From Bob Dylan to Buddy Holly: 10 musicians who inspired The Beatles
The Beatles have taken on an almost mythical status within music since they first arrived as four lads from Liverpool nearly 60 years ago. As such, the Fab Four of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr have been cited on thousands of occasions as gigantic influences by some of the music’s world’s biggest names. It would appear that most artists would cite the band as some cultural touchpoint at the very least.
While there’s no doubting the influence the band have had on the world it does beg the question of who were the bands and musicians that inspired The Beatles. Below, we’ve pulled together a list of 10 artists who left an indelible on the band and, in turn, the world of music itself.
As Beatlemania swept the entire globe in the early sixties, nobody could have truly predicted that The Beatles would still be as vitally important today as they were then. Except, of course, Brian Epstein who was famously quoted as saying, “The children of the 21st century will be listening to The Beatles.”
The group arrived, under the tutelage of Epstein, as a seemingly fully formed unit. A band equipped with the fast-living bounce of the rock ‘n’ roll before them but with a more crafted and coiffed approach, could only have existed with the work of their predecessors, many of which the band have cited as great influences on their career.
As the group progressed and evolved as a band in the latter part of their time together, they gathered more musical muses. It’s a mark of not only The Beatles’ musical output but as a sign of their dedication to the art of songwriting from John, Paul, George and Ringo that despite being the biggest band on the planet at the time, they were more than happy to welcome the influence of their contemporaries as ways to improve their overall sound.
The artists set out below have all offered the members of The Beatles another avenue of creative freedom to explore and each one can say they had a hand in their sound. Ultimately that means they had a hand in thousands if not millions of others too.
The Beatles’ biggest influences:
Cliff Richard and The Shadows
It’s fair to say that in Britain, before The Beatles there was Cliff Richard and The Shadows. The group were the closest thing Britain had to a rock ‘n’ roll band and did draw on a lot of American inspiration with a slight British twist. While the band’s song ‘Move It’ and Richard’s performances definitely shaped some of their work, it was the way the band dressed that landed most heavily.
Harrison remembered of that influence, “Cliff Richards and the Shadows became the big thing. They all had matching ties and handkerchiefs and grey suits, but we were still doing Gene Vincent, Bo Didley, you know, Ray Charles things. So when we got back to England that was the big thing.” The band had returned from Hamburg with their live show tuned but their image way off. “A year or so after that, When Brian Epstein came on the scene, he said, ‘You should smarten up because nobody wants to know you’.”
Cliff Richard and the Shadows may have shaped the band’s early sound and vision but Bob Dylan arguably had the biggest influence on The Beatles. His style of songwriting was a keen influence on all of the British groups at the time but his message of opening up oneself to your audience through personally reflective pop songs landed most heavily on John Lennon.
One track that Lennon later admitted to David Sheff in 1980 came from ”me in my Dylan period” was ‘I’m A Loser’ from Beatles For Sale to which he added, “part of me suspects I’m a loser and part of me thinks I’m God Almighty.” Lennon wasn’t the only Beatle under Bob’s influence.
Later in the band’s journey George Harrison sought solace and tutelage from Dylan as he tried to get his songwriting moving along more effectively. Dylan would champion the formerly Quiet Beatle and give him the confidence to enter the, most lucrative songwriting period of his life, one which would buoy his career with and without the Beatles.
“If you had to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry,” once said John Lennon and it’s hard to disagree with him. Without a doubt the forefather of modern rock ‘n’ roll, Berry’s ability to not only perform but write some of the most vibrant music the group had ever heard at the time.
In fact, for much of The Beatles early songwriting career, he and Paul McCartney would trade their lyrics and songs and they’d both be undoubtedly influenced by one man, Chuck Berry. “To us, he was a magician making music that was exotic, yet normal, at the same time,” Paul McCartney wrote on his website following Berry’s death. “We learnt so many things from him which led us into a dream world of rock and roll music.”
Later, as Lennon welcomed Berry to perform alongside him, he said of Berry, “He was writing good lyrics and intelligent lyrics in the 1950s when people were singing ‘Oh baby I love you so, it was people like him that influenced our generation to try and make sense out of the songs rather than just sing ‘do wah diddy.’”
One of the saddest stories of music history, Buddy Holly and The Crickets were stopped in their tracks following Holly’s sad and tragic death. But before he perished he left behind an incredible array of songs which harmonised rock ‘n’ roll and laid the foundations for what pop music would become with a string of rhythmically blessed toe-tappers.
The group have always cited Holly as one of the band’s most influential artists. Sometimes in the right way, when asked about their influences in 1964, Paul happily picks Holly as one of the direct inspirations for the group. Sometimes it was in the wrong way as Lennon suggests when reflecting on the moment he and Paul began writing more about their lives, “Before, we were just writing songs a la Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly– pop songs with no more thought to them than that.”
The myth also goes that the band were influenced by Holly’s band The Crickets to name themselves The Beatles but the chances of that being true are slim to none.
