Were Beatles a prog band?

By Nikitas Kissonas
Translation: Alexandros Mantas

This article is meant to tie in with The Beatles’ 50th anniversary of their gig in “The Ed Sullivan Show” back in February 9th, 1964 and set Beatlemania into motion.


The point at issue here is the fields in which The Beatles broke new ground during their relatively short course. A lot of people still associate them with “She loves you yeah, yeah, yeah” exclusively and therefore any claim that they are the greatest band of all times is met with a fair amount of derision. Beatles_She_Loves_YouOf course, the truth is that The Beatles mean a lot more than the song in question. But there is also some truth in that, if it wasn’t for this song, what came next might have never happened. This reasoning is to illustrate that The Beatles are second to none thanks to their evolutionary course and not because they came out of left field. I speak of course of the creative department and not the commercial one, since with regard to the latter, the numbers are sufficient to shoot down any doubt. Naturally, such an analysis will take us to the uncomfortable question namely what is really progressive: is it to propose something groundbreaking and stick to it through your entire career (and, therefore, progressiveness is lost somewhere along the way) or is it to begin from a certain point and every move of yours is one step ahead of the previous one (even though you may never pull off ever again something as innovative as you did with the first album). I am already feeling uncomfortable, so I’ll just stop at that.

Since it is time to speak some truths, we have to give some thought to the following two questions. The first one is already mentioned and it has to do with to what extent The Beatles would be innovative, hadn’t they gone through the phase of the commercial success that the cheesy song of the first paragraph ensured them and that, in turn, this commercial success gave them the opportunity to experiment freely. No one of course can tell for sure, but the stagnating solo careers of the band’s members after they split give us a clue about the impact they had as a team and not as individual units. Money cover #1The second question is if, say, King Crimson would ever come up with In The Court Of The Crimson King in 1969 if it wasn’t for The Beatles. Likewise, no one has the answer, but if we take a look at the comments of almost every progressive rock artist about the impact the music of The Beatles (I speak of course of the 1966-967 era) had on their music, we are bound to find that these two questions are correlated. Just for the record, we should mention that Frank Zappa had said that the music of The Beatles didn’t mean much to him, save three songs. Let’s not forget the direct reference to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on his album We Are Only In It For The Money. Of course Zappa was a contemporary with The Beatles. But their American experimentation deserves, in my book, a special feature and those who believe that progressiveness in rock was purely an English matter, are in for a lot of surprises.

It is also very important to reflect the zeitgeist we speak of. Radio dominated, TV was becoming increasingly popular, the newspapers had columns about art and music (all genres included), technology was blooming, the forms of art were going through a phase of self-doubt and extreme experimentation and the boundaries between them were becoming hard to pinpoint. The state of society could not be different and people were asking for a change.

After two world wars, financial bankruptcies and a social awareness that was seeking a collective identity in a regime of spiritual oppression and indoctrination, people could identify with something or someone that shared their concerns. It is no coincidence that great leaders emerged during the 1960s, mostly in America. The musical camps were distinct, but wanted to intermingle. It was inevitable then that the decade of the 60s would be marked by the amalgam of assorted musical styles (traditional, jazz, blues, experimental, classical, R&B etc.), as well as the raise of public awareness through art and a popular demand for idols to identify with.

The Beatles struggled for two years in Hamburg with a string of extended shows covering almost the entire spectrum of pop music of the time until they became a household name. Then they went back to Liverpool and with the addition of Ringo Starr they cemented their line-up we all came to know. But before Ringo the so-called fifth member was already on board, namely their producer George Martin whose importance was such that renders him as an equal member. His ideas, guidance and lust for experimentation often outdid the four core members. They started by playing cover versions of American rhythm and blues songs since America via radio and the billboard column would point out what was popular. In 1964 this thing turned around. It was dubbed “The British Invasion” and there was one and sole reason: the appearance of The Beatles to America’s most popular TV show. It was England now that took the driver’s seat in the music industry. It was the time when the world-wide tours began, playing in bigger venues and arenas, of TV shows and films, until they reached the decision in 1966 that they wouldn’t give another show but they would bend all of their efforts to the studio album. A string of landmark albums, each for reasons of its own, was released starting with the groundbreaking Revolver in the same year. In 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released and sealed the influence it would exert on rock music onwards. Five more records followed, two of them released as soundtracks. The Beatles disbanded in 1970, ten years after their birth, having released twelve essential albums. Their commercial success can be depicted in a single number: a relatively recent estimation speaks of over a billion records sold. The list below then, takes a stab at pinpointing their artistic success, as well as chronicling some important phases of their career.

