Monday, July 14, 2008

The Beatles as Musicians: The Quarry Men through Rubber Soul

by Walter Everett

The second volume of Walter Everett's magisterial look at the music of the Beatles (though dealing with the earlier portion of their canon) is a comprehensive, chronologically ordered study of every aspect of the musical life of the early-period Beatles, from their beginnings in 1956 through 1965. Of central importance is the discovery of the Beatles' innovative and captivating compositional techniques, beginning with a representative study of their performances of hundreds of songs written by others. Everett's main focus is on the materials and structures of their melodies, harmonies, counterpoint, rhythms, colors, and textures, and the expressive ways in which these musical devices portray the themes and imagery of their poetry. But other key topics are examined as well, including performance practice (the qualities of the Beatles' instruments and voices are detailed here as they have never been before), recording procedure (studio habits and innovations), historical context, and reception (measured in concert itineraries, record sales and chart histories, commentary by perceptive journalists and scholars, and their legacies with fans and other musicians).

Everett has sifted through every available reliable musical document, including many thousands of audio, video, print, and multimedia sources. But this volume is not only a compendium of facts; it is also a richly interpretive study, with fascinating and authoritative judgments and creative suggestions for ways of hearing interspersed with recording data and composition credits. Along with its companion volume, this book represents the first sustained study to apply modern analytical tools, some newly developed for this project, to the relationships between musical and text-poetic expressive devices in any popular music literature. The Beatles as Musicians will be required reading for Beatles fans at all levels of interest and expertise.

Praise for

"The Beatles As Musicians is a well-researched, serious-minded scholarly work that stands easily as the best volume of its genre" - Goldmine

"Stunning in its thoroughness....An ambitious and serious analytical undertaking, and the only contribution of its kind to date, this book deserves careful attention from all who would include all musics in the 20th-century canon." - Choice

Walter Everett is Associate Professor of Music in Music Theory at the University of Michigan.


The lively new skiffle beat and then the all-out-wild rock and roll of the mid-1950s invited all teenagers to drop everything and dance, all shaking to a vibration that didn't seem to excite parents the same way. Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent: all seemed to speak directly to adolescents in a code that only they could understand. Some listeners shook right through to the soul, enough so that they too needed guitars to fully express their joy. This is the story of a few such souls who shook so joyously, the world was happily caught in their wake.

This chapter is organized in two parts, the first recounting the early history of the musicians who would enter Hamburg in August 1960 as the Beatles, the second analyzing the group's musical interests and talents during this formative period. Propelled by British skiffle, American rock and roll, and a joy in discovering new sounds, John Lennon leads the Quarry Men to semiprofessional ability as he picks up an interest in composing from guitarist Paul McCartney. The addition of George Harrison, a guitarist intent on blues and modal scales, gives the young group a local identity that stands out against the predominantly bland backdrop of British pop music of the late 1950s. Table 1.1 provides a time line summarizing the major events of the Beatles' career through the summer of 1960.

Table 1.1 Time Line of Major Events for the Beatles, 1940-July 1960
July 7: Ringo Starr born as Richard Starkey, Liverpool
Oct. 9: John Lennon born, Liverpool
June 18: Paul McCartney born, Liverpool
Feb. 25: George Harrison born, Liverpool
Sept.?: John Lennon picks up guitar and begins to form skiffle band, the Quarry Men
Mar.?: First public performance of Quarry Men
July 6: Paul McCartney meets John Lennon: Quarry Men recorded playing "Putting on the Style" and "Baby Let's Play House"
Oct. 18: Paul McCartney first performs with the Quarry Men, as guitarist
Feb. or Mar.: George Harrison joins Quarry Men as guitarist
Summer: Quarry Men record "That'll Be the Day" / "In Spite of All the Danger"
July 15: John's mother killed
Aug. 29: Quarry Men open the Casbah Club
Nov. 15?: Johnny & the Moondogs audition for TV show "Discoveries" in Manchester
?: Lennon and McCartney commit to songwriting partnership
Oct.: Group begins rehearsing at Jacaranda
Jan.: Stu Sutcliffe joins group as bassist
Mid-Apr.?: Silver Beetles make Forthlin Road recordings
Apr. 23-24: John and Paul play as Nerk Twins in Caversham
May 20-28: Silver Beetles, with Tommy Moore on drums, tour northern Scotland with Johnny Gentle
June 2: Name "The Beatles" first appears in print
July: Norman Chapman drums with Beatles on three July gigs; Beatles play one week at New Cabaret Artistes Club, Liverpool

