I don’t pretend to know the answer to this question. One persons’ special is another’s “meh”. I do know this, it was not some arbitrary number of hours of practice such as the ten thousand hours hypothesis from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers.
Obviously, the Beatles would get a great deal of practice playing mostly cover songs, almost around the clock, for decadent club goers in Hamburg. But, practice alone would not make them a worldwide phenomenon. After all, they failed their first audition at Decca records. And, according to John and Paul, at the end of their Hamburg residency Pete Best could actually keep a steady beat but couldn’t do much else.
It seems that George Martin was not initially impressed with their musicianship. Remember that he made Ringo, who was the most professional musician in the group at the time, sit out their first single. Instead, he was likely interested in their unique take on the burgeoning music styles of the time, their blend of the rock and roll of the recent past with the upcoming trends of folk and soul music.
Lennon and McCartney were keen listeners and observers. And they were not afraid to fuse their influences into something new. They also were not afraid to be themselves. For all of Paul’s Little Richard Whoo’s and Lennon’s gritty vocals, there was no escaping the fact that they sounded British, and Cockney at that.
Before the Beatles, British rock and roll (or French, Italian, Spanish, etc.) was but a pale imitation of the American original. The Beatles changed that. Paul brought to the music influences that were foreign to Americans, like British dance hall music (which John derisively called Paul’s granny music). David Bowie’s music would have been quite different without this influence. While John, who mistakenly thought that Dylan was writing autobiographically, was moved to bare his soul like no other songwriter at the time.
Suddenly, we had the British invasion both in America and worldwide, where previously a song from England would have been only a brief novelty. But, why did the Beatles’ music become so universal?
I believe that it goes back to their listening and observing. You can find many styles of previous music in their work. And, their familiarity with these styles was not superficial. They studied music as if they were musicologists. Remember, these were guys who did not have much musical training and yet you can find even in their early songs chord changes that would not be out of place in the “Great American Songbook”. Listen to Paul’s “Here, There and Everywhere”. You can here the movement of the chord progression as in a Jazz tune, not at all just another basic three chord rock song or twelve bar blues. It even makes use of a prelude or intro, something that was common in Gershwin tunes but has long been abandoned in popular music. This is true of even early songs like “Do You Want to Know a Secret” and “If I Fell”. You can also hear echoes of classical music in their songs. II guess it didn’t hurt that each of them could play piano. Keep in mind that when they started most pop artists only sang.
Lennon, McCartney, and, Harrison all had great “ears” for music. This is evidenced by their being able to sing perfect three part harmony when they couldn’t even hear themselves, in a stadium full of people screaming, as I explained in this post: post
However, they were not just great imitators. Early on they experimented with innovations in songwriting. They made extensive use of personal pronouns to reach out to their listeners – think of “From Me to You”, “Do You Want to Know a Secret”, “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, etc. They began songs with the chorus rather than the verse, such as in ” Anytime at All”. They experimented with song forms other than the traditional AABA. And, they did all of this while scoring number one hits within the pop music form of the early 1960’s. They also pioneered psychedelic music, world music, and, incorporated avant garde influences into their albums.
If you don’t think that it took creativity and guts to do this you are not familiar with the music business of the 1960’s. Before the Beatles, pop music, as well as any other genre besides classical or jazz, was a singles market. To be successful you had to keep churning out singles that differed little from the one that got you on the charts in the first place. Any album release consisted of either your greatest hits or your greatest hit with covers and filler (B sides). The Beatles changed this by breaking multiple hits with each new album combined with other songs that were of high quality, and were sometimes even more interesting.
By the time they came on the scene in ’63 (or ’64 in the states), the foundation had been laid by numerous blues, gospel and soul artists, by rock and rollers like Chuck Berry and Little Richard, by beat poets and folkies like Dylan, yet the Beatles were still the link to the future.
Later, of course, the Beatles were, for the rest of their tenure, leading not only pop but also rock music, influencing most of their contemporaries. Jazz artists, who were used to leading others in the music world, eventually and somewhat reluctantly also fell under the Beatles’ influence. Beatles songs have been interpreted by artists as diverse as Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Wes Montgomery, Count Basie, Jeff Beck, Black Sabbath, Jeff Buckley, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Alex Chilton, Kurt Cobain, Joe Cocker, Elvis Costello, Dave Matthews, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Bob Dylan, Ella Fitgerald, Jerry Garcia, Herbie Hancock, Grateful Dead, etc..
So, what made them special? I don’t know. Maybe you can tell me.