Looking Through You: A Beatles Retrospective
In all of popular music, there's no other band quite like the Beatles. The best selling musical act of all time, the Beatles' rise to musical dominance was a perfect storm of factors. Each member was a strong musician, their vocal harmonies were pristine, their songwriting ability second to none. The 1960s were a turbulent time in society, with the Civil Rights movement coming to a head, growing discontent with the Vietnam War, and the rise of youth counterculture. All the while, John, Paul, George, and Ringo were serving as something of a musical guide to the decade, a sort of chicken-or-egg scenario in which they both evolved with the times and ushered in change themselves. For World Beatles Day, we decided to look at some of the records that came to define the Beatles, representing their progression, as well as some of the solo efforts that came after the band's dissolution.
The record that started it all. After establishing themselves in the nightclub scene in Liverpool and Hamburg, the Beatles signed to Parlophone Records and worked with producer George Martin on their debut album. Please Please Me was an instant success, topping the charts and introducing the world to the group who would come to dominate the music industry for the better part of the next decade. Please Please Me is the quintessential early '60s pop record, combining elements of R&B and skiffle with some of the earliest Lennon-McCartney lyrical efforts.
In just a little over a year, the Beatles had become an international phenomenon. A Hard Day's Night was actually the accompanying soundtrack to the slapstick film of the same name, starring the band. It was released at the height of Beatlemania, after the group appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in the United States. The Beatles became known for their legions of screaming fans, often so loud that they would drown the band out at concerts. A Hard Day's Night is really the first album that is distinctly Beatles, without any covers of rock and roll standards and introduces a folksy tone that the group would experiment with more in the future.
The Beatles released two albums in 1965, one in June and the other in December. Help!, released first, was another film soundtrack, a poppy album largely in the vein of its predecessor. Rubber Soul, however, was something entirely different. The album featured the group maturing in real time, and the cover, with the Beatles looking like long-haired grown men rather than clean-cut young boys, helped to embody Swinging London. Rubber Soul is a folk-rock record, with the lyrics containing more adult themes, opening up the door for more introspective pop music in general. It featured the Beatles experimenting with new guitar tones and unconventional instruments and marked a turning point in popular music.
If Rubber Soul was the gateway, Revolver was the sea change. Revolver, to opine just a little bit, was the Beatles' first true masterpiece album. The album features the Beatles at their creative peak, experimenting with new and innovative recording techniques, introducing non-Western musical themes, and the heavy influence of psychedelia. Revolver is an icon of the counterculture movement, with lyrical themes of societal change, and a diverse array of tracks that served to influence virtually every rock subgenre that came after them. The album taps into the origins of progressive rock, incorporates elements of electronica, and features greater contributions from lead guitarist George Harrison, whose interest in Eastern music and philosophy would help to define the band's songwriting.
Another year, another innovation. Sgt. Pepper was the Beatles' first release after retiring from live touring, with the band believing their songwriting and studio techniques had outgrown the ability to perform their songs live, and with Beatlemania having grown out of control. Sgt. Pepper saw the Beatles fully embrace psychedelia, and has been described in later years as the first art rock album. It touched on nearly every aspect of the burgeoning youth culture and the band's growing interest in psychedelic drugs. Its lyrical themes include aspects of mysticism, religion, and abstract concepts. Musically, it contains elements of early hard rock, with distorted guitars and electrified guitar solos dotting the tracks. It closes with what is arguably the group's magnum opus, "A Day in the Life," a mostly Lennon composition that features sweeping orchestral parts and reality bending lyrics.
The Beatles released their self-titled album in 1968, colloquially known as The White Album for its lack of album artwork. The White Album was a massive undertaking, featuring over 90 minutes of music and no real artistic cohesion. There are elements of blues, funk, jazz, even early heavy metal, as well as straight up nonsense (looking at you, "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da"). The White Album listens as an album of largely individual contributions from the group's four members rather than a collaboratively written album, which makes sense when you consider that this release was largely the beginning of the end of the Beatles. Artistic and personal tensions were running high, and each member began to see things through a different creative lens and yearned for more individual freedom.
Though Let It Be, released the following year, served as the Beatles' final album, Abbey Road was the last one the band recorded together, as the individual members began quietly leaving in the aftermath of the sessions. Abbey Road was the culmination of the group's time together, with songs by all four members ending up on the track list. We open with Lennon's iconic "Come Together", which gives way to Harrison's "Something," described by Frank Sinatra as "the greatest love song of the last 50 years." The band goes full prog rock on the second side, with an emotional 16 minute medley closing the record, featuring the inclusion of Ringo's first and only drum solo. Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison trade licks in a minute-long guitar solo which gives way to McCartney's "and in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make." When they exited the studio, the Beatles were effectively no more, each member desiring more creative freedom than working as a group could offer, but their individual stories didn't end there.
Ringo was actually the first member to leave the Beatles, departing the band during the recording of the White Album before returning. His third solo outing, Ringo, was as close as we ever got to a Beatles reunion. It features all three of his former bandmates, albeit all on different tracks. Ringo also contained collaborations with a few different stars of the day, becoming a Ringo trademark and eventually leading to Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band, a rotating touring supergroup founded and led by Ringo that continues to this day.
John Lennon's interest in politics was something that marked the later part of his Beatles tenure and virtually the entirety of his solo career. The title song became Lennon's most iconic track, an optimistic composition asking the listener to picture a world free of borders, of war, and material culture. Much of the album, however, was written in retaliation to former bandmate Paul McCartney. Imagine contains numerous tracks calling out McCartney, particularly "How Do You Sleep?" Lennon went on to have a successful solo career throughout the 1970s, but unfortunately, we all know how the story ends. Lennon was gunned down outside his building in 1980 by an obsessed fan. In 2022, McCartney isolated Lennon's vocal track on "I've Got a Feeling" and performed the song as a virtual duet during his "Got Back" tour, a tribute to his old friend.
A major contributor to the breakup of the Beatles was Harrison's discontent with their creative process, often feeling overlooked by the Lennon-McCartney songwriting duo. Having already released two solo albums while a member of the Beatles, the release of All Things Must Pass in 1970 showed why. A virtually unprecedented triple album featuring more than 100 minutes of music, Harrison was bursting at the seams with music. Harrison finally had his starring role, melding rock elements with Indian music and folk and heavy use of overdubbing during the studio process. All Things Must Pass came to be known as Harrison's masterpiece, with signature tracks like "My Sweet Lord" and "Beware of Darkness." Harrison went on to have a long, successful solo career before his death in 2001.
Where do we even begin? Paul McCartney was easily the most prolific former Beatle, releasing 19 solo albums, and another seven with his '70s group Wings, including Band on the Run. Production on the record was rocky, to say the least. The band's lead guitarist and drummer both quit before recording began, leaving McCartney, his wife Linda, and bandmate Denny Laine to record the album themselves. Band on the Run's title track is regarded as Wings' signature song, and contains other tracks like "Jet" and "Let Me Roll It" that remained setlist staples. McCartney, ever the multi-instrumentalist, recently released his third self-titled solo album, playing every instrumental part at age 78, and embarked on his "Got Back" tour to celebrate his 80th birthday in 2022.