When I was happily employed as a full-time musician many years ago, I noticed the difference between those who played music as if their life depended on it and those who didn’t.
Maybe I was just lucky, but the former description fit nearly all the rock musicians I shared a stage with, from talented local bar bands in NY and LA to concert headliners such as Sly and the Family Stone and The Grateful Dead. These musicians performed and rehearsed with urgency, with something at stake. They weren’t always playing for their livelihood but they always seemed to be playing for their life.
Unfortunately I also knew a few musicians—usually in wedding or "general business" bands—who might actually nod off during a rehearsal or gig! (Just for the record, I have nothing against wedding bands, or even weddings for that matter.) I remember when a leader of a cocktail quartet complained to me about his drummer: “I wish he would just quit.” I could only respond: “I think he did a while ago.”
I had the recent good fortune to catch Brian Wilson on his 18-month world tour, performing Beach Boys' hits and the entire Pet Sounds album. Wilson is getting on in the years so I wanted to catch him soon, especially since he was doing “God Only Knows” (from Pet Sounds), one of the finest tunes in the American song catalog.
Hearing GOK performed by his 12-piece band—including original Beach Boy Al Jardine—reminded me that the writing and recording of this song provide more than a few lessons in innovation. Especially of the risk-taking variety, which too many of us in business are averse to.
First, some facts. GOK was released in May, 1966, for the Pet Sounds LP and later as the B-side of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” That became one of biggest two-sided hits in vinyl history. GOK was written by Brian Wilson and lyricist Tony Asher (probably the finest of Wilson’s many co-writers over the years) and sung by Carl Wilson, Brian’s brother. The recording drew plaudits from a who’s who of top songwriters from Bono to Paul McCartney, who has referred to it as “the greatest song ever written.”
But what made it so unique? What was so game-changing about the song and the recording?
What better time than Labor Day to discuss a hot issue for workers everywhere?
A Boston Globe story last month, “A Golden Age for Toxic Bosses” by Katie Johnston, confirmed my growing concern about the management style the current U.S. President exhibits and the example it sets to leaders everywhere—especially in business, where tyrannical management sometimes festers. The article points out:
While there has been some movement toward kinder, gentler, more empathetic leaders, some fear the president’s headline-generating hostility may again make it seem OK to be a bad boss.
It also quotes a survey in which “more than half of workers say their superiors are toxic, prone to explosive outbursts, berating employees.” Meanwhile, the volatile outbursts and tongue-lashing of subordinates by the US Prez are reported almost daily. There’s an obvious downside to this, as the piece continues:
Publicly humiliating employees can create a chaotic environment and cause other workers to lose confidence in the boss, workplace consultants say. The more petty the attack, the more employees will feel at risk. This can create less-loyal employees who are prone to act out and, say, leak damaging information to the press.
Not coincidentally, leaks to the press from White House employees—usually harsh criticisms of the POTUS—are at an all-time high.
Before I go further, I should add that much of my concern about autocratic and abusive leadership goes back to the beginning of my rock & roll days. In my twenties I witnessed several bands who were ruled by tyrants, most of which went nowhere because band members eventually quit.
Here’s another sparkling gem by Walk Off The Earth, who has turned the home-cooked, low budget, DIY music video into an innovation showcase. I’ve written here and here about the business lessons we can learn from WOTE. (For example, how much do you think this shoot cost them?) This superb song was written by the rapper/singer/songwriter/producer Jon Bellion.
In case you think this kind of guitar feat can’t be pulled off live, don’t bet your mortgage on it. I’ve watched them do this trick as their encore in every performance. (John Bellion's version of his own song is here.)
This 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.
At my local auto shop yesterday I was surprised to hear Barry McGuire’s infamous “Eve of Destruction” blaring in the background. (I snarked about that record here in 2012.) My mechanic piped up, “It sure fits these times, doesn’t it?”
He had a point. You can’t go anyway in the States without hearing folks commenting on the crazy happenings in Washington, D.C. and even the health of our Republic.
Are we on the eve of destruction? Probably not, but the song fits these times even better than 52 years ago when it was first released. Admittedly, that was not a normal time either, but we didn’t have a national leader in charge of nuclear codes whose psychological stability was openly debated on talk shows by mental health specialists. After all, then-President Lyndon Johnson was able to put together sentences in logical sequence with mostly accurate statements about reality (at least when he wasn’t making up reasons for escalating the Vietnam War).
But “Eve of Destruction” was such a pretentious and overwrought reaction to world events its sheer brazenness sent it to the top of the charts in September, 1965. For the same reason it captures these unruly days perfectly. In fact, if the track could be retrofitted with a robo-beat it could be re-released for the summer, just in time for the mass protests and rock festivals. A producer like Max Martin could make this a #1 hit again!