By Dave Kelly (of the band Ark -signed on Apple Records).
Dave Kelly and Derek Jeffery met in 1969, formed a band showcasing their Everly Brothers/Beatles inspired two-part harmonies. They immediately won a record contract with the Beatles APPLE Records. A few years later they signed to Warner Brothers and toured as opening act for Pink Floyd, Genesis and ELO.
Max Martin, whether you love him or hate him has written, or co-written over 100 top ten songs, and 22 number 1 songs, and he’s done it every year for ten years in a row, selling over 135 million “singles” along the way. Who said nobody’s buying music anymore? The people who aren’t selling music, that’s who. Max certainly wouldn’t have said that, because he has clearly discovered something that most other songwriters seem to have missed.
But what Max discovered was The Beatles. I don’t mean just listening to them. Everybody’s listened to them. But he studied them until he figured out some of the musical tricks they had used to gain such a high level of success. How do I know, when he’s never admitted this publicly? Because their fingerprints are all over his songs. Once you discover the tricks The Beatles used, you can’t fail to recognize them when other writers use them the very same way.
So, why is it that all great song writers, from the mid 70s up until the present time, either publicly or secretly acknowledge their writing careers have been fueled on what they learned from The Beatles? Surely there are numerous other people to learn from; people that know how to write a song that the whole world will love? Absolutely.
There are many others deserving of study. But the reason The Beatles are such an efficient way to learn songwriting, is that they are unique in one major way. Their collective body of work is a huge repository of every songwriting trick that ever worked on a regular basis over the many decades prior to them coming on the scene. And it now seems clear, that every significant popular piece of music since, has been built on that very same framework, whether learned directly from The Beatles music or from others who had learned it from them.
The reason The Beatles were able to become this huge repository was—in large part—because of the uniquely all-encompassing training period they went through in their early years together.
Between 1960 and 1962, The Beatles regularly performed for 4 to 6 hours a night, day after day, many times for months on end. Think about this for a moment. Playing music for 4 to 6 hours for one night would be exhausting enough, but every night for months on end would be grueling. Some experts of the period have estimated that over a single three-and-a-half-month period in 1961 alone, they played on stage for over 500 hours. During that time, they learned and performed close to 200 cover songs; many from the 50s, but also surprisingly, from the 40s, 30s, 20s and in one case even as far back as the mid 1800s (Beautiful Dreamer).
The Beatles not only learned to play all of the hits of the 50s, including at least 20 from Elvis Presley, but they also studied at the feet of many of the previous masters, such as George and Ira Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Alden and Stephen Foster, to name just a few. But what seperated John Lennon and Paul McCartney from any other musicians playing other people’s songs, was that they were committed to becoming professional songwriters themselves. They took this work very serious and were committed to taking all of these popular songs apart until they found out what made them tick. And find out they did.
Anyone else would have been happy with just playing them, but not The Beatles. They took them apart and distilled the best of the best from multiple decades, down to their essence, experimenting with every new idea they discovered, until they found the ones that consistently produced the best results. And they got results like no one had ever gotten before. It’s very doubtful that anyone else has ever gathered such a broad base of knowledge regarding the root building blocks of popular music.
Why? Because every master songwriter before The Beatles, including the major classical composers all discovered their own handful of musical tricks as they developed as musicians, and then built their entire career on what they had learned. The Beatles were unusual in that they were forced by the sheer number of songs they were required to play each night, to learn how to play songs that rock fans would never have been interested in otherwise, such as old jazz standards, big band tunes, Broadway Show tunes, as well as Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland hits, and as I said above they analyzed all of these songs to discover their magic.
Another reason that their set list had to be so varied and reach back multiple decades beyond their own, was because the German seaport clubs they played in, had a mixed and varied clientel of all ages, nationalities and musical tastes with often as many as 1,50o people demanding to be entertained. They very likely hated much of what they played for these large drunken crowds, that kept requesting the most obscure songs, but this turned out to be the very thing that allowed them to learn so much more than any of their contemporaries in England.
When you compare them to the Rolling Stones, you can see how Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were obsessed with a very narrow band of musical influences, and much like the classical composers before them, forged a formidable career after discovering only a handful of valuable tricks from their heroes, and continued to build on that same limited foundation right up until the present. This is, in fact, the way most artists proceed.
The Beatles recordings of their 180 plus original compositions, on the other hand, are a far greater enigma, precisely because they had collected such a wide array of knowledge from so many sources. This gave them the unique ability to create as varied a body of work as has ever been produced from one artist. For instance, I sincerely doubt that you can find another band of rock and rollers from the early 60s, that were equally as familiar with George Gershwin’s favorite composing tricks as they were with those of Little Richard and Chuck Berry.
This is why you can save so much time by studying The Beatles music, because they used every trick in the book. They’re all there. You just need to look close enough. Sure, you can learn a lot from any other notable hit maker, but what you will learn from all the others added together is collected in one artist with The Beatles. Is it any wonder they were able to reach across so many diverse audiences and as a result conquer the world?
Forget Max Martin. Whether you love The Beatles or hate them, if you’re truly serious about improving your songwriting chops, you can do no better than to break open this repository and immerse yourself in the musical genius of the ages. Your future songs will thank you.
Dave Kelly has worked closely with many of the greatest musical artists in the world, including Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Pink Floyd, Genesis and Aerosmith. He is an award-winning recording artist and songwriter (arktherockband.bandcamp.com and davekelly.bandcamp.com) has recently completed the first volume in the Secret of Songwriting Series entitled Secret of Chords (www.secretofchords.com) with the second volume, Secret of Melody, due out late February.