Illustration by Ben Beechener
It is difficult to know where to begin when discussing a band as influential as The Beatles – arguably the most influential of all time. From mellow songs such as “Julia” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, to more upbeat sing-alongs such as “Let It Be” and “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da”, you would struggle to find someone who cannot appreciate the musical mastery displayed by The Beatles. The band changed the music scene forever, and set trends which are still being followed today. The Beatles were inventive, creative, ambitious, and their willingness to try new and exciting things has influenced so many artists. More than 600 million albums by the band have been sold worldwide, and their songs have been covered by hundreds of musicians, such as Frank Sinatra, Elton John, Elvis Presley and David Bowie to name just a few.
The Beatles were widely known for the way in which they experimented with different genres of music – although the members did not have extensive musical training, they knew lots about musical styles and used this to their advantage. Genres which the band experimented with included rock, pop, folk, blues, jazz and classical. For example, Paul McCartney has said that “Blackbird” was inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Bourrée in E Minor”, while “Within You, Without You” has a clear Indian influence. This track was in fact inspired by Harrison’s stay in India in 1966 with his mentor and sitar teacher, Ravi Shankar. The Beatles also liked to use unconventional song form, such as in “A Day in A Life”, which has a fourth part along with the verses, chorus and bridge. The band was incredibly innovative and creative, and this was something which was admired by other artists of the time, and still is highly respected by artists today. Several artists, including Billy Joel and Dave Grohl, have said that the variation in style displayed by The Beatles is something that has hugely impacted their music.
The Beatles also liked to play with more unconventional instruments such as the kazoo, harmonica, banjo, tambura and sitar. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys has said that the sitar was something which was unforgettable when he first listened to “Norwegian Wood”. Wilson said: “no one had heard that in rock and roll back then, this amazing, exotic sound. It really inspired the instrumentation I ended up using for Pet Sounds.” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is often said to be the most influential album released by The Beatles, and McCartney has said that this album made a huge difference to popular music culture, encouraging other bands to stop playing it safe, and to push the boundaries instead. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd said that the album partly inspired The Dark Side of The Moon, which is considered by many to be one of the best albums of all time. Waters said that he “learned from Lennon, McCartney and Harrison that it was okay for us to write about our lives and express what we felt.” He also stated that it gave the band “permission to branch out and do whatever we wanted.”
Albums such as Sgt. Pepper’s also helped to re-define the “studio as an instrument” according to the producer George Martin, who produced every Beatles album except Let It Be. Multi-tracking was used to help blend Western music with jazz, psychedelic rock, Indian music and pop, and Martin introduced other new techniques such as feedback and looping into popular music. He also helped to create “Tomorrow Never Knows” which, when released in 1966, was unlike anything that had been recorded up to that point. It used a spinning speaker and played sounds in reverse to create a very unusual and psychedelic-sounding track – the readiness of the band to use such striking and unusual techniques was something which encouraged other bands such as Oasis and Kiss to attempt a similar thing.
The ‘Fab Four’ sparked the Beatlemania phenomenon in 1963 – this term was coined by the British press to describe the frenzied hysteria surrounding The Beatles and their work. The US promoter Sid Bernstein said that he was certain that the band “could sway a presidential election if they wanted to.” The power which The Beatles held over the masses was colossal, and their work influenced society to a very large extent. The band was not only immensely popular in Britain, but also in the United States after the British Invasion – a cultural phenomenon which The Beatles essentially triggered, in which British music became popular in the USA. The British Invasion internationalised the production of rock and roll and pop music, and allowed other British performers to become globally popular.
The group’s image changed how teenagers thought and effectively advocated a disregard for the opinions of adults and ideas of morality. Many young people began to look into ideas such as sexual morality, politics, art and fashion. The band popularised long hair, which was very unusual for the time. The ‘mop-top’ became desirable, as did the Cuban style ‘Beatle boots’ and Nehru jackets worn by the band members. The Beatles had the power to influence people’s thoughts and stood up against injustice whilst encouraging others to do the same. They spoke up about issues such as racial segregation and even refused to perform at a planned concert in Florida unless the audience was integrated, which was eventually allowed. The Beatles also came from Liverpool, a working-class city, and their success caused a sense of solidarity in Liverpool and Merseyside. They were proud of where they came from and this unsettled class stereotypes.
The Beatles have inspired generations of artists to create their own music, from Miley Cyrus to Nirvana and from Lady Gaga to The Eagles, while also influencing society in so many ways. It may have been fifty years since The Beatles split up, but their legacy can never be forgotten.