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The Beatles Turn 50

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I’m 28 years old, so I’ve been driving on my own for over a decade now, but I can still remember seeing my father’s fingers tap on the dashboard of his car. For most of his youth, he spent his time behind a piano or organ, playing in a circuit of hip New York bands throughout the ’60s. Some toured with Mitch Ryder, The Animals, and Paul Butterfield; others just jammed in the garage for fun. Every time I bring this era up to him, he just lights up, and he’s always quick to discuss his Sgt. Peppers Story, where he picked up the vinyl on the day of release, and he and his bandmates learned the entire thing for their weekly gig in Cortland, NY days later. I’ve heard this story 15 or 20 times already, but it’s still exciting.

My father’s passion for The Beatles isn’t one of obsession, but appreciation. He spent so much time learning their music — learning from their music — that every time he revisits their tunes he goes right back to playing them. So, whenever we’d drive around and pop in A Hard Day’s Night, Rubber Soul, or even my old, worn out cassette of Live at the BBC, his fingers would innately start playing ghostly keys on the steering wheel, the dashboard, or simply in the air. “All My Loving”, “Ticket to Ride”, “Drive My Car”, and “Get Back” always sparked something remarkable in those fingers, and only once did we ever get tired of The Fab Four while driving. Though, that was neither the fault of Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, nor Ringo Starr, just Miami traffic.

the beatles turn 50 The Beatles Turn 50I’m quick to discuss my father when chatting about The Beatles because the idea that this band is celebrating its 50th anniversary both shocks and scares me. This isn’t true, but for me, popular music more or less starts with The Beatles. (Note: My first concert was The Everly Brothers, I still think Buddy Holly is the true King of Rock, and I grew up on Mississippi Delta blues songs, so yes, I’m fully aware music existed before “Love Me Do”.) So, the idea that it’s only been 50 years, and I’m turning 30 in just two years, seems both small and large at the same time. What scares me, however, is that if this music’s 50 years old, and my father lived and experienced this music at the time of its inception, then that means he, too, has aged just as long.

Now, that’s a major “duh” moment — people age, things age, and culture certainly ages. What’s so daunting for me to accept is its celebration. I’m terrified of aging, I’m equally horrified at the fast and merciless concept of time, and I try not to think about it much. Yet, day after day, I find myself surrounded by constant reminders: wrinkled LPs, remastered MP3s of music that was captured before computers were even commonplace, and thousands of photos snapped decades ago. Again, I don’t dwell on the years, I focus on the artifacts themselves.

It’s been hard to keep that up in 2012, a year where almost everyone’s celebrating their 50th anniversary. The Beach Boys did, The Rolling Stones are about to (even though, technically, they should have already), and even James Bond recently had his much-deserved piece of cake. Collectively, they’re nagging reminders that time marches on, pop culture icons stay pop culture icons, and that, yes, the future will continue to cherish their work. With The Beatles, it seemed frugal to reiterate how they’re still the greatest band in the history of music and how their songs and albums will last forever and blah, blah, blah. Instead, it felt necessary to highlight their key innovations, describe how they’ve impacted our lives, and ignore the big 5-0 altogether.

If anything, my pops would appreciate that.

-Michael Roffman
President/Editor-in-Chief

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John Lennon by Dmitri Jackson

Innovation: Fading In

By the time they were objects of international admiration, The Beatles had become frequenters of the fade technique, applying it at the ends of hits including “Love Me Do” and “A Hard Day’s Night”. It was working so well that when engineer Norman Smith suggested they try to multiply its utility, they listened, becoming the first rock band to fade instruments into the start of a song on “Eight Days a Week” in 1964. It was another four years before they really tried milking it for all its worth with the mid-song fade-out-then-fade-back-in on “Helter Skelter”, though that was hardly the most contentious aspect of that one. -Steven Arroyo

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Innovation: Sampling

Before there was Paul’s Boutique, before there was DJ Shadow, and before there was Girl Talk, there was The Beatles. The Fab Four didn’t invent sampling — experimental composers had been making use of found recordings since the 1940s — but they were the first to harness its use in popular music, blurring another line between what’s mainstream and what’s fiercely avant-garde. The examples are as colorfully varied as they are brilliant.

On “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, George Martin cuts and pastes a veritable sonic circus of spidery organ in your headphones with seeming ease. On “I Am the Walrus”, the technique is as delirious as it is innovative, weaving radio signals, freaky chants, and King Lear excerpts into an outro that sounds as alien today as it did in 1967. With “Revolution 9”, of course, Lennon plunges headfirst into the musique concrète tradition of Stockhausen and Varese.

