Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Beatles + Charts = an ideal post for this blog

The Charting the Beatles project is a work in progress. They've put up samples of a handful of charts visually quantifying aspects of the Beatles' career. Coming just months after the release of The Beatles: Rock Band and the remastered albums, this is catnip for a nerdy Beatles fan.

The examples include:
  • a circular time line showing the band's working schedules over the years 1963-1966, remarkable for how packed your planner has to be in order to be a prolific superstar group
  • a set of charts showing the breakdown of musical keys on each album, which makes me wish I had gone farther in my music theory so it would mean a bit more to me
  • a chart of references to Beatles songs within other Beatles songs (sampled above) - I've seen similar graphs for intra-Biblical references
  • a set of bar charts breaking down authorship and collaboration in songwriting
I really like this last one for helping to get a handle on the Beatles' output. Unlike the Who, the Beatles had the good sense to grow to hate each other and never really reunite, and they left a rich but compact discography that fits on a poster: 186 songs recorded in the studio in 9 calendar years (just over 7 years of time elapsed).

I'm a little confused by how some of the collaborations and outside contributions are defined. These aren't the songwriting credits as published, otherwise most would be shown as 50-50 Lennon/McCartney. These are based on anecdotes, apparently mostly collected in one particular book. I'd like to note that the Wikipedia entries for each individual Beatles song are full of all kinds of interesting trivia about their writing. The Beatles material on that site is generally very detailed and seemingly well-sourced.

In the chart, contribution of an instrumental solo seems not to count toward the bars, or all four Beatles would be credited on The End, where here only Paul is. Similarly, Eric Clapton isn't credited for While My Guitar Gently Weeps. And Billy Preston's presence in the sessions for Let It Be and Abbey Road don't count, either. So, what do the handful of outside contributions indicate? Based on the pink in Golden Slumbers, I wondered if it was George Martin's composition/orchestration. But if that were the case, there would be some collaboration indicated for Eleanor Rigby, which, of course, is set just to a string octet composed and arranged by Martin.* Maybe the collaboration on Slumbers has to do with the old lullaby from which McCartney used some lines. But then, there are other songs that had that kind of inspirational origin. So I feel like maybe this poster needs some splainin'. Or at least some annotatin'.

The other feature of this particular poster is the measure of collaboration, represented by a red thermometer bar above each. No bar means a solo effort. Full bar means roughly equal participation by all Beatles. I do not understand how the scale works on these. If, like on She Loves You, there is equal partnership between Lennon & McCartney (which was fairly rare, especially after 1963), it seems to rate about 33% on the Collab-O-Meter(TM). Instinctively, I would expect this to rate 50%, since half the band is collaborating. Or, hang on, I get it: the primary songwriter is collaborating with 1/3 of the remaining available Beatles, and using this Beatle to his full potential on the project. So think of the Collab-O-Meter as "how willing was the main songwriter to let someone else in on it." That makes more sense.

Note that there were only two studio recordings for their main discography that had full songwriting participation from all. I would classify both as throwaways of a sort: the instrumental Flying, from Magical Mystery Tour, and the fade-in-fade-out jam Dig It, from Let It Be, which was literally clipped out of a longer session of effing around in Abbey Road Studio. This chart illustrates how truly Balkanized the Beatles were, especially as their careers progressed.

I look forward to more work from the Beatles Charters. I'll post it here as soon as I'm aware of it.

* Let me repeat that, since it is easily glossed over: the most popular rock & roll band in the world released, as a single, a song setting for vocalist with string octet. There are reasons that my ex-roommate Dan Hetzel refers to them as "the baddest mofos on the planet." Consider that the same Beatle who wrote that song also wrote songs like When I'm Sixty Four or Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da that even his nominal writing partner derided as "granny music," as well as Helter Skelter, just about the heaviest mainstream metal until Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath hit their stride shortly thereafter.
Hetz is also fond of describing Paul McCartney having developed (earned?) laser vision at the time he wrote Paperback Writer. He damaged his laser vision by writing Fool On The Hill, and it finally went away when he wrote The Long and Winding Road. He was no longer infallible.

1 comment:

Scott said...

You may find this interesting: The Glass Engine. http://www.philipglass.com/glassengine/

It's a tool to navigate Philip Glass' music.