Turning Point

11.10.13

The Beatles Succeeded Through Talent, Ambition, and a Lot of Arrogance

The Fab Four’s success did not come from hours spent on stage in Hamburg or Liverpool—it erupted from a crazy combination of ambition, talent, and—most of all—arrogance.

When English writer Mark Lewisohn first informed Neil Aspinall—a Liverpudlian accountant who at 19 began ferrying four local lads known as the Beatles to and from gigs in an £80 maroon Commer van, then became the boys’ road manager, personal assistant, and all-purpose fixer, and eventually wound up running their record company, Apple, for the last 39 years of his life—that he, Lewisohn, was planning to pen a three-volume, multi-thousand-page history of the Fab Four, the band’s oldest, closest friend responded with a grunt.

“Does the world really need another book on the Beatles?” Aspinall muttered.

He had a point. With roughly 800 Beatles-related titles in or out of print, according to the Library of Congress, plus a cavernous back catalog of documentaries, feature films, conferences, exhibitions, and tribute albums that is set to grow even larger next February with the 50th anniversary of their arrival of America, it would seem that everything anyone could conceivably say about these most loveable of moptops has been said 11 or 12 times already.

And yet in spite of all the biographies, day-by-day diaries, track-by-track analyses, and, of course, cookbooks—an unwholesome number of which I, a certifiable Beatlemaniac since the age of five, have read—there remains a mystery of sorts at the heart of the band’s story. We know how talented they were. We know how charming they were. We know how lucky they were. And we know how perfect their timing was. What we still don’t know—what’s still so hard to pinpoint—is how all of this potential energy actually cohered into such a singular cultural force. Why did John, Paul, George, and Ringo become The Beatles? What catalyzed that chain reaction? Why didn’t they turn into Gerry and the Pacemakers, their main Liverpool rivals? Was it just magic? Or was it something they did?

This is an important question because it’s really a question about all great art—or, more to the point, where all great art comes from. Yes, the stars have to align. The DNA has to cooperate. But artists can’t control that stuff, and aspiring artists certainly can’t sit around waiting for their talent to crystallize or their luck to change. So what can an artist control? What necessary ingredient—not sufficient, but necessary—did the Beatles themselves add to the mix?

This was the secret I hoped to uncover when I set aside a few days earlier this month and began to burrow into the first volume of Lewisohn’s Gibbonian behemoth, Tune In, which reconstructs the Beatles’ lives through end of 1962 with relentless attention to detail. (For a soundtrack I chose On Air—Live at the BBC Volume 2, a complementary collection of early Fab Four radio recordings out Nov. 14 on Capitol.) I admit it was a high bar to set; none of the tens of thousands of pages of Beatle prose I’d previously devoured had cleared it.

But now, 944 pages later, I think I have my answer.

***

Many experts, real or otherwise, have tried to solve the puzzle of how the Beatles made themselves the Beatles. The most recent, and most fashionable, is Malcolm Gladwell, the halo-haired New Yorker pop intellectual whose simplistic, feel-good summaries of contemporary research on trends (The Tipping Point) and decision-making (Blink) have transformed him into a corner-office icon who can command $80,000 per speech on the corporate lecture circuit. In 2010’s Outliers, his book about successful people, Gladwell tells readers why he thinks the Beatles became “great achievers.” Unfortunately, his explanation doesn’t make any sense.

Gladwell’s big Beatles theory revolves around Hamburg. Between August 15, 1960 and December 31, 1962, the band embarked on five extended expeditions to Germany’s northernmost port city, where they performed late-night shows for sailors, strippers, gangsters, and various other Teutonic oddballs at a succession of dank and dangerous clubs in the seedy St. Pauli district. These trips form the backbone of Lewisohn’s book, and he skillfully captures the ferality of the Beatles’ escapades in Deutschland: the loogies they hocked at walls, the used condoms they set aflame, the bosomy barmaids they bedded, the speedy Preludin pills they gobbled, the toilet seats they wore like necklaces.

Gladwell, however, is mostly interested in the ungodly number of hours they logged on stage. “On the first trip, they played 106 nights, five or more hours a night,” he writes. “On their second trip, they played 92 times. On their third trip, they played 48 times, for a total of 172 hours on stage. The last two Hamburg gigs, in November and December of 1962, involved another 90 hours of performing. All told, they performed 270 nights in just over a year and a half. By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, in fact, they had performed live an estimated twelve hundred times. Do you know how extraordinary that is? Most bands today don’t perform twelve hundred times in their entire careers.”

