Beatles changed music

How The Beatles changed music and the world (or at least got credit for it)

We all know The Beatles were a massively influential band who contributed to changes in music and culture in countless ways. Here are four concrete examples of how The Beatles changed music and the world.

It’s almost trite to talk about how much The Beatles changed music, Western popular culture, and basically the entire world. Certainly, it was the combination of their incredible talent and being in the right place at the right time with the right people that launched them into their immense stardom. As the society-appointed standard bearers of rock and roll music, their every move was highly scrutinized and the Beatles never disappointed. Always looking to stretch their own capabilities and carve out new and interesting sonic territory, their position as pioneers meant that they were operating mostly without a roadmap and creating via experimentation and their own internal compasses.

In these explorations, the Beatles and their audio team ended up inventing recording techniques and ways of achieving sounds that were copied and are still used by recording artists today. Here are four areas where the Beatles blazed a trail through the rock wilderness for others to follow.

The flanger

While the artificial double tracking effect popularly known as the flanger was actually invented by Les Paul in his garage and used on his tune “Mammy’s Boogie” in 1952, it was the Beatles who named it and, proud of their creation, used it all over 1966’s Revolver, bringing it into the permanent sonic vocabulary. Different authors have narrated different creation stories for the word. One story has it that John Lennon, who always hated the sound of his own voice, would ask for effects to be put on his vocal tracks. He’d say to George Martin, “I dunno, change it somehow, smother tomato ketchup all over it, flange it.”

The other, possibly less apocryphal story, involved the invention of the technology itself. By Revolver, the Beatles had begun double tracking most of their vocals, and constantly having to sing the same track twice was wearing on them. To help them out, EMI engineer Ken Townshend came up with the idea of artificial double tracking (ADT). In ADT, a signal from a tape could be fed into another tape machine with a variable oscillator (to allow for speed alteration) and then laid over the first signal but separated slightly in time so as to thicken the sound. Thus, the Beatles would only have to sing the track once and could have all the benefits of double-tracking for half the work. Lennon asked how this technology worked, and Martin apparently answered goofily, “Now listen, it’s very simple. We take the original image and we split it through a double vibrocated sploshing flange with double negative feedback.” From then on, when John would want the effect, he’d ask for flanging or “Ken’s flanger.”

Post Revolver, the effect was used on the Small Faces’ “Itchycoo Park” and in stereo for the first time on most of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland. The first rack-mounted flanger effects appeared in the 1970s with solid state technology, and the rest is history. Both the effect and its name would have never reached the wider world without The Beatles.

Microphone creativity

Geoff Emerick was The Beatles’ assistant engineer, and from Revolver onwards, their chief engineer. He obviously received many outlandish demands from them which, being young and adventurous, he was only too happy to try to fulfill. One of the first demands involved putting a mic into a condom and suspending it in milk for “Yellow Submarine,” which could have electrocuted Lennon. Thankfully it did not, though the contraption had to be hidden when EMI chairman Sir Joseph Lockwood made a surprise visit to the studio.

Near-death risks notwithstanding, Emerick began to experiment with the group in an attempt to capture different kinds of sounds. Nobody before him had close-miked instruments at EMI — in fact, it was strictly against the rules! Most EMI engineers in the 1960s wore lab coats and had a code of conduct with the equipment. Pioneers of irreverence as well as sound, the Beatles were well served by the like-minded Emerick. Their fame and importance to EMI meant that Emerick did not get fired for his transgressions and was allowed to keep “abusing” the microphones. And he did — close miking guitars, vocals, sitars, brass, strings, and every other instrument imaginable.

Emerick’s creativity extended to the miking of the drums, in particular. Before the Beatles, drums were generally recorded by two mics — one on the kick drum and one overhead above the snare. Emerick miked each drum individually and added one underneath the snare. He convinced Ringo Starr to put tea towels across his drums to dampen the ring from the metal edges, one of the keys to the Abbey Road drum sound. He also stuffed a sweater inside the kick drum, a routine and common recording practice today.

