Most believe that there are around at least ten genres that The Beatles influenced throughout their career. If you are trying to count, it seems like The Beatles played anywhere from 13 to 20 different genres. It is not easy to define some music genres in general, let alone label The Beatles music into those genres. Let’s look more in-depth at some of those genres that The Beatles are best known for being involved with.
The Beatles are classic rock to most people but the truth is that it is impossible to define The Beatles by this single genre alone. The only genre that can adequately define The Beatles is music. However, The Beatles dabbled in existing music genres throughout their career; they accidentally created some new genres.
The Beatles Genres
The Beatles did not stick to a single genre throughout their career. By their own admission in the early days they were influenced by Amercian groups from the 50’s and up and coming artists. They cut their musical teeth in Hamburg but cemented their legacy in the years thereafter.
- Merseybeat – Merseybeat is the name given to the bands that emerged out of the Merseyside region (where Liverpool is a city) in the 1960’s. The early recordings of The Beatles were in this genre and can be heard on albums Please Please Me, With The Beatles and A Hard Days Night for example. The style was not particularly unique and was copied by many other bands of this era but nevertheless in order to apply a label to this type of music ‘Merseybeat’ became synonymous with the bands that had this particular sound about them.
- Rock and Roll – This genre can cover a whole range of songs that do not conveniently fit inside others but can generally be described as music from the 50’s and 60’s that you could dance to. It is upbeat, think Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry for good examples of musicians in this genre.
- Folk Rock – A hybrid genre that uses elements of both folk and rock music. It grew from the underlying track of many of their songs and really touched many up and coming artists – favourably influencing Bob Dylan and Springsteen. Some of their best folk-like songs, I’ll Be Back and I’ll Follow The Sun and a lot of the Rubber Soul album could be classed in the Folk Rock genre.
- Psychedelic Rock – In 1965, the Beatles had a lot of psychedelic influences that seemed to creep into their music continuously. Though they were not wholly psychedelic, it is definitely where the root of the genre began. Songs like Yellow Submarine are a good example of how they fall into this genre.
- Art Rock – This type of Rock includes many unconventional elements with experimental and modernist aspects. It focuses a lot on avant-garde approaches to its lyrics and structures. Sgt. Pepper is the closest song that The Beatles have to this genre, and it laid the foundations for Art Rock but people can also argue that much of the Revolver album falls under this category.
- Heavy Metal – The Beatles alone cannot be credited with inventing heavy metal and to do so would rob the many other bands who pushed the boundary of acceptable extremities to their limits of the recognition that they deserved. I think it is fairer to say that The Beatles played their part but were influenced by much of the music of a more extreme nature even in the mid to late 60’s. Songs like “Helter Skelter” and “I want you (She’s so heavy)” have elements that can be heard in the early metal bands of the 70’s which in turn went on to influence the metal bands thereafter who in many cases took the gauntlet thrown down and ran with it. Many metal musicians (myself included) will tell you that they have some influence from The Beatles music in one way or another.
- Hard Rock – Beginning in the mid-1960s, people and groups like The Beatles merged sounds like blues, garage, and psychedelic music. Growing throughout the rest of the sixties, the genre found its groove and exploded in popularity. Songs of the group that tend to fall into this category are like I Want You (She’s So Heavy).
- Jangle Pop – Also known as Jingle-Jangle, this music is easily identified by its intense treble-heavy electrical guitar music. The music is always undistorted and is most usually heard in Pop Music. Most of the music with peppy and high guitar music can be considered jangle. The types of songs that often sound like A Hard Day’s Night.
- Power Pop – Power Pop uses the heaviness of hard Rock with the upbeatness of pop. It has an underlying tone of upbeatness to it while still giving you the edge of hard Rock. The Fab Four may have only laid down the beginning of the foundations of power pop and bands like the Who, The Beach Boys, and The Byrds, but they have some good ones like Paperback Writer.
- Prog Rock – Prog rock bands such as Rush and Dream Theatre are bands that like to create songs in structures and timings that are not considered ‘the norm’. Even bands on the more extreme end of the scale such as Meshuggah have their foundation set in time signatures and structures that were evident in The Beatles music such as “A day in the life” and “Sgt Peppers” was influenced by the father of prog rock, Frank Zapper, who is said to have had a huge influence on Paul McCartney.
- Stoner Rock – also closely connected to Grunge with bands like Nirvana and Alice in Chains, this type of music has an almost CBA attitude or punk rebellious vibe to it. The amount of bands who can be classed as Grunge or Stoner who has cited The Beatles as an influence (as well as other sources) means that this cannot be ignored. It’s difficult to say specifically which album or songs would have had a specific influence other than those that were drug-influenced such as Yellow Submarine and Lucy in the sky with diamonds. Fast forward 50 or 60 years and you have Stoner rock and Grunge (which too have evolved).
Their Stylistic Evolution
The Beatles began their career in the 1950s as a Skiffle group. Skiffle is a combination of American Folk music, Blues music, and Jazz music played with a basic medley of instruments. However, even from the start, the members who would eventually become The Beatles were not ones to ignore the best music out there simply because it wasn’t in their so-called box.
They were especially profoundly influenced by the increasing popularity of Rock over the decade of the 1950s. Along with Folk, Country Western, R & B, and Rock, they invented the above genres and more.
This is because their early influence came from the records being brought into the Liverpool docks by dockers returning home from voyages across the pond to the United States. Many of these records ended up in the hands of the local youths, including Paul and John, who wanted to imitate what they heard.
