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"Welcome to the Beatles;" VT History Students Publish New Book on Fab Four

The digital age is revolutionizing the way new books get published.  And that’s how history students at Virginia Tech were able to write, edit, and publish a new work all their own. 

Their book is about the rock group that created its own musical revolution decades before these students were born. It’s called Welcome to the Beatles.

History professor Robert Stephens teaches a seminar on the Beatles every couple of years. He says it’s a great way to explore the 1960s, one of the most tumultuous decades in recent history. “It’s an incredible way to open up interesting questions (about the era including) globalization, race and all of these really interesting topics, through something that’s really accessible to students and really invigorating. So, when you advertise a class on The Beatles, people line up. Then you say OK, we’re going to do serious work, and they go into with a gusto.”

Andrew Pregnall, who is double majoring in history and microbiology signed up for the course.  “I had certainly listened to the Beatles before and I had a growing appreciation for their music as a result of this course. Part of our ‘homework’ was listening to their albums.”

Pregnall became lead editor of the book, which includes chapters on everything from how the media portrayed the Beatles to how the band gradually took control of its own image.  There are sections about its impact on race relations; what was going on around them, and because of them.

One of the things Pregnall writes about in his chapter for the book is “how much freedom the Beatles had as artists.  So, at the beginning of their career, a lot of their artistic choices about their music and their album covers were dictated by the record companies. That’s because they were an unknown factor because the record companies didn’t know whether or not The Beatles would sell and make them a profit.” 

Pregnall’s chapter analyzes the political aesthetics of theBeatles’ through their album covers. He says as their fame grew, so did their artistic freedom

Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely-Hearts Club Band is sort of the highest point in their career, in terms of the amount of freedom that they had, or that they exercised. On that cover, they have a lot of symbols that epitomize counter cultural trends; They have marijuana plants, they have authors like Aldous Huxley, Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carol, Karl Marx makes an appearance on the cover, which I think is very interesting given that this is the middle of the cold war when western societies were trying to stop the spread of communism and here they are putting the founder of communism on their cover.  So, they had all these symbols peppered throughout the cover and it looks very counter cultural and looks very ‘out there,’ but the record company still felt comfortable selling it. So, that’s why I say it’s the epitome of their artistic freedom, but it’s also the epitome of their commodification in a sense.”

While there is no shortage of books about the Beatles, this is the first time that a student project became one of them. ‘Welcome to the Beatles’” is out in paperback and available on line for free. 

Monmouth College English Professor Kenneth Womack has written several books about the Beatles.

“The first thing I did was buy the book, even though it’s also offered for free.” Womack says it’s important to support the work these students have done.”

“What I really like about what they’re doing there is, they’re creating new knowledge. That’s the whole goal of the university. When you boil it down, it is to help people become educated and, in a scholarly fashion, to create new knowledge.  These students are doing that and they’re taking the risk of putting it out there.”

And for students like Andrew Pregnall, who plans to pursue a career as a physician and in public health, working on this book, has given him great training for his future career.  “As a public health servant, you have to be able to take in great amounts of information and understand the connections between it and that’s what you have to do as an historian you have to be able to wade through all these different sources and interpretations of these sources and find where you fit into that. And you need to be able to produce something that relays that stance to the rest of the world.”

The book was published with the help of VT Publishing, a two-year-old venture. Stephens said, “It has made the process of creating a book, which the Department of History has been doing for a decade, more streamlined and accessible. Working with Peter Potter and Robert Browder has been fantastic, and I expect we will continue this partnership well into the future.”

Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.


Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.
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