Why study The Beatles?

Guest post by Doug Thomas

To understand classical music, it is quite obvious where to start. It is a genre that has always been scholar-friendly, well-structured and documented, with the purpose of passing the knowledge to the next generation. When it comes to popular music, however, it is a little different; it is a genre that has, above all, always been centered around the entertainment, the moment.  One could try to understand it historically, but the road backwards is endless and it would be difficult to decide where it really began: some would argue Rock’n’Roll, or Blues, or Jazz, or Folk…..

Or one could study The Beatles. There is no debate; they are the most important and influential figures in popular music. And therefore understanding them, their influences and the influence they had on others, allows us to better understand “pop” music.

The Beatles are a testimony to everything that existed in the popular world before them. They learned their craft by imitating the musicians that they admired. “I’ve Just Seen a Face” is an example of how skiffle formed their early personalities. “Lady Madonna” is a tribute to the Boogie-Woogie of Fats Domino, while “Revolution” reveals the influence of early Chicago rock of Chuck Berry. “Hold Me Tight” is of course influenced by Country music and Rhythm’n’Blues, and “All I’ve Got to Do” displays early influences of female Doo-Wop and Soul — the latter being one of the most important factors in the development of The Beatles’ approach to lead and backing vocals. Finally, “No Reply” shows the influence of Latin music rhythms, prominent in much of 1960s popular music.

The Beatles have influenced so much, it is undeniable. Whether in their music, their songwriting, their production or their image, countless artists have taken from them in order to build themselves. They are in every other musician’s music, and conversely, one can hear in their music what has followed them. “Hey Jude” opened the way to every single stadium anthem, such as “Don’t Look Back in Anger” by Oasis; “Good Day Sunshine” is everywhere in Britpop (e.g. Blur’s “Charmless Man) and “Eleanor Rigby” allowed Coldplay’s “Viva la vida“ to exist. “Get Back” is a slower version of much of heavy metal music (e.g. Judas Priest “Breaking the Law”) and “Come Together” is a blueprint for Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”. Finally, most of the psychedelic rock of the late 1960s and early 1970s owes much to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, “I Am the Walrus” or “Strawberry Fields for Ever”. In 1966, The Beatles released “Taxman”; a year after Jimi Hendrix was using the same chord voicing — now nicknamed the “Hendrix Chord” — on “Purple Haze”.

The Beatles are also a mirror of their times. They took inspiration from the musicians that surrounded them, and, as they evolved, these influences became wider. “Norwegian Wood” is one of the earliest examples of the influence of Bob Dylan on Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting. “Yer Blues” reflects the approach the Rolling Stones took with Blues music. “Helter Skelter” was a direct response to “I Can See for Miles” by The Who — which they had presented as the loudest song ever made. “Two of Us” is of course directly influenced by acoustic Country Rock, in the style of Crosby, Stills & Nash or the Grateful Dead, and “Something” reflects the influence of Eric Clapton and The Band on George Harrison. These influences would extend to Jamaican Ska (with “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”), Greek traditional music, à la Zorba (with “My Girl”) and of course Indian traditional music (with “Within You, Without You”, and many, many others).

John Lennon once claimed that The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus”. Whether that is true is still arguable; however their influence on every single popular musician and band since the mid-1960s is indisputable. Everyone has at some point, in various genres, covered The Beatles: Johnny Cash, Elton John, Joe Cocker, Aerosmith, Mötley Crüe, Soundgarden, Oasis, Yes, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Otis Redding, Bobby McFerrin, Frank Sinatra, Brad Mehldau, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell. The list is endless…

GetAttachmentThumbnailSince founding NOOX — or North of Oxford St., a record label, production company and recording studio — in 2014, Doug Thomas has released numerous solo projects, including Short Stories, Vol. 1&2, and the triptych Angles, Cassiopeia and Shapes. For Ballades, he has collaborated with Piano & Coffee Co. as well as pianists Marta Cascales Alimbau, Manos Milonakis, Marek Votruba and Muriël Bostdorp. The Seasons is a collaborative homage to the music of Tchaikovsky; it features twelve pianists from around the world — including Simeon Walker, Garreth Broke and Dominique Charpentier. For Grace, he has collaborated with Sonder House and pianist/cellist Jesse Brown. Portraits, is another homage to his inspirations — and has been released in collaboration with Lonely Swallow and Affan. Studia is the first volume of a collection of contemporary piano études — released with the Italian label Blue Spiral Records (BSR) and featuring Angelo Villari. His latest release with the same label, Anxiety/Serenity (featuring the harp of Mary Dunsford), is a response to the situation that the world experienced in this first quarter of 2020, through the spread of the COVID-19. 

As a writer Doug publishes articles, interviews and reviews, and is a contributor to Interlude as well as a regular guest writer for The Cross-Eyed Pianist and ArtMuseLondon

“Music allows me to express ideas and feelings in a unique way. Each piece I compose is an attempt in finding balance between interest and beauty, within the limits of my own language and experience. I like the idea that music can provide us with an alternative to our daily life, whether it completes it or helps us take some distance from it.”



  1. Well…

    Someone I know claims that the Beatles are the greatest case of wasted talent. This person is, by the way, a pop guitarist, but he does know his Bach.

    As a pianist and composer myself I tend to agree. I also happen to have made arrangements of three of their songs, because I could not bear to leave such good melodies be dragged down by mediocre harmonies.

    McCartney now pretends to write “classical” music, yet he cannot even read music and must have someone to write down his thoughts, lest learning music destroy his “talent.”

  2. Great choices of Beatles songs and their various musical and musicological connections! I am reminded of the quote well known in Beatledom–I forget who said it though: “The Stones were the best at what they did. The Beatles were the best at everything they did.”

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