Creative destruction, according to The Beatles

On September 16, 1963 The Beatles released “She Loves You” in the US. Though it didn’t become a hit until four months later (along with “I Want to Hold Your Hand”), we could legitimately celebrate this week as the semicentennial of the rock revolt!

Sure, rock & roll first caught fire in the mid-50s, but the flame was quickly doused when Elvis, Chuck, Buddy, Jerry Lee, and Little Richard departed the scene a few years later. Rock 2.0, however, would change the face of music forever.

I recently read that 75% of the population is not old enough to have witnessed this period. That probably means that most don’t appreciate the creative destruction that The Beatles wreaked at the time—beginning with their disfigurement of the Hit Parade!

When the public at large first heard the music of The Beatles in December 1963, the #1 record on the Billboard Hot 100 was “Dominique” by the Singing Nun (sung in French about St. Dominic!). Other #1's of that year included rip-roaring scorchers by Nino Tempo and April Stevens, Bobby Vinton, Kyu Sakamoto, Little Peggy March, and Steve Lawrence. Not! These performers were pleasant-sounding balladeers—and lovely folks, no doubt—but they didn’t rock, swing, or shake your money-maker.

Now contrast that with 1964, when The Beatles owned the #1 spot with “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Love Me Do,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” and “I Feel Fine.” Other #1's that year included tunes by The Animals, Roy Orbison, The Supremes, and Manfred Mann. 1965 would bring more Beatles songs to the top of the charts—including “Eight Days a Week,” “Ticket to Ride,” and “Help!”—as well as those of the Temptations, Four Tops, Byrds, and the Rolling Stones. A different kind of pop music had taken over, paving the way for harder (and funkier) music to come—but also music that was more diversified and inventive, if not wildly experimental.

More and more, singers and groups began to perform their own songs. Pop lyrics became more meaningful and imaginative. (Bob Dylan gets some props for that.) Record production became more innovative. Albums became as important as singles. Album jackets became art objects. Bands began to make movies. This was all the legacy of The Beatles. The Fabs even revolutionized hairstyling, clothing, recreational habits, and, yes, spiritual practices.

When their Sgt. Pepper album ushered in “the summer of love” in 1967, the transformation of pop music—and pop culture—was fully underway.

But a few years later, while still at the top of their game, this small business team called it quits. The ultimate act of creative destruction! They had achieved what they had set out to do. They had gone to the “toppermost of the poppermost" (their playfully articulated goal from the beginning). They had become “bigger than Elvis.” And, more importantly, they had raised the creativity bar sky-high for pop music and art. It was time to move on. (It might not have been a conscious decision to go out on top, but when the cracks and fissures opened up in their business—the disagreements about artistic direction and managerial control—none of them tried very hard to keep the group going.)

How many businesses quit while they’re ahead? How many companies, once they’ve achieved what they’ve set out to do, voluntarily wind themselves down or spin themselves off? How many organizations realize that self-perpetuation is not their purpose? How many enterprises are "built to make a difference" (or "built to rock") instead of "built to last"? Useful questions for the Creative Economy.

Something to think about this week, a half-century after The Beatles began to blow up pop music.

For more on creative destruction, check here.

[Editor's note: we did an re-evaluation of The Singing Nun's contribution a few weeks later. Check here.]

View the archive »

Never miss a post… get 'em by email or rss »


    1. We're getting a tad pedantic, aren't we? Yes, it's the past tense of "wreak" — unless you prefer the overwrought "wrought."

  1. I find it fun to get back in touch with my actual reaction to the Beatles back then. With the girly coiffed hair, the corporate slave outfits, and the relatively "light" and fluffy pop sound. Easy to dismiss as more silly Brit trivial Boy/Girl love song pushers. My friends all hated them, too. But I did note how curiously infectious the songs were. Then Harrison quickly began overdriving his ax and getting much edgier and cool tones and riffs, and the beat and lyrics got way cooler. Rain and Paperback and Day Tripper changed everything.

    1. I loved hearing REAL rock & roll on the radio in 1964—for the first time in years—so I was an early adopter. But in time my interests drifted to the harder rock of the Stones and the Who. A few years later I was in an LA band that was writing its own songs and seriously exploring the art of songwriting. THAT’S when I discovered the true genius of the Beatles. Their writing and arranging left everyone else in the dust. Been a fanatic Beatlephile ever since.

      1. Well Paperback has no lead guitar per se, but it does have that killer guitar riff that answers the chorus. It does sound a little sophisticated for George!

  2. Charles Handy's Sigmoid curves: we climb, reach a pinnacle, and either drop to earth, or leap to a new (and planned) curve, using the momentum from the old.

    The Beatles leapt while they still had momentum. I'm trying to imagine Mick Jagger starting a solo career right now.

    The fissures split the Beatles because they allowed it. If they were determined to stay on top at all costs, they knew how to do it.

