It’s been 50 years since “Love Me Do’s” gruff northern harmonica and infectious melody sent The Beatles scurrying to the top of the charts for the first time. Beatlemania quickly ensued and The Beatles became the world’s most in demand act seemingly overnight. Today, boy band frenzies are derided: a stage-managed, cynical, and wholly uninteresting affair where the music itself feels entirely secondary - a trifling consideration next to global branding strategies. However, for The Beatles the pressure of being a pop phenomenon was pivotal to their artistic development.
They weren’t supposed to last. Defined by limited sell by dates, pop groups existed to be mercilessly milked for every last penny before they were discarded to the novelty trash heap like shoddy Christmas ornaments. They had to work fast to meet fleeting demand. The Beatles didn’t come from Greenwich Village’s intellectual tradition like their great rival Bob Dylan, but they quickly came to adopt the credo of the avant garde: evolve or die.
The Beatles didn’t simply have to fear becoming passé; the success of “Love Me Do” ensured that John, Paul, George and Ringo had to stay simultaneously ahead of the curve and populist. They were more than up to the task of course, but by the time they’d asserted themselves as pop culture’s definitive immovable object they faced a new challenge.
Progression proved infectious as they entered an innovation arms race with their great contemporaries Dylan, The Byrds, The Who, The Kinks and The Beach Boys. The Beatles weren’t afforded the opportunity of looking back. They were music front-runners, and on the 50th anniversary of their inaugural No.1, Guitar Planet celebrates the seven moments when The Fab Four leapt ahead of the curve and redefined guitar music.
1963 Within two short years of their arrival The Beatles had girls screaming and guys dancing on both sides of the globe. The secret to their success goes deeper than simply penning perfect pop tunes with swooning melodies (although that certainly didn’t hurt), The Beatles connected with fans in Osaka, London and Long Beach on a more fundamental level. Their frenetic arrangements captured the nervous energy bubbling under the surface of the awkward teens and anxious young adults of the baby boomer generation.
“I Saw Her Standing There”, “She Loves You”, and “It Won’t Be Long” buzz and bristle with the energy of a thousand gigs at The Cavern Club and in Hamburg. The Beatles learnt their trade by making real people dance, so naturally, when they hit the studio they retained that impetuous energy. John and Paul practically stumble over each other to get to the next chorus. The guitars bounce and squeak holding a sway rhythm but threatening to break it at any moment, and the vocals are deliciously spikey. The dance floor seduction of “I Saw Her Standing There”, the raw urges of “She Loves You”, and the sulky centre-of-the-universe petulance of “Don’t Bother Me” all harbour the unmistakable feeling of wanting desperately to dance, but not quite knowing how.
1964 By 1964 The Beatles had taken tentative steps away from the pre-pop of the 50s, but world domination was not yet assured. The Liverpudlian lads were still maturing as they faced greater and greater challenges. 1964 brought with it global success and the band’s celluloid debut. Wanting to start their film with a bang, John Lennon wrote the eponymous track “A Hard Day’s Night” in just three hours, and bizarrely, what should have been a throwaway effort, turned into one of music’s greatest progressions.
The Beatles never took their foot of the gas. From the arresting clang of Harrison’s opening chord (Fadd9 if you’re still wondering) to the masterful arpeggio of the very same chord that creates the track’s seductive outro, this was the sound of the Beatles dashing ahead of the competition. Compared to their earlier pop songs “A Hard Day’s Night” offered so much content. The incredible vocals naturally distract attention, but blistering pitter-patter drums and the wonderful interplay between Harrison’s Rickenbacker and Martin’s piano are vitally important in creating the most action packed two-and-a-half-minutes in pop.
1965 The Beatles were unashamedly of the moment in their early years, but as they entered a headlong sprint to keep pace with Bob Dylan and The Kinks, they had to trade in the lightness of pop for the heaviness of rock. “Ticket For Ride” might sound like classic pop by today’s standards, but at its heart are big heavy droning Indian guitar licks. The kind of deep ruminating notes that Black Sabbath would turn up to 11 to kick start the Heavy Metal revolution four years later. Ringo’s drumming is equally forceful: big bludgeoning strikes and quick rolls. Obviously being The Beatles this is no thuggish smash and grab, “Ticket To Ride” sounds trippy, like a waterfall in reverse, and Lennon and McCartney’s harmonies are cloying and insistent.