1. In April of 1964, in just one day, they pulled off to conquer: the number one to number five positions on the Billboard singles chart, the top two on the album chart, as well as many other top positions in assorted lists in many countries. They hold the record of the No.1 albums.

2. To this day, it is estimated that they have sold more than a billion copies.

3. It was the first group that founded its own label, Apple in 1968, introducing the concept of the independent artist, free from the shackles of the vultures of the record companies. 

4. They broke the barrier of the normal duration that a single was supposed to have (2-4 minutes) with Hey Jude which ran more than seven minutes and it was never released on an original studio album. It was the first single of their label Apple.

5. They were the first “boy band”!

6. They pulled off to release 23 albums within seven years (in essence they were twelve, the rest are mainly compilations)

7. In 1966, while on the crest of a wave, they stopped gigging and they zeroed in on recording their new album, something that was unheard of. The reasons were mainly the fatigue of the world-wide tours, the fact that the sound engineers couldn’t figure out how to play loud enough to drown the screaming from the audience which was such that they couldn’t hear themselves while on stage, the aggressiveness towards them when they turned down a presidential invitation for breakfast in Philippines and the uproar that caused John Lennon’s statement that they were more popular than Jesus. Their last public show took place in 1969 on the roof of Apple Studios, a little gig they decided to give without spreading the word about it, taking by surprise those who chanced to be there. We should mention that the duration of the shows the last years was about half an hour!

8. It was the first band that printed the lyrics on the album.

Beatles-Revolver9. Their album covers became a challenge to succeeding  artists to take the artwork as seriously as music itself. Illustrating examples are the sleeve covers of Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Abbey Road and of course their self-titled record (unofficially named “The White Album”).

10. They had the first and last word on their outings which set in motion the bands to regain the control on their music instead of the labels.

11. They abolished with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band the “obligatory” release of a single before the album hit the ranks. Until then, the best part of an album was already released as singles. But with Sgt. Pepper’s… people listened to its songs only when the album itself was came out, in 1967.

12. It was the same record where they introduced and made popular the concept albums, namely albums that their lyrics revolve around a central theme.

13. Songs like Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite and Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds paved the way for the popularity of psychedelia.

14. With Abbey Road(1969) they made rock suites popular, namely the interconnection of independent songs that have barely anything or nothing at all in common. Side B of Abbey Road is such a suite.

15. There was not a single change of the five members during their seven-year creative course. The only inevitable one occurred when their manager Brian Epstein died suddenly in 1967, which led to the disintegration of the group.

16. They would share the vocal parts on all of their records and usually the singer would be credited as the composer. For instance, Ringo Starr was “appointed” to sing one tune on every record they did.

17. They became rich by selling albums and not gigging, paving the way for other musicians, too.

18. They were the reason that the British scene invaded the charts, which resulted in the dipole between America and England that goes on up to this day.

19. They invented video-clips. Until then, the songs were slotted in films, TV shows or short films with live appearances. The Beatles were the first to produce a concept video which was as long as the duration of the song, that is a video-clip and the song was Strawberry Fields Forever.

20. In 1965 they instated live shows in stadiums by selling out within a few hours the New York’s Shea Stadium.

21. They were the first band that their show was transmitted live around the entire globe via satellites when they played All You Need Is Love for the first time for the show Our World.

22. They introduced classic orchestras in pop-rock music. Classic orchestras were used in pop music for many years by then, but they were never in the lead as the case was in A Day In A Life, Strawberry Fields Forever and Yesterday. Of course, this contribution can be credited solely to George Martin, who, essentially, taught the other four the value of classical music and the orchestras, making his own dream come true considering the fact the he was a classical music composer. He also took care of the arrangements and also the best part of the innovations, with regard to the recording process, should be ascribed to him. We can safely say that if George Martin was absent, The Beatles wouldn’t have grown musically at such a fast pace.

23. In 1965 George Harrison added the sitar to the arsenal of pop-rock music in the song Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) and almost all of the groups of the time followed suit, increasing, in a sense, the popularity of ethnic music.

24. They viewed studio as one more instrument. They spent days in it experimenting with anything. Therefore, the outcome would always cause awe and puzzlement, while reproducing the songs on stage became impossible. It was one more key factor for their decision to refrain from playing live.

