Were the Beatles great musicians?

Most of us agree that the Beatles made great music. But “real” musicians like to argue that the Beatles were not necessarily themselves great. They certainly weren’t exceptionally great guitarists, or drummers, or keyboard players, or even singers. They were pretty good at those things, and had flashes of greatness, but you could walk into any music school and quickly find yourself dozens of more proficient instrumentalists. At this point, a Beatles fan might come back and say, well, the Beatles were great songwriters, which is different from being a great musician. The Beatles did indeed write brilliant songs (though they wrote their share of clunkers too.) Is musicianship coextensive with the ability to play or sing or write? I’m going to say that it isn’t.

We’re right to regard the Beatles as great, but not because of their performances, or even their songwriting. The Beatles are great because of their ability to create studio recordings. Their albums from Revolver onwards are hugely greater than the sum of the material, arrangements, and performances. Those late albums are masterpieces of recording, editing, mixing, and effects, of hyperrealist timbral and spatial manipulation, and of surrealist tape editing.

The Beatles produce some electronica

Traditional instrumentalists severely undervalue “playing the studio” as a form of musicianship. We live in the recorded music era. To a good approximation, all of the music that a person hears in modern Western society is recorded. In this world, playing the studio is the most culturally significant kind of musical creativity. It’s a form that’s understood better by pop listeners than “real” musicians, because the pleasure of recordings are immediate and sensual, and we don’t have the formal and analytical vocabulary to understand them the way we do for harmony and melody. But a formal vocabulary of timbre and space is starting to emerge. The Beatles are standard reference points for scholars of the recording studio the same way that Bach is for scholars of counterpoint, or Coltrane is for scholars of jazz improvisation, and for the same reasons.

In a way, the Beatles are more culturally significant now than they were in their era. We take for granted that there can be entire genres of music that can only exist as electronically produced recordings, but in the 1960s, this wasn’t obvious at all. Until the 1950s, the sheet music industry was bigger than the recording industry. Records were documents of performances. The early Beatles records were no exceptions; they were played more or less live. But once they stopped performing, the Beatles effectively became electronic music producers as much as rock musicians. In so doing, they helped turn studio manipulation into a core competency of modern musicians, rather than a technical craft performed after the fact.

Every sound on those last few Beatles albums is sonically manipulated, often in extreme ways. The sludgy drums on “Come Together” are the result of vari-speed and compression; you can’t make drums sound like that live in a room. “Tomorrow Never Knows” is based around a drum loop, and most of the other sounds in it are tape loops too; the song was mostly “performed” on the mixing desk. The Mellotron you hear on “Strawberry Fields Forever” is an analog sampler. The run-out groove after “A Day In The Life” isn’t conceivable in any form other than a recording.

The Beatles certainly weren’t the first people to make experimental recordings and tape collages. Karlheinz Stockhausen appears on the cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for a reason. But the Beatles were the first to find a way to make those ideas serve music that people actually wanted to listen to. The kids I teach know far more music theory and technique than the Beatles ever did, but they tend not to know the first thing about creating recordings. That’s a severe imbalance in our music curriculum.

the Beatles are sorry

10 thoughts on “Were the Beatles great musicians?

  1. Of course George Martin was largely responsible for the Beatles success in the studio, not to mention the sophistication he brought to their music. Imagine Eleanor Rigby without GM’s string arrangement.

    • I don’t doubt that GM enhanced the Beatles’ music, but to say that he was “largely responsible” is overstating things. GM’s string arrangements are wonderful, but it’s the Beatles that make or break those tracks.

      • Ever heard Paul sing Eleanor Rigby with an acoustic guitar? Sounds very ordinary. GM made that track. I just don’t think he gets enough credit. Particularly from the Beatles. Anyway, interesting article.

  2. The Beatles were great vocalists especially their harmonies. The Beatles were far more musically sophisticated than most of there peers including Dylan, Stones, The Velvet Underground etc…

    In fact they are considered to be one of the foundational acts of progressive rock. Try playing guitar on some of their tracks and come back to me later.

  3. Very much of what you say Ethan sounds right to me, except when you write: “Instrumental and writing skill matter, but they need to serve the needs of the recording, rather than the other way around”

    “Something” or “Imagine” do not need any particular editing to stand on their own. And one can argue they are amongst the ones that may stand better the test of time.

    Nevertheless, they can be produced (and interpreted alive) to sound in almost infinite ways. So there may be something about just writing a good song, independently of recording considerations.

    Thanks for your blog, it makes for a very interesting reading.

    • “Something” is lavishly produced, with a full string section and all kinds of overdubbing and tape effects. It’s a beautiful tune independently, but there’s a reason that no other version of it has ever really become famous. “Imagine” is less tied up in its production, but even there, the sound matters. The slightly out-of-tune piano and Lennon’s echo-y voice give the tune a strangeness that keeps it from being as syrupy as covers of it are.

      • “there’s a reason that no other version of it has ever really become famous”

        Ethan, I think that it would depend how you interpret fame.

        If by fame your mean commercially successfully, it may not be the measure of how “good” a song (or a production) is.

        That the Beatle’s recorded version of “Something” is the more well known doesn’t detract of other -musically- fantastic versions by for example Sara Vaughan (http://cort.as/WkLm, a gem in terms of both voice and sound) to name just one. It may just be that all songs from the Beatles are destined to be better known that the version made by a jazz singer at the end of its life.

        On the other hand if by fame, you mean how many people have liked and versioned the song then I think Something is very famous.

        Also, the live version sang by G. Harrison (http://cort.as/WkLa) is as touching as the one recorded, probably because the song is that good.

        I guess that the point is that there is good music that can sound great alive and be versioned by many musicians, but that when recorded can be ruined by poor production. As well as music that only sounds good when is heavily produced.

        In any case I take your point that, given that most pop music is mostly listened canned, if you want to have a reasonable recording career as a musician, you have to put production right on the center of your thoughts.

        I also think that in other styles, such as jazz, folk or symphonic music, production, although still extremely important, would not have such a massive impact in the success of a piece or a musician relevance.

  4. I pretty much agree with the spirit of this post – that the Beatles use of the studio is still undervalued – but I think it’s the combination of that, their songwriting, and their performance skills that made them such a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. Imagine if you had Gershwin combined with Joe Meek AND they played their own songs (a combination that in real-life might very sound awful, but I think you know what I mean).

  5. And this means instrumental or writing skill is of limited importance today? Or perhaps, that it’s always been about something else, less tangible?

    • Instrumental and writing skill matter, but they need to serve the needs of the recording, rather than the other way around. Think about “Baby You’re A Rich Man.” A pretty dumb song on paper and performed with considerable sloppiness, but somehow the off-key falsetto vocals combine with the snakecharmer synth to end up sounding good. Before modern recording, this whole issue of how things sound wasn’t considered much (except by orchestrators) because instruments sound how they sound, you know? Without all this freedom to shape the soundscape, there was no real need to consider it. But now this whole new dimension of musicality exists, and it can’t be ignored, any more than visual artists can ignore Photoshop.

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