One of Emerick’s biggest pet peeves was the fact that, due to EMI’s paranoia about needles jumping on cheap record players, much of the bass was taken off the early Beatles records. The EMI maintenance department invented a process, introduced during record cutting, called Automatic Transient Overload Control (ATOC). This allowed for extra bass on a record without fear of the stylus problems. Wanting a massive bass sound on “Paperback Writer,” Emerick and Paul McCartney actually turned a loudspeaker into a microphone and placed it in front of a bass amp for extra boost.

It was Emerick’s idea to run Lennon’s vocals for “Tomorrow Never Knows” through a rotating Leslie speaker to help create the feeling Lennon wanted of “shouting from a mountaintop.” Indeed, often it was Emerick’s zany experiments with microphones or mic placement that helped drive the tracks forward. He then was able to harness the tools at his disposal on the recording consoles — EQ and compression — to further shape the sounds. Without him being a willing accomplice, The Beatles might not have pushed the envelope nearly as far as they did.

Tape creativity

Working in the malleable medium of recording tape allowed the Beatles another layer of experimentation, as physical tape can be stretched, reversed, pulled on, and spliced. Tape loops were not a new concept; they had been explored already by various experimental composers like Terry Riley and Karlheinz Stockhausen. The Beatles were very familiar with these avant-garde composers, as most creatives were in the heyday of Swinging London. Always eager to pursue their own devil-may-care banzai creative urges, their fascination with experimental sounds was the primary driver of their innovations with magnetic tape.

The closest the Beatles came to being electronic composers was in the use of tape loops on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” and the avant-garde “Revolution 9.” “Tomorrow Never Knows” was a cavalcade of tape loops, played live during the mix on five different tape machines scattered throughout the EMI complex. The loops consisted of found sounds, odd noises like Paul laughing backwards, and different notes being played on Mellotron and sitar. The loops on “Mr. Kite” were all organ and calliope noises from the EMI sound library; Martin had Emerick toss the bits of tape into the air and then reassemble them from the pile on the ground. “Revolution 9” is only loops — Lennon, Yoko Ono, and George Harrison’s explorations into the realm of Stockhausen and John Cage.

The idea for backwards vocals came from Lennon accidentally putting on a working master tape for “Rain” upside down on his home tape player. From that point forward, the Beatles insisted on every overdub being tried both forwards and backwards, resulting in the backwards guitar solo on “I’m Only Sleeping,” the backwards vocals on “Rain,” and the backwards drums on “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Reverse tape effects became a crucial part of the psychedelic sound library and were used by almost every recording artist from that point forward. Again, while the technique itself was not invented by the Beatles, they made these innovative and experimental methods accessible to everyone through their incorporation into their pop songs.

The EMI audio team also played with another feature of their tape machines: variable speed. Martin first manipulated the speed of the tape to record a “false harpsichord” solo with a piano on “In My Life.” Martin recorded the piano with the tape at half speed, which then gave the harpsichord-like sound played at regular speed. Emerick had the idea to record backing rhythm tracks and then slow them down to give them a spookier vibe on “Rain;” the idea had first come to him in experimenting with tape loops on “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Certain sounds just became deeper and more resonant.

From the other side of the coin, they also had the option to record vocals with the tape running more slowly. The voices would then have a higher timbre when the tape was playing at regular speed. “I’m Only Sleeping” and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” both use this effect for lead vocals, and “Magical Mystery Tour” uses it for backing vocals.

VariSpeed was not a new effect, and had been used by Ross Bagdasarian for his hit “Witch Doctor” and his novelty act The Chipmunks. It had also been used to make pop singers sound younger (which, rumor has it, was done on the early Beach Boys records). The Beatles used it for artistic purposes to create a certain kind of feeling or effect. Their most ambitious experiment in tape speed manipulation was in creating the final master for “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Lennon wanted to edit two takes together: the problem was they were in different keys and at different tempos. “You can fix it,” he told Martin and Emerick. Armed only with editing scissors, two tape machines, and VariSpeed, they were able to increase the first version and slow down the second version, creating the splice in the second chorus. It is a testament to their patience and care that the final song is such a masterpiece.

