20 September 2009

36 Beatles Firsts,
Excerpted from an essay on The Beatles, by Gwen Foss

. . . This is excerpted from an essay and listening guide I wrote in February 1996 as a gift to a couple at my church who were having their Golden Wedding. The wife was a big Beatles fan, but the husband was not: he thought the Beatles were "derivative" (but derivative of what he never said). Thus a small gift to entertain the former and perhaps convince the latter of the error of his ways. I am just posting the list of "firsts" here. (Album titles are in bold type.)


The following list of thirty-six extraordinary "firsts" chronicles the Beatles' unquestionable impact on the world of popular music. While a few of these innovations were tried only once and then discarded, most are now considered by the music industry to be standard practice.

1. First band to have a lead guitar (George Harrison 1962). Rock bands had "lead guitars" before the Beatles, to be sure, but the Beatles invented the term. Since that time, nearly every band has a guitarist so designated, and the position has gained prestige similar to the first violin (concertmaster) of classical symphonies.

2. First band to put out an album having more than eight or ten songs (Please Please Me 1962). Pop albums always contained ten or fewer unrelated songs and the songs were usually only two or three minutes long. The Beatles consciously wanted to give their patrons more value for their money and chose to put fourteen songs on their first album. They continued this practice, either with more than ten songs or with longer songs, on each of their albums.

3. First band to put out an album on which they wrote half the songs (Please Please Me 1962). It was normal in the world of popular music for a singer mainly to perform songs written by others. Elvis, for example, wrote none of the songs that he made famous. It was a startling event when the Beatles released their first album with eight of fourteen songs written by members of the band.

4. First band to establish a collaboratory relationship with their producer (George Martin 1962). "[George Martin] became their arranger and record producer… [and] the role of record producer changed with him… Before him, the producer functioned in one of two ways: Either he would approach an album with a concept in mind and mold his artists to fit that concept, or he would be a technical clerk attempting to get a pretty song, prettily sung, on tape with a minimum of expense and creative interference. All this changed with the Beatles-Martin relationship." Milton Okun, music educator, producer, composer, conductor and editor of several publications of Beatles music

5. First band to use a harmonica (Love Me Do 1962). The harmonica was not considered a rock instrument until the Beatles used it in several songs; it then became common.

6. First band to combine ska with rock (I Saw Her Standing There 1962).

7. First band to write a song with recognizable artistic merit (I Want to Hold Your Hand 1963). "The melody of I Want to Hold Your Hand, when heard apart from its driving rock arrangement, can stand on its own." Milton Okun

8. First band to star in a feature film drama ("A Hard Day's Night" 1964). By 1964, the Beatles were popular enough (that is, commercially viable enough) to be featured in their own film. Now, of course, it is fairly common for popular bands to make movies. "A Hard Day's Night," incidentally, was the first film to use deliberately non-sequitur editing, now a staple technique of TV ads and other visual media.

9. First band to set a television viewing record by generating the world's largest TV audience (Ed Sullivan Show 1964). The record held for three years.

10. First band to do an album of all original songs (A Hard Day's Night 1964). The Beatles, concentrating more on writing their own songs, all but ceased with this album to include covers (songs by other artists) on their releases.

11. First band to use the guiro and claves in rock (And I Love Her 1964).

12. First band of the "British Invasion" (1964). Prior to the Beatles, no British rock artist had managed to have a hit song in the US. Beginning in 1964, and because the Beatles then occupied most of the top slots on the US charts, every big rock group in the US was British, and US rock artists and fans began imitating British culture and music. This phenomenon was nicknamed the "British Invasion."

13. First band to deliberately avoid repeating themselves. "In the recording marketplace, it is a rule of thumb that once you do your thing successfully, you do it again, with minor changes . . . What is startling about Lennon and McCartney's music is its consistent growth." Milton Okun

14. First band to play a stadium (Shea Stadium 1965). A band had never commanded such a large audience before. Incidentally, no technology was available at the time to carry the music to the audience; the Beatles had to use the stadium's public address system.

15. First band to create experimental sounds in the studio (Rubber Soul 1965). The Beatles began, with this album, to experiment with sound distortion, extensive overdubbing, and other creative techniques using the many new electronic recording devices that were invented at this time. These techniques soon became standard practice.

16. First band to combine East Indian music with rock (Norwegian Wood 1965). When George Harrison played the sitar for the first time on this song, the sitar became, for a few years, an essential instrument for many popular music groups.

17. First band to combine rock with classical music (Yesterday 1965). This hit song is accompanied by a string quartet in addition to traditional rock instruments. The song Eleanor Rigby (1966) has no electronic instruments, just a string quartet and Paul's acoustic guitar.

