Ten Reasons Why the Beatles Were the Most Artistically Significant Musicians of the 20th Century

James R. CoffeyStarred Page By James R. Coffey, 27th Aug 2010 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Guides>Music>Music History

This article traces the Beatles' phenomenal contribution to the field of music through examination of ten of their most innovative and artistically-creative songs.

The "Monsters" of pop/rock

By most measure, the musical legacy created by the Beatles in their short nine year existence as a pop/rock band, is nothing short of phenomenal. As Ringo once said in a TV appearance in the 1990's when asked about the success of the Beatles, he said, "There were a lot of great bands, but we were rock monsters!" And in the minds of tens of millions of music listeners, these "monsters" were hands-down the greatest musical force of the 20th century. But rather than list the Beatles' innumerable record-breaking accomplishments, let's looks at ten reasons why they rose to this unprecedented position in music history.

1) I Wanna Hold Your Hand ('63)

While millions of Beatles fans remember this catchy little pop tune as marking John, Paul, George, and Ringo's historic live appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in February of 1964, a much more significant musical precedent was set with "I Wanna Hold Your Hand."

Wanting to impress American fans (for whom this song was specially written), the Beatles chose to ignore popular convention whereby a song opened with a tag from the verse (or just a short atmospheric intro,) using instead what is essentially a rhythmic chord echo of the tag line of the chorus, "I can't hide." While this unusual compositional departure may have seemed insignificant to the average listener, this deviation what the norm set a musical precedent not only in popular music, but for other genres of music as well.

(*“I Wanna Hold Your Hand” became the Beatles' first Number One hit in America, selling 10,000 copies an hour in New York City alone.)

2) I Feel Fine ('64)

Always exploring new sound and recording techniques, "I Feel Fine," from Beatles For Sale, is the first song in record history to feature guitar "feedback.” Created by what was essentially an amped acoustic guitar, this unique “sustain” special-effect was strategically placed at the very opening of the song, drawing listeners’ ears to the now famous guitar riff that dominates throughout the song. Incorporating what had previously been considered "noise" into this song was the first indication of the many technological innovations the Beatles would bring to the music scene throughout the 1960s.

(*"I Feel Fine" was the first of six Number One songs in a row on the American charts.)

3) I'll Be Back ('64)

A John Lennon composition written for the A Hard Day's Night album, "I'll Be Back" is the first clue of the genius for musical composition the band would develop. Modulating between major and minor keys--virtually key-shifting as only done in classical works--this song ignores traditional compositional convention by having two bridges, while lacking a chorus entirely. Additionally, the fade-out ending arrives half a verse early, creating a visceral response in listeners that underscores the story-line.

Music journalist Robert Sandall wrote in Mojo Magazine: "'I'll Be Back' was the early Beatles at their most prophetic. Their grasp of how to color arrangements in darker or more muted tones foreshadowed an inner journey they eventually undertook in the next three albums." By all musical and artistic standards, this song is nothing short of pure creative genius.

4) Day Tripper ('65)

What many musicologists consider the first true "hard rock" song, the Beatles established a precedent with "Day Tripper" that remains an identifying signature of rock songs to this day, the mood-setting repeating rock theme “riff.”

Released as a “double A-side” single (no designated “B” side), this little masterpiece is also structurally innovative in that it deviates from music convention by starting out as what is known in musician circles as “a 12-bar Blues” pattern, in the key of E major, but then temporarily modulates to the relative minor in the chorus, before returning back to the major. This innovative arrangement would become an identifying signature for future Beatle “rock” songs, and can be heard in thousands of other songs (Rock as well as other genres) written by countless artists thereafter.

5) Norwegian Wood ('65)

“Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” from the brilliant Rubber Soul album, is like an artistic representation of the cultural climate ignited by Beatlemania and the Beatle genius at that time in history. Focused around the hypnotic, psychedelic atmosphere promoted by the Beatles (and had become a founding element of the Hippie counterculture), this song is a virtual template for psychedelic songs, and demonstrates the first time in music history that an exotic instrument (the sitar) was incorporation into pop music, essentially opening listeners’ minds to the possibility of “world music.”

(Additionally, John once implied that this song’s title held a deeper, cryptic meaning; that of an extra-marital affair he’d been having, ‘Norwegian wood’ being a play on the phrase, ‘knowing she would,’ a reference to his wife’s possible discovery of his infidelity.)

6. Eleanor Rigby ('66)

“Eleanor Rigby,” the hauntingly beautiful song from Revolver, (the companion album to Rubber Soul), illustrates the continued transformation of the Beatles' evolution from a pop, live-performance band to a more experimental, studio-oriented band.

Again deviating from pop music tradition, none of the Beatles played instruments on this composition, supplying only vocals and musical direction instead. McCartney used a string octet of studio musicians, composed of four violins, two cellos, and two violas, all performing a score co-composed with their producer George Martin. Employing recording techniques not even used in classical music of the time, the instruments were "doubled up"—serving as two string quartets with two instruments playing each part in the quartet. Paul had the microphones placed especially close to the instruments to produce a more vivid and raw (live) sound. Not only was this song infinitely more musically sophisticated (both lyrically and compositionally) than any song previously created in popular music, it raised the bar as to how all songs from that point on would be produced and engineered.

7. Tomorrow Never Knows ('66)

"Tomorrow Never Knows," the last track on the highly acclaimed Revolver album, marks a turning point in both pop music as well as the Beatles’ blossoming creativity. Based on John’s experience reading the Timothy Leary book, The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, this song is technically experimental beyond anything ever attempted in popular music (or any other music, for that matter), utilizing a number of techniques never before recorded.

