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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

'Visualizing The Beatles' offers fresh graphic book representation of the band's history

Visualizing The Beatles--A Complete Graphic History of the World's Favorite Band

Five decades after their heyday, new Beatles book titles continue to enter the marketplace. One offbeat hardcover--Visualizing The Beatles: A Complete Graphic History of the World’s Favorite Band (Dey Street Books), by John Pring and Rob Thomas--stood out on a display shelf during the recent BookExpo trade show at New York’s Javits Center.

The comprehensive 276-page book, following a foreword by Dreaming The Beatles author Rob Sheffield, is made up of full-color charts, graphs, timelines and various infographics in visually presenting the album-by-album history and evolution of the Beatles according to their style, sound, instruments, songs, tours, and other “data.” This all breaks down deeper in depicting the global success of their singles, cities and venues they performed in, hairstyles and fashion choices, favorite instruments, artists who have covered Beatles songs, and even the “Paul is dead” craze.

Per Publishers Weekly, “It is one thing to read about The Beatles’ songwriting, but it is another to see striking full-page charts for each Beatles album comparing song keys and instrumentation.”

Pring and Thomas are UK-based graphic artists/information designers (their Designbysoap Ltd. Firm has created infographics for organizations including IBM, The Economist and the United Nations) who responded to email questions together.

“As information design specialists, we’re always looking for new and interesting topics to apply our skill set,” they said.

“The beauty of data visualization is that it can be applied to almost anything, and can often change the way you view a topic you thought you knew well. Both of us are huge fans of The Beatles, so it made a lot of sense for us to look at the band in a way that other commentators haven’t - to visualize the data their music and careers left behind.”

Besides their music, “the biggest appeal” of The Beatles as subject material was “the sheer volume of work--and data--we had to work with,” they continued. “There has never been a band quite like the Fab Four, whether you analyze their careers musically, commercially, visually or in terms of innovation. Everything about the band works visually, and they are so iconic that we could really delve into that side of their artistry--from their outfits and haircuts to their album covers and iconic photography. Their music gave us the data we always look for, but their position as icons in so many areas was incredibly appealing from a design perspective.”

According to the authors, The Beatles were “hugely influential” from a graphics perspective.

“They pioneered the use of cartoons in popular music with Yellow Submarine--and before that with The Beatles cartoon show in the U.S. They pioneered the music video, too, and their use of art within their albums was revolutionary, from the photography in With The Beatles and Abbey Road, to the illustrations in Revolver and Yellow Submarine, to the visual interest on albums like Sgt Pepper’s. They would regularly collaborate with visually creative people, and we like to think they would get a kick out of seeing their careers visualized in the way we have in the book.”

They concede that “The Beatles have been covered and documented in a level of detail that applies to few other cultural icons, so finding a new way to approach their career was always going to be a challenge.”

“But by focusing on the data, we hope to reveal patterns in their compositions, performance and success that may not be immediately obvious in the more traditional approach taken by most other coverage,” noted Pring and Thomas.

“We really wanted to present a new way of looking at the band, in the hope of allowing people to spot these patterns, as well as engaging both new and existing fans in a non-traditional way. While there are lots of one-off graphics and illustrations throughout the book, each chapter covers a single album with a collection of repeating visualizations, allowing you to actually see the progression of their musicianship over the course of their career. For example, you can see the growth in their songwriting ability via repeating comparisons of how many covers vs. originals are in each album, or the way they collaborate over time in [the] ‘Songwriting: Who wrote that?’ [pages that break down an album’s songs by color-coded ‘authorship distribution’], or the way their level of musical experimentation increased in ‘Instruments: What can you hear?’ [pages that symbolically show the instruments played by each Beatle].”

As for the engaging tone of the graphic designs, “There was certainly a lot of back-and-forth, revisions and reworkings of graphics, but we knew the general feel we wanted the graphics to have right from the beginning,” the authors said.

“The irreverence that the band exuded throughout their career was a major influence in the way we approached the graphics, and we wanted the book to have this same feel to it. While the data is serious and hopefully accurate, we want the book to feel fun and engaging--to feel like something The Beatles may have liked.”



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