The Beatles' creative disruption.

As any rock & roll aficionado should know, forty-five years ago this month the Beatles exploded on the world stage, beginning with their first trip to America and their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Here's a video-clip of that performance.

Watching videos of the Beatles now, you might wonder what all the fuss was about. But if you were alive then you knew what they were displacing in the charts—Bobby Vinton, the Singing Nun (I'm not kidding), and Steve Lawrence.

The musical/cultural revolution called rock & roll had hit critical mass. (Notice from the previous video of Buddy Holly how far we'd come in six years.) The Beatles in the following six years turned pop music (and pop art) on its head. As Newsweek reminisced thirty years later: 'What the Beatles did in the '60s remains the most thrilling surge of creativity in the history of pop culture.'

I've always thought that organizations of all stripes have much to learn from this small business team—in terms of innovation, passion, vision, independent thinking, branding, and much more. (Yes, the four lads received brilliant assistance from record producer George Martin and business manager Brian Epstein, but the boys were well on their way before the suits stepped in.)

In the words of rock critic Dave Marsh: 'The Beatles were fundamentally disruptive… their irreducible insolence and contempt for convention suggested the power of rock.'

And the power of iconoclastic creativity! As Paul McCartney has said: 'Any rules we found ourselves making we would generally try and break. It always seemed an unsafe idea to try to be safe.'

Especially true in these economic times. Extinction looms for the faint-hearted.


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31 Comments

  1. What do you have against The Singing Nun?

    All My Loving was a pretty cool song, but a surprise as an opener. And they didn't even write Till There Was You.

  2. I actually liked her song - "Dominique" - which was on the charts just as the Beatles hit. But I think the time was right for the devil's music.

    Yeah, I thought (at least in hindsight) that "All My Loving" was a fairly mellow introduction to the Beatles - especially when followed by "Till There Was You." Also, those were songs that McCartney sang the lead on, when Lennon, especially then, was the leader of the band. Maybe it was Epstein's idea - to try to make the Beatles seem cute and acceptable for a US audience. But then they performed a rocker, "She Loves You" and later came back to do "I Won't To Hold Your Hand" - their most driving tune.

    But even when polished and packaged - compared to the Pete Best era when they wore leather jackets, cowboy boots, and DA haircuts - they were STILL a threat to the status quo - musically and otherwise - and anyone under 30 KNEW it!

  3. John - that is fabulous

    I get a real tinge of Brit pride when I see that. How The Beatles impacted on the US was just incredible.

    We have never had a musical export from these shores before or since that made such an impression. I have to say as I watched the boys perform those two numbers all sorts of wonderful memories came flooding back of my teenage years. The Beatles are immortal - the like of them will never be seen again. And John Lennon was my all time hero - how sad the good die young.

    Thanks so much John for bringing a tear of happiness to my eyes.

  4. PS John - Why don't you find a saong where Lennon is the lead singer - maybe "Twist and Shout" and publish that so we can see the master at work!

  5. Yes, I'm sure I can dig out a Lennon clip. I think I've talked about JWL more than any other artist in the last year - except for the Beatles as a whole.

  6. you mention branding as something to learn from the beatles yet it was their manager, epstein, who cleaned them up and did much of the image making - w/ help from the record company.

  7. John, off this topic but on re-framing, I'm wallowing in one of the best reframing toyboxes I've found for ages. It's The Art of Looking Sideways by Alan Fletcher published by Phaidon. It's fat and lovely and chock-full of stuff that makes you go "Wha...?" or smile out loud.

  8. John - Thank you for this post, great as always, simple and relevant.

    "The Beatles were fundamentally disruptive…Their irreducible insolence and contempt for convention suggested the power of rock." And the power of iconoclastic creativity! As Paul McCartney used to say, "Any rules we found ourselves making we would generally try and break. It always seemed an unsafe idea to try to be safe."

    These words reminded me of a recent comment I made on my blog about the painter, Georgia O'Keeffe. I think it is apropos here:

    "It was always her talent that was impressive, but equally so was her independent streak in a time that found many women timid. She has said that she was afraid every day of her life, but moved in spite of her fear. It's funny that the safety that we long for and embrace often inhibits us from experiencing that which we most seek, satisfaction and security, that of living life large in spite of trepidation. There is peace there too."

    This is what great musicians, business persons, painters, scientists, etc., do. In fact, being disruptive is who they are.

    Thanks again, John -- much appreciated.

    It's good to see Brosreview here, John. If you didn't know, he's a fine lyricist. I sometimes wonder how his often beautiful delicate lines could find meaning to the beat of Heavy Metal. I guess I have to hear the song. I think he writes for various music genres too. Do check out his work if you haven't.

