We recently asked "Beatles scholar" Aaron Krerowicz about his most recent book The Beatles and the Avant Garde. Krerowicz is the United States of America's only full-time professional Beatles music scholar and this book focuses on the Fab Four's more aesthetically challenging musical material. Here's what Aaron had to say.
Most Beatles experts are historians and/or biographers. And while history and biography are both fascinating and important, they're not music. Comparatively few authors ever discuss the band's songs, much less analyze them. There are, of course, a few notable exceptions — Walter Everett, Alan Pollack, Dominic Pedlar, and Anthony Robustelli all come to mind — but there remains much more to be said specifically about the Beatles' music.
One of the problems of having a unique career is that there is no clear title for what I do because nobody else does what I do. I suppose the most accurate title might be, "Beatles scholar whose specialty is musical analysis and who supplements his writings by delivering multimedia presentations on the band's history and songs." But that's a bit of a mouthful, so I settle for "Beatles scholar".
But when people ask what I do, and I say, "I'm a Beatles scholar", they typically have no idea what that means. If I called myself a "Mozart scholar", people would know that I studied music. But with the Beatles, that is not assumed. For a time, I considered calling myself a "Beatles Music Theorist", but few people know what music theory is, so that's even less clear than "Beatles scholar". I guess "Beatles music analyst" would be more precise, but that's about a poetic as oatmeal. Though it's not perfect, the best title I've come up with so far is "Beatles music scholar".
While I am not affiliated with any college or university, I do conduct academic musical analysis. And it's easy for academics - myself included - to slip into technical jargon when analyzing music. This vocabulary might be accurate, but it often neglects an audience not already familiar with such terminology. Part of my job as a professional Beatles music scholar, then, is to illustrate the Beatles' musical sophistication in ways that an audience does not need a bachelor's degree in music theory to understand. My Beatles Minute videos are good examples of that detailed analysis accessibly explained.
Your book, The Beatles & The Avant Garde, is on a very specialized topic. What made you want to write about that in particular?
Ah, that's the book that started it all for me. The concept first dawned on me while a grad student at Boston University. At the time, I lived in Revere, MA and commuted by MBTA subway to the BU campus. The ride took about an hour each way, which gave me lots of listening time. On one such train ride in the spring of 2010, I turned on Magical Mystery Tour. And when "I Am The Walrus" came on, it suddenly dawned on me that the Beatles were more than just spectacularly successful pop musicians, but also a landmark in music history. The end of "Walrus" incorporates random radio signals, which is something American avant-garde composer John Cage did in his piece Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951). So what Cage did in an avant-garde context, The Beatles also did but in a popular music context. That got me wondering what other avant-garde ideas and techniques influenced the band.
Then in the fall of 2010 I discovered while reading Barry Miles' Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now that Paul was actually the original Beatles avant-gardist. Lennon is known by that moniker, largely for his association with Yoko Ono, but before John and Yoko ever met, Paul was doing similar aesthetic experiments. That realization meant that at some point John and Paul switched roles.
But of course the switch of "the avant-garde Beatle" from Paul to John wasn't the only such switch. As that was happening, there was another change - this one in the unofficial leader of the group: In the early years, John was the clear leader (he founded the band in the first place, and on A Hard Day's Night he was the primary author of 10 of the 13 tracks). But at some point, Paul replaces his as the unofficial leader (on Sgt. Pepper, Paul was the primary author of 8.5 of the 13 tracks, plus he was the impetus behind Magical Mystery Tour and Get Back/Let it Be). So, as I describe in the introduction and Yoko chapter, at the heart of The Beatles & The Avant-Garde are those two changes: "The first a shift in the leadership of the group (what started as John’s band ended as Paul’s); the second a simultaneous shift in avant-garde aesthetics (what started as Paul’s experimentation ended as John’s). ... Once John found Yoko, she completely eclipsed Paul as John’s primary artistic collaborator. With John more interested in Yoko than the Beatles, Paul was able to replace him as unofficial leader of the group; and with the introduction of a full-fledged avant-garde artist, Paul’s involvement and enthusiasm for the movement abated, freeing John to adopt the role."
