A Beatlemania revisit

the-beatles-509069__340So many thoughts after seeing Eight Days a Week, Ron Howard’s documentary on The Beatles’ touring years! Any Millennials who just don’t get the big fuss about this band should watch it.

Between 1963 and 1966 these four mop-tops generated more fan hysteria on a larger scale than any other musical performers in world history (easily eclipsing the glory days of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley). And this film captures that.

Eight Days a Week also gives us a good idea of what made this band simultaneously the biggest and the best popular music act ever—AND perhaps the most effective small business team in the last half century.

As I’ve been pointing out for the last decade—on this blog and previously on www.tompeters.com—The Beatles did so many things right as a small company:

    • The Fabs were radical innovators who took career-threatening risks to promote their “product.” They burned the rulebook for what a band had to look like, sound like, and act like. From image & fashion to song composition to record production to album packaging and more, The Beatles forced rivals onto a new playing field.

    • The infectious passion they had for their work energized first the small crowds in Liverpool basements and later millions around the world—driving unprecedented concert attendance and eventually record sales of over a billion units. Yet as Ringo put it, “All we wanted to do was play”—in every sense of the word.

    • They were driven by a mission to be the biggest band in the world, even when they were playing lunchtime gigs for chump change in the early 1960s. Whenever John Lennon asked his mates where the group was headed, they would chime in together: “To the toppermost of the poppermost, Johnnie!"

    • The Beatles had a defiant, iconoclastic spirit that exploded when they got tired of being obedient showmen. Their album photo with butchered baby dolls, Lennon’s “we’re bigger than Jesus” remarks, and, most importantly, their radical musical experimentation in Revolver and Sgt Pepper were what made them unpredictable and newsworthy—and always entertaining—up until their 1970 breakup.

Eight Days a Week also pointed out the considerable obstacles the band faced in live performances.

The white noise of high-pitched screaming of thousands of young girls made it nearly impossible for the lads to hear themselves sing and play. Stage monitors—audio speakers facing the band that would allow singers to hear themselves—didn’t exist yet. (When they played outdoor venues The Beatles used the tinny PA systems that the stadiums provided at the time.) Despite this, as the film shows, the band’s rhythms were always tight and the harmonies on key.

Also, the police and security details on their tours were alarmingly insufficient, rendering John, Paul, George, and Ringo in physical danger from teen mobs, especially on their first US visits. Larry Kane, the only broadcast journalist to accompany the band on the first two US tours, personally told me that on several occasion he and the band were afraid for their lives, as they confronted the size and unruliness of the crowds—yet the band pressed on until August 1966, when they retired from touring to focus on making the best and most innovative rock records the world had ever heard.

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  1. career-threatening risks

    Who does that nowadays?

    Not rhetorical. Do you see examples of bands or businesses going to that extreme? Risk, I see all the time. But the threat of a true crash-and-burn seems rare indeed, though of course, we probably only see the final fireworks of the successful launch, not the earlier flameouts.

    1. Well, I don't know if they really thought of themselves as taking career-threatening risks, or simply couldn't stand doing the same thing twice, and (after some period) didn't care if it hurt sales or not. Although there were a few artists, like Bowie or Prince, who changed direction with every new album, The Beatles changed with every song, and that is what seems to be hard to find in the world of music.

      A typical business probably can't (or shouldn't) operate like that.

      1. Yeah, Ed, they couldn’t stand doing the same thing over and over. I remember my late friend Ken Melville arguing on these comment threads that The Beatles never actually cared about innovation per se (which was not a buzz word in that era). I argued that the band at the very least wanted to stand out from the pack and not be ordinary and predictable. Perhaps that’s what drives innovation for many of us? McCartney also claimed they first started to play their original songs at the Cavern Club because every band there was performing the same set of old standards.

        It’s also true that later in their career they—or John Lennon at least—didn’t seem to care if certain actions (like appearing nude on an album cover) hurt their reputation or sales. Or they recognized intuitively that the more wildly creative they became it would only add to their mystique.

    2. Joel, the Fabs were ridiculously rich already when they ventured into their Revolver-Sgt Pepper period, so I guess they weren't putting their individual livelihoods at risk, but they were putting the Beatle brand at risk. They admitted they were sweating it out just before Sgt Pepper was released.

      Yet at the same time they seemed to know that they were doomed if they didn't take chances. I love this McCartney quote from the Pepper period:

      "We were always pushing ahead, louder, further, longer, more, different. I always wanted things to be different…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. IT ALWAYS SEEMED AN UNSAFE IDEA TO TRY TO BE SAFE." [My caps.]

      In other words, it’s risky to NOT take risks, as the best technology firms understand.

  2. I think The Beatles didn't really think of it as a career. The 50's rock n' rollers had crashed and burned (or been burned) and the "smart" money had pop pegged as a fad. In many respects, this must have been quite liberating: let's do it while we can, let's show them, let's do what we want to do while we've got the chance.

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