“Ticket To Ride” was a startling breakthrough that would inform generations of innovators - from Black Sabbath to The Stones Roses. Before 1965 was out The Beatles would meet Dylan, smoke weed, and write Rubber Soul, the great British pop record – but it all started with “Ticket To Ride”.
1966 By 1966 The Beatles were breaking new ground with some regularity, but for all Revolver and Rubber Soul’s brilliance, they were quickly cast into the shadow of “Tomorrow Never Knows”. It’s a tribute to this thunderous drone rock ditty that 50 years on it still sounds mystifying – the cascading rhythms, the reverse guitars, the dreamy double tracked vocals, they remain avant garde. It’s quite remarkable; this one track marks a huge branching off point in rock history – it would go on to inform psychedelia, indie, dance, noise rock, and so much more.
“Tomorrow Never Knows” real accomplishment was opening the music industry’s eyes; The Beatles greatest instrument wasn’t their voices or their guitars, it was the studio. They could disfigure practically anything. Stray laughs became a flock of seagulls, a single orchestral note contorted into an angry swarm of bees, and George Harrison’s guitar was made to sound like either the rapture or reckoning (sometimes both at once). Even with “Tomorrow Never Knows” in their back catalogue The Beatles still couldn’t afford to sit still – somewhere in California Brian Wilson was just one month away from taking the arms race to the next level with his career defining masterpiece Pet Sounds.
1967 The Beatles didn’t linger in The Beach Boys’ shadow for long, within a year Srg. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band had reasserted the band’s dominance. Not really a concept album, not quite a pop record, it picks up where “Tomorrow Never Knows” left off – it’s a celebration of what the studio can do. This big mish mash of contrasting themes, strange sounds, and half finished ideas came together on “A Day In The Life”. A sprawling five minute epic that fused the soon to be irreconcilable psychedelia of Lennon and day-to-day observations of McCartney. Via a melting drone, a persistent piano, and a startling alarm clock, The Beatles leap from a drug induced dream world to the 9-to-5 reality, only to bring it all crashing down with a tumultuous wall of noise.
Talking about what this song really means inevitably leaves the commenter looking decidedly silly. It’s magnificent, alluring and tragic, that’s all you need to know. As McCartney said “It’s A Drug Song” and it more than speaks for itself.
1968 The White Album had lots of mind-blowing ideas. It was full of crazy juxtapositions and inane silliness, but it also happened to mark the moment when the three principal Beatles took a step back. Studio tricks and futurist psychedelia played second fiddle to some of the biggest rock songs in The Beatles’ arsenal. Cheeky tributes to early inspirations Chuck Berry and all American surf rock, “Back In The U.S.S.R.”, explodes with the kind of energy that informed the band’s 1963 debut. The Beatles felt like a live band again riding rickety piano lines and chugging riffs.
McCartney wasn’t the only one getting in on the act. Lennon was tearing his soul to pieces with the proto-blues pleads of “I’m So Tired” and “Yer Blues” while George Harrison was writing a chilling arena filling ballad “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with Eric Clapton. The world’s most famous boy band sounded primal, violent, and bluesy – adding a whole new dimension to their appeal. McCartney provided the final flourish by trying his hand at pounding proto-metal on “Helter Skelter”, a track that remains a staple of his setlists to this day.
1969 The Beatles were at their wits end when they recorded Abbey Road. It would be their last recorded album (although Let It Be would be released a year later), and it ended with the most famous flourish of The Fab Four’s career.
With the band dissolved and with an album to finish George Martin and Paul McCartney were left with a series of snatched song snippets, all remarkably brilliant, but all seemingly contradictory. In a moment of inspiration, that epitomized The Beatles mad six-year creative explosion, the duo wove the nine snippets into one majestic sixteen-minute medley. It was divine rousing pop, highlighted by beautiful vocal performances and striking guitar work that helps to ease the stark shifts from one idea to the next.
What’s most remarkable about the run that starts with “You Never Give Me Your Money” and ends with “Your Majesty” is the prescient air of closure that exudes from the medley. They brim with ideas, sensuous instrumentation, and a real forward thinking spirit, and yet there’s an unmistakable sense of finality running through the entire suite. “Sun King” waves good bye to the young men who wrote “Here Comes The Sun” and “Good Day Sunshine”, before “The End” seals the deal: “And In The End, The Love You Take, Is Equal To, The Love You Make” – the perfect endnote.
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