Some might say the Beatles. Some might say Chuck Berry, David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson, or Prince. The question of who is the most influential artist of all time is definitely no easy call, as there are many greats, and influence is admittedly an abstract word. However, all of them had their own qualities to contribute to their specific genres and influenced those that came after them. All served to overlap and feed into the music scene and one another.
They are influential while being heavily influenced themselves
For me, there’s truth in saying that a band of boys from Liverpool directly influenced most musical and artistic styles. The Beatles’ songwriting, composition, and sound influenced many after them. So it’s settled! The Beatles are the best, and we can move on… Only I must confess. Generally, yes, they seem to have the most significant influence, but they are hardly flawless. The Beatles were very influential in their bubble of time, and their sound still holds up thanks to the handy production work of George Martin and his son, as well as Phil Spector. But this is also a testament to their musical acumen. They are influential while being heavily influenced themselves.
They are praised for transforming pop into a scene of electronic sounds, when electronic music was going out of fashion. The Beatles made instruments that at one point sounded clunky and noisy into something pleasant and exciting. The Beatles also encompassed and dominated many different genres, so it is hard for other artists not to fall into the Beatle-esque category. They dabbled in indie, hard rock, soft rock, pop, electronic music, and psychedelic rock, just to give a very small list…
The image of what a musician can or should look like was further tested by David Bowie
Influence also seems to carry prestige for artists, although the Beatles were not prestigious musicians, far from it. Here and now, we should try and deconstruct the critical attributes of what makes a good artist, and what manifestations of influence best express this.
When we think about musical artistry, we tend to think of stage presence, and what is one key attribute to presence? It’s style. And a fitting ensemble. Flashy clothes and expression rose to prominence admittedly with the Beatles and their experimentation with colour in albums Magical Mystery Tour and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The image of what a musician can or should look like was further tested by David Bowie in some of his iconic characters. He framed whole albums with particular looks, such as his alter ego Ziggy Stardust. He also laid the foundations for an entirely new style: glam rock! Artists, even today, still play with stage images, although not always to such an extravagant degree. For example, for the longest time Harry Styles influenced Topshops nationwide with his metrosexual fashion. However, during his solo career, he has only started to take leaps into a gender-fluid ensemble during his performances with help from his multiple fashion designers that successfully push the boundaries of gender conformity.
How music sounds, its production and how we got to our modern sound was influenced dramatically by the producers of the Beatles as well as their experimentation with different sounds. The Beatles began their career with quite essential, even unmemorable, mediocre backing tracks. Later, though, the clarity of sound and the use of synthesizers and improved recording methods through Phil Spector’s wall of sound led to the revolution of the less subdued, mellow music of the 1970s onwards, which saw more punchy emotion behind the notes being played and sung. This was something fresh out of the packet and entranced many listeners at the time.
Vocals that rang out and switched on the attention of audiences were influenced by Michael Jackson, with his range, his voice’s talent, and the fame he sustained for such a long career in the public eye. His voice transformed pop with titillatingly high pitches that have sustained relevance and been popular forever more.
Prince encompassed everything a musical performer could be. He was among the most talented singers and knew his way around various instruments. He was a real all-rounder, as well as one of the first artists to have such agency over his art. Performances involving the crowd; the mass adulation garnered in his career; stretching the boundaries other artists were constrained by – Prince set a whole precedent of style. And he furthered it repeatedly with androgynous looks that seem scandalous even today.
All in all, the Beatles, having one of the most copied catalogues, can be seen as the most influential. When a shy Paul McCartney came on stage to sing at The Ed Sullivan Theatre in New York one of his very first entirely solo songs live, ‘Yesterday’, he could not have imagined its legacy: it is, in fact, one of the most covered songs in history with an estimated 1,600 recorded versions. There are even more extensive testimonies to the Beatles’ influence we could go through, but this would make for an unnecessarily long and winding road.