Experiments in Sound and Sense: The Beatles (1966-69) – Influences

Photograph of The Beatles as they arrive in Ne...

I. The Beatles – Influences

“Where do they all come from?”

The last recording the Beatles created in 1965 was ‘Girl’; a stripped-down acoustic number harnessing instrumentation from the days of the Cavern Club, and easily reproducible live.[1] Merely four months later, the colossal ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ was being formed. And whilst the recognisable song-writing characteristics of each individual Beatle remain honestly constant; showcasing youth induced guidance from Elvis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry among others, with George Martin’s help, this staggering rate of progression as arrangers simultaneously demonstrates their inability to remain idle and highlights their intensely acute awareness of surrounding developments in society and culture.

If we examine the band’s rivals during this period, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds reoccurs ostensibly, McCartney labelling it ‘”he album of all time”[2]. It was released alongside Revolver and became the obvious album to vanquish, succeeding in time with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was during their final tour in 1966 that Bob Dylan’s newest offering Blonde on Blonde was heard for the first time[3], and we know Dylan inspired a conscious awareness of lyrical sense in the lads, more so it seems towards Lennon who had stopped using “words because they didn’t make sense – or what we thought was sense […] Dylan taught us a lot in this respect.”[4]

A profound exploration of the experimental scene on McCartney’s part revealed an emerging genre from tape music, musique concrete, and one of its signature pieces ‘Gesang der Junglinge’ by Karlheinz Stockhausen, as the inspiration behind his avant-garde film and tape loop ventures at his home in St. John’s Wood[5], five of which were supplied to revolutionise the sonic context of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ (bizarrely the ‘Red Indian’ at 0.08 is simply a superimposed and accelerated McCartney laughing).[6] Jane Asher also had him listening to Vivaldi, whose classical influence drenches ‘Eleanor Rigby’.[7] Despite their musical illiteracy, The Beatles would often sing their imagined instrumental arrangements to be transcribed as sheet music by George Martin.

An insight into Lennon’s song writing techniques suggest reliance on given material, sometimes playing through another artist’s song and changing bits until it is a piece independent of its starting point. Although the tempo has been lowered significantly, ‘Come Together’ certainly bears striking similarities to Chuck Berry’s ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ lyrically: “here come old flat top, he was grooving up with me”, the rhythm and phrasing of the melody and lyrics throughout are alike, over a similar rate of harmonic change; Berry’s publisher consequently sued Lennon, but interestingly only after he admitted it. Comparably, according to Lennon ‘Because’ is allegedly ‘Moonlight Sonata’ played backwards, though whilst the composer remains adamant, this is not strictly true.[8]

Striving to keep things fresh and interesting, The Beatles’ experimentation evolved to song-writing itself, reaching a pinnacle with the variety of diverse genres parodied throughout The Beatles (The White Album). The Baroque ‘Piggies’, the raw blues of ‘Yer Blues’, the British musical hall of ‘Honey Pie’, the ‘Revolution #9’ tape piece and the Hollywood orchestration of ‘Good Night’ signified a giant step away from a previously singles based industry. Harrison admits that ‘‘Revolution Number 9’ ‘was all right, but it wasn’t particularly like a Beatles thing. But it worked very well in the context of all those different songs.’[9]

Undeniably one of the biggest connections to be made between the Beatles’ musical experimentation, was their substance experimentation. Whilst Lennon argues that “the drugs are to prevent the rest of the world from crowding in on you, they don’t make you write any better”[10], the effect is still resounding. Habitually for a Lennon composition lyrics often began his writing process, thus driving the song accordingly: The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead by Timothy Leary provided ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ with the line “turn off your mind, relax, float downstream'”, with only the deduction of the ‘and’ conjunction.[11] And if its composer hadn’t taken LSD one wonders if Peter Fonda’s claim that he “knew what it’s like to be dead'” would have had the same effect, and ‘She Said She Said’ would have never been born.

In the transition between finishing ‘Love You To’, the first fully realised Beatles sitar song, and recording Sgt. Pepper, George Harrison flew out to India at the invitation of Ravi Shankar to further develop his Sitar playing.[12] In regards to ‘I Am The Walrus’, Lennon said this was about ‘putting down Hare Krishna. All these people were going on about Hare Krishna, Allen Ginsberg in particular’.[13] And after following the Maharishi for spiritual guidance, as 1968 began they enjoyed time in India where they arguably had their most creative spell as songwriters, writing around 30 songs between them. Donavon taught Lennon the finger picking technique heard on ‘Dear Prudence’, ‘Julia’ and ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’ and he confirms, ‘regardless of what I was supposed to be doing […] I did write some of my best songs there’.[14]

It is significant to note that Lennon met Yoko Ono on November 9th 1966, as the Beatles’ experimental phase commenced. Furthermore ‘Revolution #9’ was made barely three weeks after Lennon and Ono became lovers, recording the equally experimental Two Virgins as celebration, her avant-garde work and background having an extensive effect on Lennon.[15] She asked ‘why do you always use that beat all the time, the same beat, why don’t you do something more complex?’[16], and thus his rhythmic experiments ensued reaching a peak of complexity with ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’.

The Beatles entire back catalogue is now available to download on iTunes.

– James Godwin, December 6th, 2010

[1] Macdonald, Ian, Revolution in the Head, p.181.

[2] Macdonald, p.215

[3] Everett, Walter, The Beatles as Musicians: Revolver through the Anthology p.70

[5] Macdonald, p.225

[6] Macdonald, p.190.

[7] Everett, p.51

[8] Macdonald, p.365.

[10] “Did Dylan Thomas write Under Milk Wood on beer?’ What does that have to do with it? The beer is to prevent the rest of the world from crowding in on you […] I never wrote any better stuff because I was on acid or not on acid.” Beatles Anthology, p.222.

[11] Everett, p.35.

[12] Glass, Philip, “George Harrison, World-Music Catalyst and Great-Souled Man”, The New York Times. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C01EED9163CF93AA35751C1A9679C8B63. Retrieved 24-01-2010.

[14] The Beatles, Beatles Anthology, p.283

[15] “Yoko was there for the whole thing and she made decisions about which loops to use. It was somewhat under her influence, I suppose. Once I heard her stuff– not just the screeching and the howling but her sort of word pieces and talking and breathing and all this strange stuff, I thought, My God, I got intrigued… so I wanted to do one. I spent more time on ‘Revolution 9’ than I did on half the songs I ever wrote.” http://www.beatlesinterviews.org/dba09white.html

[16] Wenner, Jann, Lennon Remembers, p.101.

Copyright © 2010. James Godwin. All rights reserved.