Taking care of business.

In my business consulting I often rhapsodize about great rock & roll bands as a model for twenty-first century business teams. My clients are often incredulous at first, perhaps because they view rock groups as lazy, drug-addled slackers. At the very least they don't think of bands as ambitious, hardworking paragons of productivity.

Admittedly, bands sometimes give off an air of insouciance and even brag about their non-work ethic. In the rock classic "Taking Care of Business," Bachman-Turner Overdrive appears to be speaking for rock & rollers everywhere with the infamous lines: "We love to work at nothing all day."

This is all part of the charming and alluring mythology of rock & roll, a wonderful narrative of pop hedonism which most musicians seem all too willing to perpetuate.

But the story, I'm afraid, is apocryphal. I've never met a professional rock & roll band that did not have major dreams and ambitions—and did not invest a big chunk of life rehearsing and performing in pursuit of them, whether to sell hit records, play the best clubs, or attain a high level of musicianship.

These rock & rollers have aspirations—and strategies—and they know how to execute on them. In their own way, they're always taking care of business.

Over the years if the good bands have been ambitious and focused, the very best bands have been maniacally so, even those most associated with the dissipated decadence of the '60s—including the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, and Byrds.

Each of these bands in their early days released at least two, sometimes three, albums of quality material a year (most of it original) while conducting transcontinental tours. No trivial feat.

The Stones recorded more than fifty separate tracks in 1964. The Beach Boys in one twenty-six-month period released nine top twenty albums—seven of them with new songs—while maintaining a preposterous performing schedule. From 1965 to 1968, the Beatles released eight albums of new material, the Stones seven. In less than ten years The Byrds released thirteen albums.

In the studio the Beatles were downright workaholic, often recording into the early morning hours, which sometimes required them to sleep overnight there—much like the legendary software teams that slept on cots at work to meet product release schedules (as celebrated in business classics such as Steven Levy's "Insanely Great" and Tracy Kidder's "The Soul of a New Machine").

In fact the Fab Four, in their quest for high quality product, were known to record songs dozens of different ways—in different beats, at different speeds, in different time signatures—to find the perfect arrangement. (One Beatle song, "I Will," was recorded sixty-five times, after which taskmaster Paul McCartney declared himself satisfied.) Not exactly working at nothing all day.

This focus on—or perhaps obsession with—results is something I observed over and over again in rehearsals, sound checks, and recording sessions of many top bands in the late '60s & '70s.

There's another dimension to this: top bands kick it into a higher gear when it's "show time," similar to championship athletic teams who take-it-up a notch when it really counts (for example, the game is on the line and time is running out).

Great bands seem energized by deadlines and often write their best material in the studio at the eleventh hour. The Beatles, in October 1965, had two weeks to write a dozen new songs for their next album, then a month to record and mix them. Working against the clock they churned out their ground-breaking Rubber Soul album, including classics such as "In My Life," "Norwegian Word," and "Michelle." When it's crunch time these bands perform.

And they love to compete. When Brian Wilson, the creative dynamo of the Beach Boys, heard the Beatles' Rubber Soul for the first time he was so impressed he had to do the Beatles one better. He told his wife: "I'm going to make the greatest rock-and-roll album ever made."

He rushed to produce the legendary Pet Sounds album, which some critics believe is the best rock/pop album ever made. Pet Sounds in turn inspired the Beatles' Sgt Pepper album, which other critics hail as the best ever.

In that era the top bands—especially the Beatles, Beach Boys, Rolling Stones, and Byrds—were engaged in an intense rivalry that brought out the best in each of them. This was a phenomenon we saw later in the Darwinian contention among product teams in the computer industry.

Yes, mainstream business could gain inspiration from the ambition and drive of these rock & roll teams.

In future posts I'll point out other attributes of rock bands that business teams—or teams in government, education, or health care for that matter—would be wise to emulate in a ridiculously competitive global economy.


