A Scholarly Celebration of The Beatles

As a graduate student at SMTD, Walt Everett (professor of music theory) wanted to do his dissertation on The Beatles-but he couldn’t.

That was in the early 1980s, and at the time, the Fab Four weren’t considered worthy subjects for scholarship. So Everett did a more traditional dissertation on Franz Schubert.

Sticking to the academic canon paid off. Soon after receiving his PhD, Everett joined the SMTD faculty. But he’d been obsessed with the boys from Liverpool since his teenage years, and he kept trying to publish papers about them.

Finally, in 1986, The Musical Quarterly ran his essay “Fantastic Remembrance in John Lennon’s ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Julia.'” It was the first time the field’s top journal had published a piece on pop music. Even Everett was surprised: “I guess I was in the right place at the right time,” he said.

By the end of the 1980s, SMTD and other schools had changed their tune about The Beatles and other rock and pop music; it has been an accepted part of music theory studies ever since-and Everett’s papers and books have made him one of the world’s top experts on The Beatles. Both an ardent fan and a serious scholar, he has some of Paul’s talent for accessible and engaging narrative, John’s depth on social issues, George’s seriousness of approach, and Ringo’s playfulness.

The School now embraces Everett’s scholarship so fully that it is hosting a landmark international conference (June 1-4) to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the release of the revolutionary concept album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Titled “Summit of Creativity,” the symposium is Everett’s baby-and he’s going all out to make it a success. The four-day event on North Campus will include other notable Beatles scholars and people who have worked with or reported on The Beatles, including Ken Scott, the band’s primary engineer in 1967-68; and Anthony DeCurtis, a long-time editor and contributor to Rolling Stone who has interviewed Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr at length.

Everett became a fan of the band as a child, after having already developed an interest in music. When he was growing up on the Jersey Shore, his parents went regularly to the opera and Broadway shows. Fiddler on the Roof composer Jerry Bock had been in his mother’s class at Flushing High School in New York, and wrote their school musical. Everett took piano lessons starting at a young age.

He first saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan’s TV show in 1964, when he was nine. His parents didn’t think much of the mop-tops. But to Everett, their electric arrangements were a revelation, an entirely different kind of music. He bought their records and, as an undergrad at Gettysburg College, taught himself guitar so he could play their songs.

Countless baby boomers did the same, but Everett was more than a fan. He was eager to explore exactly how and why The Beatles’ music worked so well. As his music theory education took him deeper into classical music, he realized that the best contemporary rock music, and The Beatles in particular, “worked on the same principles as Mozart” and other classical composers. One example is the trumpet solo at the end of “Penny Lane,” which was inspired by one of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos.

In his office, Everett sat down at the piano to demonstrate one of his favorite analytical tools-Schenkerian theory-playing “ornaments” that support various tonal structure. “The Beatles’ music is well-understood through Schenkerian analysis because of its musically goal-directed nature,” he explained. “They make use of melody, counterpoint between parts, and chord relationships in ways that progress toward goals or build expectations of musical goals.” A music theorist or professional musician will understand what he means; others will recognize what he’s playing on the piano as elements of pop songs they’ve heard all their lives.

He broke down those structures even more painstakingly in his 2008 book The Foundations of Rock (which, in another mark of popular music’s academic ascendancy, was published by Oxford University Press). With a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Everett recruited U-M students to record the individual musical components he documented for a website to accompany the text.

Any musician wanting to learn rock techniques-and any fan wanting to understand the inner workings of their favorite songs-could spend weeks exploring the site. It’s like a rock ‘n’ roll cookbook with all the ingredients carefully laid out-such as “the Dorian expression of tonic,” a chord progression that “the Zombies’ ‘She’s Not There,’ the Association’s ‘Along Comes Mary,’ and Santana’s ‘Oye Como Va’ all have in common,” Everett said. “The doo-wop progression, a chord progression whose bass line descends in thirds, is most closely tied to 1950s vocal groups, but is still heard in Arcade Fire, Spoon, Weezer, and Cake.”

Everett’s acclaimed two-volume work The Beatles as Musicians (1999) expanded on his articles to explore the Beatles’ aesthetic appeal and eclectic genius. The books are dense dissections of the music, so he thought only a small number of scholars would buy them-but they ended up selling well even outside academia. He thinks that’s because “so few previous publications talked about [the Beatles’]  songs as music, or their performance practice, or even the instruments they used in any thorough way.”

His upcoming book, coauthored with public radio music critic Tim Riley, “is written for readers with no musical background whatsoever.” It will be marketed to college students but aimed at general readers as well. In it, he and Riley focus on 25 iconic Beatles songs-not just their musical aspects, but their roles in the worlds of social protest, psychedelia, and fashion-everything that made Beatles songs so integral to their era. Everett is a virtuoso in illustrating how The Beatles borrowed from many sources-classical music, show tunes, Indian music, Motown, and blues-to create their pop concoctions.

At 62, Everett still has a teenybopper’s passion for pop music. And he says his students are amazingly attentive to his insights into the music of their grandparents’ generation. He’s heard today’s students dismiss Nirvana as “old music” because it dates to 1990 but says he’s never heard any diss the Beatles that way. The group has yet to skip a generation in their appeal, and in this sense, as well as their sheer genius, they are becoming a contemporary form of classical music-enduring, deep, and always open to fresh interpretation.

No one pooh-poohs Everett’s research interests any longer. “It’s a long time since I’ve encountered any resistance,” he says. “Most of the music faculty support research and teaching in many forms of popular music.”

Fifty years after Sgt. Pepper’s, is anything left to be discovered about the Fab Four? Absolutely, Everett says-for instance, the album’s impact on the “Summer of Love,” hippies, Woodstock, and the Vietnam-era antiwar movement. “Whenever I listen to a Beatles song,” he says, “I hear something new.”


by Michael Betzold, an earlier version of this article originally appeared in the Ann Arbor Observer. Reprinted with permission of the author.