Perhaps a surprise inclusion for some of our readers is the iconic guitarist Eric Clapton. As well as being a part of one of the most influential bands of the decade in Cream—a group that would inspire countless heavy rhythm and blues acts to spring out of London in the mid-sixties—Clapton’s influence on the band in the latter part of their career, namely George Harrison, was huge.
As well as being sought as Harrison’s replacement after the guitarist walked out on The Beatles during the Get Back sessions, Clapton was also employed by Harrison to help craft some of his most iconic songs for the Fab Four. His sensational solo for ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ is one aspect of how he helped Harrison and the band but on ‘Here Comes The Sun’ he proved extra fruitful.
On this song, he may not have played any instruments but he did provide Harrison with the space and solace he needed to write the song in the first place. “One day I decided, ‘I’m going to sag-off Apple,’ and I went over to Eric Clapton’s house. I was walking in his garden. The relief of not having to go and see all those dopey accountants was wonderful. And I was walking around the garden with one of Eric’s acoustic guitars, and wrote ‘Here Comes The Sun.'”
The Beach Boys
The Beatles and The Rolling Stones may have been the tabloid’s favourite band rivalry but by insisting the two factions were warring with each other, it seems they missed the actual competition between Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson. The two mutually appreciative artists were consistently inspired by one another to push themselves creatively.
Whether it was The Beatles releasing Rubber Soul, which would go on to inspire Pet Sounds which would, in turn, inspire Sgt. Pepper or the fact that McCartney cites, Wilson’s masterpiece ‘God Only Knows’ as his favourite song of all time—it’s clear that with the California boys, The Beatles may never have reached the heights they did.
McCartney said in 1990: “The early surf records…I was aware of them as a musical act, and I used to like all that, but I didn’t get deeply interested in it—it was just a real nice sound.
“We used to admire the singing, the high falsetto really and the very sort of ‘California’ lyrics. It was later… it was Pet Sounds that blew me out of the water. First of all, it was Brian’s writing. I love the album so much. I’ve just bought my kids each a copy of it for their education in life—I figure no one is educated musically ’til they’ve heard that album. I was into the writing and the songs.”
The Everly Brothers
If there’s one band who can attest for being an integral part of The Beatles’ early vocal sound then it has to be The Everly Brothers. The group’s shudderingly beautiful vocals made the singing sensations one of music’s hottest properties in the early sixties.
It was a style that was undoubtedly borrowed or at least leaned upon when The Beatles began writing chart-topping pop songs like ‘Love Me Do’, and ‘Please, Please Me’. The band even pay tribute to the group on Let It Be during the song ‘Two of Us’, on which Macca tips his hat by saying “Take it, Phil.” You won’t see many people point to The Everly Brothers as an influential band too much these days but for the Fab Four, they were everything.
As you may have guessed by now, George Harrison felt pretty shunned by the strong songwriting partnership of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. With Ringo Starr usually happy to float between all the different factions within the band’s set-up, it left Harrison looking for places he could fully express himself. Whether it was Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton or The Byrds’ guitarist Roger McGuinn.
Some of our inspirations on this list have seen The Beatles lean on their style to create something new but in regards of McGuinn and The Byrds, Harrison admitted he lifted the riff from ‘The Bells of Rhymney’ for Rubber Soul song ‘If I Needed Someone’, which although morally questionable, is certainly high praise.
The Byrds also happened to be sharing the studio with a little known Indian musician by the name of Ravi Shankar, an artist who would undoubtedly shape the band too.
Ravi Shankar and George Harrison’s relationship quickly evolved from teacher and pupil to friends as Harrison threw himself deeply into the art of playing the classical Indian instrument, the sitar. Shankar, an undoubted master of the guitar-like instrument, took Harrison under his wing as the Beatles man explored India during the mid-sixties.
The influence of Indian classical music on The Beatles can be clearly seen in a few of their songs but none more so than the simply sumptuous ‘Norwegian Wood’. Later in Harrison’s life, Shankar would also be the driving force behind him arranging arguably his greatest triumph the Concert for Bangladesh.
With Shankar by his side, Harrison explored not only the finer points of Eastern music but its philosophy too, imbuing much of his later work with a sense of spirituality that would have undoubtedly never truly have been expressed without Shankar’s help.
“Before Elvis, there was nothing,” John Lennon once famously said of The King. To miss Presley off our list would be a horrendous mistake. The singer’s impact on British culture as a whole can hardly be understated so when a group of teenage boys who were about to call themselves The Quarrymen heard this new rock ‘n’ roll sound you can imagine the fire it sparked within them.
Later the band would meet The King and after he released a series of uninspiring tracks the group tended to lose interest in him as an artist, despite in 1968 still being influenced by him, if you believe Ringo’s tongue-in-cheek remark about ‘Lady Madonna’: “It sounds like Elvis, doesn’t it? No, it doesn’t sound like Elvis… it IS Elvis. Even those bits where he goes very high.”
However much the band’s appreciation for Presley might have waned by the end of his career and life, it cannot be denied that he was the first electric shock of hyper-charged rock ‘n’ roll that sparked life into the members of The Beatles.