25. They broke clichés regarding the songs’ structure, suggesting alternative approaches as they did in Love You To, Strawberry Fields Forever  and A Day In A Life.

26. The Beatles would always record with the cutting edge of then technology. Excluding the last two albums that came out only in stereo format, all the previous ones were available both in stereo and mono version. In 1964 they began to use a four-channel mixer, a fact that added a new dimension to the recording process since they could record many layers of instruments, rendering the live recording unnecessary. By 1968, the mixer was eight-channel.

27. The effects below were pretty much in existence, yet it was The Beatles that popularized them to the point they were no more something special. But back then, they became a standard in pop-rock music by The Beatles.

– Audio feedback: we can hear this effect (that occurs, for instance, when we bring an electric guitar close to an amplifier or the sound hole of an acoustic instrument) during the first seconds of I Feel Fine and It’s All Too Much.

– Artificial Double Tracking (ADT): it was a technique that was developed especially for Revolver and since then it is used almost everywhere. In essence, a vocal part was recorded and then another identical one doubled it. The same approach was applied to any other instrument and the possibility to edit the second layer of the voice or instrument was explored. Paul McCartney’s voice on Yesterday for instance, at the section of the stringed instruments, is tracked up (this one was done “accidentally” but it would sound exactly the same even if it was intentional). 


– Microphones close to the instruments: Until then, the common approach was to place the microphones at central places and receive signals from the entire room. This was to change, by putting the microphones close to acoustic instruments and the drums as well. The string section on Eleanor Rigby sounds harsh because of this.

– Sampling: In the songs Back In The USSR, I Am The Walrus, Yellow Submarine and others, anything non-musical to hear is a sampler, namely pre-recorded sounds by cars, crowd voices, radio, horns, circus and many others that are simply mixed with the music and created this special, and back then magical, effect.

– Musique Concrete: A technique favored by Frank Zappa. In this case, musical snippets were pre-recorded and then they would be placed one next or above the other like boxes and each box would be treated differently. For instance, one would be speeded up, the other distorted, the other reversed etc. Examples of backwards playing are the guitar solo on I Am Only Sleeping and the drum part on the hook of Strawberry Fields For Ever.

– Other novelties that deserve mention are that they treated the drums with compressor, they plugged the electric instruments directly into the mixer and redirected them to any speaker or treated them with any effect they wanted, the use of mellotron and moog as well, and tons of other stuff…

The Beatles were undoubtedly a phenomenon. Naturally, they got lambasted for many of their choices, mainly with regard to commercialization. Of course they were not trailblazers in every field imaginable, in fact they came second in many of them and as time goes by it is likely to become clear that they came tenth. Surely, they were not as educated as Genesis and obviously they did not compose “complex” music. Nevertheless, it was them who popularized all these fields. They had the gut to try out things anywhere they could. They paved the way for a bunch of experimentations to the point that anything could become popular. If some people hold arguably Robert Fripp as the personification of progressive rock, then let us carefully consider his saying that when he heard A Day In The Life on the radio something opened up”. It is very difficult to reflect the zeitgeist of another era and see how overwhelmed the musical (or not) world must have felt with all the information that came with every new release of The Beatles. Plus, all of this was crammed into seven, or to be more precise, five years. They broke taboos about mixing the genres, too. It became OK to blend classical music with jazz and rock with Indian. Does this ring a bell? In the final analysis, it may be disputable to what extend were The Beatles innovative with regard to the list above, but how many groups are you aware of that lists like that can be drawn? It is not obligatory to like something in order to acknowledge its value. And where does this value lie? The case of The Beatles suggests unjaded experimentation and thirst for research.

I saved for the end some of the most illustrating examples of experimentation and did not include them in the list, purely to make an impression: in case somebody hasn’t listened to Helter Skelter (inspired by the serial killer Charles Manson), Revolution 9 and Tomorrow Never Knows, do it with a positive disposition and it is rather unlikely not to be amazed by their release date.

Making a reprise (!), I bring the initial question back on the table: “What is progressive?”. It seems easier to come up with an answer now…

PS: One of my favourite trivia is this: The album Let It Be was released as their last one after their split, yet it was recorded before Abbey Road but it was canned because the group was unhappy with the results. So, in essence, the last album that The Beatles recorded was Abbey Road (1969). The album is bookended with everyone getting a solo and singing “and in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make” and they named this song The End! But, of course, they saved something else for the last few seconds….

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