Welcome back to Beatles Month!
Today we’re talking with a Beatles expert who also happens to be a member of Musical U. As a Professor of Communications at Clarion University, Scott is trained in the study of semiotics: the meaning within media such as pop music.
And he’s taken this lens of analysis to the music of the Beatles and specifically in the “Beatlemania” years of the early sixties when teenage girls would scream and faint at concerts and TV performances – to find out what exactly the band did that produced such extreme reactions. And how they carried that on throughout their career in ever-changing ways.
In this conversation we talk about:
- The combination of music and visuals that led to Beatlemania and the specific techniques the Beatles used to stoke that hysteria
- Whether the Beatles did all these clever things instinctively and subconsciously or if it was an intentional, conscious process
- And how the Beatles’ use of musical elements to support the message of the lyrics changed over time through the five distinct eras of their music that Scott identifies
We love when an interview on this show provides a new way of looking at or listening to music, and we think you’re going to enjoy the little “homework” exercise Scott sets at the end of our conversation as a way to open your mind and your ears to what made the Beatles so effective and so successful.
Listen to the episode:
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Scott: Hello, this is Scott Kuehn from Clarion University of Pennsylvania and you’re listening to the Musicality Podcast from Musical U.
Christopher: Thank you. Welcome to the show Scott, thank you for joining us today.
Scott: Thank you very much, Christopher. It’s great to be here.
Christopher: I was saying to you before we started that it’s a particular delight to have you on the show because not only are you an expert in the Beatles you’re actually a member of Musical U as well. I’d love to begin by hearing a bit about your musical back story and when you got started in music, what that look like, and when the Beatles enter the picture for you?
Scott: Well, in actuality we could start with how the Beatles came into the picture, their influence on me is how … Well, what inspired me to get into music. A cute little story right here in America the Beatles first appeared publicly on The Ed Sullivan Show. On February 9th, Sunday February 9th 1964, I was a five year old visiting my mom’s, mom’s house. Mom had many siblings, two of them were teenage. We had dinner, The Ed Sullivan Show comes on at 7:00, we’re getting ready to leave but everything was really curious and strange because the two teenage sisters of my mom Patty and Cathy were jumping around the room saying, “We got to turn on Ed Sullivan. We got to see this, the Beatles are on,” and we’re all like “What, what, what is this?” Right?
Little five year old, putting our coats and getting ready to leave. Mom takes the coats off and says, “Well, let’s see what this is all about.” The Beatles come on and essentially you can see the clip on YouTube and what not. Ed Sullivan says basically, “And now the Beatles,” and my two aunts screamed at the television, “John, Paul, oh my god, there they are.” We have never seen anything like that before. I said to my mom, I’ll never forget I said, “Mom, are Patty and Cathy okay? Shh, just be quiet dear.”
Having seen that I immediately asked, “Can I have a Beatles record mom?” She bought me Meet the Beatles, it was the American version of the With the Beatles that was the UK album and from there it was wow, music is such a nice thing, such a fun thing. I’ve got to learn how to do this. As a kid, took guitar lessons and in college, I was a music minor. On my way to doing other things music has always been a part of my life, sort of in the background.
Performed in high school and college in little garage bands and things like that. Played a lot of Beatles songs at parties, of course. Music has been part of my life ever since. Lately, I’ve decided that wanted to work on learning to record and do ambient style music perhaps as a thing to do in retirement maybe record jingles. I’ve been a lot into composition, relearning some things now, hence my membership in Musical U, and working hard on that. Getting prepared now to take a sabbatical and spend some time actually diving into some of my music creatively here, full-time.
Christopher: Wonderful. Well I’ve been particularly looking forward to this conversation because people often assume I think that that Beatlemania era was just all about appearances, it was just that they were pop stars and it was just kind of PR and press fuss. It’s funny that scene of you and your aunts at the TV reminds me vividly of my sisters going nuts over Blur and Oasis when we were growing up and they were kind of the Brit-pop phenomenon.
Scott: Okay, yeah.
Christopher: Comparable in a way but I was keen to talk to you because you have really dug into where did Beatlemania come from and what was going on under the hood because as we’re going to be talking about today. It wasn’t as simple as these four good looking guys with the right outfits up on stage and the teen girls are going to go nuts. There was a lot more going on and particularly musically. I love if you could-
Christopher: If you could maybe explain to begin with what your specialty is as a university professor and how that relates to your interest in the Beatles?