  9. Sal, Epstein deserves most of the credit/blame for making the boys more salable/lovable/palatable to a mainstream pop audience. (Before he came on the scene they smoked, chewed gum, cursed, spat on stage.) He also got them the audition for George Martin. But they had a distinct brand - albeit a different one in many respects - long before he came along. Musically and visually they were the most radically original band on the English circuit even by 1961. They played louder and looked scarier than any of the competition. So they were determined to stand out from the pack no matter what - which is what branding is all about. But Eppy channeled that originality into a more mainstream direction.

  10. I just found out that the Video Police deleted the clip I posted of "All My Loving" and "Till There Was You" so I've replaced that with a clip of "She Loves You" - apparently from a Manchester, England concert in 1963 after the UK release of that song.

  11. This is a way better snapshot of the Beatles - playing to a home audience. (Well Manchester isn't Liverpool but its close.)

  12. The Beatles were very good indeed and culturally important. However, let's put a few things into perspective:

    They nicked Chuck Berry's REAL rock n' roll attitude and stole his thunder. As noted above, some of the early songs were good pop songs performed with real energy but frankly bland.

    They inflicted such crap as "I am the Walrus", "Maxwells Silver Hammer", large chunks of the White Album and lots of solo dirge on us.

    The true hero is surely George Martin, who pulled together their disparate threads and chanelled them far better than they would have done by himself.

    And John Lennon a genius? I suggest you look up the meaning of the word and stop bandying it about so willy nilly.

    Also, John Lennon's treatment of women: his behaviour towards his first wife Cynthia and some ofhis treatment of Yoko are shameful. Why do we we excuse or gloss over this because he wrote a few good songs?

    Hearing some of the stories about the band's behaviour in Hamburg, George's relationship with Patti (even if EC was no gent), the transcendental codswallop... c'mon. A very good band who helped changed the culture, yes. But let's praise the Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee, Buddy Holly and other predecsessors and not overlook the Stones, Who, Kinks, Beach Boys and others who also served. In fact, I'd argue the Beach Boys were probably more important...

  13. Wow, markjf! That's a lot to think about. Thanks a lot for that. Do check out a piece I wrote on my blog after reading John's piece entitled, "Being Disruptive II." I had also written on the topic some months back.

    In the latter piece, I named a few other disruptive people from various professions, among these is Chuck Berry. I've also written a post entitled, "Being Chuck Berry." John has written here of his appreciation of Berry's music. How could one not? He was, in fact, Rock and Roll.

    By the way, your Prime Minister was here speaking before the Congress and I thought he did a fine job. We are also pleased that the Queen knighted Senator Kennedy, if only for the recognition alone, for his many years of service to millions of voiceless Americans.

    That was a nice gesture by the Queen, especially considering Senator Kennedy's health challenges. Best to them both.

  14. Gotta add this quote I just picked up by Mikhail Gorbachev: "More than any ideology, more than any religion, more than Vietnam or any war or nuclear bomb, the single most important reason for the diffusion of the Cold War was...the Beatles." Apparently many ex-KGBers have echoed the sentiment according to an ABC special on the Bealtes influence in the Soviet Union. http://www.fixingahole.org/essays/the-beatles/back-in-the-ussr.html

  15. Hi Mark - Genius is not something we can objectively measure. We are all entitled to our opinions - for me Lennon was a genius. I accept that too is only my subjective opinion - this is the joy of Blogging.

  16. John - genius as muse. Genius was happy to visit and work with The Beatles (and of course George Martin) and to inspire them to create some fantastic work. But I think when the team broke up, none of them were individually visited.

    I think we use the word "genius" too lightly and too indiscriminately. Of course John and Paul are exceptional talents but their truly exceptional work was done as a team (often with George Martin pushing and prompting them) and in my view they are too variable and too wayward individually to justify "genius" status.

    It's just part of my way of thinking. Sometimes when I drive my car, if I think it's safe, I speed. Does this mean I have to be tagged as a dangerous driver? Sometimes an abused wife will kill her husband. Does this mean she has to be tagged as a murderer? Sometimes someone does one or a few things that seem to be acts of genius. Does this mean the person is a fully paid up member of the genius club?

  17. "I think we use the word "genius" too lightly and too indiscriminately."

    I agree with this statement. I also agree with Trevor about the subjective nature of opinions. But make no mistake about genius, it is a collective label and by this notion it is not altogether personally subjective. We don't have to like a piece of art or music or appreciate a technology to recognize the artist or inventor's genius.

