Lessons For Writers: The Beatles Edition

by wjw on February 12, 2014


So here in the States we’re celebrating the 50-year anniversary of the Beatles landing in New York, and at least one local station played nothing but Beatles the other night.

And what did I think about?  I thought about what writers could learn from the Beatles.

I was actually alive and present on the planet when the Beatles arrived, and I remember all the excitement, for all that I was not terribly excited myself.  I was a little kid in Minnesota, and I thought the Beatles were okay, but I wasn’t a giant fan.  As far as contemporary music went, I was more into Motown, for all that I didn’t know what “Motown” was or what it meant.  (Besides, Motown was called “Tamla” back then.)  I certainly remember rocking’ to Aretha on my way to and from the UMD hockey games.

But (as a little kid) mostly I listened to my parents’ music, which was big band swing and the Great American Songbook as interpreted by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, et al.

It took me a couple years to become a real Beatles fan, which happened around the period of Rubber Soul and Revolver.  Maybe I had to wait for their music to mature.  Or maybe I started to hit puberty.  Probably both.

But enough about me.  By utter coincidence I’m reading Tune In, a massively researched Beatles biography by Mark Lewisohn— which not only is nearly a thousand pages long, but is only Volume I of a trilogy!  Holy compendium, Batman!

Tune In demonstrates in massive detail the limited choices facing Liverpool kids of the Beatles’ generation.  Not only were they born with German bombs falling around them, and grew up in a town that never seemed able to clear the ruins. and where the best  working-class kid might hope for is a job paying a couple pounds a week.  If the Beatles hadn’t hit big, that’s where they would have gone.

And for them to hit big, everything had to break exactly right.  Or sometimes, exactly wrong. For instance, the Beatles had to fail their Decca audition.  Because if Decca had picked them up, they would have been assigned one of Decca’s A&R guys, who would have assigned the songs he wanted them to play (and who might have written the song for the B Side to assign himself the royalties).  If he liked any of the Lennon-McCartney songs, he would have forbidden the Beatles to play them, because he would have assigned them to more important artists.

Instead, Decca passed on the Beatles, and they went on to EMI, where they were assigned George Martin (the A&R man/producer, not the author).  Who was utterly perfect for them.

In order to succeed, the Beatles had to fail strategically.

Their biggest slice of luck was to attract Brian Epstein as their manager.  Managers were (then as now, pretty much) out for themselves— a typical manager might have assigned himself 50% of their earnings for being manager, plus another 10% for being their agent.  Plus told them what to play, how to play it, and maybe written some of the songs himself (to collect royalties), or assigned the songs to his own publishing company (to get 100% of the royalties).

Instead they got Brian Epstein, a successful, honest retailer who had never managed a band before and who didn’t understand that he was supposed to be a crook.  He collected 15% and he told the Beatles to write their own songs instead of just playing songs by Little Richard and Chuck Berry, and he had the connections in the music business that gave his bands entree to Decca and EMI.  He knew that no one in London would record anyone who didn’t wear suits and ties, so he made the Beatles put on suits and ties.

Another piece of luck was that George Martin was having an affair with his secretary.  Their boss disapproved, but he couldn’t fire Martin because Martin was too successful.  So he decided to punish Martin by ordering him to sign and record some unknown beat group from the North of England.  (That’ll show him!  Hah!)

So the Beatles got two huge breaks, attracting the only honest manager in England and landing the best producer, who was ordered to record them as punishment.

In order to be the Beatles and to change the world, they needed massive amounts of luck.  It’s not just “Work hard and make sacrifices, and the world’s your oyster.”  I know lots of people who worked hard all their lives for modest (if any) rewards.  But you can’t slack off, because when the luck comes you have to be ready.

Which is where writers can learn a lot from the Beatles (and not just the writers of songs, either).  If the same lucky breaks had happened to Rory and the Hurricanes or Tony Sheridan, they wouldn’t have changed the world the way the Beatles did.  They wouldn’t have become the Beatles.

So what did the Beatles do that made them the Beatles and not Gerry and the Pacemakers?  Here are the lessons.

Be Creative!:  Or if you can’t be creative, at least Bring Something to the Table: Even when the Beatles were a cover band, playing music written by other people, they worked on their covers until they became something that sounded new and fresh and, well, Beatle-like.

What the Beatles brought to the table was a group sound that had never been heard in Britain.  What a writer brings to the table is Voice— something that should be unique to every writer.   Even writers fond of the “transparent style,” where the author’s presence is supposed to be completely unobtrusive, are adopting a style.  Use the style well.