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25 Comments

  1. I don't know how many current rock groups meet the high standards you set. How many are recording 2 or 3 albums a year?

  2. Ah, the never ending Pepper-Pet Sounds debate for the best album ever. I'd go with Revolver over either of em.

  3. Beatlejunkie: I love that debate and have vacillated on it myself. My favorite album in the world is Pet Sounds but I think Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Pepper are the 3 greatest rock/pop albums ever. Rubber Soul and Revolver have the better songs, but the boys broke through to a whole new dimension in arrangement and production with Pepper. Meanwhile on many Beatles sites and blogs there are zealots who tout the Beatles' White Album or Abbey Road as better than any of the others, though I don't think they stand up as well. Someday I'll do a post on Pet Sounds - and the superb songwriting collaboration - never to be repeated in Beach Boys history - between Brian Wilson and lyricist Tony Asher. "God Only Knows" from that album - my favorite song of all time (this week anyway) - was once described by Paul McCartney as the perfect song.

  4. Fair point, Henry. But most rock bands nowadays spend more time touring than recording. The record companies — especially if they're small operations or band-owned enterprises — aren't demanding constant product from the artists as the labels did in the 60s. But there are plenty of hardworking bands out there now. Maroon 5 is one of many examples of modern bands that have been touring their butts off in recent years.

    But as a Boomer I'm most impressed by the hyper-competitive music scene I witnessed firsthand in the 60s that brought out the best of the top bands, including a torrent of successful commercial - and artistic - product (i.e. hit singles and albums that are still selling today) by the bands I mentioned. So I see these rock & roll teams as models for what business teams can accomplish in a competitive world economy.

  5. Being a professional musician, I so appreciate this post. What goes into performing and recording is indeed much. As a classical musician, I spent countless hours rehearsing a single phrases again and again and then some.

    Funny thing...I'm sure if I had asked some of my colleagues or fellow students many may not have believed that Rock and Roll bands had the same discipline or even if such discipline was required. They, of course, would have been wrong. I might also admit that at one point I believed such a thing myself. Rock and Roll seemed like noise until you listened more closely, especially to the groups you've mentioned here.

    One of my greatest joys has been listening to duets of classical, rock, and R&B performers. Pavarotti produced such duets brilliantly. The respect for each other is obvious and the discipline each brings is also apparent.

    Now, to link this to business counsulting -- great! There's so much there. Thanks, John. And...I love it when I have to look up words, even when the context makes them clear--insouciance: nonchalance :-)

  6. Yes, Judith, stereotypes die hard. Discipline is the dirty little secret of rock & roll. The "insouciance" is well-cultivated. But perhaps "sprezzatura" would be a simpler way to state it. :-)

  7. Sprezzatura. Love the nuances of the word, one that is quite apropos as you have written here. To correlate Rock and Roll with High Renaissance art is also unlikely, even perhaps sacrilegious to some. But I like it indeed.

  8. Judith, to me rock & roll is the highest art - no pun intended - Renaissance or not.

    Too bad I had to trash the last comment. First time I've had to do that, but I'm not running a site for spammers.

  9. The governmental bodies I'm familiar with could definitely benefit from some of this "ambition and drive." Where I come from, the very word "committee" has come to mean "not urgent." I don't know if the "great" rock bands are or are not shining examples of productivity, but governmental organizations need help wherever they can get it.

  10. Thanks for the thought. I'm wondering if I should broaden my focus and include more application to non-business teams, including government of course. I just got a note from a clergyman who is suggesting his church staff ponder "Taking Care of Business." Of course any organization or team - in any field of endeavor - has a business to take care of.

  11. I'm more familiar with public sector organizations but I would guess organizations are still organizations, or as you might say teams are still teams, in any industry or sector. They still have to figure out how to get something done with limited resources - time, money, personnel, etc. And the lack of urgency I witness, at times, in government is remarkable.

  12. Well said. The organizational/team dynamics are much the same in any industry or sector and the challenges in general terms are the same. Yet it might be interesting to explore the challenges that are unique to governmental bodies. Gotta noodle on this one some more...

