Authors and music scholars have been analyzing The Beatles’ revolutionary cultural impact for decades. It’s not hyperbole to say that the Fab Four’s charm, wit and boundless creativity changed the way an entire generation viewed the world (and themselves). But forget musicianship, album cover art, music videos, attitudes, fashion, and recording technology: The Beatles would have earned their stature in the history of the world based on their achievements as songwriters alone.
From the beginning of their recording career, “serious” music critics were dumbfounded at the degree of musical sophistication being delivered to a mainstream audience by a “rock and roll group.” These four primarily self-taught musicians facilitated the exponential growth and maturation of pop and rock music, opening up infinite creative possibilities for future generations to explore. Let’s examine three areas of influence where The Beatles helped to break new ground. (CAUTION: MUSICAL JARGON AHEAD.)
There’s no disputing the influence that the early rock and roll songs of Little Richard, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and many other pioneers had on an entire generation of listeners and musicians. But compositionally, those songs generally didn’t stray very far from simple, diatonic chord progressions. The Beatles’ early stage repertoire of rock and roll covers (“Too Much Monkey Business,” “Roll Over Beethoven”) contained a liberal sprinkling of show tunes (“Till There Was You,” “The Honeymoon Song”) and jazz standards (“A Taste Of Honey,” “September In The Rain”), which could only have attuned their ears to new harmonic possibilities beyond the I-IV-V blues changes of early rock and roll. Their genius was in their ability to not only incorporate huge key signatures shifts within their own rock and roll numbers, but to make them feel and sound perfectly natural.
In the “Anthology” documentary, Paul McCartney uses 1963’s “From Me To You” to demonstrate how he and John Lennon started exploring new songwriting possibilities. The song is in the key of C major, but the bridge starts on a G minor chord, stepping out of the C major scale by introducing a Bb (the minor 3rd of the G minor chord). This harmonic twist is reinforced by the Bb being sung in the melody (“I got arms that long to hold you…”). The following year, John Lennon’s R&B-inspired I-IV-V workout “You Can’t Do That” steps out of its original key of G by introducing a B major chord in the bridge; again, Lennon accentuates the new tonality by singing the raised third, D#, in the melody (“Everybody’s green..”). As they evolved as writers, Lennon and McCartney grew ever more fearless about making quick, seamless jumps away from the tonic. The A minor of “Things We Said Today” gets flavored with C7 and Bb chords, and a bridge that moves to A major. “You’re Going To Lose That Girl” jumps out of E major with a quick G# major chord in the verse, and a bridge that incorporates G, C and F major chords.
But 1968’s “Martha My Dear” finds McCartney leaping across key signatures like a young Vito Corleone stalking Don Fanucci from the rooftops of Little Italy. (The Godfather Part 2…anyone?) Starting in Eb major, he immediately flirts with D minor (D-F-A), F major (F-A-C) and C major (C-E-G) in rapid succession. As he sings “Hold your head up, you silly girl…” we’re in full-blown F major, but he quickly and efficiently pivots to the relative D minor for the “Take a good look around you…” bit. The section ends on an authoritative G minor chord below an arpeggio containing the b3rd, 5th and b7th (Bb, D and F), making it the perfect springboard to the original key of Eb. Macca must have really loved this girl Martha, because those chord changes feel like he’s chasing her down a crowded street!
The Beatles’ widening of rock’s harmonic vocabulary is easy to trace. Electric Light Orchestra, a band John Lennon once called “Son Of Beatles,” is never shy about spicing up their sugary-sweet pop songs with major III’s and VI’s (“Sweet Talkin’ Woman”) and minor IV’s (“Turn To Stone”), and a quick Google search of “power pop” turns up a treasure trove of bands like The Knack, The Raspberries, and Jellyfish who proudly wear the Beatles’ harmonic influence on their sleeves. But it’s also safe to say that The Beatles’ harmonic innovations extend to other areas in pop music: witness Steely Dan’s “Aja,” with its frequent trips out of its B major tonic, and Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed,” which can’t seem to resist the pull away from Eb.
