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The Beatles were all about evolution, absorbing everything that they could, distilling it, adding their own unique spin and moving to the next level.
It’s something that’s apparent when listening to their discography in chronological order, and the very reason not only for their unprecedented success during the Beatlemania years, but why they had to step away from the “mania” to regain a life for themselves. And, just as importantly, to allow their music to flourish in the studio in a way that it never could on the road.
“Their growth was one of the things I liked about them,” said the late Walter Shenson, who produced the feature films A Hard Day’s Night and Help!. “They were very progressive. One of the reasons we did not make a third movie was because they didn’t want to do anything that was similar to what they had done before. A Hard Day’s Night was black and white and in a documentary style. Help! was color, locations and sort of what I call a movie-movie. It wasn’t a question of ‘let’s make another movie and we’ll make some more money.’ They had all the money they needed from the records. Money never entered their heads at all.”
Said John Lennon back in 1967, “The people who have bought our records in the past must realize that we couldn’t go on making the same type forever. We must change, and I believe those people know this.”
Attempting to put the shift into perspective, Paul McCartney explained, “I don’t think we were worried about our musical ability. The world was a problem, but we weren’t. One reason we didn’t want to tour was that when we were on stage, nobody could hear us or listen to us over the screaming. We just felt we were in another phase of our career, and we were happy. And the truth is, our stage act hadn’t improved one bit from when we started touring. The days when three guitarists and a drummer could stand up and sing and do nothing else on stage was over.”
“At the time, many of our tracks had big backings and we couldn’t produce the sound on stage without an orchestra. We felt that only through recordings did people listen to us, so that was the most important form of communication. We never thought of ourselves as one sound. We always changed our style as we went along and we were never frightened to develop and change...The early material was directly relating to our fans, saying, ‘Please buy this record,’ but now we’d come to a point where we thought, ‘We’ve done that.’ Now we could branch out into songs that are more surreal, a little more entertaining.”
The fruits of this decision revealed themselves in 1967 with the Double-A single “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane. This was followed several months later by the album that would allow them to once again set the world on fire, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which brought the psychedelic era to the mainstream and ushered in the next stage in The Beatles’ evolution. This, of course, would lead to the music of Magical Mystery Tour, the satellite global broadcast of “All You Need Is Love,” the double-disc White Album (as it’s known, though its actual title is The Beatles), their biggest single ever, “Hey Jude;” Let It Be (admittedly not a high-water mark) and their swan song recording, Abbey Road—which to this day defies the reality that it represents a band in the midst of its death throes.
In the pages of The Beatles: The Real Story, author Julius Fast writes, “It’s unusual and a complete reversal of things for a group or an artist to first find success and then begin to question the way of things. Usually the angry young playwright, singer or novelist becomes successful and then argues that his anger was ‘lacking in maturity.’ He is bought off by success and joins the Establishment he has been so valiantly fighting. The Beatles, on the other hand, found success first and then began to question the very roots of the system that had lifted them up. They were so firmly established in that system, that their questioning of it caused them no trouble. Instead, the adult world of intellectuals who had shrugged them off as a teenage fad, suddenly sat up and began to notice them. Once [The Beatles] had created their image, they managed to step nimbly aside and search for some new identity of their own.”
Which simply was not—and to this day is not—the norm.
Observes Mark Lewisohn, author of The Beatles: All These Years, Vol. 1: Tune In as well as the definitive The Beatles Recording Sessions and The Complete Beatles Chronology, “It’s very hard to get to the top, but harder to stay there if you don’t evolve and evolve fast. I imagine these days that evolution would have to happen very fast because of the way that everything is happening. But, still, even in the ‘60s, if you didn’t evolve you would eventually be knocked off. The Beatles were aware of this and knew how to deal with it. This is what makes them so extraordinary, because it’s so hard to get to the top and when anyone usually gets there, they will just bask in the fact that they are at the top. But to have the artistic courage to dispense what has taken you to the top and try something else that may not keep you there is extraordinary. We know now from the proof of what happened, they took their audience with them. But they couldn’t know that that would happen.”
“People,” he adds, “could have just said, ‘What the hell is this?’ and not bought it. The Beatles had to maintain cutting edge originality and mainstream popularity. These things, as I say in the book, are usually mutually exclusive. You either do one or you do the other. But to do them both simultaneously, so consistently and so many times over so many years, is incredible.”
Look for Part 5 of The Road to Sgt. Pepper on Monday, May 15th.