Scott: Okay. Well, one of my specialties is understanding the meaning in media messages and how that meaning change out to audiences. What’s intended by media message producers is not what audiences always understand. To understand the impact of messages we want to get a sense of how those messages are interpreted, perceived, and understood by audiences. One of the ways we can do that is to use a theoretical framework called semiotics which essentially breaks media messages down into little parts called signs.
Signs are little units of meaning that you can interpret and look at in different context. Semiotics is the study of signs. Signs and little, you could think of them as building blocks of meaning in a media message. Of course music is one of the most popular mediated messages and the messages that chain out to audiences in music are sophisticated and culture based, they affect culture, and interact with culture. That sort of what I’m into studying, in that sense.
Having an interest in music myself that helps me in my endeavour to interpret the meanings in music. That kind of leads me into Beatlemania as one of the most outrageous examples of the impact of music and pop culture in 20th century culture as a whole. It’s a glaring example and a wonderful endeavour for us to have a closer look at.
Christopher: Yeah. You clearly were there at the beginning you saw it firsthand, you saw the reaction to the Ed Sullivan Show – but for someone like myself who sadly missed out on that experience, could you just paint a picture when we say Beatlemania, what are we talking about there and what was the world that Beatlemania arrived into at that time?
Scott: Well, it’s kind of interesting, talking to baby boomers, those of us who were little kids at the time looking around that culture. You start with this one thing that the culture was ripe for a big explosion of something different. The music scene in the early 60s was what we could call today schlock rock. It was filled with music that was formulaic made by people for teenagers who people were writing it who were much older than teenagers using clichés both in the musical styles and in the lyrics.
If you can think of for instance now I don’t want to offend anybody but The Four Seasons in a song like Sherrie, right, where Frankie Valli uses his falsetto for effect and well, that’s really what schlock rock was. It was just cute little techniques for effect that weren’t exactly landing on the emotional impact that you can have with music. They were cliché techniques and people dumping a lot of stuff out there, you did have some high quality stuff in the mix. You had things like Motown music which the Beatles were influenced by.
You had R&B music in the background, Isley Brothers, et-cetera, but for the most part we were really in an era of boring music and formulas. When you have something new pop up, people take notice. Now, not only do you have a new sound, you’ve got a new look. The mop top look was an incredibly different thing. Now, the Beatles got it from a trip to France in 1963, they decided they would let their hair go down and grow it because it was the style … In France, they didn’t know anything like it would start some kind of trend, right.
That hair became an icon for basically some kind of image of androgyny but sexiness and that started in England. We’ll talk a little bit later about their visual presentation and how they use their hair in order to fan desire but when Americans saw that hair, now remember Americans had that slicked back duck tail look. Here was something different, the sound was different, it was filled with enthusiasm and as I’ll talk about a little bit later the music was you may think of it as simple but it was sophisticated in that everything was compounded correctly to really boost emotion in their songs.
That was really what happened here, we had excellent artists not exactly knowing the impact they were having but writing excellent music with an excellent presentation.
Christopher: Cool. I’m so glad we started out here because I think looking back we often think or maybe make the mistake of assuming that because the Beatles later records was so groundbreaking and so fascinating musically. We compare them to those early records and think those early ones they weren’t a big deal, they weren’t that sophisticated but as you say compared to the times they were groundbreaking in a number of ways and there was a lot more going on under the hood that we might give them credit for.
Scott: Now, there was a lot of counter fight against what is this pop image. I mean if you look at their second album, hair is essentially featured in the picture. The hair coming down there made them look effeminate and so there was a lot … In terms of that time, there was a lot of talk about that and a lot of the iconography in terms what the Beatles represented for better or worse, they would just show hair. Long, little, mop toppy hair and say, “Those are the mop tops. That’s bad, look at that long hair. That’s interesting, good.”
If you look back at some of the critical analysis of them, the older critics would often just make fun of their look as well as the simplicity of their music but some were picking up on the fact that it indeed was hitting a note. One of the things we study is how media messages chain out through an audience. We can call this fantasy theme and with Beatlemania, the fantasy theme that started in the UK was, “These boys are so cute. Oh my god, they’re so cute.” Right? When the Beatles would sing and shake their head and do, “Wooh,” and shake their heads back and forth, it was a queue for those British girls in the spring of ’63 to yell and scream.
