A Brief History of The Beatles


Last week we published a Beatles Playlist of songs compiled by Every Record Tells A Story readers which we hope will persuade my friend, a Sceptical Swede that The Beatles are actually a half-decent band. 

In case you missed it, my friend, code-named Agaton, finds Lennon and McCartney’s singing as annoying as he does the sound of Katie Hopkins’ being scraped down a blackboard. 

Actually that’s a terrible image. Sorry. 

Here’s the playlist:

It’s a bit tricky to present someone with two hours of music with little to no explanation or context, so I took it upon myself to write some simple context. It’s a potted history of The Beatles and their songs, so I thought I would share it here too….

Beatles Playlist Liner Notes

Dear Agaton,

Here’s what you need to know about this playlist…

It was put together by the readers of Every Record Tells A Story, a knowledgeable lot, all passionate about music. I told them The Beatles set your teeth on edge, and they were keen to come up with some songs that might help you overcome the problem, without having to remove your teeth. 

(That’s still the next best option, incidentally. Teeth are overrated).

With most bands, this isn’t possible. If you find The Beach Boys’ high harmonies irritating it’s unfortunate, but it probably means the Beach Boys aren’t for you. If you find The Rolling Stones’ blues based rock a little dull, there isn’t much beyond “Satanic Majesties…” that would give you an alternative. Joni Mitchell’s folkie stylings, Basement Jaxx’s beats, Mariah Carey’s melisma, Liam Gallagher’s sneer, The XX’s minimalist electronica, Motorhead’s thunder…they are all a question of taste. 

The Beatles are different. 

Because, as this playlist shows, they did a little bit of everything. Not only that, but they did much of it before anyone else had even thought of it. 

The Beatles started playing songs at parties and clubs, and honed their act in Hamburg’s red light district between 1960 and 1962 playing covers of rock n roll, Motown and pop records such as “Long Tall Sally”, and “A Taste of Honey” for five or more hours a day. They were a bit of a rabble, but were signed by EMI’s A&R man / producer George Martin. 

At Abbey Road studios they recorded their first album, “Please Please Me” in just one day. It went to number one in the album charts for thirty weeks, only being replaced at the top spot by their second album, “With The Beatles” on which appeared a cover of Smokey Robinson and The Miracles’ “You Really Got A Hold On Me”. 

Their song writing developed and by the time of their fifth album “Help!” they were developing new styles, such as John’s Bob Dylan-influenced “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” and Paul’s classic “Yesterday”, the melody for which he dreamt, and which began life with the lyric “Scrambled eggs, oh baby how I love your legs”. 

It’s probably for the best that he worked on it for a few days…

Rubber Soul was album number six, and the beginning of some real songwriting craft, featuring diverse tunes such as “You Won’t See Me”, Lennon’s reflective “In My Life” and “Norwegian Wood” the latter of which was the first Western record to feature a sitar. 

By this time The Beatles had become the first group to headline stadiums – whilst everyone else was playing theatres. At Shea stadium they played to 56,000 people. 

Frankly, they were bigger than Jesus, who, even at his peak, only managed crowds of five thousand, albeit the catering angle the Messiah had was impressive. 

Unfortunately, there was consternation in America’s Bible Belt when Lennon was quoted as saying The Beatles were more popular than Jesus. The KKK threatened the tour with violence. In the Phillipines The Beatles upset an entire nation by accidentally snubbing Imelda Marcos by not appearing at a reception. In Japan, there were protests at their playing the Budokan. 

So you’re not alone in not liking The Beatles. The Marcos family, the KKK and Japanese sumo wrestling fans all didn’t like the Beatles. Death Vader probably wouldn’t like them either. 

I hope that makes you feel better. 

They knocked the touring on the head. They couldn’t hear themselves anyway – technology hadn’t yet caught up with their live shows and The Marshall Stack was still being invented.

Instead, The Beatles settled down at Abbey Road Studios to make the groundbreaking “Revolver”. “Taxman” gave Paul Weller the riff for “Start” fifteen years later. “Here, There and Everywhere” is a perfect ballad and “For No One” is a companion piece to “Eleanor Rigby”, both accompanied by orchestration, the latter talking dispassionately about death, the former about lost love. 

And then there was “Tomorrow Never Knows”.