Using automatic double tracking (ADT) to double John’s vocals (which were then sent through a Leslie rotating speaker to create a mystical effect), clever tape “loops” designed by Paul (for transcendental effect), an Indian-inspired modal music structure created my Lennon, it is all held together by a noticeably irregular drum pattern demonstrating Ringo’s rhythmic genius. And if that weren’t enough, “Tomorrow Never Knows” is structurally restricted to just one chord.

This song breaks all established convention regarding musical composition, what a song should sound like, and how a song should be recorded--thus marking the inception of “experimental” music--a genre quite popular today.

8. All You Need is Love ('67)

"All You Need Is Love," the last cut on Magical Mystery Tour, is a Lennon song first performed on Our World, a live satellite broadcast on June 25th, 1967--the first live global television link in entertainment history.

Watched by 400 million people in 26 countries, it was the single largest television audience in history to date. While this relatively straight forward and seemingly simple song focuses around the “All you need is love” chorus, a number of very innovative musical ideas were incorporated into the arrangement. Opening with the French National anthem "La Marseillaise," omitting the first note, it includes excerpts from "two-part Invention #8 in F," by Johann Sebastian Bach (transposed to G and played on 2 piccolo trumpets), "Greensleeves," (played by the strings), and Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" (played on a saxophone) during the long fade-out. And apart from the unique method of audio-visual conveyance, it was the largest call for world peace ever in history; a genuine world-wide, cross-cultural phenomenon.

9. Hey Jude ('68)

"Hey Jude" was released in August of 1968, as the first single from the Beatles' new record label Apple Records. More than seven minutes in length, "Hey Jude" was, at the time, the longest single ever to top the British charts. It also spent nine weeks as Number One in the United States—the longest run at the top of the American charts for a Beatles single. But aside from its unprecedented length and popularity, what makes this song artistically significant is its “coda” (or “outro"), the irresistible sing-a-long at the end that few listeners can resist joining. More common to pieces from the Classical Era, the Beatles’ use of this remarkable musical devise to get listeners involved, has since been mimicked by a succession of musical artists including Prince (“Purple Rain“), Sly and the Family Stone (“Stand”), Bowie (“Station to Station”), Led Zeppelin (“When the Levee Breaks), and countless others. This song illustrates yet another example of the Beatles’ constant thinking outside the traditional box.

10.Helter Skelter ('68)

Appearing on the Beatles’ aptly nicknamed, "White Album," an album with no artwork whatsoever, just the words The Beatles embossed in small letters on a pure white face, “Helter Skelter” was Paul’s admitted and deliberate effort to create a sound as loud and dirty as possible--the noisiest, most raucous vocal, loudest drums, the most driving guitars that could possibly be produced. Known for its clangorous, machinegun-like intro (that grabs listeners and drags them almost mercilessly through this primal Gestaltian adventure), and Ringo’s painful studio outburst, “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!” this song is credited by music experts as being the prototype for “Metal” music.

Taking musical edginess up several notches, it is unlike anything before it--from the first harsh note to the multiple fade-outs--it takes the manual on how to write a pop song, and burns it to cinders. Almost a new art-form, “Helter Skelter” has spawned articles, books, and movies, (and, of course, cults), and has been the subject of discussion in countless social science classes across the country over the past 40 years.

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Primary sources:
Personal Beatles collection
Articles from: Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy, Circus Magazine
The Beatles: The Unauthorized Bio, H. Davies

images via:
personal album collection


All You Need Is Love, Beatle History, Beatlemania, Beatles, British Invasion, Day Tripper, Eleanor Rigby, George Harrison, Helter Skelter, Hey Jude, I Feel Fine, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Ill Be Back, John Lennon, Norwegian, Paul Mccartney, Pop Music, Ringo Starr, Rock Music, Rock Stars, Tomorrow Never Knows

Meet the author

author avatar James R. Coffey
I am founder and head writer for James R. Coffey Writing Services and Resource Center @ http://james-r-coffey-writing-services.blogspot.com/ where I offer a variety of writing and research services including article composition, ghostwriting, editing...(more)

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author avatar Denise O
1st Sep 2010 (#)

Congrats on the star page, it is well deserved. This is well written and well layed out, thank you.

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author avatar Retired
1st Sep 2010 (#)

this is wonderful I'll wish you right now all teh best with this page, it's great!

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author avatar James Henry Abrina
3rd Sep 2010 (#)

Two thumbs up to this one. I love The Beatles. They are classic.

Long live The Beatles!

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author avatar John A. Miller
4th Nov 2010 (#)

Yes it was great but you can probably list at least 25 more. And your whole article is just taking songs not to say anything about art, fashion and a wide range of things the Beatles influenced. Probably hands down the most significant pop/rock band in the history if not one of the most important musical entities ever.

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author avatar Bird
16th Nov 2010 (#)

There is a lot of hyperbole here... "first time in music history that a pop song... " is misleading. Many of these "firsts" happened earlier in jazz, blues and gospel - which is where the Beatles got many of their ideas. Shifting between minor and major, using feedback, playing hard - none of these things were really new of course. They were new to the middle-class white audience however (and to some folks, no one else really matters).

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author avatar James R. Coffey
31st Dec 2010 (#)

No, hyperbole. Read again . . . read closer.

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