Now, American girls picked up on this before the Beatles showed up in America. There were all kinds of TV news clips of British girls in Beatlemania mode yelling and screaming and chasing them and it was a big story in America in December and through January when I Want to Hold Your Hand was released and reached number one in America. The girls were ready but when they saw them live like Patty and Cathy did, boom that was it.
Christopher: That is so interesting. I think we would look back and think the American girls or the British girls going nuts, so the American girls went nuts and it was all just kind of this fever or this hysteria that quote on. You just said something really fascinating which is there was a hair thing going on, there was a move at play when the Beatles performed. I really want to dig in to more of these examples of I think the signs you would call them the things going on in the music or the performance that are having that particular resonant effect.
Scott: Right. Two types of desire that their songs fanned. One where I called it a cultivation and this was essentially or probably the biggest one but in terms of the numbers of their songs from their albums, if we look at their albums for instance the first one Please, Please Me. If you look at the back, the sides of the covers, we’ve got songs like Love Me Do, Do You Want to Know a Secret which was a McCartney-Lennon song, sung by George, and Ask Me Why which essentially are Lennon and McCartney tunes that say “I want you to consider me as an object of desire” in a teenagey way.
Their singles from the time which they didn’t include in the albums in those days were the ones that really had these lyrics and musical signs that emphasize desire. Now, when we study musical signs, we take the lyric as one building block and then we see musically when that lyrical bit is happening, what’s being done for instance on the guitars, with the voices, with the drums, we add the music blocks together. At any given time we can stop a section of the song and say, “Oh my gosh, look at how the emphasis is being placed on this particular lyric, let’s feed it back to audience reaction. Okay, this is where the girls scream in this part of the song. Okay, see what they’re doing. Wow, they’re taking the fifth chord off the scale and now they’re raising the fifth note of the fifth chord, making it an augmented cord and they’re singing, well for instance they’ll sing a major six and then they’ll drop down to a major third, and so Paul is singing really high and John singing high. This is, “La.” From Me To You is an example of what we could see, their second big or third big hit actually.
Their first big hit was Please, Please Me then She Loves You, and then From Me To You. The interesting lyric of From Me To You is “I’ve got everything that you want”, okay we’ll start with that. I’ve got everything that you want has Paul singing a harmony. That “want” is stressed: want, desire, right?
Okay, so starts off a better way to do this would be just to go through the song. We’ve got a little melody being sung kind of like “every day, this is every day”: “da, da, da, da, dan, dan, da, da, ra, ra, da ra, ran, da.” You’re going through your life every day. “If there’s anything that you want”, right, first lyric. “If there’s anything I can”, okay I can’t sign it in my baritone voice too well.
Scott: We got (Plays) a simple melody, really effective for teenage mind first of all. “If there’s anything that you want, if there’s anything I can do” when we hit this, “I can do”. You’ve got Paul singing really high, John singing sort of high. That raises it to a kind of emotional tension and the girls right there are like, “Oh my gosh.” I can do if there’s anything I can do so they hit this in terms of a semiotic building block. You’ve got the right lyric, you’ve got the right kind of musical movement happening here.
The semiotic blocks of meaning are adding with this musical meaning. The vocals are giving us some tension and right on this idea if there’s anything I can do, yes there is Paul, John, right? It’s a really good example of how they were just able to build this tension and desire right there in the context of a simple melody but using it in a very effectively complex way. I got to tell you the schlock music before that they had the same kind of things happening but they didn’t put it together the same way.
Christopher: Got you. You mentioned before that there were two kinds of desire being fanned or cultivated and one was I want you to see me as an object of desire, is that right?
Scott: Right. Yeah, that’s cultivating desire, they’re setting up desire. The second one is satisfy me my desire. Of course, the best example of early Beatlemania music on that is “Please, Please Me”. The part of Please, Please Me where we see this building of tension and here’s the Rickenbacker here that we get from Lennon. You got a very simple song please, please me just with a simple one, four, five progression in the key of E. We have E, A, and B through most of the song but it adds a really interesting middle part where it ads emphasis going up a scale with a different little chord progression in E starting with A so we’ve got this part that goes come on, come on, come on, come on, come on, come on, come on, come on which is building tension for desire.
Please, please me as this again is this song where Lennon is saying satisfied me, come on, come on, come on so we’ve got A, come on, come on, to F sharp minor, come on, come on, and then a third time with a C sharp minor come on, come on, and then back to A with one more come one, come on. Then, resolves back to the one, four, five with E please, please me, oh yeah and that means you, like that. That last part with the one, four, five, takes the tension that’s built in the middle part and resolves it back to the singer.
