by Michael S. Rulle Jr.
Forty years ago this week the cover photo for the "Abbey Road" album
was taken, representing the final walk of the Beatles as a rock group.
Fourteen days later, on August 22nd, they posed together for a final
promotional photo shoot, which was their last appearance together at
any Beatles event. Although one more album was released ("Let it
Be"), "Abbey Road" was the last album recorded by the band, which was
already virtually dissolved as a unit. Yet the album was a great
artistic and commercial success. The "Let it Be" album was intended
to be released first, but the group did not think it ready. They
moved on to record "Abbey Road" and released it on September 26th and
October 1st, 1969, respectively, in the UK and the US. The cover
photo, fittingly designed by Paul (as he was the only member who had
a passion to keep the group together; even as he finally sued to end
the partnership), depicts the band's final crossing of "Abbey Road,"
toward their studio home of the prior eight years. Ironically, even
bizarrely, convicted murderer and "wall of sound" creator, Phil
Specter, did the final mixing in 1970 of several songs on "Let it
Be," almost as an audition. He was not aware there would be no more
Beatles, although he did some work for Lennon's Plastic Ono Band.
I was, and am, a great Beatles fan. Then again, most rock music
lovers are. As a fan of professional sports, I found many
similarities in these seemingly dissimilar cultures. An obvious
similarity is both have Halls of Fame. Both cultures encourage
respect for the success of the great ones who came before them, as
well as those contemporaneous to them. The Beatles, for example,
loved Buddy Holly's group "Buddy Holly and the Crickets" and, of
course, Elvis (Lennon said "before Elvis there was nothing"). Even
their name, in part at least, was recognized by them to be similar to
the Crickets and helped them choose the name "Beatles" (prior names
included Johnny and the Moondogs, and The Silver Beetles).
Of course, not everyone is a Beatles fan. Lead singer Michael Stipe,
of the group R.E.M, when asked in a 1992 Rolling Stone interview
about the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, responded that the Beatles
were like elevator music. He did not even respond to the Stone's
question. Stipe, I believe, was being honest. Yet, his lack of
awareness as to their impact was profound. I know "standing on the
shoulders of giants" leaves him cold, but that sentiment also
reflects a severe lack of existential awareness. I have never felt
the same about Stipe or R.E.M. since.
In 2008, a book in "words, pictures and music" by Barry Miles, named
The Beatles Phenomenon, was published. Miles wrote McCartney's
official biography in 1998. My 17-year-old daughter spent five weeks
at Oxford this summer (studying Shakespeare and playing "Hamlet's"
Guildenstern in the Oxford debating hall; yes, Guildenstern). My
birthday occurred while she was away. One of her classmates had just
bought Miles' book for her brother's birthday. My daughter, who
became a Beatles fan from the 2007 movie musical "Across the
Universe," bought the book for me for my birthday. What is
interesting about this is, 40 years after the last Beatles album,
teenagers are still buying Beatles books. Before I get into my
primary "thesis" and inevitable political "take away" about the
Beatles, there are a few facts I find fascinating about the group. In
no particular order, here are a few:
-Their famous "mop top" haircut was designed by Astrid Kirchherr,
girlfriend of Lennon's art school friend and early band member,
Stuart Sutcliff. I already knew that. What I did not know, is she
copied the style from the French movie actor Jean Marais's portrayal
of Oedipus in a 1959 Jean Cocteau movie ("Le Testament d'Orphee").
The Oedipus irony is priceless, given the cultural, political and
social revolution which was the 1960s.
-The first top 20 hit by the Rolling Stones (UK) was given to them by
the Beatles. It was "I Wanna be Your Man." The fact that Ringo sang
it one year later is amusing. The Stones were desperate to get an
album out and enlisted Lennon and McCartney's help. The Beatles
literally completed writing the song (which they already had begun
earlier) in the presence of the Stones in the latter's studio in less
than an hour. As Lennon later said "that's how much importance we put on it."
-Of the 183 songs written by the Beatles, 73 were written by Lennon,
69 McCartney, 17 Lennon/McCartney, 22 Harrison, and two Ringo. Lennon
and McCartney agreed their songs would always have a joint credit. I
always thought McCartney had written more, but this was incorrect.
-The number one selling rock group from 2000-2009 is still the
Beatles, having sold 27 million albums. According to Billboard, the
Beatles have had 19 number one albums. Elvis was second at 10, tied
with Jay-Z. Tied for fourth are Springsteen and the Stones with nine.
The Beatles and Elvis are the only acts estimated to have sold more
than a billion albums. Michael Jackson, ABBA, and Queen sold about
350 million. The Stones sold 200 million, Springsteen 120 million,
and Jay-Z 50 million. Paul McCartney and Wings sold almost as many
albums as Springsteen, 100 million (not counted in Beatles total).
Michael Stipe's R.E.M, sold 50 million. Not bad for a group who hates
standing on the shoulders of giants.
