University of Michigan's Walter Everett is leading scholar on the Beatles
But for many years now, he has also recognized and appreciated the complexities in the music of certain rock 'n' roll bands—most notably and prolifically, the Beatles. In fact, Everett is an expert on the Beatles' music. He wrote his master’s thesis on “The Beatles as Composers,” has written two books on the Beatles, is now at work on a third, and every few years, he teaches a class at U-M called "Analysis of the Beatles"—including the just-ended semester.
He also frequently gives lectures about the Fabs' music at other universities, libraries and music conferences. And those lecture bookings are heating up this year, and into next year, now that we're into "50th Anniversary" season: Several Beatles 50th-anniversary marks were / are this year and next year.
For example, March 22 was the 50th anniversary of the UK release of their debut album, "Please Please Me"; April 11 was the 50th anniversary of "From Me to You," their first No 1 single in the UK; and July 3 is the 50-year-marker of the recording of "She Loves You."
Looking ahead to next year, February 8, 2014 will be the 50-year celebration of the Beatles' historic first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. That weekend, Everett will speak at two music conferences devoted to the music of the Beatles and to that anniversary—one at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and another at the Altoona campus of Penn State University.
And on July 3, Everett will be delivering the keynote address at a music-scholar conference in Liverpool. So, since the date is the anniversary of the recording of "She Loves You," Everett will again be discussing the Beatles—and that song in particular—in his address, and will also be part of a panel discussion that will include Mark Lewisohn, author of several Beatles books, and Ken Scott, who was the recording engineer on many of the Beatles' famous tracks.
"I'll probably also spice that one up by playing some piano and guitar," says Everett, who has been teaching at U-M since 1989. "I'm really excited to be going to Liverpool. The National Trust has opened up the boyhood homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, so it will be great to visit those."
Everett's first two Beatles books—"The Beatles as Musicians: Revolver through the Anthology" (1999) and "The Beatles as Musicians: The Quarry Men through Rubber Soul" (2001)—were mostly written for musicians. But they also appeal to Beatles freaks who've never even picked up a Gretsch, Hoffner or Rickenbacker. In '08, he published another book about rock 'n' roll—"The Foundations of Rock: From 'Blue Suede Shoes' to 'Suite Judy Blue Eyes'."
There are several aspects of the Beatles' music that makes it worthy of academic study, says Everett. For starters, they were ambitious from a compositional standpoint.
"Even in many of their early songs, they used unconventional chords and complex dissonant sonorities," says Everett. "There were certainly other 1960s groups making complex, dissonant music, like Soft Machine and The Mothers of Invention, but there was no other '60s group that made complex music so popular.
"It's fascinating to look at the combination of McCartney's sense of conventional craft, such as in the way he controlled the outer voices—his vocals and his bass parts—with Lennon's wild imagination, his sense of the unconventional. That combination was a key to what made them unique as composers," he says.
Everett was 9 years old when the Beatles first played Sullivan's show, and was already studying piano by then, "so I knew music. And those performances really hit me hard."
So, Everett's continued studies as a musician, theorist and scholar led him to appreciate the complexity of the Beatles' music more and more. "Initially, there was some resistance in academia to my wanting to write a dissertation on the Beatles, or teach a class about their music, but as the years have passed, it's become a thriving field of study. There are many music theorists who now bring examples of rock to their traditional theory classes."
Everett has also taught classes on the music of Paul Simon, Steely Dan, Wilco, and other pop / rock bands / artists who have "created music worthy of study and that is interesting to talk about."
In his "Analysis of the Beatles" class, "we talk about their music from a musical standpoint," says Everett. "We discus the melodic construction, how the melodies relate to each other, the formal construction, the way rhythm patterns are repeated, the relationship between verses, choruses and solos....Plus, we get into the recording technology they used, and the advancements that occured in studio recording, due to their use of electronics, and the way they composed in the studio."
The class is open to music majors and non-majors alike. "There are a lot of students here who aren't music majors but are very involved in music—they may be in bands, or write their own music, or just listen to a lot of music," remarks Everett. "So, even though they might not have consciously thought through how the music was put together, my idea is to help them learn more about why they like the music they like—which in turn, I think, gives them more appreciation for that music, and for music generally."
Everett's next Beatles book will be aimed at non-musicians. (Although, he points out that many non-musician Beatles fans have read his first two books, and have "written to me and said they got a lot out of them, and just skipped over the parts they didn't understand," he says with a laugh.)
For this next Beatles tome, "I want to write a series of essays on various Beatles topics. I have one idea for a chapter that will discuss the Beatles' other influences, besides pop/rock artists. I could probably write 15 pages on how Bach influenced them. For example, Paul has talked about hearing a performance of the Brandenberg Concertos on TV, and that he wanted a trumpet player to do something like that on 'Penny Lane.'"
Everett also wants to devote an essay to the Beatles' use of the drone element. "It's easy to talk about the drone on (the very trippy) 'Tomorrow Never Knows,' but there were subtler uses of the drone, like John's guitar part on 'Ticket to Ride'—or on 'Now Your Bird Can Sing', where John just played a single chord, over and over."
Everett's Beatles scholarship is such that the members of the Fab Faux—the stellar Beatles tribute band that has performed in Ann Arbor three times in the last three years, most recently in mid-April—have cited his Beatles books as being very helpful to them, in terms of knowing what guitars, basses and amps the Beatles used on specific songs.
Everett visited with the Faux when they came to town in 2011, and again a couple of weeks ago. "They really are a great bunch of people," Everett says. "We had animated conversations about the Beatles' harmonies, guitar playing, drumming and recording techniques. They love talking Beatles and can do so with more knowledge than anyone I know. I always enjoy talking with excellent musicians, and they really love being in Ann Arbor. They thought the audience was fantastic."
Kevin Ransom is a freelance writer who covers music for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at KevinRansom10@aol.com.