But the experiment began earlier with one of The Beatles’ most innocuous, whimsical tracks, “Yellow Submarine”, innocently snagging a Sousa march, pasting it into a pop song, and quietly kick-starting a recording revolution. (Number nine? Number nine?) -Zach Schonfeld

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Innovation: Music Videos

Beginning with “Paperback Writer”/“Rain” in 1966, The Beatles released promotional clips to promote their singles when personal TV appearances were unfeasible. The concept spread, and thus music videos were born. However, their films A Hard Day’s Night and Help! laid the stylistic foundations of the art form. While Elvis Presley’s 1950s films saw him performing, it was Richard Lester’s direction of The Beatles’ early-’60s features that transformed the musical portions into centerpieces.

Sequences like “Can’t Buy Me Love” from Hard Day’s cued the action to the music (McCartney grabbing the camera at the scream) and employed then-uncommon techniques like sped-up film, handheld shots, and flyover camera work. Playing with depth of field, angled shots, and juxtaposing monochrome with color, the opening credits of Help! are the basic groundwork of every performance-based music video since. As Harrison said during The Beatles Anthology, “…I suppose, in a way, we invented MTV.” -Ben Kaye

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Innovation: Chart Records

Baby boomers let out the groan heard ‘round the world two years ago when the cast of Glee overtook one of The Beatles’ proudest charting records (most Hot 100 singles by a non-solo act) one week before Lennon would have turned 70, but what’s one lost medal to Michael Phelps? The Beatles still hold claim to countless more and were the first to many of those claims, including the first to replace themselves at #1 in the UK (on both the singles and albums charts) and the first and only ones to have 12 Hot 100 singles in one week or hold the top five Hot 100 positions (which they did at the same time). -Steven Arroyo

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Paul McCartney by Virginia McCarthy

Innovation: Rock Music Conspiracy

An obsession with a pop band’s love lives and favorite colors was nothing new by the time The Beatles rose to fame. But the lads were the first group to instill such burning fervor that a slew of conspiracies slowly emerged from the woodwork: There was the one where they were Satanists/Aleister Crowley devotees; or how they were merely the product of an experiment in brainwashing by the nefarious Tavistock Institute; and who could forget the most famous of them all, where the band utilized a Paul McCartney doppelganger following his alleged 1966 death. Whether these claims were real or not, the attention generated real album sales/publicity/loads of cash in general-Chris Coplan

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Innovation: Live Broadcast Performance via Satellite

On June 25th, 1967, some 30 odd countries across five continents tuned in for Our World, the first ever live worldwide satellite broadcast. Fourteen countries contributed material for the event — farming in Canada, train conduction in Australia. At approximately 9:36 GMT, Britain’s segment was aired, and it would be the lasting memory of the historic event. The Beatles had written “All You Need Is Love” specifically for the broadcast and not only premiered it but actually recorded it during the show live in EMI Studios on Abbey Road.

Though some backing tracks were previously canned, Lennon’s lead vocals, the 13-piece orchestra, and the in-studio audience participation (which included Mick Jagger, Keith Richard, Keith Moon, Eric Clapton, Graham Nash, and others) were all recorded live in front of approximately 400 million viewers. Fitting that a track created during a show about worldwide interconnectivity and cooperation would go on to become a Flower Power anthem. -Ben Kaye

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Innovation: Shoegaze

“I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” must have terrified fans back in the late ’60s. Clocking in at eight minutes, it’s not the length that’s daunting, but the cyclical guitar descent that lasts three minutes and falls into a Moog synthesizer’s white noise — only to be cut off short. Oddly enough, Lennon wrote this torrential acid trip for Yoko Ono and through minimal lyricism (only 14 different words are sung) and a storm of noise that even included a wind machine (!), he more or less got his point across.