  13. Rick, it's a stretch - but as I think about it, it fits in the sense that the Beach Boys made it first, then the Beatles became the hotter, hipper entity. And many people see the genius of both Microsoft and the Beach Boys as beginning with one individual (Bill Gates and Brian Wilson, respectively), while the genius of both Google and the Beatles began with two individuals (Brin & Page and Lennon & McCartney). It's a fun comparison, at least. So I might steal it. :-)

  14. If people are still raving about Google 40 years from now then the Beatles comparison will be valid, not before. Meanwhile Bill Gates would probably object to being compared to the LSD-infatuated Brian Wilson.

  15. Beatlejunkie: Google has already proved itself as a game-changer, regardless of how long it survives as a company. And, as I just discovered, it's been in existence as a company for 10 years now - about as long as the Beatles were, in the Ringo version. (They were together two years before that with Pete Best as drummer.) And in Brian Wilson's defense: while it is true that at the peak of the Beach Boys' success Brian never met a drug he didn't like, he eventually went cold turkey on all substances and is living a relatively sane life now (God bless him). These metaphors can only be pushed so far of course, but it's safe to say that Bill Gates & Brian Wilson were both towering geniuses with long term impact in their respective fields.

  16. Rick, you're on solid ground with this one. Google's Sergey Brin & Larry Page, like Lennon & McCartney, were/are hyper creative, socially conscious, super smart, ridiculously ambitious young turks, who obviously complemented each other's strengths. There are other similarities I may explore further.

  17. I think another great example would be The Boss: Bruce Springsteen. Now there is a man who works his socks off! Plus he's held a band together for 30+ years (including a hiatus which he had the good sense to admit was wrong). Never afraid to try new stuff (Nebraska, Tom Joad etc). Always prepared to say something in his songs. And by all accounts he's as regular guy as you could expect. I heard an interview with him once when he said no matter how many shows he's played, every time he goes on stage he wants to play the best show ever that night.

  18. Couldn't agree more, Mark JF. I assume you read Tom Peters' rave about seeing The Boss in concert last month. I fondly remember Bruce tearing up Max's Kansas City Steakhouse in New York in the early 70s. BTW, thanks for the tip on the Eno song, which I really like: "Here He Comes."

  19. The digital shift has made it possible for hundreds of new bands to get exposure. With production and distribution so cheap has it changed the ethos? Or, has it opened up more enterprising groups to take their destiny into their own hands?

  20. Rex, digital music and file sharing have been a complete game-changer for the industry and have opened up new vistas for musicians to market and sell their music directly to the public. One example: Colbie Caillat had a huge hit with her song "Bubbly" which was first directly marketed from her MySpace page. Meanwhile musicians on different continents are writing and recording songs together by filesharing. And these master recordings are being produced on their laptops. This has been brutal on the traditional music industry of course, including record companies, record promoters, recording studios, etc. In Joni Mitchell's words "Something's lost and something's gained" (from the song "Both Sides Now"). She might as well have been referring to the business disruptions from technological paradigm shifts. "Creative destruction" in action, eh?

  21. It seems here you want to make the Beatles a 10 year long recording band. Considering they only recorded from 1962-1970 that indicates it's an 8 year long band. You also mentioned (either here or your other article about RS versus Pepper) the Byrds making 13 albums in 10 years as being an achievement. It is. But the Beatles did 13 albums in 8 years! That doesn't include all their singles or EPs or the extra album called Magical Mystery Tour (which is 2 EPs and a few singles anyway). But since it's an album now, that would be 14 albums in 8 years - mostly original material. AND their 1962 recordings were few - just a couple songs. So really, it's 14 albums in 7 years and considering they broke up after Abby Road and didn't record anything new after one song in January 1970 (I Me Mine sans John) it's actually a body of work which spans 1963-1969 or a total of 6 years!

    Are you being more amazed now? lol

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