Come on, come on, come on, come on, come on, please, please, reaches that tension, me, oh yeah and that means you, resolves on you. It’s just so expertly done where it raises the tension and the only way to solve it is that it resolves with you. Okay, that’s not-
Scott: Yeah, that’s not unintelligent, that’s done very, very strategically and very well done. Lennon, the ultimate word master said he was interested in the lyrics because of a Bing Crosby song. If I could just read to you an interview with Lennon from shortly before he was killed, The Playboy Interview, he goes through all his songs.
This is really interesting because it’s another thing of interest to us doing semiotic analysis. The Beatles were folks that pulled in many different techniques from many different people and use them on their own. We call this intertextuality. You take a text from Motown, you take a text from R&B, or in this case in Please, Please Me, Lennon takes it from a Roy Orbison song. Playboy asks Lennon, they say, “Okay, please, please me.”
Lennon responds, “Please, please me was my song completely. It was my attempt at writing a Roy Orbison song, would you believe it? I wrote it in the bedroom in my house at Menlove Avenue which was my auntie’s place. I remember the day and the pink eyelet on the bed and I heard Roy Orbison doing only the lonely or something. That’s where that came from. Also I was always intrigued by the words of,” and then he sings please lend your little ears to my please a Bing Crosby song.
“I was always intrigued by the double use of the word please, so it was a combination of Bing Crosby and Roy Orbison.” Those were Lennon’s words from October of 1980 a couple of months before he was killed. This idea of taking all these different techniques and building them in a way that raise this tension is just an amazing way of building the blocks of meaning in a very effective way which I think built Beatlemania to what it was.
Christopher: Fantastic. Are there other examples, you gave a couple there of the ascending up the scale to create tension and adding vocal harmony on the most important words. Are there other examples of those in use or other musical techniques that were used to emphasize things in this way?
Scott: Okay. We didn’t mention drums but Ringo is playing with toms was innovative in the day. You take a song like “She Loves You”, and you will hear, “ta, da, da, da, da, da, da,” right under the parts where we’re kind of moving to a resolve and then to the next phrase. Ringo’s drumming added a lot to the underpinning of the heartbeat of desire. You can listen to a lot of these different songs and today, you just hear a steady drum beat that sounds almost like it disappears in the background in today’s nomenclature you kind of think it disappears.
Back then, you got to realize that a snare drum and a bass drum was about all people we’re using and Ringo’s got a small said yes, but boy he’s messing those toms. He’s got this ringing cymbals going in a song like, She Loves You and in Please, Please Me. You’ve got guitar techniques that George’s fills add excitement to a lot of these songs as well. George, excellent guitar player in many different ways, he’s not underrated because people talk about him in terms of how he was such an expert at making the short fills and the short lead breaks that hit the mark almost every time.
Now, in later years you see George come into play in terms of writing really interesting songs and of course playing some really interesting guitar parts. In this time, George had the real task in the group was to provide the feel and the movement of the song, to move it along. The song All My Loving, a faster paced Beatle kind of again cultivating desire song shows George moving the song with his guitar, keeping the pace of the fast chord changes moving with a really cool top melody line.
That moves the desire through the words of the song, Paul is essentially singing in this song “I’m out here doing stuff but I’m thinking of you and I wish I was with you”. Boy, that message for those little teenage girls was strong. We can look at pretty much a whole lot of the later Beatlemania stuff as well. Where it began to change was in the spring and summer of 1964 when they were writing this album and recording A Hard Day’s Night. I really look at this album as sort of the culmination of their Beatlemania style but yet also starting to move away with more mature song writing.
For instance, you got A Hard Day’s Night which is a very much a Beatlemania kind of song but the lyric is about being a husband. Okay, that’s a different take it’s growing up. Then, you get to, And I Love Her which if you’re familiar with that song is all acoustic and there’s no real drums, there’s bongos and it’s subdued. It’s got this wonderful again short little teasing lead part that bounces through the song done by George. Again, so it’s a more mature kind of look at love and it’s taking us away from the teeny-bopper desire into a more of a grownup look at what real true love and devotion is.
Although, the teens look at it one particular way, we do see if you interpret the lyrics, Paul moving into other things as well. “Things we said today”, another Paul song, is another mature look at love, “we’re saying these things and we’re making pledges to each other. In the future, these are important things that we’re pledging”. If you look at it in comparison From Me To You or Please, Please Me, it’s a totally different animal. Moving away from this cultivation of desire into more let’s look at mature relationships which then comes out in the next album Beatles For Sale but nonetheless.
