My interview with John Lennon biographer, Jude Southerland Kessler: part two.

Jude Southerland Kessler should qualify as the most ambitious Beatles’ author in history, given her multi-volume expanded biography of John Lennon.

She’s published two volumes to date, Shoulda Been There and Shivering Inside, taking the reader up through April, 1963—with (only) seven more books to go.

Picking up where I left off on my August post, I ask Jude about the leadership dynamics in The Beatles and their ridiculously bold objective to be the biggest act in the world.

JOL: To what extent did Lennon maintain leadership of the band as it developed?

JSK: John knew from the day he met Paul that Paul was smart and talented—and perhaps even more talented than he—but he did not want to relinquish his band to Paul. But if he didn’t invite him to join he knew his band might never make it to the "toppermost of the poppermost." So he finally decided, "I’m going to bring him on board, but he’s not going to run my group." There are moments throughout the history of The Beatles when John relinquished that leadership for one reason or the other, but not permanently.

JOL: Can you give an example?

JSK: One moment is when Paul and George Harrison want Pete Best [the original drummer] replaced in the The Beatles. John was saying "He’s my mate. I’m not doing it." It’s not until John becomes distracted—when Cynthia [John’s girlfriend] finds out she’s pregnant and they have to get married—that he loses his focus and loses his leadership for a moment, and lets Paul and George replace Pete with Ringo.

JOL: Any other moments?

JSK: Around the time they were doing their Please Please Me LP, John has been sick for almost a month and Paul begins to say, "Why is it Lennon-McCartney [on the songwriting credits]? Why isn’t it McCartney-Lennon?" He’s more forceful with his opinions and begins to really step out. For a while John lets him. Then he goes on holiday alone with [manager] Brian Epstein, makes it clear to Brian who’s in charge, and comes back in command of the band again. And then later when Yoko comes along John becomes absorbed with her and he relinquishes some control again.

JOL: When did it become John’s goal for The Beatles to be bigger than Elvis Presley?

JSK: I think he always had it in his mind. Even before they called themselves "The Beatles," John was already saying "We’re going to the toppermost of the poppermost."

JOL: But McCartney has said he and John started out by wanting to be bigger than Gerry Goffin and Carole King, the successful New York songwriters. Was that McCartney being the practical one and saying let’s have a big goal, but one that’s feasible?

JSK: McCartney was more the business guy, the one with the reasonable plan, who saw where they might be in one or two years. John was more ethereal. Paul was more practical. John had the crazy ideas. But he needed a practical person like Paul. That’s why he and Paul were such a great team.

Hearing Jude’s perspective—and reading her meticulously-researched volumes—I’m struck by the degree of dissension and conflict within The Beatles, which seemed to only make the band more resilient. But the centripetal force that held this team together for many years (before they broke through internationally) was an audacious goal. That’s something every team and organization should take note of.

Jude’s next book—She Loves You, due out in December 2013—should help us understand how The Beatles achieved that goal.

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  1. Good stuff. Hey, why all in black and white? I like the bold design but a little color goes a long way.

    Interesting about the yin and yang of Lennon and McCartney. I wonder how Steve Jobs managed to have so much success as a lone dictator, or whether there was a force there I don't know about.

    When is your book going to be available?

  2. David, the blog is still a work-in-progress (which, come to think of it, describes its author as well). Hoping to get some graphics on it early next year.

    Great question about Steve Jobs. Over his two careers at Apple he got plenty of push-back from key managers and individual contributors, but I doubt he considered any his equal. In the case of the first Mac, he fought hard with Jef Raskin for the soul of the machine (which wound up reflecting the personalities of both) but Raskin was forced out. To Jobs' credit, he preferred openly expressed conflict to passive-aggressive behavior. But his lack of management skills drove some top talent from the company. Perhaps Jonathan Ive, Apple's head of Industrial Design (whom Fortune has called "the world's smartest designer") is the closest thing to a McCartney that Jobs had.

    I'm starting to post excerpts from my book on this blog. (Click BOOK above, then EXTRACTS.) You may be surprised to learn that the book will be titled "Business Lessons From Rock."

  3. From watching 'Let It Be' I got the impression that Paul was the leader of the Beatles in their final years. He seemed to be the guy trying to get the band back on the road. And wasn't Brian Epstein calling the shots when he was still alive?

    Everything I've read about Jobs says he was an atrocious manager, but a brilliant designer.

  4. Yes, things were in disarray in Beatleland by 1968-69, John had lost interest in the group, and Paul was the one trying to rally the troops. But for most of their career John was the internal leader of the band, though hardly an autocrat. Paul exercised his leadership more indirectly, as many do in any organization. Also, Brian Epstein was the leader in his domain (booking the band) when the band was touring, and George Martin was the leader in his domain (producing the band's records). So the leadership was quite distributed, as has been the case with most of the other top rock bands (Stones, Who, Dead, Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, U2, etc.), which I discuss in my book.

    For 25 years Steve Jobs has been roundly criticized as a manager (with justification), but he seemed to "pass the audition" as a leader, especially in his second tenure (1997 on). Fortune named Apple the "most admired company in the world" in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011. In business that should qualify as the "toppermost of the poppermost."

  5. Well, so much for democracy in a band! I suppose there has to be a 'leader' to see the plan through to achieve the wanted goal, or it would just fall apart!


  6. The way I'd view it, the "leader" (Lennon) created the band's goal — to be "bigger than Elvis" or to get to the "toppermost of the poppermost — with the full support of the "team." Then the team saw the plan through, with significant help from the manager, producer, and record company. I'd say The Beatles were a pretty good example of a "democratized workforce."

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