Today we’re talking with a Beatles expert who also happens to be a member of Musical U. As a Professor of Communications at Clarion University, Scott is trained in the study of semiotics: the meaning within media such as pop music.

And he’s taken this lens of analysis to the music of the Beatles and specifically in the “Beatlemania” years of the early sixties when teenage girls would scream and faint at concerts and TV performances – to find out what exactly the band did that produced such extreme reactions. And how they carried that on throughout their career in ever-changing ways.

In this conversation we talk about:

  • The combination of music and visuals that led to Beatlemania and the specific techniques the Beatles used to stoke that hysteria
  • Whether the Beatles did all these clever things instinctively and subconsciously or if it was an intentional, conscious process
  • And how the Beatles’ use of musical elements to support the message of the lyrics changed over time through the five distinct eras of their music that Scott identifies

We love when an interview on this show provides a new way of looking at or listening to music, and we think you’re going to enjoy the little “homework” exercise Scott sets at the end of our conversation as a way to open your mind and your ears to what made the Beatles so effective and so successful.

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Scott Kuehn, Beatles expert/Professor of Communications at Clarion University shares his insight on Beatlemania. Learn how the Fab Four made females faint!



Wasn’t that a cool and different perspective on the Beatles? Right at the exact intersection between the historical and the musical aspects of what made the Beatles so great.

I loved discovering just how much there was going on under the hood of the songs we now consider so simple – but which had such a massive impact in their day. And especially cool to see that not in isolation but as the roots of all the innovation we know them for later on. Let’s recap.

Scott was actually inspired to get into music in the first place by The Beatles, seeing their famous appearance on the Ed Sullivan show and how enthusiastically his aunts reacted. He loved the music enough to ask his mom for the Beatles record and his love of pop music and desire to learn more about music grew from there.

He continued with music throughout his life in one way or another but in his work became a Professor of communications, specialising in semiotics and the study of how messages are conveyed both intentionally and unintentionally through modern media. In that context he saw the opportunity to study one of the biggest cases of media impact, the “Beatlemania” phenomenon of the early sixties.

He says the cultural landscape was ripe for something new and different, the music world was full of so-called “Schlock rock”, very formulaic and musically unsophisticated. Music that was very surface-level and not having the emotional impact that the Beatles would go on to show pop music was capable of.

Part of the “new and different” which The Beatles ushered in was the music, becoming much more innovative and impactful than the schlock rock status quo, but there was definitely also a visual element to it. As we talk about in my interview with the band Hard Day’s Night, The Beatles were very intentional and creative in their appearance as well as their music, and that first kicked off with the “mop top” look that caused them attention and generated controversy at least as much as the music in those early days.

That new look fed into the fantasy theme around the band that had teenage girls going crazy, something that spread from the UK to the US – but as we explored, there was also a lot going on in the music to create and fuel that fire.

Scott said there are two distinct types of desire that The Beatles fanned: firstly the singer cultivated desire in the listener, in songs such as “Love Me Do”, “From Me To You” and “Do You Want To Know A Secret”. He talked us through the example of “From Me To You”, how added vocal harmonies are used to emphasise the desire words in the lyrics, resulting in the big emotional audience reaction they were going for.

The second type of desire being addressed is the singer’s own, with songs that invite the listener to satisfy the singer’s desires, such as “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “Please, Please Me”. With “Please, Please Me” you can look at how the melody moves during the “Come on, come on” refrain to see how tension is built up and finally released, all focused on inviting the listener to satisfy the singer’s desire.

Ringo’s drumming and George’s guitar fills are other examples of tools and techniques that were used to emphasise or to create and release tension to underscore the message in the lyrics.

These messages of desire continued until the culmination of Beatlemania with A Hard Day’s Night, which Scott said marks when they started to move away from those particular signs and into more mature territory, until the end of 1964 when they really felt they were done trying to write pop hits and wanted to create their own idea of art.

As the lyrics matured so did their musical toolkit, starting to use a wider range of instruments including piano, acoustic guitar and guitar distortion for emphasis and to support the message of the lyrics.

I was curious to know how intentional and conscious all of these techniques were and Scott says it seems clear they were quite thoughtful about it all, and in those early years they knew exactly what they were doing to drive the audiences crazy, and in the later years to make emotionally compelling songs of various kinds for a more mature audience.

He gave the example of “Yesterday” as a song that only a short time after the height of Beatlemania demonstrated just how much they had transformed, now applying the same effective techniques but for the sake of creating the art they wanted to. This developed into what he refers to as intertextuality, starting to bring in influences and ideas from a much wider world including the psychedelic-sounding songs like Strawberry Fields Forever, where now it’s flutes and different instruments that are used to amplify the dream-like lyrics John Lennon wrote and convey a message about drugs and creativity that spoke to the hippy subculture of the late sixties.

Their famous sabbatical to India took them away from the drug use but the pressure had built up and it was hard to match the creative high of the Sargeant Pepper album. But a new mixing desk allowed for freer experimentation and the inspiration from their trip led to songs like Blackbird, where the new fingerpicking guitar technique Paul had just learned is used to great effect. As well as the pressure of expectations there were starting to be personal conflicts within the band, which Scott points to as an effect of them having become independent creative forces in their own rights.

Scott’s analysis in terms of semiotics and how the musical elements support the particular messages of each song has led to him appreciating just how much thought went into this music, not just creativity but an intellectual aspect. And as he points out, the incredible transformation in the music from the start to the end of their recording career as a band is unparalleled in modern music and really hasn’t been matched or substantially extended in rock music since.

To gain this kind of appreciation yourself Scott recommended choosing one or two of the Beatlemania songs you like and listening to it with this question of how the musical elements are supporting or amplifying the effect of the lyrics. Think about the various examples from this interview of techniques they used musically, and his framework of the two types of desire being sung about – and see what you can notice.

If you enjoyed this episode please do reach out to Scott and let him know, through Facebook, through the Clarion University website, or if you’re a member of Musical U you’ll find him in there with us as @ScottKuehn.

Thanks for joining me for this episode and stay tuned for our next one where we’ll be speaking with Aaron Krerowicz, the world’s only full-time professional Beatles scholar and author of multiple books about the music of the Beatles – all about the detail of the music of the songs, meaning the specific words, notes and chords they used where and why.

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