How Did the Beatles Revolutionise Contemporary Music?

How did the recording sessions of The Beatles change music production from the 60s and onwards?

The Beatles during the Sgt Pepper's era

The Beatles were unique in the way that they were often directly involved in the production of their singles and albums. Paul McCartney stated that:

“If I go into a session now I’m invariably the artist, I’m probably the      producer, I’m certainly the bass player and so on and so on. I’m involved with the remix engineer. I’m involved in all the steps (Lewisohn, 1988).

Not only did The Beatles become more and more involved in the production of their music across the decade, but they had a sensational head music producer, George Martin, whose name still rings today in the industry as a man who essentially created, along with The Beatles themselves, what is known as the greatest album of all time, Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. (Rolling Stone, 2012) 

In 1962, at the beginning of The Beatles' career, after The Beatles had been rejected by Decca, Brian Epstein managed to secure his group with an audition for EMI Production at Abbey Road Studios with George Martin, who worked primarily on classical or comedy records at the time. (beatlesbible.com) This opened up a window of opportunities for The Beatles as they were signed to a contract with EMI on the 4th of June 1962, and began to produce music with them on the sixth that same month.  

George Martin was skeptical about the group to begin with, especially musically, but he decided to sign them on their wit alone. In an interview for Melody Maker magazine, he said that “As composers, they didn’t rate…I liked them as people apart from anything else” (Kuebler, 2016) This is where Martin came into The Beatles’ career, helping them to arrange and produce their music in a way that would make them stand out as a pop sensation.

In 1962, The Beatles began to record their debut LP, Please Please Me, which would later go on to hit No. 2 in the UK charts and remain in the charts for 18 consecutive weeks (officialcharts.com). George Martin helped them incessantly with recording this album, and changed a lot of The Beatles’ plans. They didn’t necessarily agree with a lot of the decisions that Martin made, for example swapping out Ringo Starr as drummer on the recordings and instead hiring Andy White, who was more of a session musician than Ringo, who was better suited for live performance. It's quite easy to see that although this may have been the right decision from a production point of view, it degraded Ringo, a talented drummer, to playing a simple rhythm on a single tambourine. According to Paul McCartney, Martin also changed the whole arrangement of “Love Me Do” that they had been singing for years. George Martin also introduced them to the idea of using a string quartet or string orchestra in their music, an idea to which they turned their noses up at in the beginning, but then went on to use an orchestra iconically in “A Day In The Life” and other songs. Although these executive decisions might not have always pleased the group, looking back on the changes that George Martin made in the beginning, they seem to agree that it would have been the best way for them to become successful as a band. Paul said that “George was very, very helpful in the early days. He was the mastermind then.” This progressed into The Beatles gradually becoming more independent in their own production, with them saying to Martin “’We’re coming in late [to the studio] and we might not need you’” (Lewisohn, 1988).

Once The Beatles became more involved in the production of their music, they were unbeatable. They wanted to innovate their music, change it and develop new methods original to other artists. In “I’m Only Sleeping,” they decided to record the guitar solo backwards and then play the recording in reverse in the song. John Lennon also had the idea to be suspended from the ceiling of the studio and spun around the microphone to give a unique vocal effect. One extremely effective aspect they used while recording “Yellow Submarine,” was that they covered the microphone with a cup and sang to it to give the effect that they were submerged in water. Today, all that is needed to create that effect is to push a slider on a control panel and the recording can be given that sound (Lewisohn, 1988).

“What kept the Beatles head and shoulders above everyone else is that they were prepared to change, do different things. No one record was a carbon copy of another. We never fell into the Star Wars II syndrome, remaking something under a new title” George Martin (Coleman, 1995).

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the album that peaked The Beatles’ career, reaching No. 1 in the UK charts and staying at that position for 28 weeks, as well as being in the charts for 271 weeks overall (officialcharts.com). They innovated music production with this album alone, and in “Sgt Pepper’s Musical Revolution with Howard Goodall,” we are told about all the creative and unusual ideas that The Beatles and George Martin used in producing this album. It’s clear that they spent a lot more time on this album than they had with their previous albums, and they were able to do this after making the decision to end their touring years and therefore focus on composition and production.

