'Now Let's Play It Backwards': Musique Concrète and the Psychedelic as Topical Field in the Beatles' Mid-1960s Songs

Emily Vanchella, Texas A&M International University

"Psychedelic" is a common descriptor for several mid-1960s Beatles songs (Echard 2017). However, which musical characteristics would provoke this description, and how? Topic theory may provide some insight. Building on the concept of topical field and how it applies to psychedelic music (Hatten 1994, Echard 2017), I argue that the Beatles' use of musique concrète's compositional techniques forges a meaningful link between those techniques and images of the psychedelic. Through lyrical examination of songs such as "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Yellow Submarine," a specific association reveals itself: musique concrète signifies altered or alternative states of reality and/or consciousness. The Beatles' music, in contrast to other 1960s psychedelic rock, sets up both a consistent signifier (musique concrète) and a consistent association that the signifier evokes. Both this consistency over time, and their intensification over time, play a key role in supporting the psychedelic as a topical field.