Yoko is thus integral to the book, and she is the most obvious avant-garde influence — she was an established artist long before she and John ever met. There are several books out there that document and analyze Yoko's life and work (perhaps the most notable is Alexandra Monroe and John Hendricks' book YES, published in 2000), but few ever discuss her influence on the Beatles.
Furthermore, Yoko isn't exactly easy to like, yet John Lennon was smitten with her. Why? What did he see in her? What attracted him to her? The Beatles & The Avant-Garde attempts to explain all of that. I can't guarantee that you'll like Yoko or her work after reading it, but I hope it will provide the context necessary to understand her thinking, so that you can at least appreciate — if not genuinely enjoy -— her work, and understand how and why she fit into Lennon's life, both artistically and romantically.
How did you decide at a rather young age to "give up your day job" and tour, giving Beatles presentations full-time?
The more glamorous first reason is that lots of people were interested. I consistently receive compliments from people who attend my presentations saying, "I thought I knew everything there was to know about The Beatles until your program!" At the encouragement of countless such fans, I took a leap of faith and quit all my other jobs in June 2015 to dedicate myself 100% to a career as a Beatles scholar. As of this writing, I've delivered 112 presentations throughout the US and England in the 10 months since then. And I have 84 more speaking engagements already scheduled for the next eight months, plus I'm constantly adding bookings.
The less glamorous but equally important second reason is that I was not terribly pleased with my "day job" situation. I had a dozen or so part time teaching jobs, none of which were ever going to develop into a long-term career. I'm glad I had those experiences because they helped shape who and what I am now, but I wouldn't want to go back. In this case, the future is brighter than the past.
Can you tell us a bit about your other two books, which seem to be on broader Beatles topics, and about any plans to write more Beatles books in the future?
My most popular presentation by far is "The Beatles: Band of the Sixties.” I've delivered that program more than 100 times throughout the US and England, and I have dozens more already booked for the near future. It's an overview of the band, part history and part musical analysis, that traces their development and artistic evolution over the course of the 1960s —- from their breakthrough in Hamburg in 1960 through their break up in 1970. That program proved so successful that in April 2015 I transcribed it and published it as an Amazon Kindle ebook. It's survey nature, inexpensive cost ($2.99), and brevity (only about 10,000 words) make it an ideal entry to my writings.
My third Beatles book is From the Shadow of JFK: The Rise of Beatlemania in America. There is a popular notion that connects the assassination of John F. Kennedy on 22 November 1963 with the Beatles' meteoric rise to fame in the US a few months later. The gist of this "Kennedy Rebound Theory of Beatlemania" (as described by Candy Leonard in her book Beatleness) is that Kennedy's death made the nation sad, then The Beatles came along and made the nation happy again — and that explains why the band suddenly found popularity in the American market after months of failed releases.
I read about that concept many times in a variety of contexts, but I never believed it — I never bought into the logic — until I started researching Kennedy. Not having lived through the decade, I had to rely on historical documentation rather than personal experience. I scoured a few miles of microfilm from the New York Times and Washington Post, both of which extensively documented Kennedy's election campaign and presidency. Reading about him and perusing transcripts of his speeches, I came to realize that there is indeed a strong connection between the president and the band in that both were major symbols of Youth Culture. The fundamental premise of the book, then, is that The Beatles effectively replaced Kennedy as a leader of this Youth Culture.
It's a notion that is not original to me — I actually first encountered this notion in Stephen D. Stark's book Meet the Beatles (2005), and then the inspiration for writing my own book came while watching the PBS American Experience documentary JFK: Like No Other (2013). Over the years, a great many authors have discussed the relationship between the president and the Fab Four, including Philip Norman's Shout!: The Beatles in their Generation (1982) and John Lennon: The Life (2009), Pete Shotton's The Beatles, Lennon, and Me (1984), Nicholas Schaffner's The Beatles Forever (1997), Peter Brown's The Love You Make (2002), John Wyse Jackson’s We All Want to Change the World (2005), Jonathan Gould's Can't Buy Me Love (2007), Peter Ames Carlin's Paul McCartney: A Life (2010), Bruce Spizer's The Beatles Are Coming! (2010), Tim Riley's Lennon (2011), Howard Sounes' Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney (2011), and Candy Leonard's Beatleness (2014). It makes sense that most of these books do not go into extensive detail on Kennedy — he is, after all, an entirely secondary character in the Beatles' story, so any substantial discourse on him would be gratuitous in those contexts. That's why I felt a book dedicated exclusively to the relationship was needed.