Gladwell’s conclusion is simple: it was this grueling performance schedule that set the Beatles apart from their contemporaries and now makes them handy examples, along with fellow workaholics Bill Gates and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, of “the idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical mimimal level of practice.” (Ten thousand hours is his preferred amount.) As Gladwell told a San Francisco audience in 2009, “before [the Beatles] went to Hamburg they were just not a good band. It was as a result of being forced to play in this extraordinary environment that they mastered what it took to be the greatest rock band of all time.”

It’s a snappy thesis—practice makes perfect—but there are a few problems with it. On a basic factual level, Gladwell doesn’t seem to know what he’s talking about. Contrary to his claim in Outliers, the Beatles didn’t have to wait until 1964 to enjoy “their first burst of success.” They scored their first top 20 hit in late 1962 and their first number one single in either February or May of 1963, depending on which chart you consult; as of New Year’s Eve, they had notched two additional U.K. chart toppers and sold nearly 300,000 copies of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in the U.S. By the time 1964 began, Beatlemania was blossoming on both sides of the Atlantic.

Gladwell seems confused by his own statistics, too. According to Lewisohn, The Beatles played roughly 1,110 hours of music in Hamburg, the equivalent of three hours every night for a full year; when Gladwell writes that they “performed live an estimated twelve hundred times [emphasis mine],” he’s either mixing up his measurements or claiming that the Beatles averaged more than one show per day from the time they went professional until the day they invaded America. The former seems much more likely. Finally, the Beatles weren’t the only act to play endless hours in Hamburg. So did Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and Tony Sheridan, who landed in Germany before the Beatles and stayed on long after they left. None of them became the Fab Four.

But this isn’t even the real problem with Gladwell’s theory. The real problem is that while the Beatles’ marathon stints in Hamburg did transform them as a band—they were so vibrant, so tight, and so unrecognizable when they returned from their first campaign that the crowds in Liverpool mistook them for a blistering new German combo—the “complex task” they had now “mastered” was not the same task that would eventually earn them world domination.

Being able to mach schau  in a small club was a pivotal part of the Beatles development: it won them a fanatical following in Liverpool, which in turn drove their debut single “Love Me Do” up the charts even when the suits in London refused to promote it, and it was also the reason the Fabs were able record an LP as a thrilling as Please Please Me in a single ten-hour workday. But beyond that, Gladwell is wrong. The Beatles’ “excellence at performing” is not “what it took” for them to become the greatest rock band of all time. In fact, the Beatles were stuck in a rut even after they returned from Hamburg in 1961—and their live expertise was not enough to get them out of it.

***

Tune In tells the true story. As performers, the Beatles would never be more magnetic than they were in the summer of 1961. They were by far the most popular group in Liverpool. And yet “it was all becoming a little too easy,” Lewisohn writes. “They were toppermost but bored, John and Paul especially. The local halls were called ‘a circuit,’ and so it seemed: they were going round and round the same places on the same nights, week-in and week-out. This was fine for other groups but not for the Beatles.”

Local DJ, publisher, and Beatle consigliere Bob Wooler once told a reporter that the band “nearly split up in the summer of 1961 because they felt they were going nowhere.” Paul and John were so desperate that they actively considered becoming—or trying to become—the first Liverpudlians since 1923 to swim across the Mersey. As McCartney later put it, “we didn’t have a manager, so we’d just sit around, thinking of [publicity stunts] we could do.” Instead the duo cancelled two weeks worth of dates and absconded together to Paris, where they purchased flared trousers, sipped wine in Les Deux Magots, and had their hair cut in the downswept “Caesar” style then popular on the Left Bank.     

Even after the Beatles acquired a manager—a fastidious local record-shop owner named Brian Epstein—their live prowess, though real, couldn’t propel them to the next level. In the autumn of 1961, Epstein convinced Decca A&R man Mike Smith to attend a show at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, the Beatles’ home base. He liked what he saw; a recording contract seemed inevitable. But when the Beatles taped a test session with Smith on Jan. 1, 1962 at Decca headquarters in London, they were cold, nervous, and, in Lennon’s words, “terrible.” Paul over-enunciated. John underemoted. George botched several guitar solos. And even though they took pains to demonstrate the versatility they’d honed on stage in Hamburg—five rock and R&B classics; four humorous numbers; three recent hits; three Lennon-McCartney originals—Decca eventually passed. “We really thought ‘that was it,’” Lennon later said. “That was the end.” Over the next few months, Pye, Philips, Ember, and Oriole Records rejected Epstein’s pitch as well. EMI rejected it twice.