I think one of the very last Beatlemania type songs, we see in Tell Me Why and Anytime At All which in Lennon’s discussions, he said they were just toss-offs trying to make hits and he didn’t put much thought or feeling into them at the time. But when you look at things like I’ll Be Back, oh my gosh Lennon writes about that song in terms of thinking, “Well Bob Dylan says to write about your experience so after meeting Bob Dylan I thought I’d write a song about what it was like to lose my mom.”
In this particular book The Playboy Interviews, Lennon talks a lot about this underpinning of how many of his songs were about the relationship he had with his mother and how his mother was killed right when he was trying to get to know her. Lennon kept progressing as an artist and by the end of ’64 in terms of what Lennon and McCartney are thinking, they’re done writing songs that were just trying to be hit making, techniquey-kind of Brill Building kind of things, and they’re actually doing their version of art. That’s when we start to move into the next phase of Beatle eras.
Christopher: And in that album Hard Day’s Night, are you able to see the musical elements the kind of tropes and techniques mature and evolve in the same way, were they still using the same kind of elements to emphasis and how did things change?
Scott: Yes. No, nice question. Yes indeed, I mentioned the acoustic guitars on “And I Love Her”. We see use of more acoustic instruments, “Can’t Buy Me Love” more subtlety rather than throw that electric stuff out there, it’s a fast song but you hear them playing acoustics behind the lead guitar. You hear more sophisticated drumming. I’ll Be Back, again that song, acoustic guitar background but we do have piano creeping in, in some of these things as well.
You have piano being used to emphasize stuff in If I Fell and Tell Me Why and Anytime At All. These things become obviously much more pronounced. The amazing thing about how their music progresses is if you look at the presentation of the band from month to month you see their guitars change, you see for instance buying Epiphone guitars and using them starting in ’65. Then, you hear them distort their guitars at the end of ’65 we’re literally a year and a half away from where they started yet their sonic techniques are changing in their mix of instruments are changing.
Probably for me the most interesting time of change was the Rubber Soul album where if you listen to that album, almost wholly acoustic until you get to some fills with more distorted guitar sounds. They’re clearly saying some things about – the sound of these guitars are creating new meanings that other bands picked up and we’ve come to kind of understand the role of that. I’ll never forget as a kid in ’66, playing for the first time the Revolver album. I was seven years old, I didn’t understand a lot what was going on but the album opens up with Taxman and taxman has this incredible barrage of distorted guitar sound coming at you.
By the way, that distorted sound, it was a George song but the lead guitar is played by Paul. Yes, a lot of people don’t know that Paul is playing the lead guitar in Taxman and you hear the other guitars just hitting kind of a distorted choppy set of notes, chords on it. No other song at that time had put together those kind of distorted sounds for Taxman was not about love and desire. It was about the fact that they were given their money away, right. By the time we get to ’66, the Beatles are definitely not doing Beatlemania stuff anymore.
Christopher: Got you. I want to dig in a little there because you said something there about the meaning associated with a particular thing, I think the distorted guitar. I think someone might hear what we’ve been talking about and think, “Okay so they just … They wrote some lyrics that would appeal to the teenage girls. They figured out what the big words were and they added another instrument or they made things a bit louder then.” I love if we can just unpack like how much subtlety, how much sophistication was that to I guess the consistency with which they used a certain technique for a certain thing?
Or the innovation involved in some of these means used to emphasize? I guess what’s underneath my question is with this whole series on the Beatles, I’m most interested in how much do they know what they were doing in the sense of were they sitting down being like, “Okay, if we do this particular thing then the girls will go crazy here.” Was it more kind of instinctive and exploratory, can you kind of pick that up for us a bit?
Scott: Sure. A lot of us would have love to been flies on the wall in Abbey Road Studios to see exactly what was happening. I think in the early days, when we’re talking about the Please, Please Me era, they were trying to write hit songs using the kind of craft they saw happening around them. I mentioned the Brill Building that place in New York where they got a lot of song writers like Carol King et-cetera just sitting in rooms with pianos turning out hit songs.
They saw themselves doing that. Their manager gave away a lot of the songs that they wrote in that era to other bands he managed. Some of the songs they never sang were hits in the UK and later on even in the United States. When we have the what’s called here, the British Invasion sound in that ’63, ’64 era, a lot of what they were doing was writing hits. That changed at the end of ’64 where they actually began to write to suit themselves.
