I seem to be celebrating a lot of anniversaries this year, but today marks the quinquagenary of the most memorable event of my music career: opening the show for Eric Clapton’s Cream in New Haven, Connecticut, while they were riding high on the success of their Top 10 single, “Sunshine of Your Love.”
As I mentioned in a post ten years ago, my folk-rock band, The Morning, based in New Haven, jumped at the chance to be on the bill with the hottest (and arguably the first) “supergroup” of its day, featuring the most critically acclaimed rock guitarist in the world, Eric “Slowhand” Clapton.
But what I dimly grasped that night became a seminal insight later—and a core pillar of my business consulting today. I witnessed first hand what had been widely reported in the pop music press. Cream was a band riven by conflict. But, more importantly, that dissension was part of what fueled their greatness—as is the case with many creative teams.
That Wednesday evening, when I strolled into a sold-out Woolsey Hall on the Yale campus, I was looking forward to meeting Eric Clapton (aka “God”), bassist and vocalist Jack Bruce, and drummer Ginger Baker—all musical idols of mine. But after my band performed its opening set, Cream and their road manager arrived, sullenly walked into our shared dressing room, and promptly kicked us out. (They had urgent business to attend to, which I wryly reported in the previous post). The vibes were heavy, to say the least. These celebrities were decidedly non-communicative with each other and seemed to be living in different worlds—which was evident on and off the stage. And yet, for the time, it worked!
When I was happily employed as a full-time musician many years ago, I noticed the difference between those who played music as if their life depended on it and those who didn’t.
Maybe I was just lucky, but the former description fit nearly all the rock musicians I shared a stage with, from talented local bar bands to concert headliners such as Sly and the Family Stone and The Grateful Dead. These musicians performed and rehearsed with urgency, with something at stake. They weren’t always playing for their livelihood but they always seemed to be playing for their life.
Unfortunately I also knew a few musicians—usually in wedding or "general business" bands—who would actually nod off during a rehearsal or gig! (Just for the record, I have nothing against wedding bands—or weddings for that matter.) I remember when a leader of a cocktail quartet complained to me about his drummer: “I wish he would just quit.” I could only respond: “I think he did a long time ago.”
This is all too often the case in business at large. You probably know plenty of workers who “mail it in.” Their life is not in their work. In fact, surveys show an alarming number of employees in most organizations are mailing it in.
I had the recent good fortune to catch Brian Wilson on his 18-month world tour, performing Beach Boys' hits and the entire Pet Sounds album. Wilson is getting on in the years so I wanted to catch him soon, especially since he was doing “God Only Knows” (from Pet Sounds), one of the finest tunes in the American song catalog.
Hearing GOK performed by his 12-piece band—including original Beach Boy Al Jardine—reminded me that the writing and recording of this song provide more than a few lessons in innovation. Especially of the risk-taking variety, which too many of us in business are averse to.
First, some facts. GOK was released in May, 1966, for the Pet Sounds LP and later as the B-side of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” That became one of biggest two-sided hits in vinyl history. GOK was written by Brian Wilson and lyricist Tony Asher (probably the finest of Wilson’s many co-writers over the years) and sung by Carl Wilson, Brian’s brother. The recording drew plaudits from a who’s who of top songwriters from Bono to Paul McCartney, who has referred to it as “the greatest song ever written.”
But what made it so unique? What was so game-changing about the song and the recording?
What better time than Labor Day to discuss a hot issue for workers everywhere?
A Boston Globe story last month, “A Golden Age for Toxic Bosses” by Katie Johnston, confirmed my growing concern about the management style the current U.S. President exhibits and the example it sets to leaders everywhere—especially in business, where tyrannical management sometimes festers. The article points out:
While there has been some movement toward kinder, gentler, more empathetic leaders, some fear the president’s headline-generating hostility may again make it seem OK to be a bad boss.
It also quotes a survey in which “more than half of workers say their superiors are toxic, prone to explosive outbursts, berating employees.” Meanwhile, the volatile outbursts and tongue-lashing of subordinates by the US Prez are reported almost daily. There’s an obvious downside to this, as the piece continues:
Publicly humiliating employees can create a chaotic environment and cause other workers to lose confidence in the boss, workplace consultants say. The more petty the attack, the more employees will feel at risk. This can create less-loyal employees who are prone to act out and, say, leak damaging information to the press.
Not coincidentally, leaks to the press from White House employees—usually harsh criticisms of the POTUS—are at an all-time high.
Before I go further, I should add that much of my concern about autocratic and abusive leadership goes back to the beginning of my rock & roll days. In my twenties I witnessed several bands who were ruled by tyrants, most of which went nowhere because band members eventually quit.
Here’s another sparkling gem by Walk Off The Earth, who has turned the home-cooked, low budget, DIY music video into an innovation showcase. I’ve written here and here about the business lessons we can learn from WOTE. (For example, how much do you think this shoot cost them?) This superb song was written by the rapper/singer/songwriter/producer Jon Bellion.
In case you think this kind of guitar feat can’t be pulled off live, don’t bet your mortgage on it. I’ve watched them do this trick as their encore in every performance. (John Bellion's version of his own song is here.)