May 11: "The Influence of American Rock 'n' Roll on the Beatles" at the Itasca Community Library
Tomorrow I'll be delivering one of my favorite presentations at the Itasca Community Library in Illinois:
Wednesday, 11 May 2016, 7:00-8:30 p.m.
Itasca Community Library, 500 West Irving Park Road, Itasca, IL
The Influence of American Rock 'n' Roll on the Beatles
Before the Beatles ever wrote their own songs or performed on stage, they were inspired to do so by American rock 'n' roll records. This 90-minute multimedia program will illustrate the influence of Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and other American recording artists from the 1950's on the Beatles through side-by-side comparisons and musical analysis of Beatles covers and original recordings.
The ultimate conclusion of this program is that 1950s American Rock 'n' Roll and 1960s British Rock were both revolutionary genres (meaning both genres defined change), but they realized those revolutions in very different ways.
The primary innovations of 1950s American Rock 'n' Roll were social rather than musical.
Rock 'n' Roll brought together the two great cultures that define America: White America provided Country and Western, Black America provided rhythm and blues, and it's the fusion of those two cultures that births Rock 'n' Roll.
Furthermore, Rock 'n' Roll brings these two cultures together not as adversaries - with one race asserting its dominance over the other, as had been the case for a long time throughout America history - but as equals, with White and Black America contributing equally to the birth of this new musical genre. In that sense, Rock 'n' Roll anticipated the Civil Rights Movement of the subsequent decade.
But where Rock 'n' Roll helped break down racial barriers, it helped build up generational barriers. At a time when Youth Culture was on the rise, Rock 'n' Roll provided a platform which supported young people's rebellious attitude. Older generations consistently found it difficult to understand, enjoy, or even appreciate the appeal of this youth-centric music. In that sense, Rock 'n' Roll reinforced generational divides.
Both of these social relationships - the collapsing of racial barriers, and the reinforcing of generational barriers - are far more important to Rock 'n' Roll than any specifically musical relationships, which tend to extremely simple. One common criticism of Rock 'n' Roll is that it only has three chords and a beat. That's not far from the truth because Rock 'n' Roll doesn't need anything more musically sophisticated.
1960s British Rock, by contrast, WAS a musical revolution. Sixties rockers in general and the Beatles specifically imbued their music with a degree of musical sophistication distinctly absent from their counterparts from the prior decade. 'I Want to Hold Your Hand', for example, modulates to the subdominant in the bridges - a technique never used by any Rock 'n' Roll song I can think of off the top of my head. Similarly, 'She Loves You', 'P. S. I Love You', and 'Please Please Me' all employs nondiatonic chord progressions rarely heard in Rock 'n' Roll.
Furthermore, the Beatles incorporated classical instrumentation to supplement the standard guitars, bass, drums, and vocals: on "Yesterday", a string quartet; on "Every Little Thing", orchestral timpani; on "Norwegian Wood", an Indian sitar. This helped provide Rock with a degree of respectability that Rock 'n' Roll neither had nor wanted.
Rock picked up where Rock 'n' Roll left off, but took the music in a different direction - one LESS focused on SOCIAL relationships, and one MORE focused on MUSICAL relationships. Moreover, it seems unlikely that this change in direction was a conscious choice. When asked in a 1963 interview how the Beatles' music differed from Rock 'n' Roll, George Harrison insisted, "It doesn't really." "It's just a way of classifying it," confirmed Paul, "but I don't think the music is very different." (Spizer, page 61)
Indeed, I can't imagine the band sitting down during a rehearsal or recording session and saying, "Elvis never employed a subdominant modulation in his songs. Why don't we add one to this song to give it a greater degree of musical sophistication?" Of course it didn't happen like that! The Beatles were just trying to write the best songs they could. Only in hindsight do we come to realize these subconscious differences between genres and why those differences are significant.
Unlike the largely subconscious compositional sophistication, the experimental and innovative recording techniques employed on albums like Rubber Soul (1965), Revolver (1966), and Sgt. Pepper (1967) WERE conscious, and thus illustrates the band's deliberate attempts to innovate.
In that sense, the Beatles didn't just reimagine Rock 'n' Roll, as one book's subtitle suggests (which implies a conscious thought process, which is true for the recording techniques but misses the compositional sophistication of their output), as they did reinvent Rock 'n' Roll - a change in direction which was partly conscious and partly subconscious.
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This blog is a workshop for developing my analyses of The Beatles' music.