party-309155__340This was a big week in rock history, of course, with the 50th anniversary of the release of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album. It was marked by some impressive reviews and tributes, including this one by my favorite film critic, Ty Burr. (I’ve written about Sgt. Pepper several times myself, but most notably here in the context of managing innovation.)

Because I like to discover (or invent) connections between disparate events, I was struck that this anniversary occurred in the same week as the 100th anniversary of the birth of John F. Kennedy, one of the most influential and popular of US Presidents (ranked #8 in a recent C-SPAN survey of presidential historians and biographers).

For Americans who were alive at the time, we remember The Beatles bursting on the scene immediately after the assassination of John Kennedy. In fact, on November 22, 1963, national news anchor Walter Cronkite had to shelve a segment he was about to do on a new pop music phenomenon that was creating hysteria (“Beatlemania”) in Britain. Instead he had to deal with a different kind of hysteria accompanying JFK’s sudden death in Dallas that afternoon.

Some have theorized that the nation was so disconsolate at the senseless loss of a charismatic young President that we were desperate for a shot of good news and were especially ready for The Beatles. Their new single, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” took over the US airwaves about four weeks after the assassination and The Beatles became a national sensation almost overnight. We’ll never know how much one result affected the other (I’m not convinced The Beatles needed the help), but the death of John Kennedy and the birth of Beatlemania are forever linked in the minds of many.

By the following year The Beatles had become the most popular musical group the world had ever known. Over the next three years they evolved into the most successful songwriting band ever, and with the release of Sgt. Pepper on June 2, 1967 they cemented their legacy as the most innovative recording group, especially in the use of state-of-the-art engineering effects. (In fact, this was “disruptive innovation” decades before anyone knew the term.) Following on the heels of two ground-breaking albums, Rubber Soul and Revolver, Sgt. Pepper further shredded the rules of pop music composition, arrangement, and production and managed to create a work of rich aural magic that perfectly captured the cultural moment, initiating the “summer of love” and shaping a new era of music.

But if there’s no necessary connection between the timing of JFK’s death and the sudden success of The Beatles in America do Kennedy and the Fab Four have anything in common? Actually, quite a bit. For starters: youth, charisma, smarts, talent, and (not incidentally) a radically hopeful and uplifting message—something useful for many fields of enterprise.

In the case of The Beatles we had the recurring theme of love (however undefined)—symbolized by their song, “All You Need Is Love” (released a month after Sgt. Pepper) and culminating in the lyric “The love you take is equal to the love you make” that ended their final studio album, Abbey Road. Their infectious exuberance and humor further carried that message.

In the case of Kennedy, he promoted love of country (“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”), racial equality (belatedly at first but resulting in The Civil Rights Act that was passed after his death), and a vision of “world peace and friendship” through his creation of the Peace Corps, an organization of volunteers to bring technical assistance to undeveloped nations.

There’s also one other thing. Both The Beatles and JFK brought a sense of style, fashion, and aesthetics to rock music and politics respectively—which I mentioned in detail here. Style is substance not superficiality, as business has come to understand in the 21st century. (This is the whole point of "design thinking" as discussed here.)

So this week's anniversaries were a reminder—whether we like it or not—that the enduring popularity of a person, organization, or product can have much to do with sensory appeal.

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  1. One of my earliest, perhaps actually my earliest memory, was when I was 3 years old, and someone important had died. The man on the radio was crying, my mom was crying. It was years before I had any idea.

    It was also years before I knew the Beatles as anything but a cartoon I saw once in a while at someone else's house (we didn't have TV.) And any perception of Sgt. Pepper's waited until, most likely, the early 80s, when I started looking around at music that wasn't made while I was already a teen.

    An odd realization: past few years, as I've put together CDs and now USB sticks of traveling music, I'm far more likely to include Chris Isaak, David Gray, Van Morrision, and far too much Dylan than to include the Beatles at all. Do I love the Beatles? Certainly. Perhaps, like M&Ms, I had so much of them for so long that those spaces are saturated. Though when I'm listening to my Pat Metheny station on Pandora and Greg Reitan's jazz piano version of Dear Prudence starts it always gets turned up.

    1. Yeah, I take a break from the Beatles from time to time. Then when I listen to them again I'm reminded of why they're STILL light years ahead of any other group in pop history as songwriters and arrangers.

  2. I think one of the interesting things about "Sgt. Pepper" is that it arrived at a time when The Beatles could easily have been total pariahs in the US. In 1966, prior to their final tour, they'd been engulfed in the controversy about John's "Christianity will go" remarks and the resultant backlash. *

    I don't know if 60's USA was more or less forgiving than today but it was an astonishing turnaround. Maybe it's to do with the lovable, be-suited mop-tops retiring from touring and re-emerging from the studio as long-haired, moustachioed quasi hippies - thereby marking out a very clear change. Or the step up from "Revolver" to "Sgt. Pepper" being as radical as it was. But it was some comeback.

    * Note to aspiring band management: get the audience to buy the records, burn them and re-purchase them shortly afterwards. Nice work...

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