So I am not here to proclaim that Lennon and McCartney constituted to combine into some sort of musical Jesus reincarnate. I am not here to jam down any fellow young person’s throat that there existed, in The Beatles, a musical act that no other generation will ever create an equal to. Yet, after a heated conversation with a fellow musical-philosophers, I felt like it could only help to communicate a couple examples of the forgotten ingenuity of The Beatles. While most all of us are aware of their once unfathomable worldly popularity and “influence” on rock n’ roll, and indeed music itself thereafter, we (as in those who were not around for Beatlemania) mostly reduce their influence to “great song-writing.”
Reduce an artist to song-writing you say? What kind of reduction is this, isn’t that what an artist aspires to be?
Yes, I don’t deny this as an essentiality; however I purpose that their influence upon music goes deeper than that, that they introduced to us techniques and sounds never seen prior, sounds and techniques that nowadays we simply cast off as decidedly common. This is why I say that it would be an injustice to file their influence solely under music composition, and this is what I believe is lost upon every generation since, that wasn’t present for their evolution. They brought so much novelty to the art of recording music as to make it literally unrecognizable in their wake. That this is why they are held up by so many people to such, almost religious, esteem – at times to the confusion of many younger people. Yet I feel it unfortunate that these occurrences of sound-recording revolutions, given to us by the Fab Four, are lost upon the current generation, and that the true scope of their influence upon music is not remembered well. So therefore I present some of the best example of the forgotten novelty of the Fab Four:
CLOSE MIC’ING: Geoff Emerick altered the standard method of recording a drum kit while trying to accommodate the Beatles requests for different sounds. He removed the front skin of the bass drum and put a mic inside the drum itself rather than in front of it (doing this was actually against the rules at Abbey Road Studios and done initially in secret). This gave each hit of the drum more attack and less boominess. He also moved microphones closer to each separate part of the kit, where traditionally they were placed 3-6 feet away to pick up an open, ambient-sounding representation of the whole drum kit. Emerick ended up close micing most instruments thereafter. This technique, due to the vastly superior sound of the drums on their earlier records compared to the competition, was soon copied by most and has since become the standard way of mic’ing a drum kit.
AUTOMATIC DOUBLE TRACKING: Lennon became tired of repeatedly singing over his tracks to create a chorus effect. Ken Townsend’s answer, who was one of the engineers at the time, was to pass the original vocal take through another tape machine, which would play back with a slight delay in relation to the original. The reproduction was also manually shifted in pitch by a very small amount. The result mimicked the differences in timing and pitch produced by two different takes of a vocal line being played back at the same time. This can be heard particularly well in Good Morning Good Morning and throughout their subsequent albums.
FEEDBACK: The song I Feel Fine, recorded on 18 October 1964, starts with a feedback note tone produced by plucking the A-string on McCartney’s bass guitar, which was picked up on Lennon’s semi acoustic guitar. George Harrison said that the feedback started accidentally when a guitar was placed on an amplifier, and that Lennon then worked out how to achieve this odd effect while performing live on stage. This is the first known instance of using guitar feedback creatively. They essentially took a sound everyone equated with something going wrong and made it a mainstay in the rock n’ roll guitarist repertoire.
BACKWARDS MUSIC: The song Rain has the first example of a backwards vocal in recorded music. John Lennon had taken a tape of the song to his house to see what he could do with it and accidentally played it backwards, which he liked. Although Paul is known for claiming to have done this many times on personal recordings at home, Lennon was the first one to use the effect on an album. This technique may seem so obvious to us now, but again, undone before the Beatles.
SPEAKERS AS MICS: Paul’s bass also got a new sound beginning with the single, Paperback Writer, when Ken Townsend decided to use a loudspeaker as a microphone (they are essentially the same device, with a reversal of the energy movement) then positioned it directly in front of the bass speaker so the moving diaphragm of the second speaker made an electric current. By doing this he created for himself a device that would pick up all the lows, and only the lows, of the bass amp. This gave The Beatles a passive loudness to their bass lines, that we would consider normal, but had never been heard from a recording at that time. This would forever after be emulated in popular music.
CRAZINESS: The Beatles always kept pushing the envelope, including such ideas as writing guitar notation out backwards, playing it as written, recording it, then playing it backwards for the final take. A much more labor-intensive project than simply recording the guitar and playing that backwards. This ambitious effect can be heard on both I’m Only Sleeping and Tomorrow Never Knows.
Just some food for thought for all you musical historians out there.
Written by Sean Poynton Brna