Historical Narrative

Musical Beginnings: The Quarry Men

The skiffle craze, spearheaded by Scotsman Lonnie Donegan (once a trad jazz guitarist), dominated Britain in 1956-57. Playing mostly Leadbelly's post-plantation blues and other American folk tunes, often tinged by bluegrass in numbers such as "Rock Island Line," "Alabammy Bound," "Cumberland Gap," and "John Henry," skiffle groups, including the Vipers and those led by Donegan, Johnny Duncan, and Chas McDevitt, encouraged all young Brits so inclined to take up guitars, tea-chest basses, and washboards. All this was standard equipment for creating the sound carried by a lead singer (vocal technique was not an issue), a guitarist who could handle three open chords (I, IV, and V, with optional sevenths welcome on any of the three - mastery not required) in a small handful of sharp keys, and a homemade rhythm section that could manage to place a heavy accent on the backbeat. Backing singers were required by only the most polished recording groups. John Lennon bought a 78-rpm copy of "Rock Island Line," got hold of a guitar, and gathered his willing Woolton mates into such a group.

The provenance of John's first guitar(s) has become confused over the years. As best as the memories and legends can be conflated, it seems that John begged Mimi for a guitar and she refused: he ordered one through a newspaper ad and had it shipped to Julia's, telling Mimi that his mother had bought it for him. John's musical cohort Rod Davis has recalled this being a Dutch-made Egmond, just like the first guitar owned by George Harrison. Mimi apparently replaced this unsuitable guitar (March 1957 being the accepted date), with a second-hand Spanish-style Gallatone Champion, a steel-stringed instrument purchased at Hessy's, a music shop on the city center's Whitechapel Street, across the intersection from the more upscale Rushworth's Music House. Mimi only allowed him to play it on her tiny enclosed front porch.

By 1956 Julia had shown John a good bit on the banjolele, a hybrid instrument joining a banjo head and bridge with a small-scale ukulele neck. Unschooled in the guitar's proper tuning, John and Julia removed two strings and tuned the other four to her uke configuration, probably an octave below the soprano ukulele's G tuning: G-B-f#-a. Mother and son worked out all John's chords with unorthodox positions - it certainly made no difference for a skiffle player. Julia's musical interests encouraged John's. They started with Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame," a 1955 hit. Beginning with the May 1956 release in Britain of "Heartbreak Hotel," she would regularly play Presley's three-chord, twelve-bar-based hits, "Hound Dog," "(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear," and "Jailhouse Rock" on the banjolele while he worked them out on his guitar. "My mother taught me quite a bit, my first lessons really. Most of our stuff then in the early days was just twelve bar boogies, nothing fancy. Of course, Paul came along later and taught me a few things." The guitar became John's obsession, and Aunt Mimi saw it as an interference with his schoolwork. Although she did buy him a better instrument, she is well known for having told the boy, "the guitar's all right as a hobby, John, but you'll never make a living from it."

John and his friend Pete Shotton formed a duo they called the Black Jacks in the fall of 1956, John on guitar and vocals and Pete on washboard played with thimbles. When personnel were added over the succeeding month, they became the Quarry Men, named for their school song. "Quarry Men, Strong before Our Birth." Perhaps the school's motto echoed for Lennon the sweat-gleaming skiffle stories of poleaxes, pig iron, and shackles. New members included Rod Davis on banjo; Eric Griffiths, guitar (duplicating John's banjolele tuning); Colin Hanton, drums; and Bill Smith, Ivan Vaughan, or Nigel Whalley, and then Len Garry, appearing with a tea-chest bass. All participation other than Lennon's was highly intermittent. Table 1.2 approximates the group's evolving membership and assignments. The first numbers performed by the skifflers are said to include "Rock Island Line," "John Henry," "Worried Man Blues," "Wabash Cannonball," "Cumberland Gap," "Don't You Rock Me, Daddy-O," "Railroad Bill," "Freight Train," "Last Train to San Fernando," "Maggie May," and "Putting On the Style." John was an ethusiastic strummer and by all standards was tough on his instrument: fellow Quarry Man Davis says he frequently broke his strings. The photographic record from August 1960 through February 1964 shows three different sets of knobs, a cracked pickguard, a change of tailpiece/vibrato unit and a total refinishing of the body on his first Rickenbacker guitar, suggesting a battering beyond normal heavy use, so we can assume that the Gallatone was worked pretty hard as well.