I guess your question is did they know what they were doing, well when they were writing the hits they knew that they could do certain techniques like we were talking before to emphasize notes, to emphasize the meaning of a lyric, and to make it effective. They knew that what they were doing when they shook their heads and sang, “Woo,” and they knew that effect and they got tired of it. You can tell.
In their interviews later and in the Beatles anthology video series and what not, they talk about one particular time where they had been moving away from it in August ’65 they gave that incredible concert at Chase Stadium and you can look at video in the anthology and maybe even on YouTube where they couldn’t hear themselves for all the screaming. Paul in the anthology says “John went literally nuts and he just was doing whatever he wanted during the performance because we all knew nobody was listening and so we stopped touring and we went into the studio and we wanted to make what pleased us”.
Their work … We talk about in the middle period is them in Abbey Road Studio playing and working to please themselves. Rubber Soul, parts of Help were the first attempts to that. Yesterday appeared on the Help album but just consider Yesterday comes out at the end of the summer of 1965 – what a different song Yesterday is compared with From Me To You or some of these other songs that were literally Christopher talking about a period of 18 months as a difference. Paul got the inspiration for Yesterday from visiting his girlfriend’s parent’s house in London, Jane Asher was his girlfriend at the time.
By the way, if you listen to … I don’t know if there’s a UK version of SiriusXM radio, Peter Asher is all over the Americas on the Beatles channel talking about his reminiscences working with the Beatles. Of course Jane Asher’s brother Peter was an important music producer in his own right and artist in the UK Peter and Gordon who actually sang some of the Beatles songs back then too. Okay, I digress but nonetheless Paul wrote Yesterday in their attic bedroom on a piano and knew he had something really good. He shared it with John and said, “Somebody else must have done this melody.”
John said “No, I can’t think of anything.” He went into the studio and played it and “anybody do this?” and they helped him finish it and they said, “We just can’t put this to electric guitar and drums and what not, we’ve got to do something else with this.” They got George Martin to do the string quartet and there’s history the most recorded song in western civilization history right, Yesterday. The story behind it is essentially the one that you’re asking me about, did they know what they were doing?
Yes, and by the time we’re in 1965, they’re doing what they figured was art not just technique hit writing. They were extending art in that way too.
Christopher: I see. Talk us briefly, so you mentioned there were different eras and we talked about early Beatlemania and I think you said there was kind of a later phase of Beatlemania. What do you see as the different eras of Beatles music?
Okay, sure. We’ve got this middle part where they’re doing their version of art and then they begin to bring in lots of other kinds of music but we’re going to call in semiotics intertextuality. Then, at the end of 1966 they go back into the studio and they think they’re going to do an album about the places where they live. Lennon does Strawberry Fields and you’ve these things sitting in Abbey Road where they’ve got little record loops of flutes and all kinds of instruments on a keyboard like this, it’s called the mellotron and Paul comes up with an introduction to Strawberry Fields that sounds very pastoral and there you go.
Now we have sounds associated with psychedelics and that sort of thing. Lennon’s love of word play is used to emphasize a dream-like state and of course they’re all about their subculture, baby boomer subculture, it was cool to do drugs, right, they didn’t know about the effects of LSD. You got Timothy Leary saying do LSD and reach Nirvana kind of state and people were taking that seriously in that day. Of course now, we know there were many casualties from that era. Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac for instance, and Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd lost their minds to LSD essentially.
Lennon pretty much could have, I’m glad he didn’t. Drugs were harmful but in those days they were looking at them as a way to fuel their creativity. The stuff that they did then became again semiotic signs of, “Okay, if you’re in college in 1967 you’ve got the Beatle Sargent Pepper’s album there, you’re picking up meanings and this is what is cool in ’67. This is on top of culture.” Again, if you look at and I can pull this out for you, you look at the cover of Sargent Peppers which is quite iconic right?
There they are, here I am, here we are in ’67, we are no longer the Beatles from the Beatlemania era, you can kind of see here’s wax figures of their old selves, here they are colorful, pop psychedelic right there. They’re moving the music with all kinds of intertextual new sounds and new meanings associated with it. It’s amazing Christopher they built this huge audience in 1963-64 and a generation of people saw them as leading things, they took it in an American context, they got the football and they ran with it, right?
