Thornton School of Music Professor Bill Biersach’s class, The Beatles: Their Music and Their Times (MUSC 422) is one of USC’s most popular courses, but more than 20 years ago, it was one of the most controversial.
“When the course was new, various TV stations got a hold of the story and they would call me, one after another, and say, ‘We’re doing a series on interesting college courses,’” Biersach said. “By the time it was on TV, they spun it into, ‘Do you realize how your tuition dollars are being spent?’ and they would denigrate the whole point of the class.”
For Biersach, there was never any question about the value of a course about the Beatles.
“The Beatles contributed so much to the art of recording itself,” Biersach said. “I originally thought of it in the context of recording arts, a course on all the things the Beatles had contributed.”
When Biersach formally proposed the class, he decided the class should cater to more than just students interested in the recording industry and created a course about everything Beatles.
“The Beatles had been my passion since they first came out,” he said. “I had many books on them and had always followed everything they did. It wasn’t that hard to propose a Beatles course that was all-encompassing instead of just focusing on recording.”
Biersach started as a classically trained pianist with dreams of being a rock star. He taught himself to play guitar using a Simon & Garfunkel songbook and joined his first garage band in the seventh grade. Around the same time, he began composing, but when it came time for college, he decided to attend USC as an English major.
“At the time, it was the major that had the most electives,” he said. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to be or what I wanted to do. I just wanted to sample everything.”
Biersach said he took classes in a variety of topics but never let go of his dream to become a rock musician. His sophomore year, he discovered a synthesizer class that sparked his interest in recording.
“The synthesizer had been around for about five years by then, but it was a mystery,” Biersach said. “No one really knew what it was or how to work it. I’m not a person who is intuitively at ease with technical stuff. The synthesizer is the only thing in my life, besides the piano and the guitar, that, when I first saw a picture of it in a magazine, I knew what it did.”
He took the class six times over the course of his education, learning how to use a synthesizer before transitioning into directed and experimental research courses. After graduating, he was offered a position as a part-time teacher of the course.
“The things students are interested in have changed over the years, but I still get students every semester that are completely impassioned about the Beatles,” Biersach said. “I hear from a lot of students that they’re dissatisfied with what’s coming out today, so there seems to be a big turn back to something better and the ’60s seem to be more satisfying.”
Biersach said there has never been a problem filling the Beatles class or another class he teaches about music of the 1960s, and he has not lost any interest in teaching them. In more than 20 years of teaching the Beatles course, he said he has never taught it the same way twice and sometimes learns from the students themselves.
“I recently found out from some of my Russian students how important the Beatles were in Russia back in the ’60s and ’70s,” he said. “Although they were banned, their music was spread everywhere. It gave everybody hope and made everyone feel good. The whole Beatles thing helped in its own way to alter the Soviet empire. They did have an impact; they had an influence.”
Now, Biersach is developing other similar courses for Thornton’s recently added popular music department, including seminars he teaches about classic rock artists, such as The Doors, Simon & Garfunkel and the Rolling Stones.
“It’s funny, when I first proposed the Beatles class back in the mid-’80s, there were some professors who really didn’t like it,” he said. “They saw the School of Music as a conservatory, and the thought of teaching a course on a modern rock group was offensive. It goes to show you how much things have changed.”