RHYTHM AND STRUCTURE
Rock and roll was birthed on dance floors, which dictated a solid four-to-the-bar groove and a steady backbeat on 2 and 4. Sections were also usually divvied up into easily-digestible groups of 4 or 8 bars. But The Beatles dispensed with these unwritten rules in short order as well. After a few subtle experiments, such as the ska/bluebeat guitar riffs grafted into the solo on “I Call Your Name” and the “fussing and fighting” waltz-time bridge to “We Can Work It Out,” by 1967 John Lennon was loaded for bear. “Good Morning Good Morning,” a standout track from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band doesn’t let odd time signatures get in the way of its relentless groove. The verses of Lennon’s ode to the suburban nightmare jump around from 3/4, 4/4 and 5/4, and the second verse gets suddenly derailed by a “bridge” that switches to a shuffle groove! Two years later, George Harrison’s famous love of Indian music could be heard in a handful of intricate rhythmic figures in Abbey Road’s “Here Comes The Sun.” The choruses are punctuated with an arpeggiated “three over four” phrase, but the bridge (“Sun, sun, sun…”) features a bar of 11/8!
Introducing odd time signatures and unorthodox song structures into rock music, even in a subtle way, might have driven young people off the dance floors and back into their bedrooms to slap on headphones and lose themselves in the through-composed progressive rock of The Moody Blues (“Tuesday Afternoon” shifting from straight 8ths to swung) and Yes (almost every track on 1971’s The Yes Album practically dares you to try and dance to it). But several years on, bands like The Police proved that you didn’t need a predictable 2 & 4 to rock a dance floor. Surely the “reverse backbeats” punctuating “Roxanne,” and the reggae-influenced “one-drops” in tracks like “Can’t Stand Losing You,” “Man In A Suitcase” and “The Bed’s Too Big Without You” owe even a small debt to The Beatles’ spirit of musical adventure!
It’s been well-documented that a young John Lennon was a fan of Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), and the imaginative fantasy and wordplay of works such as Through The Looking Glass and Jabberwocky (“`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe…”). Besides inspiring Lennon to publish two volumes of his own absurdist prose and poetry, In His Own Write (“everything quite navel, nothing outstanley…”) and A Spaniard In The Works (“Ella Fitzgerald, my dear Watson!”), Lennon clearly shared Carroll’s fascination with the evocative potential of the rhythm and sound of words, which could only have been an asset to him as a songwriter early on (“Tell me why you cried, and why you lied to me…”). But by 1967 his taste for surrealistic fantasy came to the fore with the “cellophane flowers” and “newspaper taxis” of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and the “crabolocker fishwife” of “I Am The Walrus,” spawning an entire sub-genre of “psychedelic rock” from the Strawberry Alarm Clock’s “Incense And Peppermints” to the Box Top’s “Neon Rainbow.”
But any discussion of poetry-infused rock lyrics must include Bob Dylan, with whom The Beatles had another celebrated relationship. As The Beatles inspired Dylan to embrace the sonic potential of electric guitars, so did Dylan inspire Lennon and McCartney to incorporate greater emotional honesty and compelling storytelling into their lyrics. Lennon in particular jumped at the chance to use his songwriting as an outlet for his deeper emotions; 1965’s “Help!” was possibly the first time a #1 song contained words like “insecure” and “self-assured,” and phrases like “My independence seems to vanish in the haze.” McCartney also began to wax poetic in his songs, whether taking on the character of a struggling novelist in “Paperback Writer” (“It’s a thousand pages give or take a few, I’ll be writing more in a week or two…”) or sharing a fictional narrative about a lonely spinster in “Eleanor Rigby” (“…died in the church and was buried along with her name…nobody came…”).
Soon rock audiences came to expect a greater depth of meaning and relevance from the lyrics of their favorite songs, and began to scrutinize and analyze the lyrics of The Beatles and other performers for “messages” that they could relate to. One could connect The Beatles (and Dylan) to the subsequent, confessional “singer-songwriter” movement featuring the likes of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Paul Simon, but in this writer’s opinion XTC’s “Mayor Of Simpleton” (Oranges And Lemons, 1989) achieves a masterfully Beatle-esque balance between emotional depth and vulnerability, and clever English wordplay.
With a career defined by a restless pursuit of new artistic frontiers, and a rich body of work that continues to entertain and inspire more than half a century later, the challenge of discussing The Beatles as songwriters raises the question: how haven’t they been an influence?
To hear the songs mentioned in the article in context, check out our curated playlist on Spotify below!