    For example, we collectively agree that DaVinci was a genius. We collectively agree that Mozart was a genius. We collectively agree that Stephen Hawking is a genius. We collectively agree that Prince is a genius. We collectively agree that Auguste Rodin was a genius. We collectively agree that Marcel Proust was a genius. We collectively agree that Thelonious Monk was a genius. We collectively agree that Sartre was a genius. We collectively agree that Georgia O'Keeffe was a genius. We collectively agree that Van Gogh was a genius. We collectively agree that Thomas Edison was a genius.

    The interesting thing is that geniuses are not often labeled as such during their lifetime. But it is something that we recognize collectively in spite of particular taste now or later, or in-depth knowledge of the field. I love the mind of Stephen Hawkings, but some of what he says just blows me over. I go back and listen to him again and read what he has written yet again.

    Genius is not merely subjective; it's collective thought and acceptance. It's also impact, appreciation and value.

    To add to Mark's analogies, just because one has lied does that make one a liar? There is also the process of continuation here that Mark seemed to address. If I continue to lie, then am I a liar? And, to take this a little further, does motive play a role in such matters?

    By the way, all of the above stand alone as individual geniuses with repeated brilliant works and discoveries, though more than a few, as Rodin and Edison had assistance to the point of discrepancies as to who actually created some of their works and inventions. But the Muse remained with these, but it would be interesting to think what they thought of their various works. Van Gogh certainly did not think very highly or his works all the time neither did Mozart or O'Keeffe and many others as their letters reveal.

  18. Rolling Stone: Do you think you're a genius?
    John Lennon: Yes, if there is such a thing as one, I am one. (From Rolling Stone Interview with John Lennon, 1971)

  19. Wow! The Rolling Stones Lennon quote is interesting. Of many of the geniuses that I have read about over many years from various fields, I have never known one to say that they were a genuis. Hmmm? Maybe he isn't. I don't know if my response is related to my distate of the statement or my sincere sense of his individual artistry apart from the group. This is a point that MarkJF made earlier.

  20. lennon had just come out of primal therapy when he did this interview and was in a no b.s./truth-telling mode, lashing out at everyone during this phase, especially his former beatle mates. some of his tunes were pretty raw and tough to listen to in this period -- like "my mummy's dead."

  21. Interesting dialogue on genius. Before I move onto my next post I have couple more thoughts about JW Lennon...

    Mark, I would agree that Lennon did his best work while a member of the Beatles team (which includes the production help of George Martin) and specifically as half of the Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership. Admittedly he got somewhat lazy in his post-Beatles days, perhaps because he had less to prove or because he had exorcized some demons through therapy - as Sal alludes to - and had become less "driven." (Also, most great songwriters wrote surprisingly inferior material when they fell out of “the zone” or missed the Muses' calling or stopped working with a particular co-writer or producer. To be consistent, that phenomenon - all too common in pop music - might eliminate ALL genius candidates.) Perhaps there is no figure in pop music – especially a songwriter - to whom genius would legitimately apply by your standards – not Dylan, not Brian Wilson, etc. If that’s the case there’s nothing to argue about, because you’ve simply set the bar at a different height. But if ANY pop writer belongs in that elite circle then Lennon belongs with him/her - judged either by music critics or singer/songwriter peers (Elvis Costello, Bono, etc.)

    Now even when he was a Beatle, Lennon wrote mostly alone (another interesting phenomenon). Though he would often toss a song “over the wall” to Paul to finish — and vice versa — he was capable of writing complete classics by himself.

    “Sometimes someone does one or a few things that seem to be acts of genius. Does that mean the person is a fully paid up member of the genius club?” Lennon (and McCartney) certainly wrote more than a few things that seem to be acts of genius. "A Day in the Life" (even without McCartney’s bridge in the middle), "Across the Universe," "Lucy in the Sky," "Strawberry Fields," "Norwegian Wood" were all brilliant written. Lennon (as well as McCartney) had a stunning grasp of the complete songwriting toolkit. His lyrics might have been his calling card but his command of melody and harmony weren’t far behind. What MOST impresses me about John’s writing are the little musical touches that a listener can easily miss if not paying close attention: the introduction to “If I Fell” where he modulates up a half step, the bridge on “We Can Work It Out” with its irregular time signature; the bridge on “No Reply” which majestically leaves the initial key and smoothly returns — all done with subtlety and grace. There are dozens of these I could catalog in the Lennon's oeuvre.

    Now if public opinion counts towards the genius label every reader’s poll I’ve seen of great rock songwriters (and of course I haven’t seen them all) has Lennon near the top. And he has to get some of the credit for the Beatles’ #1 placement as the best pop music artist of all time in every poll I’ve seen OR as a contributor to the #1 rock album of all time (Sgt Pepper or Revolver wins most of these polls – with other Beatles albums making up most of the top 5).

    Anyway, it’s fun to knock this stuff about...

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