RDF, Steve Jobs, and The Beatles


Biz lit abounds with stories of the “reality distortion field” of Apple Co-founder Steve Jobs, who could make his engineers—and customers—believe anything was possible, including products developed with incredible features, in unheard-of time frames, with no market competition.

Often enough, Jobs and his teams of software and hardware engineers delivered on these "impossible" goals. This, in part, is how Apple became the world’s most admired company.

It turns out that there was also a musical team known for its reality distortion field: The Beatles, who had a similar relationship to the engineers they worked with, beginning with the groundbreaking Revolver and Sgt Pepper albums. They could make their recording engineers believe that any barrier could be broken.

Years later Paul McCartney observed:

If we hadn't pushed [the recording engineers] the guys would have stuck by the rule books and still been wearing ties...The nice thing about the way we worked was there were never any rules. Any rules we found ourselves making we would generally try and break.

One of the Beatles’ engineers, Phil McDonald, confirmed the sentiment:

There’s one thing they always used to say. 'There’s no such word as can’t. What do you mean can’t?' The word just wasn’t in their vocabulary. There was always a way around any problem. If they had an idea—any idea—they thought it must be possible to do it. That’s how Sgt. Pepper’s was recorded.

But the Beatles' RDF wasn't limited to their recording sessions. Just like Steve Jobs was telling his colleagues—years before the release of the first Macintosh—that Apple was going to make a "dent in the universe," the early Beatles—while they were playing lunchtime concerts for chump change in the sweatbox of Liverpool's Cavern Club—were laying plans to be "bigger than Elvis."

In both cases this was not predicting the future. This was creating the future. And everyone who stepped into that reality distortion field was caught up in that future.

No wonder Steve Jobs loved The Beatles and named his company after the Fab Four’s Apple Records. (He once remarked, "My model for business is The Beatles.") The world’s most admired brand has been operating in the same alternative reality as the world’s most admired band.

For an earlier post on the Beatles' "bigger than Elvis" goal, check here.

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  1. Another great article John! Here is how I look at this. If you want to be great you have to go beyond logic and believe in magic. So many people in this world are tied to logical thinking which is inferior to inspiration, intuition.
    Einstein agrees He said " People with big dreams are more powerful than people who have all the facts"
    He also said We live in a society where logic [ left brain] the faithful servant, is running things and the right brain,intuition, dreams, the sacred gift is forgotten.
    Logic will take you from a to b, imagination will take you everywhere. The faithful servant is good for figuring out you guitar fingering, fixing your computer etc. The sacred gift is how all the brilliant discoveries, inventions, songs, paintings etc, came about.
    Steve Jobs and the Beatles first had a dream,
    a vision, an inspiration of what could be!

  2. Best way to foretell the future is to create it.

    Reality only exists in the current moment. What's real today has little to do with what will be real tomorrow.

    While Jobs and the Beatles were certainly exceptional in other ways, their disdain for limitations made them what they were. I suspect there have been others equally talented who gave up, which earns you a big fat zero.

    1. Yeah, that “disdain for limitations” nails it. That was my attitude in my rock & roll days. It’s time to “get back.”

  3. There's nothing you can do that can't be done
    Nothing you can sing that can't be sung
    Nothing you can say, but you can learn how to play the game
    It's easy - All you need is love

    1. Uncorrect! There is video of John Lennon from 1964 saying " You could say you are going to be bigger than Elvis, but thats just being big headed" Close enough.

  4. Sara, I'll put that question to Lennon biographer Jude Southerland Kessler. If Epstein invented it, The Beatles adopted it. Lennon sometimes asked Brian, "Will this make us bigger than Elvis?" as a way of making career decisions in 62-63. Lennon and the Fabs also used the phrase "to the toppermost of the poppermost" to playfully remind each other that they were aiming at the top. They used that phrase well before Brian's arrival, so they had their eyes on the prize early on. Same with Steve Jobs of course.

  5. If Jobs had any imagination at all, he would have come up with his own ideas instead of stealing everyone else's. Cheapest shot of all: Naming his company after the Beatles', and then bullying his way to owning the copywrite.

    And his products aren't that good, anyway.

    1. No bullying! read the history of the legal agreements between beatles and jobs &co. and subsequent litigation. it'll make an interesting book someday.

  6. Ed, both Jobs and The Beatles brilliantly absorbed others’ ideas into their products. Steve Jobs incorporated the graphical user interface and mouse from Xerox’s research & development lab, PARC, into the first Macintosh and has never stopped taking the best ideas from other products. (Consumer electronics/computer software companies do that with their products, which occasionally results in infringement suits from competitors, which the courts have to sort out. Apple is winning their share of these suits.)

    Meanwhile the early Beatles absorbed the lead vocal styles of Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and Smoky Robinson (among others), harmonizing techniques of the Everly Brothers, and lead guitar phrasing of Chuck Berry. Later they (especially John) incorporated vocal styling and poetic images from Dylan, production ideas from the Beach Boys (Pet Sounds), and miscellaneous lyrical themes from the Byrds, Lovin’ Spoonful, and others.

    I think Jobs/Apple and The Beatles both borrowed generously from others. ☺

    Not sure how Apple Computer bullied Apple Corps. Apple Corps successfully sued Apple Computer three times between 1981 and 1991 which kept the latter out of the music business. Apple Corps sued Apple Computer in 2003 over iTunes, which was finally settled in 2007, to the apparent satisfaction of both parties, who praised the settlement. I never heard any accusations of bullying.

    Apple has been named The World’s Most Admired Company by Fortune Magazine every year since 2008.

  7. Pilon and Sara: Check out my earlier interview with Lennon biographer Jude Southerland Kessler. Jude knows more about Lennon than just about anyone still alive. (I forgot I had already asked Jude about this.) I’m sure Lennon wasn’t publicly announcing to their fans in 1960-62 that they were going to be bigger than Elvis, but that was his ambition, even pre-Epstein, and you can be sure they talked about it with each other. Even when their regular gig was the Casbah, a club in the basement of Pete Best’s home. No wonder John’s stepmom, Mim, thought he had delusions of grandeur!

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