Thursday, July 28, 2011

the anatomy of a post-help! hit (the grand conclusion, part 1)

So after weeks of preparation, I'm sure you've been losing sleep wondering what the anatomy of a post-Help! hit is. Well, here it is, folks! Before anything else, I have to acknowledge two things:

1. Since this is a blog, and not a book, my analysis will necessarily be somewhat superficial. This isn't meant to be exhaustive analysis, but rather just an effort to lend some critical analysis to the Beatles's music, while having fun.

2. (Almost) all of this is highly subjective, so please don't hesitate to disagree with what I write; that's what the comments section is for!

With the disclosures out of the way, let's get to the hit anatomy. First (in this post), I'll analyze the trends in song categorization.

In the next post, I'll analyze the commonalities among the songs released as singles (the "hits").

In the third and final hit anatomy post, I'll consider both the singles and the categorization (aka the hits, and the context in which they were presented in the albums, at least with regard to the singles that were also included on albums) in order to figure out the anatomy of a post-Help! hit.

Part 1: Song Categorization Trends

As the previous hit anatomy post (hopefully) made clear, the post-Help! albums differed greatly in terms of the diversity of categories represented by the tracks. However, there is--overall--less diversity than one might have expected, based on the group's reputation for diversity. Let's look at the percentage of total post-Help! album tracks represented by each category:

Straight Rock: 46 (41.8%)
Ballads: 25 (22.7%)
Novelty/Parody Songs (by far, the category with the most internal diversity): 22 (20%)
Psychedelic Rock: 11 (10%)
Rockabilly Rock: 4 (3.6%)
Ragas: 2 (1.8%)

So out of the 110 post-Help! album tracks, 68.1% of the tracks fell in traditional categories you'd expect a '60s rock group to inhabit: ballads, straight rock, and rockabilly rock. As much as the Beatles are credited for contributing to psychedelic rock, only 10% of their songs qualify (in my subjective evaluation) as psychedelic rock. Of course, it's important to look at when we see particular categories represented more and less. This takes us to album-by-album analysis.

Looking back at the graphs from the previous anatomy post, it's clear that, in Rubber Soul, we see a marked improvement in songwriting and the beginnings of innovation, but squarely within the traditional rock group universe. None of the tracks are anything but ballads, straight rock, or rockabilly.

In Revolver, we see the group break out; however, only one song qualifies psychedelic rock, novelty/parody, and raga. In total, these songs number fewer than the ballads and straight rock tracks.

Perhaps the most interesting trend comes when we look at Sgt. Pepper's and Magical Mystery Tour. Sgt. Pepper's is held up as a paragon of psychedelic rock; however, 7 out of 12 tracks are straight rock! I only found 1 psychedelic track (Mr. Kite) and one novelty track (Day in the Life). Magical Mystery Tour, on the other hand, is comprised of 45.5% straight rock, and 54.5% psychedelic rock.

Based on this breakdown, and the fact that MMT includes Strawberry Fields Forever and I Am the Walrus--Lennon's psychedelic masterpieces--I'd like to argue that MMT shouldn't be considered the ugly duckling of Beatles studio albums (as I think it sometimes is considered). While Sgt. Pepper's is overall a stronger album, it doesn't have a monopoly on the group's contribution to psychedelic rock. If anything, MMT is the group's purest attempt at psychedelia, while Sgt. Pepper's is more an exercise in pushing the rock format to its limits, without delving too explicitly into psychedelia. (I'd like to note here that I'm working purely off of the music; the boys were obviously inspired by LSD and other psychedelic experiences during the writing of both Sgt. Pepper's and MMT).

With the White Album and Abbey Road (setting Let it Be to the side for a second) we see the group turn towards genre experimentation and, thus, a predominance of novelty/parody songs. Certainly they felt that the straight rock format had been exhausted of its creative potential for them; perhaps they also felt that they had moved past the psychedelic experience of 66/67; genre experimentation must have seemed like a logical next outlet for their creative energies.

As a result, the White Album includes 40% novelty songs, and only 2 psychedelic rock tracks. The remaining tracks are ballads, straight rock, and rockabilly.

In Abbey Road, we see a virtual equality in the presence of novelty tracks, ballads, and straight rock. The remaining track (Come Together) qualifies as psychedelic rock. There is no rockabilly to speak of on the album.

So if we look at Let it Be as an effort to go back to their roots (hence the presence of only ballads and straight rock, with the exception of one novelty track, Maggie Mae, that could also arguably be called straight rock), the trajectory of post-Help! work appears to be as follows:

Expansion of the rock format to the limits of its creativity (Rubber Soul, Revolver)

Melding of straight rock and psychedelic rock (Sgt Pepper's)

An attempt at a "purer" expression of psychedelic rock (Magical Mystery Tour)

A move past the constraints of psychedelic rock, straight rock, ballads, or rockabilly into the world of genre experimentation, where anything goes (White Album, Abbey Road)

As I noted before, Let it Be stands out as an explicit attempt to go back to their roots, so it shouldn't really be included in a trajectory of their musical progression.

Phew, that was a long one! Let me know everything you disagree with. :) George is so tired from that post that he has to just put a tambourine on his head.

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