The Beatles were an electronica band

Update: hear my 5.1 surround remix of “Here Comes The Sun.”

Why are the Beatles still so cool? By which I mean the late Beatles, Revolver onwards. I like Please Please Me as much as the next guy, but it isn’t why the Beatles are cool now. No, I mean the last few records, especially Sgt Pepper, the White Album and Abbey Road. If any of these albums were released next week, Pitchfork would go ballistic over them. Three quarters of the indie rock of the past ten years descends directly from Abbey Road. Why do we all still care so much?

Let’s say you’d never heard of the Beatles, and I played you “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” “Within You Without You,” and “When I’m Sixty-Four.” You wouldn’t have any reason to think they were written and recorded by the same people. They weren’t. The three songs are effectively solo John Lennon, George Harrison and Paul McCartney tunes, respectively. It’s wonderful to imagine that a single group of humans working together could have produced such wildly disparate sounds, and it was a royal bummer for me to find out that during long stretches of the Sgt Pepper’s sessions, the Beatles weren’t even talking to each other.

I think the late Beatles are still so relevant because they remind people my age and younger of our divorced parents. Their albums are extremely well-made art produced by a group of people in a failed and dysfunctional relationship. Yet the product bears a collective name, creating the illusion of a unified creative team. For legal reasons, the songwriting credits are mostly Lennon/McCartney, even after the two stopped writing and recording in the same room. It’s like how my mom retains my dad’s last name decades after their divorce and remarriage to other people. The mental process of trying to resolve the jagged stylistic contradictions in Sgt Pepper is familiar to me, it’s like squaring the conflicting values and loyalties of my parents and stepparents. Late Beatles albums are more like mixtapes than albums by a band.

I was always was more of a Beatles guy than a Stones guy. Like me, the Beatles didn’t remotely hate their parents. Not the way rock stars usually do; not the way the Stones did. The Beatles revered their parents. They wrote songs for and about them. It’s mostly McCartney doing these songs, but my favorite John Lennon song ever is about his mother Julia. The Beatles were kid-friendly, too. Could you imagine the Stones writing “Yellow Submarine” or “Octopus’ Garden”?

Most rock musicians turn their angst into hedonistic defiance or anger. The Beatles turned most of their angst into wistfulness. Even when their music pushed boundaries, it mostly did so in a relatively polite, restrained way. Maybe the band kept so much composure in their later years because instead of playing in rowdy bars, they were performing for George Martin and the BBC engineers in their coats and ties. These straightlaced British civil servants were the only listeners present for most of the band’s live music-making after 1965, along with Yoko Ono. The Beatles’ poker face is uptight by rock standards, but it makes perfect sense for professionals in a high-tech work setting.

The advances in recording technology that gave the late Beatles albums so much of their imaginative sweep also contributed to their feeling of alienation. In the early years, the band recorded by getting together in a room and playing live to single-track tape. By the end, Paul McCartney could use multitracking to play every instrument on “Back In The USSR” and “Birthday”, as if he was Prince recording “When Doves Cry.” The tape collage stuff like “Revolution 9” and the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever” is more like Aphex Twin than Chuck Berry. And the instrumentation moved steadily into synth and sampler territory. The flutes at the beginning of “Strawberry Fields” aren’t real, they’re tape samples in a Mellotron. Here’s a video about this early sampling keyboard – thanks, Nick Seaver.

The famous medley that ends Abbey Road is a sixteen-minute DJ mix of leftovers from the White Album and Let It Be. It was carefully edited into a seamless suite by McCartney and George Martin. The medley can’t exist outside of the recording medium. The Beatles never played it live, and to my knowledge no one else has either. How would you even approach it? I learned the first chunk on the guitar and it was a whole music education unto itself, but my rendition is not going to make you forget the original.

Given how electronic their sound was, it’s a shame that the Beatles have never allowed anyone to sample them. If they had been born twenty years later, they might well have tried their hand at loops and breakbeats. Their early songs are collages of Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins and Buddy Holly. The later, more ambitious songs feel more “original” only because the source material for the collaged is more diverse. Wikipedia says:

According to Lennon, “Because” was inspired by Ludwig van Beethoven‘s “Moonlight Sonata“. “Yoko was playing Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ on the piano … I said, ‘Can you play those chords backwards?’, and wrote ‘Because’ around them.

Another Beatles classical remix is “Blackbird.” It includes a fragment of Bach‘s Bourrée in E minor. It’s the ascending G major part, a loop that runs through the song. These guys are a narural fit for sample culture.

Not like people are waiting for permission to sample the Beatles. Danger Mouse, made his first big splash by combining Jay-Z‘s Black Album with the White Album into his breathtakingly copyright-infringing Grey Album. While no one is officially allowed to sample the Fab Four, some people have been allowed to use pieces of cover versions.

Common’s song “Forever Begins”, produced by Kanye West, samples a cover of “She’s Leaving Home” by Syreeta. The line “Father snores as his wife gets into…” loops under the verses. The sample cuts off “her dressing gown.” It’s a strange thing to rap over, but it works. (The track also uses another perfect sample, Steve Gadd’s snare drum intro to “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” by Paul Simon.)

Here’s a screen shot of Beatles Rock Band – click through to see the fascinating vocal notation more clearly. It’s a combination of MIDI and standard music notation.

So what do you say, Beatles copyright holders? How about loosening up the restrictions a little? People are remixing the tunes anyway. Why not get in front of the situation and put the stems on iTunes or Amazon? Nothing can ever replace those albums, but why should the story end there? “Forever Begins” doesn’t take anything away from “She’s Leaving Home” any more than “Because” takes away from the Moonlight Sonata. We the fans have been remixing the songs in our heads for years anyway. Why not let us do it with computers too?

2 thoughts on “The Beatles were an electronica band

  1. Paul didn’t play all the instruments on Back in the USSR-Lennon was on 6 string bass & side b of Abbey Road featured Lennon songs-Sun King, Mean Mr. Mustard, Polythene Pam. Plus the Beastie Boys got away with sampling the Beatles on Paul’s Boutique-The Sounds of Silence. On Revolver, Tomorrow Never Knows was really revolutionary. The Chemical Brothers sited it as an inspiration for Setting Sun & Let Forever Be.

    I like your blog.

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