    Change is constant. Everyone says it, but no one does anything about it.

    1. “…because they allowed it.” Great point.

      The Beach Boys provide the best contrast I can think of to The Beatles’ going out on top. If they had broken up after Pet Sounds they’d be remembered as pop music deities.

      1. Bingo. Yeah, let's all go get tickets to the Mike Love Band.

        Mozart did the "out on top" thing a while back, but since his method was to live himself to death, I shall eschew such a method.

        1. Mike Love has become quite the pinata for Beach Boy fans over the years. The dude could seriously use some psychological counseling. But seeing the BBs last summer when Brian Wilson was performing with them was an out-of-the-body experience. (My occasional criticism of the band is directed at the band WITHOUT Brian.) I suppose you could argue that the band INCLUDING Brian did go out on top, because he stopped touring with them by 1965 and effectively stopped recording with them a few years later. Until their 2012 reunion.

  3. Important to remember that the Beatles didn't enter the pop scene as rockers, or folkies, or edgy Alt-anything. The closest thing you could call them would be "Mods": overdressed foppish ponces in their silly outfits and girly wigs. They were "wiggy", "kicky", "fab" "gear" and "cheeky".

    In other words, they were inoffensive and stealthfully designed to be maximally adopted by the target market: 12 year old girls. It was a most successful Trojan gift horse.

    They intentionally did not present themselves as who they actually were: the rough trade leather boy rockers from Hamburg.

    But curiously, this conformist false front was entirely consistent with Paul and John's musical aims: they wanted to write songs for Frank Sinatra and other MOR artists. They had entirely conservative goals for their songwriting talents.

    And also, they didn't think they were writing unique and groundbreaking songs--that was never their intention in the beginning. They thought they were just writing good commercial ditties. The fact that the tunes were distinctive and memorable was not by design. It was a by-product of who they were and where they were coming from. These guys were not iconoclasts, they were conventional. Later on, they realized they were expected to be bleeding edge artists, so they did that too.

    So note to businesses: Do what you have to to get in the door. Then just do what comes naturally. All you have to do is...act naturally.

    1. Agree with the first half of this, Ken. But as I argued in the thread to your guest post here: although the Beatles’ brand of rock in the beginning was not bleeding edge, it WAS distinct.

      First, they hated the fact that in 1960-61 all the Cavern acts were playing basically the same set list of 50s’ rock hits and they realized they had to find a way to stand out—so they started performing more and more of their own songs. They were hell-bent to break from the pack.

      Second, as they progressed in their songwriting they were determined to be interesting, clever, and different. John delighted in word-plays in his songs beginning in 1962. McCartney discovered how to switch keys in his songs in early 1963. Soon mind-blowing key switches, interesting rhyme schemes, and rhythmical surprises were a feature of their songs. But they did it so elegantly that the genius of what they were doing was not evident to the non-musical ear — which is the ultimate sign of mastery.

      Some of their early compositions and arrangements were so creative they were singled out by the music critic in the (London) Times in late 1963. George Martin was so knocked out by their skills in composition and arrangement that he told them—in early 1963—that they would soon be far ahead of him musically. They weren’t breaking new ground in the obvious ways that they were later (in 1966-67), but they were pushing the creative envelope for rock songwriting as early as 63-64.

      1. When you see interviews from this time, the one reality I get is they have no idea why they are so huge or unique. They know they work hard, they know they have talent, but you never hear even Paul say, "We're these special guys who write magical songs!" What summarizes their attitude better is "To the toppermost of the poppermost!" They were on a mission to achieve that goal. Not be exceptional artists at that point. And let's remember, most of their audience was underage girls. They couldn't even date them!

        My experience with creative geniuses is that they have no idea how they do what they do. And the only way they have some idea how amazing their talents are is after a ton of accolades heaped on them. Then when they start to believe it, it's over. That's what Dylan was so terrified of. Believing the hype.

        He even made some shitty albums intentionally to make the critics go away and leave him alone. In one telling interview they play him some footage of him writing some huge legendary song in the same room as Joan Baez is singing a completely different song in the corner of the room. His response is, "I have no idea how I could do that. I can't do that anymore."

        The Beatles were certainly a unique matrix of distinctive energies and talents. But to them, they were just a bunch of pals making music. Eventually, both Paul and John started believing the hype. And that's when the magic ended.

        1. That Dylan scene appears in Don’t Look Back—one of the best music films ever.

          No question that the Fabs didn’t know how REALLY good they were in the early days (62-63). And, yes, they were DRIVEN to make it to the top. But they recognized that being unique/distinct/original in their approach — starting with their songs — was a means to that end. They also seemed to have a natural revulsion to being ordinary, predictable, “like everyone else,” etc. Lennon the art school student hated that.

          Now you say that the magic ended once John & Paul started believing the hype. But WHICH magic?