-Finally, on the trivia front, which segues nicely to the next
paragraph, is that McCartney, Lennon and Harrison first picked up a
guitar in 1956 (Paul) and 1957 (John and George). Six years later
they were the most famous group in history at that point in time, as
well as since. How did this happen?
As a child and young teenager, I lived and died for the Los Angeles
Dodgers. I read all things Dodgers, that I could get my hands on.
That meant reading about the Brooklyn Dodgers. Branch Rickey, the
famous and successful Brooklyn Dodger GM who signed Jackie Robinson,
once said "luck is the residue of design." This quote always stuck
with me. Baseball is driven at the micro level by randomness and
luck. It is a game of probabilities; a bounce of the ball this way, a
failed close call that way, a great timely play by an outfielder,
etc. Over the long run, however, the best tend to win out.
The Beatles were, of course, lucky. Working with Brian Epstein and
George Martin was timely and serendipitous. But their luck, too, was
the residue of design. If it wasn't Martin and Epstein, it would have
been someone else. Why? Their work ethic and commitment to being a
successful rock group was phenomenal. Lennon and McCartney came
together in 1960, joined shortly thereafter by George Harrison (who
himself aggressively sought acceptance by Lennon and McCartney).
There were a number of other members who came and went, the most
famous being Pete Best the drummer. He was fired before their first
album was cut, and a drummer from one of Liverpool's top groups,
"Rory Storm and the Hurricanes," Ringo Starr, was hired in his place.
As Barry Miles documents, their workload was astonishing. Between
August 1960 and early 1963, they performed more than 800 hours on
stage (not including practice) in Hamburg, Germany alone. During that
same time period, they appeared almost 300 times at Liverpool's "The
Cavern." This does not include other venues they played. This is
astonishing and surely accounts for their success. Yes, they had
skill, but work is what made them the Beatles. George Harrison said:
"[In Germany] we learned to work for hours on end, and keep on
working at full peak even though we reckoned our legs and arms were
ready to drop off." This work ethic created their prolific song
writing ability. McCartney describes their first recording session
for the album "Please Please Me":
"We'd been playing the songs for months and months and months before
getting a record out. So we came in the studio at 10 in the morning,
started it, did one number, had a cup of tea, relaxed, did the next
one, a couple of overdubs…we just worked through them, like the stage
act. And by 10 o'clock that night, we'd done ten songs and we just
reeled out of the studios, John clutching his throat tablets."
They also were among the first singer song writers in history. This
was rarely done prior to the 1960s. They released 12 original albums
(one double) between 1963 and the beginning of 1970; additionally
they released 30 non-album tracks. Elvis never wrote a song. They did
two full length feature films, did hundreds of radio and television
appearances (when counting interviews). They lived in close to
squalid conditions and played for little money prior to late 1962.
They also were heavy users of various forms of amphetamines. They
consciously sought diversity in their sound and the songs they
played. They were willing to play covers as well as their own songs.
They drove themselves to improve. Any venue was an opportunity.
When Brian Epstein happened on to them in 1962 in Liverpool, he saw
great potential, although he had no experience as a producer, being
merely a record shop owner. But he was a promotional wizard at heart
and committed himself to their success. He also took advantage of the
Beatles' business naivete (which they eventually over came). He
signed a deal in which he received 25% of the gross (normal was 10%)
and the Beatles paid expenses and split the remainder. Still, the
Beatles never resented Epstein. Lennon always said that Epstein
provided the organizational and marketing skills to supplement their
work ethic to make them successful. The Beatles, at Epstein's urging,
were also willing to stop wearing denim and leather and switch to
those funky suits. They felt no less "authentic." More than 70
million people watched each of the two Ed Sullivan appearances in
early 1964 when they first came to America. They sounded great. The
population of the US was 180 million. To put that in perspective,
Obama and Palin each drew about 40 million to their nominating
speeches in a country of 300 million.
The Beatles were obviously great. They were great because they are
fun to listen to. They could make it seem so easy, which makes them
even more fun to listen to. The White Album, consisting of about 35
songs, was an astonishing random assortment of various sounds and
melodies. It was as if they were playing with their competition. But
it was not easy. It came out of effort as well as brilliance.
So what political message am I going to pull from this 40th
anniversary of the dissolution of the Beatles? It is obvious, right?
They were poor, but not victims. They did not ask for hand outs. They
could not have been invented by a government program. They pursued
self interest but provided enjoyment for hundreds of millions. Why is
this not the message of our current president and his congressional
allies? Why does Sonya Sotomayor credit affirmative action, rather
than her own hard work, for her success? She distorts what should be
her message. Why does the Democratic Party look to give to protected
groups of people while taking from others? Why aren't we encouraging
work and the entrepreneurial spirit instead of demonizing the profit
motive? McCartney is worth 1.5 billion. As economist Don Boudreaux
says, "only $1.5 billion?" Not everyone who works as hard and as
passionately as the Beatles will become mega-wealthy, but without
hard work and motivation, there can never be any success. Why is this
not the economic message of our day? As George Harrison once sang, we
have this instead from our Government.