It’s difficult to find an area of music that the Beatles didn’t influence, but their contribution to the progression of heavy metal is often overlooked. Perhaps best remembered for their psychedelic art-rock and flawless pop singles, the Fab Four could certainly let their hair down and fire off some headbangers, inspiring metal architects like Ozzy Osbourne and Gene Simmons. Plus their pioneering work with distortion, feedback, unorthodox lyrical topics, and death metal roars helped provide the building blocks of the genre.
So without further ado, in chronological order, here are nine Beatles songs that clearly helped pave the road to heavy metal.
“Twist And Shout,” from Please Please Me (1963)
“I Feel Fine,” Single (1964)
Although their Christmastime single borrows heavily from Bobby Parker’s “Watch Your Step,” the real innovation comes from the raw electronic squeal of the intro. One day when John Lennon leaned his Gibson semi-electric against the studio wall, the A string suddenly began to feedback through his amp, emitting an ear-splitting shriek. The band were intrigued by the noise, and persuaded producer George Martin to edit it on the front of the song—giving feedback its first appearance on a major pop recording. John was always proud of this fact, boasting about it in later years: “I defy anybody to find a record… unless it is some old blues record from 1922…That uses feedback that way. So I claim it for the Beatles. Before Hendrix, before The Who, before anybody. The first feedback on record.”
“I Feel Fine,” predates the Who’s sonic studio experiments by nearly a year. And from the Who, it’s a quick jump to the overdrive howls that dominate metal records.
“Think For Yourself” from Rubber Soul (1965)
Something of a deep-cut (as much as the Beatles can have deep cuts), this track is notable for its use of the Fuzz Box, a then-novel distortion effect. Paul McCartney fed his bass through the box (technically a Tone Bender unit), transforming his bassline into a crunchy-yet-funky lead guitar part.
George Harrison gave some background to the sonic choice during 1995’s Beatles Anthology project. “When Phil Spector was making “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” the engineer who’s set up the track overloaded the microphone on the guitar player and it became very distorted. Phil Spector said, ’Leave it like that, it’s great’. Some years later everyone started to try to copy that sound and so they invented the fuzz box. We had one and tried the bass through it and it sounded really good.
The experiment was crucial in help bringing distortion into the mainstream.
“She Said She Said” from Revolver (1966)
Obviously its swirling distorted guitars and HUGE drums are harbingers of the metal movement, but the song’s gory genesis gives it some additional cred. The lyrics took shape after actor Peter Fonda visited the Beatles rented LA home in 1965 for the purposes of dropping LSD. As they all began to take flight, Fonda felt compelled to show off his gunshot wound that nearly killed him as a child. “I know what it’s like to be dead,” he repeated over and over—to the displeasure of John Lennon, who fired back with “Who put all that sh-t in your head? You’re making me feel like I’ve never been born!”
John was still miffed by the whole experience 15 years later, during one of his final interviews in 1980. “We didn’t want to hear about that! We were on an acid trip and the sun was shining and the girls were dancing (some from Playboy, I believe) and the whole thing was really beautiful and Sixties. And this guy – who I really didn’t know, he hadn’t made Easy Rider or anything – kept coming over, wearing shades, saying ’I know what it’s like to be dead,’ and we kept leaving him because he was so boring. It was scary, when you’re flying high: ’Don’t tell me about it. I don’t want to know what it’s like to be dead!’”
Although not directly referenced in the lyrics, the macabre story behind the words certainly fall in line with future metal tracks, which drawl inspiration from dark topics like disasters and even serial killers.
“Revolution,” B-side version (1968)
A host of metal acts have been blamed for violent acts—some justly and others not. But here the Beatles, a mere “pop group” just a few years before, openly call for revolution. It’s a pretty far cry from “I Want To Hold Your Hand” of just four years before. While the lyrics were mostly peaceful, Lennon hedges his bets by singing, “When you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out…in.”
The song’s politically charged lyrics transformed it become a rallying cry, inspiring a generation to civic action. Moreover, “Revolution” helped give other bands the confidence to comment on cultural events—previously the exclusive preserve of folky protest songs. Plus, the truly nasty guitar intro undoubtedly inspired a generation of garage bands to invest in a distortion pedal.
“Birthday” from The White Album (1968)
One of the few Beatles tracks that’s truly just a guitar lick, the song was created entirely in the studio. “We thought, ’Why not make something up?’” Paul told biographer Barry Miles.”So we got a riff going and arranged it around this riff. So that is 50-50 John and me, made up on the spot and recorded all in the same evening.” The four-on-the-floor vibe was no doubt inspired by a group viewing of a favorite movie, the early rock ’n’ roll extravaganza The Girl Can’t Help It, at Paul’s house earlier that night.
“Birthday” proved that songs don’t have to be harmonically complex and boast 27 overdubs in order to rock—sometimes a killer riff and serious amplification is all you need. Just keep it hard, raw, and fast.
“Helter Skelter,” from The White Album (1968)
After reading an article describing the Who’s then-recent 1967 song “I Can See For Miles” as “the raunchiest, loudest, most ridiculous rock ’n’ roll record you’ve ever heard,” Paul McCartney’s competitive spirit moved him to create an even nastier track. “I said to the guys, ’I think we should do a song like that; something really wild,’” he remembered during the Beatles Anthology. “And I wrote Helter Skelter.”
Arguably the hardest song in the Beatles entire cannon, the track was recorded in marathon sessions at Abbey Road Studios, with some takes lasting up to 27 minutes long—hence Ringo’s famous exclamation of “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!” as it finally sputters to a chaotic close. “We just tried to get it louder: ’Can’t we make the drums sound louder?’ That was really all I wanted to do – to make a very loud, raunchy rock ’n’ roll record with The Beatles. And I think it’s a pretty good one.”
While the song has earned more than it’s share of punk rock and metal covers over the years, “Helter Skelter” will always be unfortunately linked to the horrific crimes of the Manson Family. Though McCartney took the song’s title and imagery from a British term for a fairground slide, Charles Manson interpreted it as a code for an apocalyptic race war which prompted the murders of actress Sharon Tate and (at least) six others in August 1969. John Lennon was incredulous in later years, saying“I don’t know what ’Helter Skelter’ has to do with knifing someone.”