As he later explained to Rolling Stone: “When you’re drowning, you don’t say, ‘I would be incredibly pleased if someone would have the foresight to notice me drowning and come and help me.’ You just scream.” While certainly one of Abbey Road‘s crowning achievements, it’s also the earliest form of what any guitarist today recognizes as shoegaze. -Michael Roffman

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Innovation: Three-Guitar Band

As complementary as Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison’s songwriting and singing styles were, equally inspired were their wholly unique guitar work. While the bass was thrust upon Paul out of necessity back during the band’s Hamburg years, and John was often pegged with rhythm guitar duties, all three could more than hold their own against any lead axe man past or present (yes, even you Clapton). On “The End”, the final cut off the band’s final album, each of their iconic personalities pour off the frets: McCartney’s soaring whimsy, Harrison’s technically precise weep, and Lennon’s raw snarl. -Bryant Kitching

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Ringo Starr by Steven Fiche

Innovation: Cartoons & Commercialization

One word: Beatlemania. The Beatles were Star Wars before there was Star Wars. Dolls, lunch boxes, posters, T-shirts, cartoons, board games, mugs, ice cream bars, and anything you could slap the name on became “fab” enough to grab. In hindsight, there were too many screaming fans for producers and managers to ignore, and as a result, The Beatles became bigger (and much more lucrative) than just great pop music.

They were a lifestyle to many, and, at the time, nobody in music had done that. Yeah, Elvis Presley kicked up a storm, but The Beatles were an uncategorized hurricane. They invented the wheel of merchandise, and 50 years later, the whackiest shit continues to surface. Let’s just say, Gene Simmons has taken many, many notes during all this. -Michael Roffman

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Innovation: Lyric Sheets and Gatefold Sleeves

Just looking at the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band still conjures up awe to this day. But nothing can compare to holding that album for the first time — and reading the lyrics before you even hear the music. Then you rip off the cellophane — and fold open the cover to see four smiling faces looking back at you. Then you pull out the record — and out come cutout mustaches and army stripes.

Lyrics, gatefolds, and extra inserts are things we take for granted today, but before Sgt. Pepper’s, they didn’t really exist. In The Beatles Anthology, McCartney recalled being a child and traveling a half hour by bus to buy a new record, reading it cover to cover on the ride home. That affinity for the experience of album covers changed perceptions of what could be done with a simple sleeve, and countless designs owe debt to what started with Sgt. Pepper’s-Ben Kaye

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Innovation: Starting a Label and Self-Releasing Albums

Coming of age in an era where labels dictated every aspect of a group’s output, The Beatles attempted to master their own fate when they formed Apple Records in 1968. Though still under contract to EMI, thus making Apple mostly a “cosmetic” decision, the band still utilized the label as a means to release hit Beatles songs (like “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”), solo material from Starr and Harrison (possibly buying the already-tumultuous lineup a few more years together), and launching the careers of James Taylor and Billy Preston. And the fact that it gave the group a solid tax shelter probably didn’t hurt much either. -Chris Coplan

Innovation: Popularizing Long Hair

There’s a reason a photographer in That Thing You Do! asks the fictional, Beatles-esque one-hit Wonders, “Why don’t you guys have long hair, like The Beatles?” The mop top’s origin stems back to the fab four’s old friend Jurgen Vollmer, of whom McCartney said in Anthology, “He had his hair Mod-style. We said, ‘Would you do our hair like yours?’ We’re on holiday – what the hell!’” And so it seems we owe the universal protraction of men’s hair (and general lack of journalist inquiries on the topic) to a 1960s “YOLO” moment. -Amanda Koellner

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Innovation: Fan Club Records

Dealing with more fan letters than they could ever dream of answering, the band treated members of their U.S. and UK fan clubs to exclusive records. Among the slew of Flexi discs (which included newsletters) sent out was the annual Christmas record, which featured skits, carols, and original songs/reworks and remixes (many of which were never reissued as to maintain their exclusivity). Even to this day, the records are sought by rabid fans/collectors, netting as much as $200-$300 on eBay. Aside from sweet residual money, the band’s quaint decision of fan appeasement influenced other clubs, including Cornershop’s The Singhles Club and the Jack White-led Third Man Records Vault-Chris Coplan

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George Harrison by Kristin Frenzel

Innovation: Popular Use of Sitar

“I never thought our meeting would cause such an explosion, that Indian music would suddenly appear on the pop scene,” Ravi Shankar said of his relationship with Harrison, whose interest in the sitar piqued on the film set of Help!. After featuring the Indian instrument on classics such as “Across the Universe” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”, as well as in his solo work, Harrison’s use of the sitar inspired the likes of The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, and The Kinks. -Amanda Koellner

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Innovation: Heavy Metal

The Beatles get a lot of irrefutable credit for their contributions to pop music, but sometimes it’s overlooked how much they helped shape some of rock music’s louder, less pristine offshoots. Barry Miles quotes McCartney in his book Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now as describing “Helter Skelter” as “a ride from the top to the bottom, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.” As ambitious as that might seem, that more or less sums up the track, a heavy metal prototype driven by crashing drums, raucous guitar riffs, and McCartney’s madman vocals.