          Their live-performance rock-and-roll magic was over, imho, by 1964. (Lennon said it ended earlier, when they started playing short sets in concert environments — 1963 — as opposed to when they played all night in Hamburg clubs.) But I’ve seen/heard tapes of 1964 concerts (like the one in DC in February) where they were killing it. (Ringo was on fire in that period.)

          But their recording magic came later, beginning (depending on one’s point of view) with Rubber Soul or Revolver or Sgt. Pepper. (I think that’s the period where you think they started believing in their hype and became more self-consciously creative.) But Revolver and Sgt Pepper were masterpieces as records (and top nearly every critics’ poll I’ve seen). I think some of their best work came about after they started believing the hype. But they never stopped being hyper-competitive — and sensitive to audience reaction. And the competition between John and Paul never stopped.

          (There’s a business lesson in here somewhere, but I can't remember it.)

          We’ll probably be arguing about this into our 90s. Probably shouting at each other due to hearing loss.

  4. But no disagreement on the actual freshness of the early material in context of the songs of the hit parade of the day. Married with their exceptional and striking vocal sound and harmonies. A real one-two punch.

  5. John, I am surprised that someone with your depth of knowledge would repeat the old canard that 1963 was not a good year for rock 'n' roll. For one thing, if you think about it, it's not very flattering to the Beatles, to suggest that their 1964 American success was owing to weak competetion. Nor is the claim about '63 true, anyway. But now I guess it's up to me to produce a selected discography to battle yours, and I'm not ready yet. But just you wait!

    1. Hugh, I’ll save you the trouble. Among the #1 US hits of 1963 (according to the Billboard Hot 100) the only one that rocks, rolls, or swings (or can stand upright 50 years later) is Stevie Wonder’s first hit, “Fingertips #2.” Here’s the full list of #1s. Read it & weep:

      Now there were a couple songs I liked anyway—“If You Wanna Be Happy” by Jimmy Soul, a kind of proto-reggae tune (that’s a stretch, I know), and “It’s My Party” by Leslie Gore, which was pretty creative for a bopper tune (with a great backbeat)—but that whole period of 1960-1963 was pretty much teenage wasteland—at least compared to what came before and after.

      Now if we’re talking about songs that got some chart action in 1963 but weren’t #1 material, we could include songs like “Heat Wave” by Martha & the Vandellas and “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes. The Motown “girl groups” kept some of us sane in the rockless era.

      Thanks for checking in. Hey, shouldn't you be working?

      1. I wasn't going to go with the #1s. They show how tasteless the audience was, not the quality of the music. You have begun to go deeper. But you must go deeper still. And if I am correcting misconceptions, then I am working.

  6. Yeah, I mean what part of "Judy's Turn to Cry" and "It's My Party" are you not getting as the mega-classic stuff you want archived on the golden space disc that Voyager 1 is carrying out beyond the stars to convince aliens that we are worthy of joining the Galactic Council??

  7. Kid Creole and the Coconuts are cool, I got turned on to him in London while working at Abbey Road. America has largely and sadly abandoned comedy and wry self-parody in popular music. Last I remember was Morris Day and the Time. A total riot.

    Yeah, the girl band hits from '63 are true classics. As is "Days of Wine and Roses" by Henry Mancini, also a big hit that year. Point being, '63 was a major rip current year, all kinds of crazy musical flotsom and jetsom bashing together on the airwaves. Tghen the tide went out, way out.

    Before the Brit Invasion tidal wave.

    1. Yeah, '63 was the year of flotsam and jetsam (and then some). The Singing Nun having a #1 US hit sung in French was a little outside-the-box, as we say.

      Her story probably deserves a separate post — on the challenges of being a free thinker in an autocratic, hierarchical organization . She (Jeanne Deckers) was drummed out of the Dominicans for being a little too independent thinking, and eventually became a Church critic and an advocate for contraception.

      Later the Belgian government tried to collect taxes on her income from her original hit single, but she rightly claimed the Dominican Order received the income, not her. (She had taken a vow of poverty.) But the Order disavowed any responsibility and she was stuck with the debt!

      Deckers tried many times to score follow-up hits to pay her bills, including a disco version of her original hit, "Dominique." (I swear I'm not making this up.) Financially destitute, she eventually committed suicide with her gay lover.

      Now that I've bummed everybody out, I think I'll just go to bed...

  8. I love that story! How can you feel bad about your own petty problems after hearing that?? Don't follow leaders, watch yer parkin' meters.

    1. Tried to find the disco version of "Dominique" on iTunes but no luck. But listening to the original again I was struck by how good the harms were! Catchy melody too. Simple but effective production.

      The Singing Nun was actually a rocker in spirit. She danced to her own beat and left on her own terms. Here's to a rebel with a cause.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

View the archive »

Never miss a post… get 'em by email or rss »