As John gained technique and repertoire, the band began to cover his favorite rock-and-roll records. Although the BBC played no such music, Julia was not John's only source for this literature. Shotton says that he and John got their earliest exposure to records by Presley, Bill Haley, Gene Vincent, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly through late-night continental broadcasts: "Our salvation proved to be Radio Luxembourg, which boasted a late-night program, 'The Jack Jackson Show,' devoted primarily to original American rock and roll recordings." Ray Coleman reports that the first rock-and-roll numbers to be added to the Quarry Men's skiffle repertoire were "Jailhouse Rock," Perkins's "Blue Suede Shoes," and Holly's "That'll Be the Day." Other 1957-58 additions included Presley's "Baby Let's Play House" and "All Shook Up," the Everly Brothers' "Bye Bye Love," Holly's "Peggy Sue," and Berry's "Johnny B. Goode."

McCartney Joins the Group After he saw Lonnie Donegan at Liverpool's Empire Theatre on November 11, 1956, Paul McCartney traded the trumpet his dad had given him for his first guitar, a natural-finish flattop acoustic model of unknown make with eighteen frets, only twelve of which were clear of the body; dot inlays appeared on only the fifth, seventh and twelfth frets, marking this clearly as a beginner's instrument. As was the case with Lennon's, this first box must have been unsuitable, because 1957 photographs already show Paul playing the Zenith that he was to use through 1960.

Building on an introduction to the banjolele courtesy of his cousin Bett, Paul learned a bit of guitar from his friend Ian James, and he often tells a story of taking the bus to find someone who supposedly could show him how to form a B7 chord. Paul's brother Michael remembers that Paul worked hard at the instrument in a wide variety of styles but that he most often covered songs by Presley and Little Richard. Among the first songs that Paul learned to play were Eddie Cochran's "Twenty Flight Rock" and Vincent's "Be-Bop-A-Lula." He says he and a schoolmate entertained at one end-of-term class party by standing on a desktop with guitars, Paul screaming through Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally."

It was Paul's mate at the Liverpool Institute (the city's best high school), Quarry Man Ivan Vaughan, who suggested he come to St. Peter's on July 6, 1957, to hear his group, which on that day played "Cumberland Gap," "Railroad Bill," "Maggie May," "Putting On the Style," "Baby Let's Play House," and the Dell-Vikings' hit "Come Go with Me." John says that this date was his first attempt to perform the last-named song "in public with a real band," and he hadn't quite learned the lyrics; reportedly he sang at least one chorus as "come love me darlin', come and go with me / down, down, down to the penitentiary." In a private jab in a very public forum, in the song "Too Many People" (Ram [McCartney 1971]), Paul once told John that their relationship had been Lennon's lucky break. He might have been referring to their meeting on this July day, for it happens that "Come Go with Me" was the first record Paul had ever bought, and the correct lyrics to this song and to "Be-Bop-A-Lula" proved an immediate talking point between them when they met after the garden performance at the hall across Church Road from St. Peter's. McCartney: "I knew all the words and they didn't. That was big currency." A far luckier break was that Paul was able to show John the correct tuning for his instrument, and he taught his new friend a few chords besides. To top it off, Paul demonstrated his own technique in "Twenty Flight Rock"; "then I did my Little Richard imitation, went through all the stuff I knew. John seemed quite impressed."

John was quite impressed. After a few weeks of wrestling with his ego, Lennon decided that the group's musicality was more important to him than was his unrivaled musical leadership; on July 20 McCartney was invited to join the band. After a stay at scout camp and a family holiday, Paul finally joined and had his first gig with the Quarry Men on October 18, 1957 ("well, I suppose that you could say that we were playing hard to get," Paul was to write in "Here Today," Tug of War [1982]). From then on, the two met regularly for musical give-and-take. They practiced together on the tiny Mendips porch. With Paul's dad at work, they would "sag off" school to have the run of Paul's front parlor and its piano. John having begun classes at the Liverpool College of Art in September 1957, Paul would bring his guitar from the Institute right next door, and they would entertain the art students through the lunch hour with Paul's frenetic vocalizations of "We're Gonna Move," "Rip It Up," and "Good Golly Miss Molly," John's "Peggy Sue" and "When You're Smiling," and both of them in soft harmony for "All I Have to Do Is Dream." They would meet at Julia's - her Blomfield Road home was just a few blocks from Paul's - and work in the vibrant acoustics of the upstairs bath, with other Quarry Men often crammed in besides. Julia loved it. Paul recalls, "She was always teaching us new tunes. I remember two in particular, 'Ramona' and . . . 'Wedding Bells are Breaking Up That Old Gang of Mine.' Much later, during the Beatles years, John and I often tried to write songs with that same feeling to them. 'Here, There and Everywhere' was one we wrote along those lines.

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