Over the years, the song has been covered by the likes of Aerosmith, Soundgarden, Motley Crew, and Thrice to name but a few, further cementing its long-standing legacy as one of the seminal seeds from which metal first sprung. Still not convinced? Check out the “Mother Superior” bridge from “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” which while brief, is layered in the sludge-like blues guitar scuzz later popularized by Black Sabbath. -Ryan Bray

Innovation: Recorded Feedback

A single plucked A-note on McCartney’s bass at the beginning of 1964’s “I Feel Fine” was all it took to lay the very foundation for decades of psychedelia, punk, alternative and prog rock: feedback. In typical disagreeable fashion, Lennon always insisted the razor-sharp swell of reverberation was intentional on his part, McCartney on the other hand claimed it was the accidental product of a guitar leaning up against an amplifier during a recording session. Either way, that single note would open up the floodgates for new generations of musicians and fans, proving that even something so dirty and abrasive could find its way into a pop song. -Bryant Kitching

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Innovation: Backwards Recording

The painter Bob Ross was fond of saying that there were no mistakes, only happy accidents. During the recording sessions for Revolver, one such accident led to the popularization of a recording technique termed backmasking — recording sound backwards to a track that is then played forward. The most popular tale regarding this accidental discovery involves a stoned Lennon threading a rough mix of “Rain” onto his reel-to-reel player backwards.

According to David Shelf, in his book, All We Are Saying, Lennon claimed, “I got home from the studio and I was stoned out of my mind on marijuana and, as I usually do, I listened to what I’d recorded that day. Somehow I got it on backwards and I sat there, transfixed, with the earphones on, with a big hash joint. I ran in the next day and said, ‘I know what to do with it…” However, though this story is backed up by Harrison and engineer Geoff Emerick, the band’s producer George Martin claims it was he who discovered the effects of backwards vocals, and not by accident. In Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Martin claims to have been “playing around with tapes,” lifting Lennon’s vocals off a four-track onto its own tape and manipulating the direction as something of a fun experiment.

No matter who is right, there is no doubt about Lennon’s amazement and excitement at the discovery. In fact, Lennon was so fixated by the sounds he heard from the reversed tapes that he initially wanted to have the effect throughout all of “Rain”. It was Martin and McCartney who convinced him to keep it in the song’s coda. As such, “Rain” became the first pop record to feature intentionally recorded backward vocals when the song’s final 30 seconds feature Lennon singing the song’s first verse in reverse. -Len Comaratta

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Innovation: Theaters to Stadiums

On August 15, 1965, the boys from Liverpool grew to be men and then transformed into gods before 55,600 screeching fans. This first-of-its-kind show took place at Shea Stadium in Queens, NY. The venue was demolished in 2008, but it’s fortunate that the rabid fan base didn’t tear the walls down then. Ed Sullivan’s introduction brought the nervous mop-topped lads jogging onto the baseball diamond to play a stage crudely constructed over second base. Thirty minutes later, they were assisted off the turf in a protective automobile.

The short set was hardly audible, thanks to an inferior PA system, but once the twisting and shouting ignited, there was no retreat. There were no seats, only a bloodthirsty ring of swelling humanity. The box office for this unique rock tallied up to a record-setting $304,000. “I saw the top of the mountain,” Lennon recalled. He knew it. The screaming fans knew it. The security guards with fingers in their ears knew it. This was a watershed moment.

It was a turning point in rock ‘n’ roll. Bands were no longer confined to jukeboxes, dingy pubs, or even concert halls. Tens of thousands could now gather at once to see the spectacle unfold and get lost, not just in the music, but also the collective good vibes of a stadium packed with friends, peers, and strangers who all had one thing in common: love for the live show. -Dan Pfleegor

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Playlist

To close out this commemorative article in style, we leave the final words to artists who have paid tribute to this band of many firsts. Granted, there are too many covers out there to count, but we’ve chiseled the whole lot down to just 15, and we’re pretty keen on these. From Fiona Apple to Daniel Johnston, The Black Keys to Ray Charles, the whole gamut is yours to absorb.

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The Beatles Turn 50 is presented by Bow Truss, an independent coffee roaster based in Chicago, IL which brings together world-class roasters and coffee professionals to make specialty coffee more approachable.

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