Study masters of style.  Study masters of No-Style, like Hemingway.  Study poetry, because it can tell you how to be economical with your words, and how to use imagery effectively.

If you have a personality that works for you with people, it will work for you in your prose.  Let your personality shine through.  (Unless everyone just hates you, in which case everyone is probably right and you may just be hateful— so don’t let that show.)

Be True to Your School: The Beatles were a rock band during a time when rock was believed to be dead by everyone in the know.  They were also a harmonizing vocal group at a time when there were literally no other vocal groups in England.

“Twist Music” was the fashionable thing in 1962, and everyone else in the studio was recording “twist songs.”  (The Twist was gone by 1963.)  The Beatles didn’t chase stupid trends, they did what they loved.

Turns out that rock wasn’t dead, it had just been neutered— by the legions of Miss Grundys, by Elvis’s draft board, and most of all by the record industry itself, churning out massive amounts of soulless product.  But when the real deal was played for them, the Beatles’ fans responded.

The lesson is do the stuff you care about, because your love for the material will shine through.  When the Beatles played the music they loved, the audience responded.

Broaden Your Horizons: The Beatles didn’t just listen to rock, they listened to everything.  R&B, C&W, Latin music, ballads.  They were exposed to crooners, English music-hall tunes, jazz, folk music.  And they learned to perform everything they listened to, so that when they created something, they could draw on a huge mother-lode of technique and material.

A fantasy novel written by someone who’s only read fantasy novels, or a romance written by someone who reads only romances, isn’t going to tell us anything new or interesting.  A writer wants a solid background in genre, in literary fiction, and in poetry, because that’s all something that you can bring to your own form, whatever that may be.

And though they performed stuff like “Besame Mucho” and other popular ballads, the Beatles didn’t violate the first rule.  They were True to Their School— they were rockers, but they knew that audiences want (and deserve) a change-up now and again.  They performed all this material in their own way.  When they sang “Besame Mucho,” it became a Beatles song.

Hone the Shit Out of Your Craft: Practice practice practice.  Get in the 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell says is necessary to master your chosen art.  And for God’s sake experiment.  If you don’t experiment, you don’t grow, and you don’t get better.  Maybe you say to yourself “I’m as good as I want to be,” or “I’m already perfect,” or “My audience doesn’t deserve anything better than what I’m giving them.”

In which case I can predict a very short career.

The Beatles were so obsessive about music that they effectively cut off any other future for themselves.  John was kicked out of college, George and Ringo dropped out of high school to play music.  If they hadn’t got lucky and become stars, they might have ended up homeless, because there was no place else for them to go.  (I don’t necessarily recommend going to this particular extreme.)

Don’t Do the Same Fucking Thing:  When they were playing Hamburg, the Beatles were onstage from six to eight hours every night, seven nights each week.  And they deliberately set themselves the challenge of never repeating the same show, or the same set.  Which meant they had to master a truly colossal range of material.  So when they got that EMI audition, they could do any damn thing they wanted.

Change-Up:  I mentioned change-ups earlier.  Change-ups broaden your creativity because they set new challenges, and when you meet a new challenge, you get better.

The Beatles had a lot of imitators.  And as soon as the imitators started to sound too much like them, the Beatles changed.   They knew they couldn’t repeat themselves, they had to evolve and do something different all the time, and leave the imitators in the dust.

Yet when they did this, they remained the Beatles.  The Beatles of Abbey Road are recognizably the same Beatles of Meet the Beatles, just enormously more sophisticated and accomplished.  Because they never sat on their laurels.

Which brings us to . . .

Don’t Sit On Your Laurels.

And of course the biggest one is, Be Lucky.  Wish I knew how to teach that.

But I can teach the other stuff.  So that when luck arrives, you can be ready.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Ralf Dog February 13, 2014 at 4:42 am

Poetry, I am reading the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. It contains Vogon Poetry. Does that count?

Clyde February 13, 2014 at 2:18 pm

Nice essay. Thank you for taking me down memory lane and adding to the memories.

MikejustMike February 14, 2014 at 3:23 am

W gebsite. Heh.

The beatles were impossibly old for the dudes like me who wanted to spread the gospel of AC/DC and Foreigner. Then I took El Cid and listened to ” A life in a day” and promptly moved on to Pink Floyd and King Crimson.

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