By their own admission they played a lot of covers and tried to mimic their heroes until they were almost forced to write their own songs just so they had some newer material. It is also (speaking as a musician) a spark to ignite creativity with a good grounding of how songs are structured and what makes for a good hook and guitar riff, so the importance of covering other people’s songs and playing them for months at an end over and over certainly was not lost upon them.
Using their sensibilities and being open to experimenting with music when no one else would be allowed, The Beatles created music that no one else ever thought to put together thanks to their grounding in the early days of overseas music.
Of course, they were open to influence throughout their career and the exposure to other very talented artists combined with their own life experiences, such as taking up transcendental meditation, taking drugs and experiencing life within the band and everything that came with it all had their impact upon the various stages that the Beatles visited throughout the career and beyond.
Let’s dig a little further into exactly what each genre is and what point in their career you are likely to hear songs that would fit into that genre.
Started As Skiffle
Though much of their time in the skiffle genre was spent as The Quarrymen or The Silver Beatles, skiffle was undoubtedly how they began to find their sound as a band. Not only that, but elements of skiffle would stay with them as they dropped the five-person set-up, went down to four, and switched Best for Starr.
If you are asking what exactly is skiffle, you are not alone. Skiffle is a term that is not used widely outside of the music industry, nor is it one that is used much outside of big “music people.”
Skiffle is a subgenre of folk music. Its necessary instruments characterize it – in the 1920s, it was used to describe only jug bands. There are no albums or songs that you can identify as skiffle, but it may be the essential genre to the Fab Four, becoming all they were.
Skiffle is what brought McCartney and Lennon together and drew Harrison a few months later. Skiffle is the one genre that you can hear throughout all of their songs.
Next, They Started Incorporating Rock
As the 1950s went on, it was clear that the group members were becoming more and more entranced with rock sounds. In the 50’s they were enchanted with the rockstars of the time.
With their first hit in the UK, Love Me Do, they quickly established themselves as a new powerhouse in rock with an original sound. That sound was rock infused with skiffle and other folk elements. It would serve them well throughout their entire career.
Though now often referred to as Pop, few people in the know would refer to the Fab Four as pop stars. They were the start of a rock revolution that would continue to influence the music industry up to the present day.
This style of folk-rock stayed their main go-to up through 1964 and is what you can genuinely categorize I Want to Hold Your Hand and She Loves You can be listed under. Their monumental performance and introduction to America on the Ed Sullivan show was the introduction to the media of this rock music.
However, even as they grew to rule over all music in their day, they would continue to incorporate different musical genres into their style.
True Sixties Players = Psychedelic
The Beatles were first introduced to the most common drug of the early sixties, marijuana, by Bob Dylan. All four smoked and saw the drug as little more than alcohol for partying. However, once George Harrison and John Lennon were given LSD at a dinner party one night, their lives changed forever.
They had such a trip that they wanted to experience it again – and felt that the band needed to revolutionize their music. Though Ringo Starr was willing, Paul McCartney held off and did not try it until quite a while later.
The perfect example of their psychedelic rock entries is the classic Revolver in 1966. Their experimentation on that album – the stuff that was NOT too out there to include – was groundbreaking and put the emotions of the people who were trying Acid and LSD like candy into songs.
With the haunting vocal effect of Lennon’s voice echoing on a rotating microphone ending the final song on the album Tomorrow Never Knows, it was a solid entry into psychedelic music’s evergrowing field that would define the 1960s.
Bringing In Heavy Metal
Though there are some definite harder metal records in the late sixties for the group, Lennon said their first heavy metal song was from their 1965 album Help! It was the off-beat song entitled Ticket To Ride. McCartney has also stated that he feels that this song is the beginning of their trip to the harder side of rock.
Included in that harder genre is not only heavy metal but also psychedelic rock. When their self-titled album, a two-disc record better known as The White Album, introduced a new entry into a hard rock known as heavy metal.
Yes, there are plenty who will throw up their hands and close out the browser, but please know – this is not an endorsement agreeing with Sir Paul McCartney that The Beatles invented heavy metal. Nor is it a statement detracting from that. There is little doubt that Helter Skelter was one of the first popular heavy metal songs.
The second real heavy metal song put out by The Beatles was also on the much-underappreciated track with Why Don’t We Do it in the Road? This may be described by many as proto-metal. Still, with the heavy bass, heavier drums, and McCartney’s undeniable screaming rock-n-roll lyrics, there is no denying that these two songs were early famous heavy metal tracks and helped to shape the genre.
So many more
Though there are more – so many more – genres that could define The Beatles’ growth over time, these are the most definitive that once introduced to the group’s songs would stay and evolve with them over their all too short time together.
To Sum Up
The Beatles fall under the classic Rock umbrella but it is clear that they were much more than this and had many influences throughout their song writing career.
It is probably not fair to say that they created certain sub genres but it is more accurate to say that they played their part in helping to create them along with many other bands of the time.
To be a musician is to be creative whilst sticking to a set of rules about how songs should be created, but as we all know rules are there to be broken and The Beatles certainly did break these rules on occassion but also had the sense to create commercial hooks that people would remember.
Especially in their early days of writing John and Paul really knew how to craft a 3 minute radio friendly song with memorable hooks and this certainly led to them having a lot of early hits which in turn gave them a lot of attention.
This attention and expectation led to Beatlemania which eventually led to the band stopping touring. This in turn caused the band to explore their music outside of their classic 3 minute radio friendly song routine which led them down the multi genre paths as shown above.
It is true to say that other musicians (such as Eric Clapton) for example had a huge influence on The Beatles, their own personal lives and the culture surrounding them also played a influential role in their head space when exploring new ways to craft songs.