A song that takes as a base the “drone” of Indian music – and the first attempt at such music in Western pop – Tomorrow Never Knows was truly ground-breaking in a mainstream used to a verse / chorus / repeat song structure. From here much electronic music, dance music and sampling can find its roots. 

The drum sound, played on a pair of Tom Toms, tuned down, compressed and with echo added, sound Eastern in origin. Added to this were five looped tapes, including one that sounds like a seagull (actually Paul’s laughter recorded and sped up), and others made from recording a mellotron, an orchestra and a sitar. There was just a four track recorder at Abbey Road, so imagine a console room filled with long pieces of tape looped around pencils recording this stuff and you won’t be far off. 

Paul’s guitar solo in Taxman was reversed and slowed down, to which was added John’s lyrics based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the whole effect designed to recreate the feeling of being on LSD. Lennon’ vocal was recorded by rotating a speaker – a technique used by Hammond organs – to give the impression of his floating in and out of range, or as John put it, to make him sound like the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan monks chanting on a mountain top. The original idea was to hang John from the ceiling and rotate him, something swiftly rejected, and he always slightly regretted not being able to actually hire monks…
This experimentation was unprecedented in pop music. 

Then there was The Beatles’ finest B-side “Rain” – which effectively knocks anything Oasis recorded into a cocked hat and was recorded 28 years before the Gallagher brothers realised how to shave between their eyes. That Paul bass line is a thing of beauty. 

With touring over, next came Sgt Pepper, an album that dominated 1967. George wrote the Eastern influenced “Within You, Without You”. “Lovely Rita” and “Fixing A Hole” are both McCartney songs. 

After Sgt Pepper, The Beatles, seeking spiritual enlightenment, and possibly a good curry (except Ringo who brought a suitcase of baked beans with him) went to Rishikesh in India with the Maharishi, a spiritual guide. They had fame and fortune, but, as Bono would later articulate, they still hadn’t found what they were looking for. Life had become turbulent. Their manager, Brian Epstein had died from an overdose. Their TV film, Magical Mystery Tour, (including “The Fool on the Hill”) had been misunderstood, and they sought sanctuary and peace. 

The resulting music was written in India on acoustic guitar, (Mother Nature’s Son, Blackbird, Dear Prudence) and it is interesting that many of the song recommendations on this playlist come from the resulting double album called simply “The Beatles” and better known as “The White Album”, including “Yer Blues”, Happiness Is A Warm Gun”, “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide (Except Me And My Monkey)”, “Glass Onion”, “I’m So Tired”, “Helter Skelter”, “Back In The U.S.S.R.” and “Long Long Long”, the latter of which is a lovely song by George. Listen for the strange rattle thirty seconds before the end caused by the vibration of a bottle of wine on Paul’s Hammond organ, which George and Paul then play along with to finish the song. 

George Harrison was showing his qualities as a songwriter by now with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. When you hear this song, and “Something” from the Abbey Road LP – or even the b-side only “Old Brown Shoe” and “It’s All Too Much” from the Yellow Submarine soundtrack it’s extraordinary to think that Harrison was only the third best songwriter in The Beatles. 

The last two albums were Let It Be and Abbey Road. From these, our readers did suggest the whole of the Abbey Road Medley – which is almost all of side 2 of the album. If you like the songs on the playlist, I’d listen to this next, along with the whole of Revolver – another recommendation. 

In the meantime enjoy “Don’t Let Me Down”, “Dig A Pony” and “Oh! Darling”. 

Which brings us finally to the last track in the playlist, from The White Album, the extraordinary “Revolution 9” which is of the style known as musique concrète and which the readers judged that even if no one else likes it, maybe you are the one person who might….



Categories: Music

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3 replies

  1. That’s a great little summary of a world-changing career which is almost impossible to summarise. Nicely personalised for your friend too.

    One little point, which I make respectfully, and I hope isn’t nit-picking. You’ve confused the story and lyrics of Dear Prudence with Sexy Sadie….

    From one music obsessive to another, here’s to another 5 years of a great blog. I love the new angles for familiar topics.

    Cheers Dave

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yeah as Dave intimated, keep on producing these gems. There’s a lot of crap written when it comes to music and record collecting. Your blog is a great antidote.

    Liked by 1 person

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