Why were the Beatles the Beatles?

Nerd fun: get a book at the library, read it, buy it, read it again, buy a copy for your son, then have long phone conversations with him about it. The book, in this case, is Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years.  961 pages.  This is part one of Lewisohn’s proposed three volume (!) history of the Beatles.  The extraneous colons in the title can be explained by the fact that the entire series is going to be called The Beatles: All These Years.  Anyway, you’re either the kind of person for whom the first 961 page volume of a proposed three volume history of the Beatles is the most entrancing thing on the planet, or you’re baffled by the whole prospect; suffice it to say that I am the first kind of person, and so is my son.  And it’s as good as I hoped.  Lewisohn is an indefatigable researcher, thorough to the point of obsession, and he writes with precision, style, and humor.  My only quibble with him is that his book ends in 1962, and now I’m going to have to wait who knows how long before the next one appears.  Darn him.

I don’t plan to review it, though, not here, not now.  I mean, you’ve already decided, haven’t you?  You’re already either going to buy it, like, today, and take it straight home and let the laundry and dishes pile up while you get it read, or you’re not.  No, I want to talk about another issue entirely.  I’m going to talk about Malcolm Gladwell.

In 2008, Gladwell published Outliers, a terrific book about why some people are successful and others aren’t.  I love Gladwell too, and liked that book.  In it, he talks about the Beatles, and asks this: why were the Beatles the Beatles?  Why, in other words, that group of guys, coming out of the unpromising environment of Liverpool–why did John, Paul, George and Ringo get to change the world.  Why not some other foursome?  Of the hundreds of thousands late-50’s/early 60’s groups of teenage friends who wanted to start a garage band, why the Beatles?

The traditional answer is simple: they were geniuses.  They were just more talented than other kids.  Gladwell doesn’t think so.  His answer, though, is equally simple (even simplistic); they were great because of Hamburg.  Starting in August 1960, the Beatles were booked for a long gig in Hamburg, Germany.  They actually had four separate stints in Hamburg, from 1960 to 1962.  That was the period where John, Paul and George developed their style, figured out what they were doing. Their schedule in Hamburg was grueling: seven days a week, 6-10 hours a day.  Gladwell points to research that shows that it takes around 10,000 hours for someone, however talented, to perfect a skill.  Well, Hamburg is where the Beatles put in the time.

I would refine this theory a bit.  The Beatles’ line-up in Hamburg is very different from what it became.  Their bass player was John’s art school friend Stuart Sutcliffe; their drummer was Pete Best.  Sutcliffe was no musician, though he did become an adequate bass player in time. When the Beatles landed the Hamburg gig, they didn’t have a drummer.  They brought Pete Best because he was their one friend in Liverpool who a) owned his own drum kit and b) could get away for four months. But he was never better than mediocre.

Rock and roll is built off the interaction between the bass player and the drummer.  Rock is about rhythm; it’s about a driving bass line and a strong, powerful beat.  For the Beatles to succeed in Hamburg, the other three guys had to compensate for Sutcliffe and Best’s inadequacies.  One way they did it was to stomp.  They became known for stomping their way through their songs–compensating for Pete Best’s lack of rhythm by (eventually) destroying the Kaiserkeller’s flimsy wooden stage.  When Stuart Sutcliffe left the band (to marry Astrid Kirchherr, the fashionable German girl he met there, who left her mark by suggesting the Beatles’ haircut), Paul (reluctantly) agreed to become their bass player.  (Sadly, Sutcliffe never did marry Astrid; he died in 1962 of a brain aneurism).  When they later fired Pete and replaced him with Ringo, they suddenly went from a band without strong bass or drums to a band with a phenomenal bass player and one of the best drummers ever.  But they’d had to learn to compensate for poor bass/drums support, which may in turn have forced John and George to tighten up their guitar work, and John, Paul and George, their vocals.

Okay, so if Hamburg was so important, why did the Beatles succeed while other British bands (even Liverpool bands) playing in Germany did not succeed?  Specifically, why did the Beatles make it big, instead of Rory Storm and the Hurricanes?

Listen to this song.  Rory Storm and the Hurricanes was an exciting band, more experienced than the Beatles, with a more charismatic lead singer.  They got the better Hamburg gig, and played there longer.  They had a better drummer than Pete Best–specifically, Ringo Starr, who was their drummer in Hamburg. I listen to that recording, and I like it a lot.  It sounds to me like an early Elvis Costello song.  There’s a DIY early punk vibe to it that’s really pretty cool. It’s also one of their three recordings ever.