Music video

Seventeen years before MTV unleashed itself on the airwaves, the Beatles starred in their first major motion picture, A Hard Day’s Night, in 1964. Some of the key musical sequences were presented as silent drama under the Beatles’ recorded tracks, a precursor to the format that music videos would follow in subsequent generations. Rhythmic cross-cutting and contrasting long shots and close-ups were used to give a unity between the film and the music. The director, Richard Lester, often joked in later years that people called him the father of MTV and he jokingly responded by asking for a paternity test. The Beatles’ second film, Help!, took the music video concept to another level, this time in color, as Lester employed even more unusual and daring camera angles and focus choices.

After the Beatles retired from live performance, they began making promotional videos to send to TV shows like Ed Sullivan. As their music and lifestyles became more psychedelic, so did their videos. The promo clips for “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” used slow motion, reversed film, exaggerated lighting and camera movements, and color filters often employed by underground filmmakers. They took their filmic experimenting to the limits with the full-length feature, Magical Mystery Tour, which mostly mystified critics and audiences with its mostly incomprehensible plot, improvised script, and abstract music video segments. However, viewed through today’s lens, scenes like “The Fool On The Hill” and “I Am The Walrus” are fairly straightforward music videos.

As opposed to Elvis Presley, who starred in movies with a script and a linear story, The Beatles’ movies were mostly music first and plot second. The music video sequences and innovative direction by Lester were a new thing for audiences. Mostly, it showed other bands and artists the possibility that they, too, could make these videos, and many did. It wasn’t until the advent of MTV that the stand-alone music video became a common tool in a band’s toolbox, so its impressive how far ahead the Beatles were in this respect. Like most of their innovations, it was born from a willingness to try new things combined with their particular needs at that particular time.

Artwork sourced from album covers.


Chris Huff has been a professional singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer for over 20 years. He has worked as a sideman with Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul, and Mary), Echo and the Bunnymen, Chuck Hammer (David Bowie, Lou Reed), and Tom Kitt (Broadway composer of Next To Normal). Chris also wrote liner notes for David Bowie’s Live And Well CD, and has two full-length albums of original music available on iTunes.

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6 thoughts on “How The Beatles changed music and the world (or at least got credit for it)

  1. The Beatles were responsible for turning the long play record into a total performance instead of just a collection of songs.

  2. In the olden days (1970s/1980s) analog tape decks did not keep their speed precisely; one machine was almost always a tiny fraction faster or slower than the other. It was called “flanging” because when you played the same audio from two different open reel tape decks through the same audio feed, this speed difference caused the two identical sound waveforms to make a swooshing noise as they transitioned from being out of phase and back into phase, and tape deck A caught up with and then passed tape deck B. You could force them back to A being “behind” B by slightly slowing down tape deck A by gently holding your finger against the flange of the supply tape reel on deck A. I did this a zillion times when using this effect for producing music, radio commercials, etc. Once you got the hang of it you could artfully keep the back and forth swooshing going throughout a whole recording. If you didn’t “flange” it by hand, tape A would catch up with tape B, “swoosh” as it passed it, and then continue getting further and further ahead until it was simply a delayed doubling effect. And on a long enough tape, it could eventually just sound like two duplicate tapes running way out of synch with each other.

  3. I was a teenager, and a budding working musician in the 1960’s.
    The Beatles were our musical standard bearers, and each album seemed to be a sonic leap forward.

    Nowadays, once in a while I go back, and revisit Beatles albums and still find new and amazing details in the mix.
    I have a very long daily commute for work.
    Just last week I took my Sgt. Pepper CD with me one morning as I dashed out to the car.
    I intended to listen to a couple tracks.
    I ended up spending the entire week listening to the entire record over and over, in the car, and at home on my vintage stereo gear.
    It’s incredible how good that album is…..it still amazes and inspires.

  4. Nice article Chris! But I’m afraid someone may have been pulling your leg about the origins of the verb, “flanging”. Analog tape is a long, thin rectangle of flexible plastic coated on one side with magnetic paint, rolled up onto a hub, and protected on top and bottom by a metal “flange”. When playing a tape duplicate concurrently with the original, and gently applying pressure with one’s finger on the duplicate’s flange, an effect is created which we now call, “flanging”.

  5. There were many inventions created by people that no one knows where it came from. I had a major impact in computers, digital audio workstations, video streaming and other technologies. They were not created by apple or google.

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