Studio Style Evolution
Many observers have noted that understanding the success of The Beatles and their music begins and ends with an appreciation for the diverse ways in which they (especially Lennon and McCartney) blended their voices as instruments.
The role of producer George Martin is often cited as a crucial element in the success of The Beatles. He used his experience to bring out the potential in the group, recognizing and nurturing their creativity rather than imposing his views. His earlier production experience, ranging from acts such as Jimmy Shand to comedy recordings with members of The Goons, is said to have prepared him for the open-minded, sometimes experimental studio approach The Beatles developed as they became more experienced. Martin's work on solo projects with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan of The Goons impressed The Beatles, who were fans. Martin later said he was initially attracted to the group because they were "very charming people".
In 1966, at the height of their fame and bolstered by the two films A Hard Day's Night and Help!, the band stopped touring. Performing for thousands of fans whose screaming typically drowned out the music had led to disillusionment and they decided to retire from touring and concentrate on making records.
Their demands to create new sounds with every recording, personal experiments with psychedelic drugs and the studio expertise of EMI staff engineers including Norman Smith, Ken Townshend and Geoff Emerick all played significant parts in the innovative qualities of the albums Rubber Soul (1965), Revolver (1966) and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), all of which still regularly appear in critics' listings of the best albums ever made.
While most recording artists of the time were satisfied with using two, three or four tracks in the studio, The Beatles began to use linked pairs of four-track decks, and ping-ponging tracks two and three times became common. (EMI delayed the introduction of eight-track recording, already becoming common in American studios, until 1968 at Abbey Road.) Along with studio tricks such as sound effects, unconventional microphone placements, automatic double tracking and vari-speed recording, The Beatles began augmenting their recordings using instruments considered unconventional for pop music at the time, including string and brass ensembles, Indian instruments such as the sitar and the swarmandel, tape loops and early electronic instruments, including John Lennon's Mellotron (later used by many progressive acts such as The Moody Blues, King Crimson and Genesis) and George Harrison's Moog Synthesizer.
The group gradually took greater charge of their own productions and McCartney's growing dominance in this role, especially after the death of Epstein, played a part in the eventual split of the group. Internal divisions within the band had been a small but growing problem during their earlier career; most notably, this was reflected in the difficulty that George Harrison experienced in getting his own songs onto Beatles albums, and in the growing artistic and personal estrangement between Lennon and McCartney.
Drug use, personal factors and, above all, the unrelenting pressures and demands of their worldwide fame inevitably intensified these stresses. By the time of the sessions for The Beatles ("The White Album"), released in late 1968, the once close-knit members were clearly drifting apart both musically and personally. Several tracks were cut as de facto solo recordings by the principal composer, with the other band members more or less relegated to the role of session musician. This isolation is probably most notable on "Revolution 9", a wildly experimental John Lennon/Yoko Ono concoction of tape loops, "found sounds", and other studio trickery that the other Beatles reportedly despised and tried to keep off the album. However Paul McCartney also dabbled in avant-garde music and it was McCartney who had the strongest interest in the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose "Hymnen" was heavily influential on "Revolution 9." Early Beatles use of "tape loops" on "Tomorrow Never Knows" were assembled primarily by McCartney.
Despite the avant-garde "Revolution 9," "The White Album" was largely an abandonment of the heavily-synthesised and overdubbed psychedelic style the group had created with "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" in early 1967, continued through "Sgt. Pepper" and "Magical Mystery Tour," and a return to more conventionally-structured rock songs which could actually be performed by the band on stage.
Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" even featured an outside musician (his friend Eric Clapton) performing the guitar solo; Clapton was reportedly brought in as the result of a bitter dispute between Harrison and Lennon, who at the time was reportedly considering sacking Harrison from the band. (Lennon declined -- or was not asked -- to play any instrumental parts on most of Harrison's songs on "The White Album.") The friction eventually drove Starr to take a two-week hiatus (this is generally reported as him temporarily quitting the band).
During this time McCartney played drums on some of the tracks on the album, including "Back in the USSR," on which he also overdubbed most of the lead guitar parts. McCartney, the most technically adept guitarist in the band, had played lead guitar solos on selected songs as far as 1966's "Taxman" (ironically, a Harrison composition).
McCartney's ability, or tendency, to tell (or show) the other members how to play their instruments, resulted in understandable friction at times (captured during one sarcastic exchange between Harrison and McCartney on the Let It Be film, the band's next project).
The rapidly deteriorating relationships marred the troubled Get Back sessions in January 1969 — Lennon later colorfully denounced them as being the worst recordings of their career — and the project was made even more stressful by the presence of a film crew hired to capture the proceedings for a planned movie (which eventually became the Let It Be documentary).
By this time another very significant factor had emerged — Lennon's passionate affair with Japanese artist Yoko Ono. The couple quickly became inseparable and Lennon further alienated the other Beatles by bringing Ono to almost every recording session, breaking the band's long-standing rule against outsiders at sessions. Due to the adverse reporting of this situation in later years, Ono came to be singled out as "the woman who broke up the Beatles" (although after Lennon's death, the surviving three Beatles denied Ono's presence had been a major influence in the breakup, rather one of a number of factors which had combined to cause the split).
However, the band's differences were more or less put aside later in the year for the recording of what became their valedictory album, Abbey Road, which the group later recalled as being among the most enjoyable of their career.
While "The White Album" and the original "Get Back" sessions emphasized a return to basic pop-rock song structures, Abbey Road took a step back in the direction of glossy production, although this time primarily consisting of instrumental backing produced by the classically-trained George Martin to help mold together disparate song fragments into a unified, orchestral suite in the tradition of classical compositions.
Abbey Road featured considerable use of synthesizers, but usually in more conventional musical contexts rather than as a source for bizarre and unusual sound effects.
The first side consisted of individual songs, including exceptionally strong pieces by each band member (Lennon's "Come Together," "Something" by Harrison, and even a very passable offering by Starr, "Octopus's Garden"). While the oft-noted "Golden Slumbers Suite" which ended the album (and, effectively, the group's career) was mainly McCartney's work, all four members were highly satisfied with the album overall.
By the end of 1969 both Lennon and McCartney had effectively left the band and the only piece of unfinished business was the as-yet unreleased "Get Back" project.
The Beatles had been very unhappy with the original tapes from the "Get Back" sessions (produced as usual by George Martin), and for some time it looked as if the material would be scrapped altogether. After a delay of several months, legendary American producer Phil Spector was brought in to edit, remix and overdub the tapes, and his heavily-orchestrated "Wall of Sound" production characterized the eventual release of the "Let It Be" album, released in early 1970 nearly a year after the group had ceased to function on an active basis.
By this time, Lennon and Harrison had effectively decided to leave the band. McCartney made the move official at the start of 1970 when he began legal proceedings to dissolve the band's business partnership.
Each Beatle went on to successful solo careers.