Although John Lennon’s reminiscent Liverpool theme, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” was not on the Sgt Pepper’s album itself, it was released as a Double A-Side single in 1967 with “Penny Lane” and was recorded during the Sgt Pepper sessions, therefore I will class it as a part of the Sgt Pepper’s project. “Strawberry Fields Forever” was such a visionary and innovative song because of how it was produced, including using a melatron keyboard played by Paul for the beginning wispy notes that are so iconic to the song (Sgt Pepper's Musical Revolution, 2017). What inspires me in particular is the fact that John Lennon wanted two completely different takes recorded ten days apart, with different instruments playing at different tempos and volume and in two different keys, to be joined together seamlessly. After telling this idea to George Martin, he said that this would probably be impossible and that this had never been even tried before, as magnetic tape recorders do not have a variable speed function. However, a sound engineer working on the Sgt Pepper’s project, Ken Townsend, practically invented a tape recorder like this, with a variable speed function, and put the two takes together to a point where it is difficult to tell where the cut is (Lewisohn, 1988). As Howard Goodall stated in the “Sgt Pepper’s Musical Revolution” documentary, nowadays you can download a phone app that can easily do it, which clearly demonstrates a single linear way that The Beatles revolutionised an aspect of music production with a single song.

There are many unique production methods used for the songs that made the LP. In particular what stands out to me is the four-track recording machine that they used. Particularly in “Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite” we can remark upon the new innovation of using the four-track machine to layer more than four tracks at a time, which was a new feat for producers at the time. They would record four tracks onto the recording machine spaces, for instance in Mr Kite they used the machine to record Paul’s bass guitar, the piano chord sequence, Ringo’s drumming and John’s guide vocals. They then mixed down three out of four of the tracks to make one singular track that would occupy the machine and then so on. This was a new technique used by George Martin and The Beatles which is now used by artists every day (Sgt Pepper's Musical Revolution, 2017).

As well as this, the production team also artificially raised the voices on “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” using a method that we now use frequently in production called vary speed, which changes the timbre and tone of the voice as well as the pitch. In “She’s Leaving Home,” Paul McCartney not only used counterpoint to demonstrate the several perspectives of the lyrics, but also wrote in an Aeolian folk mode, a key rarely used in popular music especially at that time, without being conscious that he was writing in it.

“A Day In The Life” concludes the Sgt Peppers LP and reflects the entire album in two songs from two different composers that come together as one piece. In terms of the rhythm, it is unconventional because of the syncopated interjections made by Ringo on the tom-toms, which is very atypical for popular or rock and roll music, but more linked to the percussion in classical music. Classical music became an inspiration for Paul McCartney in particular and they used an orchestra at the very end of the song in an aleatoric (random) method. For this iconic and visionary ending, they told the orchestra to begin by playing the lowest note possible on their instruments and then ascending from this starting point randomly playing any note while also increasing the volume at which they are playing until they reach a certain time, by which they should be playing the highest note of their instruments range. This was completely unheard of, and still so revolutionary to this day. The ascension symbolises how the song was the “emotional and artistic climax” of the album. Not only was this end sequence very ground-breaking, but the final chord also proves the ingenuity of The Beatles. The final E chord is played on nine keyboards, that being seven acoustic pianos, one electronic keyboard and a harmonium, to create the grand and sudden effect. This chord also fades out for a total of 43 seconds, which is three seconds longer than a suspension pedal would allow on an acoustic piano, however they did this fade out technologically and therefore it is far more powerful than it could be done mechanically (Sgt Peppers Musical Revolution, 2017).

In summary, The Beatles changed the path of music production in Abbey Road Studios for all musicians that came after them. They were the first artists to become so interested and involved with the production of their own compositions and work, which is what made the Sgt Pepper’s album in particular so unique and original. They have inspired so many musicians after them to produce independently, and they wouldn’t have been able to do any of it without Sir George Martin. The Beatles and the team at Abbey Road Studios together changed the world of popular music for more than 50 years as of yet. 

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