A week in the life

Beatles Silhouttes As a Beatles get-a-lifer, I like to check in on what the Fabs were doing at a given point in time (as I mentioned in a previous post) and see if there are lessons to apply. After all, this small business team was one of the most commercially successful artistic enterprises in history.

During the week of March 9 to March 15 here’s what the Liverpool lads were up to in different years—and what it meant.

1958: The band who would later become the Beatles—the Quarry Men (including John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison)—performed in a small basement club in Liverpool that was seedy enough to be closed by police a month later. A valuable reminder that The Beatles not only had been playing gigs for SIX YEARS before they became world famous in 1964, but they played in some of the most rat-infested cellar clubs in northern Britain in that period. Hashtag: not an overnight success. (Not a prima donna band either.)

1961: The Beatles performed at the tiny Cavern Club (a small subterranean Liverpool dive that had become their home base of operation) several times this week. On two of the days they played three gigs at three different venues! While on stage they would eat, drink, and smoke—and even curse at the audience. This was not show-business-as-usual. Here was an insolent working class band, belting out raunchy rock & roll at high volume, wherever and whenever they could. Exuberance and defiance was their calling card.

1962: The Beatles were still performing at the Cavern Club this week, as well as the Casbah Coffee Club (another cellar nightclub, located in the home of their drummer Pete Best), along with a jazz club and a church hall. They were slowly beginning to clean up their act, under the watchful tutelage of new manager Brian Epstein, who with his theatrical background made sure they tended to the social niceties, while retaining their individualistic flair. The structural tension between their desire to please the masses (for commercial purposes) yet maintain their iconoclastic impertinence (for artistic purposes) became part of their enduring appeal.

1963: The Fabs were on tour with Chris Montez (“Let’s Dance”) and Tommy Roe (“Sheila,” “Dizzy”) this week, but John Lennon was a scratch for three days because a bad cold had ravaged his throat (aggravated no doubt by excessive gigging and singing). But they managed to fly down to London and back one morning so that Lennon could record a harmonica overdub on “Thank You, Girl.” By now Brian Epstein was pushing them harder than they had ever worked, but they complied because he had signed onto their vision of "being bigger than Elvis."

1964: At this point in time Beatles’ singles provided 60% of sales of singles in the US. (Let THAT one sink in.) “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was still #1 after seven consecutive weeks at the top of the charts, soon to be replaced at the top by “She Loves You.” They already OWNED the pop charts and were now exploring new territory: they were on location shooting A Hard Day’s Night, which would turn out to be another game changer (as discussed here). Grass did not grow under their feet.

1965: The band was in the Bahamas working on their second film, Help! Meanwhile “8 Days a Week” had just hit #1 in the US—not a big deal in itself, because nearly every Beatles' single made it to #1. But this song was essentially a throwaway tune (at least in John’s estimation), demonstrating that the lads could polish a pig. Their vocal and instrumental arrangements were so strong they could turn mediocre songs into decent records. The multidimensionality of their talent served them well.

1966: The Beatles were on vacation this week, but they would soon begin working on their breakthrough album, Revolver.

: The band was in the studio recording their future masterpiece, Sgt Pepper’s. This week they received Grammys for the previous year: Best Song (”Michelle”), Best Vocal Performance (“Eleanor Rigby”), and Best Album Cover (“Revolver”). Note that the band was breaking new ground even in album artwork.

1968: The Beatles shot one of the first music videos this week—a promotional film for “Lady Madonna.” They also won four Grammys for Sgt Pepper’s: Best Album, Best Contemporary Album, Best Album Cover, and Best Engineered Recording. Now their engineering and production work—not just their songwriting or vocal/instrumental arrangements—was recognized for being best in class. Their innovative drive seemed limitless.

1969: The band was mixing down their Let It Be album, which, once it was eventually released 14 months later, would be their last hurrah. Inter-band disagreements were becoming louder and more frequent during these recording sessions. (Producer George Martin who had helped harness their artistic conflict in previous recordings was not working these sessions, and manager Brian Epstein who had kept them in line in years past had died in 1967.) The creative abrasion that served them so well could no longer be contained.

1970: The single “Let it Be” was released, with a silly ditty on the B side, “You Know My Name (Look Up My Number)”—demonstrating their ability to sell anything to the public, given their years of success.

Ok, what have we learned? To keep it simple, two things:

1. The Beatles were action-oriented and results-obsessed. This team lived on the road and worked their butts off for years long before (and after) they became world famous. They finally stopped touring in late 1966, nine years after they began, though they continued to record for three more years. Their ambition and resilience knew no bounds. Burnout was never an issue, given their passion for their work and their eye on the prize. Not bad qualities for a team in any business.

2. Their off-the-charts creativity kept them on the charts for eight years straight (and intermittently in the decades since). They continually pushed the envelope, beginning in song craft (musical and lyrical), extending to engineering and production, and then to album artwork and packaging. They would even become fashion trendsetters and lead a generation into consciousness exploration, whether through psychedelic drugs or meditation. As Newsweek said twenty years ago, “What the Beatles did in the '60s remains the most thrilling surge of creativity in the history of pop culture.” A mania for innovation is also not a bad thing in any business.

Thanks to the archives of Macca Central for the above information.

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  1. Another of your great columns John. I want to add - strictly in terms of rock music - how important it was to have a phenomenal manager!! In my own years as a not quite star I used to joke it was harder to find the right manager than to find the right wife. How much of their failure to keep that amazing creative juggernaut on the road had to do with Brian Epstein's untimely death? - I know, a question for the ages.

    1. Very true. The Beatles also had an embarrassment of riches in good timing or utter coincidence, besides their amazing internal resourses.

      Brian Epstein was a godsend, as was a brilliant producer in George Martin. As Paul said; "No one gets THAT lucky!"

    2. Lennon and McCartney certainly could have used a mediator. When Lennon heard that Epstein had died, he said he knew the band was finished—though they held on for several more years.

      Harder to find the right manager than the right wife? I've had at least eight managers at last count and no wives (that I can remember).

  2. Good article, John. I'd like to point out another influential aspect: For us guitar players, there were many conversations about the sound of their instruments, in that they always had a "quality" tone to them. That may have been the initial goal of their production and engineering team, but by Rubber Soul, they were actively trying to have unique and different sounding guitars on each track.

    Now try to calculate how many guitars were sold because of them.

  3. i agree - the tension between their wanting to please (mccartney's thing) and their wanting to thumb their noise at authority & convention (lennon's thing) made them fascinating to watch -- and gave them additional cred.

  4. This was fun. Since I was born in late December, 1959 I missed most of this when it was happening. I enjoy your business knowledge, of course, but sometimes I just wanna hear about the music and the musicians. Today satisfied on both counts.

    Most folks never succeed like they'd hoped because they just won't do the work, day in and day out. Musicians and artists, as well as reg'lar bizness folk.

  5. Only an idiot could consider Revolver a breakthrough album overlooking Rubber Soul which preceded it and was superior in every way.

    1. I guess most rock critics and Rolling Stone Magazine are idiots. I personally liked Rubber Soul the best of the big three (RS, Revolver, Sgt Pepper) because of the songs, as I mentioned here. But Revolver was a game changer in SOUND. This was their engineering/production breakthrough (obviously), which came to fruition in Sgt Pepper's. But come back again, Rich. Your lack of Beatles' education can be remediated through frequent exposure to this blog.

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