They just kept going and I guess it was the power of having this pop culture behind you being on top of it, we can do what we want. We don’t have to make money touring, we can go in the studio and send the album out on tour is what they said. Essentially, sell lots of stuff and make lots of money being creative. I don’t think that today we can find artists that can come close to doing that in today’s music.
Christopher: It didn’t end with Sargent Pepper right, where did things go from there?
Scott: No, it certainly didn’t. Sargent Pepper was a creative high point. After that, they had a number of challenges. Right after that they essentially tried to find themselves in the context of their fame. They ended up going to India right before they were to leave to go to India and study with a maharishi, their manager died. And so all the business things that Brian was taking care of for them fell into their laps. Suddenly, they’ve got a deal with tons of business issues and be businessmen and when they actually started to look, they realized they weren’t making as much money as they could.
They were doing drugs and that wore them down. When they went to India, Lennon stopped doing drugs and his experience in India was essentially drying out and they all wrote a bunch of songs that came back and ended on the White album. By the time they came back to do the White album the pressure to recreate the magic of Sargent Peppers was too great they did a TV show in Britain at the end of ’67 called Magical Mystery Tour. It was not well received, it was kind of a clunker, a weird TV show but the music was great.
From that, they made an album that came out in the United States and subsequently was reissued in Britain as a record which is called Magical Mystery Tour. Some of that is very psychedelic “I am the Walrus” for instance is on that collection and Blue Jay Way another Harrison composition, very psychedelic. It wasn’t as good as what we saw in Sargent Peppers, so there’s a lot of pressure for what became the Beatles White album and it’s titled the Beatles but the White album is how we know it.
By the way, it was recently remastered and remixed again a couple of months ago released in a 50th anniversary edition. I think it was in October. Wonderful remix as you can hear all kinds of cool stuff in the songs. Another little fact in those days, they were really glad they had a new mixer at Abbey Road, it had eight channels, eight tracks. Back in the days of Beatlemania Hard Days Night was recorded on a four track machine which meant that you had to bounce things together in order to get it all put together. They were doing eight track and it gave them a little bit more leeway to do things but still to make the sounds add up, you had to record one thing on one track, and let’s say we had 12 different sounds we wanted on a track, you had to bounce them together. You’ll lose quality. They were able to take a lot of the stuff and throw it into modern digital equipment, keep the sounds similar but yet you can hear everything much more closely. Today, you go into a real recording studio and they’ve got 254 tracks, well you probably know it’s a lot more sophisticated today.
The White album has all kinds of cool things that they were writing in India. Everything from Paul’s Blackbird which is a cool little thing with acoustic guitar and finger picking. They learned finger picking in India from Donovan. Donovan taught them how to … That finger picking is where you’re not using the pick of your guitar but you’re using your fingers right?(Plays) Paul is doing this kind of thing and so he’s no longer strumming chords, he’s actually picking up chords and pieces off the neck like that. Much more sophisticated.
The other thing about the era when we hit to the White album is that they’re fighting and they’re learning that they’re kind of doing really cool things on their own and that they can do things on their own. The White album experience is tempered by the fact that Ringo actually got mad and left and quit the band for a week and they brought him back in but there was a lot of tension rising. Personal lives were also causing that tension.
It was the same set of sessions where Paul wrote Hey Jude probably again one of the most popular Beatle songs ever. The story goes that George wanted to do some really cool guitar fills on Hey Jude and Paul said, “No, I don’t want it,” and really upset George, right? That experience now shows that they’ve matured as artist and as creative forces in their own right? They weren’t the four boys anymore, they were men who wanted to do their own kind of thing and sort of felt trap by the fame and the pressure of producing “Beatles music.”
We get to the end, the Abbey Road album was recorded in the spring and summer of 1969 after a failed attempt to do a live album which later became the Let It Be sessions. By the way, Paul right now has released a whole bunch of audio that was recorded when they were trying to do a live album. The idea in January and February of ’69 was let’s get together in a TV studio in the north of England and simply record, let everybody see us writing a bunch of songs together and it ended up just watching the Beatles fight over things.
That became Let It Be, they shelved it for a while and they went back and they said, “Were fighting a lot, but let’s just do one really good album, and well, who knows what will happen after that”. The last album was Abbey Road where they just sort of behave themselves with each other the best they could and put together one final effort which is amazing in and of itself. There’s sort of a breakdown of the Beatles.
