised. He had the idea of trying to re-record the vocals through a spinning Leslie speaker cabinet instead, which resulted in the haunting, swirling vocal effect we hear in the song. This was the kind of quirky innovation that the Beatles loved.


According to Paul McCartney:

"We would say, try it. Just try it for us. If it sounds crappy, okay, we'll lose it. But it might just sound good. We were always pushing ahead: Louder, further, longer, more, different."


In many ways, the Beatles refused to be constrained by the technology of their time, and were constantly looking for ways to work around the limitations they faced. For example, The Beatles only ever had access to four-track recording machines throughout their career (with the exception of their Abbey Road album, which was recorded on a new eight-track machine.)


To fit all the tracks for different instruments on Sgt. Pepper onto a four-track machine, the Beatles producer George Martin manually synchronised multiple four-track machines, daisy-chaining them together to one master four-track recorder. This method, although now obsolete, was a cutting-edge technique at the time. It allowed the Beatles to use a larger number of tracks in the studio, nearly a decade before timecode-synchronised tape machines were invented.


It is next to impossible to talk about the history of music without mentioning The Beatles. Although Lennon and Harrison have passed on, Starr and McCartney continue to make appearances even today. Their legacy has stood the test of time like no other band, even after half a century, for there are few who have completely revolutionised music as we know it today.


by Mukund Daga and Aishik Roy

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