The Beatles might have remained on the dead-end Liverpool circuit for months or even years to come if not for what happened next—and it had nothing to do with Hamburg. One of the songs that the band recorded at their botched Decca session was about to bring them to the attention of galvanizing producer George Martin, secure them a recording contract with Martin’s Parlophone label, and, simply put, make the rest of their careers possible. It was called “Like Dreamers Do,” and in terms of real-life impact, it might be the most important song the Beatles ever recorded.

***

Not that I knew any of this before reading Lewisohn’s book. I had heard “Like Dreamers Do” before, and so can you; a chugging, Latin-inflected number, it’s included on the first installment of the Beatles Anthology series. To be honest, I never thought much of it. Neither did McCartney. “’Like Dreamers Do’ was one of the very first songs I wrote and tried out at the Cavern,” he told his official biographer. “We did a weak arrangement but certain of the kids liked it because it was unique, none of the other groups did it. It was actually a bit of a joke to try your own songs … [The] songs obviously weren't that great.”

Fortunately for the Beatles, a man named Kim Bennett disagreed. Lennon and McCartney first tried their hands at songwriting in late 1957. They’d skip school and sneak off together aboard a green double-decker 86 bus to Paul’s family house at 20 Forthlin Road, which was empty in the afternoons, and sit “eyeball to eyeball” in the front parlor with their cheap acoustic guitars, puffing on a pipe packed with Twinings tea and striving to emulate their idols. “Practically every Buddy Holly song was three chords, so why not write your own?” Lennon later explained. Atop each page of his notebook McCartney would scribble ANOTHER LENNON-MCCARTNEY ORIGINAL.

By 1960, when the Beatles went professional and began to play for people who had paid good money to hear familiar songs, Paul and John’s writing sessions had already petered out, and they didn’t compose or perform a single original song (with the exception of a Lennon-Harrison instrumental) the entire time they were in Hamburg. It wasn’t until December 1961, well after the boredom had set it, that they began to introduce Lennon-McCartney numbers into their set. “Like Dreamers Do,” written by McCartney in 1959, was the first. Epstein encouraged them to play it at the Decca audition a few weeks later, and they did.

Here’s where Bennett comes in. Stung by the Decca rejection, a desperate Epstein dropped in on an old record-store associate at London’s massive HMV emporium in February 1962. The gentleman said that while he couldn’t help the Beatles get a recording contract, he could transfer some of the tracks from the Decca tape to 78 rpm demonstration discs, which would help Epstein shop them around. Epstein graciously accepted the offer, and while he waited for a disc cutter to complete the acetates, he mentioned, as the cutter later put it, that “some of the songs were actually written by the group, which was uncommon.” The cutter then told Epstein that one of EMI’s music publishing companies was located on the top floor of the shop. The general manager, Sid Colman, was fetched. He listened to the tape, liked what he heard, and said he was interested in publishing Lennon and McCartney’s songs. If you can help us get a recording contract, Epstein replied, then you can have the publishing. A day or two later, on February 13, Epstein, likely with the Colman’s assistance, was back at EMI—a company that had already rejected the Beatles—playing one of his newly-cut discs (Lennon’s “Hello Little Girl” coupled with McCartney’s cover of “‘Til There Was You”) for a man named George Martin.

Martin didn’t enjoy the experience. “I was not knocked out at all,” he went on to say. But back at HMV, Colman’s deputy Kim Bennett was—especially by “Like Dreamers Do.” As Bennett would later recount, Colman told him “the song was available if we could get them a record release and I replied, ‘I like it very much, Sid. I like the sound. If we can get them a record, and then we can get it played, I think it could go in the charts. It’s different.’” Over the next few weeks, Bennett nagged his boss about “Like Dreamers Do,” and in turn Colman pushed EMI to record it.

Finally, in the spring of 1962, EMI relented. Managing director L.G. Wood wanted to get Bennett and Colman off his back, and he also wanted to stick it to one of his A&R men—a tall, willful producer who’d been whining about his contract and having a scandalous fling with his secretary. So Wood decided to kill two birds with one stone. “L.G. Wood didn’t approve of people having affairs,” an EMI engineer later explained. “Not at all. I think it offended his moral standards. L.G. virtually ordered George [Martin] to record the Beatles.”