Christopher: Thank you, yeah, wonderful. I’d love to wrap up by just asking as someone who got to know the Beatles right at the beginning and love their music and was inspired it sounds like to go into your own music playing because of the Beatles and that early experience. How has approaching that music from this semiotics perspective and looking for these signs and connecting the lyrics and the music. How does that changed your appreciation of the Beatles?
Scott: That’s a great question. It has given me a greater appreciation for them not only as a creative force but also as intellectual force. When you’re a kid and you’re learning the songs like I did, you learn about chord progressions and you learn how songs fit in a key, and how melodies bounce off of the chords and the key. You just think that that’s just something people do. But when you break the songs down and analyze them in terms of how they’re using certain techniques to emphasize lyrics and Beatlemania and then later how they’re bringing in experiences from around them and making them gel together and unique ways during the Rubber Soul and Revolver and Sargent Pepper’s era.
You gain an incredible appreciation for the intelligence and the dedication and the creativity these men brought to their work in a way that is such an incredible influence on the entire world in western music. They are the Mozart of their age incredibly so, they’re the Chopin of their age. They were incredible innovators and in terms of music, rock music hasn’t really changed much in terms of what is put in to rock music today from what they were doing in the White album and in Abbey Road.
The sounds and techniques that you hear in those albums, you hear an any modern rock album today. Who could say that in terms of musical direction? That’s what I get out of it.
Christopher: Terrific and I wonder if we could just leave our listeners with a kind of homework exercise. I know a lot of people would have been really inspired and intrigued by this different way of listening for what’s going on in the music. I wonder if you could give them, if they were to go back to one of those early Beatlesmania records and listen in a way or try tune in to certain things. Can we give them something to try out to hear things and appreciate things in that way?
Scott: Yeah, let’s do. Now folks you can go in the internet and you can find every single one of their songs note by note broken down. You can use all kinds of tablature sources whatever – you can find them. What I would like folks to pay attention to in the Beatlemania era songs: Discover the keys that they used, discover their core changes, look at how in songs like Please, Please Me, From Me To You, Thank You Girl, some of these early songs even maybe some of your favorites like She Loves You or I Should Have Known Better or If I Fell.
Look at the chord progressions and look at how as Andrew from Musical U says look at how the notes are fitting the cartography of the musical chord progressions and then follow how the lyrics fit in with their meaning. By the way, Andrew is an expert also at finding the meaning in the way the music is fitting together. His idea of cartography is wonderful.
Christopher: Well, let’s just unpack that a little bit to make sure people understand what you mean by that. If you say you should be listening for how the melody and the chord progressions work together in terms of cartography, what does that mean?
Scott: Let’s find the meaning of the lyric in how the song is moving musically. What are they doing with their vocals, what are they doing with the melody, how is that chord progression moving the song and moving the meaning of the lyric through it in a way that emphasizes ads to and enhances the meaning of the lyric. You will be amazed as you break it down into it.
Christopher: Wonderful. Well, you’ve given us such a great insight there into kind of how to trace back what we often think of as the innovation of the Beatles and how they were breaking new ground and trying new things in their later albums. I think you’ve shown us how we can actually trace that back to even their earliest singles and appearances. I really thank you for that because certainly for me it’s given me a new perspective and a new appreciation – having talked with you and I listened to those songs, I definitely hear the techniques they’re using in a different way that I would have thought about them before. Thank you for sharing that with our audience today and I’d love to leave them with a pointer where they can go to learn about you and your research into the Beatles?
Scott: Sure, sure. I would … You can catch me on Facebook, you can connect with me on the Clarion University of Pennsylvania website but I’ll leave you with a one more website. A man by the name of Alan Pollack did in depth analysis of every single Beatles song and he has a website. The name is Alan Pollack and I’ll send you the information Christopher. His website is a wonderful treasure for knowing anything about any musical attribute of any Beatle song. It’s a great resource to use in that regard as well.
Christopher: Tremendous. Well, we’ll definitely have all of those linked up in the share notes of this episode. Huge thank you Scott, as I said at the beginning it was a particular delight to get to bring in an expert, he was also a member of Musical U so I hope you won’t be bombarded now with private messages inside Musical U from members wanting to chat with you about the Beatles.
Scott: I wouldn’t mind.
Christopher: Wonderful, well, a huge thank you again Scott for joining us today.
Scott: Thank you for having me.
The post The Message in the Music of the Beatles, with Scott Kuehn appeared first on Musical U.