I published From the Shadow of JFK in June 2015, the same month I upgraded my Beatles scholarship to a full-time enterprise. The rigors of touring have limited my writing time, but I do have quite a few books currently under construction and planned for publication over the next several years:
• Two Of Us
While most of my tours are done alone, in March 2016 my father (whose constant playing of Beatles music hooked me on the band when I was young) joined me for a tour out to Arizona. We blogged of our travels and are currently in the process of expanding and polishing those blogs into a full book. The other day I gave a presentation in Carlisle, PA, after which somebody asked, "What is a day in the life of a professional Beatles scholar like?" I shamelessly plugged this book!
Projected publication: mid to late 2016
• BEATLESTUDY, Volume I: Structural Analysis of Beatles Music
HOW something is presented is just as important as WHAT is presented. Thus, a study of structure in Beatles music is ultimately a study in how The Beatles chose to present their innovative musical ideas. This book is an academic encyclopedia of how the band's musical recordings were structured. It takes two parts: first, an exhaustive structural analysis of all 211 officially recorded and released Beatles songs between 1963-1970; second, a commentary and explanation of those analyses.
Projected publication: late 2016 or early 2017
• BEATLESTUDY, Volume II: Harmonic Analysis of Beatles Music
A companion to the above, this is the same concept but analyzing harmony. I analyze every chord of every song, looking at how each of those chords is approached (what happens before that chord) and how each chord progresses (what happens after that chord), then draw large-scale conclusions about how the Beatles use harmony based on those analyses.
Projected publication: late 2017 or early 2018
• A Four-Headed Monster: The 4 Beatles in 5 Songs
If you had to pick songs to represent each of the four Beatles, which would you choose? This book observes each band member through the lens of one or two songs. For Paul McCartney, "Yesterday"; for Ringo Starr, "In My Life"; for John Lennon, "Strawberry Fields Forever"; and for George Harrison, "Something" and "Here Comes the Sun". It is based on my presentation of the same title.
Projected publication: 2017
• Starr Time: A Celebration of Ringo Starr's Contributions to the Beatles
Contrary to popular belief, Ringo Starr was an integral component of the Beatles' musical and popular success. This book celebrates Ringo's substantial contributions to the band through his personality, drumming, singing, and songwriting. It is based on my presentation of the same title.
Projected publication: 2018?
I realize that's quite ambitious, but I'd rather aim high and miss than aim low and regret not aiming higher. Who knows how things will actually turn out, but that's the plan at this moment, even though it's very likely to change. Plus, I'm constantly inspired by new ideas and discoveries, so it's quite possible that a book I've not yet conceived might bump back the projected publication dates (which is exactly what happened with From the Shadow of JFK — it pushed back my original plans to publish the structure book in 2015).
You produce a series of one-minute videos on various aspects of Beatles songs. Can you tell us more about how you dissect the songs, and if we can expect more of that in your writing as well?
Musical analysis is all about pattern recognition. If the Beatles use a particular chord progression in, say, "Strawberry Fields Forever", can I find an earlier song that uses a comparable (if not identical) progression? In other words, can I find that same pattern of chords in a previous context? If the answer is yes, then the side-by-side comparison of those songs illustrates the compositional evolution and development of the band. And indeed, one such Beatles Minute video compares the chords of "Strawberry" with "In My Life", which the band recorded and released two years earlier. A written version of this comparison is already in my draft for the book A Four-Headed Monster as described above, in the chapter analyzing "Strawberry Fields".
The more music one analyzes, the most such connections can be drawn. I've now done enough analysis that I can make a full-time career out of it! And I plan to continue doing so for as long as people are inareininterestedinterested in listening.
#Aaron Krerowicz #fivequestions #beatles #paulmccartney #johnlennon #georgeharrison #ringostarr #yokoono