Martin obeyed. On June 6, 1962, John, Paul, George, and Ringo, summoned by their skeptical new producer, arrived at EMI’s Abbey Road studios with a song they preferred to “Like Dreamers Do.” It was called “Love Me Do.”

***

On the surface, the story of how the Beatles signed to Parlophone sounds like another example of their famous luck. But it’s not. If the Beatles hadn’t started to play “Like Dreamers Do” at the end of 1961, they never would have recorded it at their Decca audition. As a result, they never would have met George Martin or had the perfect career they wound up having. None of that, meanwhile, would have happened if McCartney hadn’t written the song in the first place, and McCartney probably wouldn’t have written it if he and Lennon hadn’t gotten into the habit of going “eyeball to eyeball” in the front parlor of 20 Forthlin Road.

The thing that got John and Paul writing songs together at the ages of 17 and 15, respectively, is, I think, the same thing that ultimately made the Beatles the Beatles. It’s there in Lennon’s remark about Buddy Holly’s three-chord compositions—“why not write your own?” It’s there in the capital letters—ANOTHER LENNON-MCCARTNEY ORIGINAL—that McCartney scrawled above each set of new lyrics. “Teenagers all over Britain liked Buddy Holly and rock and roll, but of that large number only a fraction picked up a guitar and tried playing it, and fewer still—in fact hardly anyone—used it as the inspiration to write songs themselves,” Lewisohn writes. “John and Paul didn’t know anyone else who did, no one from school or college, no relative or friend.”

The Beatles’ secret ingredient was arrogance.

I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. Arrogance—a kind of foolish, adolescent self-belief; an ignorant, intuitive certainty that your way is the right way—is the root of all great art. Without it, talent and timing aren't enough. We all have a dash of it when we’re young. In middle school we write Whitmanesque poems; in high school we start a Beatlesque band. But then we weigh the odds and consider our options, and reality sets in. Sometime around 18 we begin to assess ourselves more accurately—to find our proper rank in humanity’s big talent show. Our ambition stops outstripping our ability. And then we stall out and settle down.   

The Beatles never did that. Unlike most of us, they remained arrogant until their ability finally matched their ambition. Arrogance was the reason they abandoned everything but music. George failed out of high school and bailed on his electrical job. John flunked art college. Paul skipped his final exams, squandering his shot at university. Ringo, who barely had an education, ditched his five-year machinist apprenticeship after four years to play drums at a summer camp. Music was all the Beatles had left. It was their only shot.  

Arrogance was also the reason they clung to their vision of the band—with little encouragement and the longest odds of success—even when they were total outliers (to borrow a phrase). In Liverpool, no one wrote original songs; John and Paul believed they could be the Carole King and Gerry Goffin of England. No one played obscure American B-sides like “Devil in His Heart” by the Donays; the Beatles scoured the record-store racks for odd new material every week. Few bands altered their set lists from show to show; averse from the start to repeating themselves, the Beatles never played the same show twice. No one combed their hair forward, Parisian-style, without grease. No one wore leather pants and pink handkerchiefs on stage. And no one from Liverpool, when faced with a big London producer like George Martin insisting that they release a cover song called “How Do You Do It?” as their first single, would have insisted right back that no, actually, they should release an original, “Love Me Do,” instead. But the Beatles did.

“We wouldn’t let ‘em put it out,” Lennon later recalled. “We said, ‘we’d sooner have no contract than put that crap out’—all the tantrums bit. We thought it was rubbish … We thought ours had more meaning.”

“I suppose we were quite forceful really, for people in our position,” Paul has explained. “We said we had to live or die with our own song.”

The Beatles’ arrogance, and the stubborn originality that stemmed from it, didn’t come from Hamburg and the 1,110 hours they spent on stage there. It was born earlier, in the front parlor of 20 Forthlin Road, and it was fortified when George and Ringo, two lads just as arrogant as John and Paul, eventually joined the band. It’s very hard to imagine those four young men ever becoming the Beatles without it, and the same is true for all great artists.

There's evidence of this attitude on nearly every page of Tune In—first-hand quotations such as “They had cockiness, confidence, a spring in their step” and “We were always thinking we were better than whoever was famous, so why shouldn’t we be up there?”

But the best line, as usual, is Lennon’s, and it appears on the last page of the book. “We thought we were the best in Hamburg and Liverpool—it was just a matter of time before everybody else caught on,” he told an interviewer in 1980. “We were the best fucking group in the goddamn world … and believing that is what made us what we were.”