So I don’t doubt that Hamburg was important to the Beatles success.  But they got fantastically lucky in some other ways.  First of all, they got lucky when Brian Epstein agreed to manage them.  I think casual Beatles fans think of Epstein as this ‘gay guy with a huge crush on John.’  No.  I mean, sure, he was gay, but there’s no evidence he ever had a crush on John. More to the point, Brian Epstein was  a very successful businessman, one of the most successful in Liverpool.  He ran a department store, and was a pioneer in design, display, marketing.  He had a job he was very very good at, one that made him a fortune, and one that he’d become bored with.  He wanted a new challenge, and when he heard the Beatles perform in the Cavern, he thought promoting them might be exactly what he wanted to do.

The Beatles had been managed by, essentially, high school friends.  Suddenly, they had a guy who knew how to market, knew how to write a contract, knew and was known by the business community.  His department store sold records (indeed, it was one of their biggest money-makers), so he had professional contacts in the music business.  But Epstein also was new to the management game. He was imaginative and innovative–he was willing to try new approaches.  It’s not possible to imagine a better manager.

And he was able to connect them with George Martin.  Only the single most creative and visionary music producer in the entire British music industry.  One story among many; it was Martin who heard them sing “Please Please Me” and say ‘it’s not a ballad.  Play it twice as fast.  It’s a rock and roll song.’  And the rest is history.

So why were the Beatles the Beatles?  There’s one more factor, one I hesitate to mention.  Because I’m a Dad.

Go back to 1960, or earlier, ’58, ’59.  Imagine yourself in the position of Jim McCartney.  Your son, Paul, your brilliant, talented son, isn’t doing what he’s so capable of doing.  He could ace his A and O levels. He’s easily bright enough to become anything–a doctor, a lawyer, an architect maybe.  He’s got the ability to surpass the genteel poverty of lower-class Liverpool, and what does he do? Blow off school every chance he can.  Waste all his time with that thuggish greaser juvenile delinquent John Lennon.  Waste all that time with that worthless rock-and-roll trashy music.

And here’s the thing: Jim McCartney loved music.  He owned a piano, and played it well.  He’d had a band for years, playing local events; weddings, parties, dances.  He paid money (when money was very tight indeed) for Paul to take music lessons.  Which Paul mostly blew off as well.

You could say the same thing about all the Beatles.  John’s beloved Aunt Mimi wanted nothing more than for her wonderful, smart, talented nephew John to make a success of his life. She got him into art school, basically cajoled school officials until they reluctantly let him in.  She knew he could excel academically.  He couldn’t be bothered.  Same story for George; he actually had an apprenticeship, the pathway to middle-class success.  Quit to be a Beatle.

To become a success, you do have to practice, long and hard, 10,000 hours of pure hard work.  And it helps if you’re really really really really talented.  And, boy, is luck ever important.  Meeting exactly the right people at exactly the right point in your life; man, that’s so crucial, and it’s infuriating because it’s something you can’t control.

But you also have to rebel.  You have to want it so badly that nothing else matters.  You have to reject the well-meaning advice of loving parents.  You have to do things that make no sense.  Like leave Liverpool for four months to play in a bar in Hamburg Germany when you’re seventeen years old (that’s how old George was; Paul was a year older).  Quit your apprenticeship, throw over your entire future, to go to a crappy bar in the worst part of Hamburg, to play six hours a night, except for weekends, when it was ten.

As a parent, as a father, I find this horrifying.  I find it terrifying.  I want my kids to be successful.  I want them to excel.  I want them, above all else, to be happy.  And I . . . did the smart thing.  I didn’t get on a motorcycle and go to New York or LA to make it as an actor or writer or director.  I got a degree, from a good college.  I got a PhD. I was sensible, and I’ve had a career I’m happy with.  I have no regrets for the choices I made.  None.  Really.

But the Beatles had to rebel.  They had to reject well-meaning parental advice.  They had to want it so much that nothing else matters.  And they did.  And they became the Beatles.

And so did Rory Storm and the Hurricanes.  And they didn’t get lucky and the Beatles did.  And in 1972, Rory Storm (or rather Alan Caldwell), took an overdose of sleeping pills, his music career having completely disappeared.

That’s what haunts me about this discussion.  So many kids, so many dreams, so few of them fulfilled.  And luck, pure dumb luck intervening way way too seldom. Dangerous thing, ambition.  Great, glorious, exciting.  And terrifying.




2 thoughts on “Why were the Beatles the Beatles?

  1. Jerry

    Eric – At the risk of being a dopey, idiotic “fan” … I am in awe of you. I wish I could express myself so confidently, so clearly, so precisely. Thanks for being you. How many times do I read your blog, that thing you throw together and churn out almost daily, and think the same thing. As always, this is spot on.


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