18. First band to make rock videos (short films, each with a hit song as the soundtrack). When touring became impossible, the Beatles reached their fans by making short films of themselves performing their songs, intercut with various unrelated scenes. While some critics consider the musical segments of "A Hard Day's Night" to be the first rock videos, these Beatles performance films are the first true rock videos. Thus, George Martin, the Beatles' producer, credited the band with "inventing" MTV. And, as with most of their innovations, it is now standard practice for a band to make a video or short film for each of their hit songs.

19. First band to utilize psychedelic rock (Revolver 1966). "The Beatles' next release, Revolver, was a complete departure musically. It combined heavy elements of psychedelia and Indian raga with straight pop and pop with orchestration, unified on Eleanor Rigby . . . The psychedelic period changed the sound of rock and roll forever, especially in terms of production. Compare the sound of a pre-1966 album to one recorded after 1966. The changes are remarkable. And the Beatles are responsible for much of that change. The Beatles' psychedelic music has influenced every rock form from 1967 to the present. Everything." Stuart Madow and Jeff Sobul, Introspect: The Beatles' Psychedelic Music

20. First band to do a song using a deliberately reversed lyric (Rain 1966). What is unusual about this song is that at one point the lyrics were recorded and reversed, while the music was not reversed. This new gimmick, which was subsequently used by many artists, started a craze in which rock fans tried to find hidden meanings in their favorite songs by playing them backward, whether the songs were engineered with reversed lyrics or not.

21. First band to utilize concept rock (Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band 1967). Concept rock consists essentially in creating a new character or theme for oneself or one's band, using it for one album, then discarding it. The Beatles invented this amazingly versatile and entertaining new modus operandi and a large segment of rock industry followed their example.

22. First band to do a concept album (Sgt Pepper 1967). Prior to Sgt Pepper, rock albums were merely collections of short, unrelated songs, lacking any kind of unifying theme or idea. While some credit Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention with the first concept album (Freak Out), the Beatles made it a success and thus made the concept album a viable new form. "Pepper was the first concept album in history, not that the songs together told one story. The concept lies in the Beatles' creation of Sgt Pepper's band, which performs a show to a created audience. It has an opening, a performance and a closing, and a brilliant encore, A Day in the Life." Stuart Madow and Jeff Sobul.

23. First band to create songs with so many studio effects they could not be performed live (Sgt Pepper 1967). During their most creative period, the Beatles produced not only songs but whole albums that were impossible to perform live. Breaking tradition again, they created deliberately distorted recordings of their own voices and made artificial alterations to the sounds of their instruments. They used layer upon layer of overdubbing, and other innovative engineering techniques, to combine and create new sounds. Their heavy concentration on studio production even unwittingly led to a backlash: By the mid 1970s the majority of hit popular music albums had become so bland and uninspiring due to carefully sanitized studio production that a reactionary style known as punk rock was invented, starting a new wave of artistic creativity in the popular music industry.

24. First band to do a song that does not end with either a traditional fade-out or a short, simple chord (A Day in the Life 1967). The Beatles once again set out to break the rules with this song; it ends with a chord that is held a full forty seconds, the longest single chord in rock history. During the recording, the engineer slowly turned up the gain until the studio air conditioner could be heard humming away, so it may also be the first piece of concrete music produced by the rock industry.

The album Sgt Pepper was groundbreaking in many other ways, including:

25. First album in which every song contained distortion or other new and experimental sounds.

26. First album with no banding (breaks between songs).

27. First recording including sounds only a dog can hear.

28. First album to include material recorded on the run-out groove.

29. First album with the lyrics printed on the jacket.

30. First album with anything printed on the inner sleeve.

After Sgt Pepper, the Beatles continued to break the rules of popular music:

31. First band to do a song that fades out and fades in again (Strawberry Fields Forever 1967). This unexpected little trick once again pointed up the Beatles' ability to disrupt "the way things should be done." A year later, on their song Helter Skelter, they took this gimmick to its extreme.

32. First band to have a hit single longer than standard (Hey Jude 1968). Pop and rock singles of the era always consisted of a simple combination of verses (usually 16 measures each) and a bridge of contrasting material (usually 8 measures), making up a song less than three minutes long. The Beatles broke the mold again with this seven minute single.

33. First band to do an extended fade out (Hey Jude 1968). Songs are supposed to fade out relatively quickly, but Hey Jude fades out almost imperceptibly over four and a half minutes.

34. First band to do an album that did not have the band's name on it ("White" album 1968). The Beatles poked fun at the music industry with a solid white album jacket containing no printing or identification of any kind. Many bands since have released albums with similarly enigmatic jackets.

35. First band to do a double album of original material ("White" album 1968). Until this album, bands would only put out double albums containing some or all previously released material. The Beatles again broke new ground.

36. First band to do an entire song by sampling (cutting and manipulating taped sounds, not singing and playing instruments) (Revolution 9 1968). The song is the most experimental piece of rock music to emerge during the era. Sampling was a new innovation and, while some don't agree that Revolution 9 is music (that is, having pitch and rhythm) it is indeed music at its most primal.

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