Learning from Learning…With The Beatles; from album to artefact
Bookending the Beatles heutagogic period were twin attacks on print formats. In Paperback Writer Paul boasted that if you liked the style he “could turn it round” and in Walrus John delivered a nonsense poem about nonsense poems, containing probably his most visceral attack on the British Establishment. Heutagogy is about playing with form and The Beatles did this explicitly and implicitly within this period which lasted from 13th April 1966 to 27th August 1967.
If we use metaphors to characterise The Beatles “learning” periods then the Pedagogic phase was their formal time in the classroom of George Martin, the Andragogic phase was their time in the playground learning informally from their peers and friends and the Heutagogic phase was their time in the workshop of Abbey Road. They were skilled studio craftsmen working in the R&D labs inventing new processes (and products) and this hands-on time in the studio is why, unlike George Harrison, I separate Rubber Soul from Revolver. Revolver was when they started playing the studio and building unique soundscapes for each song, creating a qualitative difference from Rubber Soul, where the folk-rock inspired sounds remain essentially the same, with some additions like the sitar in Norwegian Wood. Moreover Revolver, unlike Rubber Soul, sustains this invention right to the end.
The Andragogic, or “Fifth Beatle” phase, preceding Revolver, saw The Beatles aggregate a greater range of support, and support is a critical element in learning. The Beatles, almost uniquely fortunate in this in the sixties, had Brian Epstein, George Martin, Mal Evans and Neil Aspinall, and many others supporting them. Critically for Revolver “Golden Ears” Geoff Emerick joined them as a studio engineer and immediately began extending their sonic range.
The Golden Sounds of Revolver
And it is Revolver’s sonics that allow it to shine on brightly down the years. On Harrison’s Taxman, the sound of the bass comes from using a loudspeaker as a microphone, giving the song a satisfying “whump” in the background, Eleanor Rigby features a double string quartet, I’m Only Sleeping, has backwards guitars and sitar like sounds whilst, just four tracks in, a real sitar track Love You To (is George driving the album?). Then Here There and Everywhere, Emerick’s favourite, features Alan Civil’s French horn before everyone has lots of sonic fund simulating life underwater in Yellow Submarine. Side One of Revolver is their most sustained and inventive side of music, yet Side Two matches it for creativity before climaxing with the endless 2’01” of Tomorrow Never Knows. Finally a Beatles album that was complete from beginning to end.
Although Rubber Soul’s sonics are relatively limited by its folk-rock concern it was a big step forward lyrically. Revolver’s sounds are particularly more polished but lyrically it also builds on their emerging Romantic vision, more in the sense of the uniquely British concern with the dreamily mythic Albion that Michael Bracewell discusses in “England is Mine“. And, as any Surrealists knows, “In Dreams Begin responsibilities.” Revolver was very English, very universal and with a wholly unusual world view located across the twentieth century.
Heutagogy in the Studio
It was just as well that they had become studiosmiths because after the disastrous World and American Tours of the summer of 1966. where they found that you can insult Imelda Marcos and Southern Baptists without even trying, they quit touring. Luckily for them the Fabs not only had a new Abbey Road-sized toolkit to play with, but Paul had invented an alter-ego for them, John had a Mellotron delivered, and George had a whole new culture to play with.
In All You Need is Heutagogy I made reference to the Dutch soundscapes research on The Beatles creativity, their “experimental style,” which is fascinating, but somewhat quantitative in focus as it measures being creative with form as being the degree to which you differ from your starting point. (For the Beatles this is the signature Merseybeat sound of Please Please Me). From this perspective creativity could just be characterised as simply being different to what you are expected to be. Whilst ongoing change did characterise The Beatles, this approach does a lack of service to the depth of their creativity, and also the context from which it emerged.
Nonetheless soundscapes identify the most creative period of The Beatles recording life as being very precisely from Strawberry Fields Forever to I Am The Walrus (full soundscapes discussion here). Interestingly the album of Magical Mystery Tour, a release oddity, has sold enduringly well and indeed contains the single Penny Lane / Strawberry Fields Forever making it as representative of the Beatles creative “experimental style” as Sgt Pepper’s; they each contain five of the Beatles ten most creative tracks. MARSZ for example, calls it his favourite Beatles album, reflecting what soundscapes noticed, that this heutagogic creativity was also deeply satisfying to the listening public. All You Need is Heutagogy indeed…
Kenneth Womack in “Long and Winding Roads” argues that the Beatles were primarily concerned with “musical creation” whilst Tim Riley in Tell Me Why suggests that the subject of their work is “nostalgia” and Strawberry Fields Forever is, of course, about both; from the opening Mellotron flutes to its eponymous location. Strawberry Fields is still seen as a musical benchmark by Prog Rock fans. Ironically this nostalgic reflection on their origins, initiated with “In My Life,” was matched by their greatest phase of musical experimentation and enabled their greatest re-invention.
Sgt Peppers was itself was a creative metaphor that allowed The Beatles to transform themselves into something completely different. Rubber Soul was The Beatles folk-rock album, Revolver was their psychedelic album, but on Sgt Peppers they were playing someone else’s album. Their dream-like responsibilities had produced ghosts from twenty years ago free to be someone else entirely. Curiously the album from which their scouse character was the most absent provided their greatest success with the cultural elite in London. However they did extend their creative palette and their ability to play with form whilst Sgt Pepper as an album was seen as a cultural artefact and also as a media event. With no World Cup to distract the media from promoting the “Summer of Love” in 1967 Pepper become its own high-water benchmark.
Whilst Pepper featured five of The Beatles ten most “creative” tracks, they continued playing with form and appeared on both the first global TV programme, Our World, with All You Need is Love, then started to prep Magical Mystery Tour (based on the Merry Pranksters own Magic Bus). They also linked up with the Mahesh Maharishi Yogi to take up meditation. The pace of experimentation was set to speed up; then Brian Epstein died. (How could you top the multi-media success that was Pepper, and why would his fabulously successful boys need him in anymore in the future?) From the 27th August 1967 onwards The Beatles would have to make their own business decisions and just as Lennon was singing “I am he as you are me as we are altogether,” they weren’t anymore. The support network of collaborators and contexts from which they grew their most succesful creativity was rent asunder. Learning was over. Thereafter everything changed.