The Beatles and Innovation
“As usual, for these co-written things, John often had just the first verse, which was always enough: it was the direction, it was the signpost and it was the inspiration for the whole song. I hate the word but it was the template.” – Paul McCartney
by Drew Boyd
The Beatles were innovators, and they did it the old-fashioned way: they used templates. They were two-way innovators, using a mix of PROBLEM-TO-SOLUTION and SOLUTION-TO-PROBLEM innovation. The Beatles were corporate innovators who created immense fortunes for their shareholders. They used structured methods, experimentation, and technology the same way Fortune 500 companies create new products and services. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, The Beatles have sold more albums in the United States than any other artist. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked them number one in its list of 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, and four of their albums appeared in the top ten of the magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. The Beatles’ innovative music and cultural impact helped define the 1960s, and their influence on pop culture is still evident today. The Beatles were collectively included in Time magazine’s list of The Most Important People of the 20th Century. How were they so effective?
The Beatles practiced team innovation. John Lennon and Paul McCartney are the most successful musical collaboration in history. One would sketch an idea or a song fragment and take it to the other to finish or improve; in some cases, two incomplete songs or song ideas that each had worked on individually would be combined into a complete song. Often one of the pair would add a middle eight or bridge section to the other’s verse and chorus. Lennon called it “Writing eyeball-to-eyeball” and “Playing into each other’s noses”. They applied these templates in a disciplined, structured way to create a stream of hit songs.
The Beatles were experimenters. David Thurmaier writes:
“Above all, the Beatles remained curious about all types of music, and they continually reinvented their own music by injecting it with fresh influences from multiple cultures. This experimentation adds a dimension to their work that separates it from their contemporaries’ music. In the second volume of his book The Beatles as Musicians, Walter Everett explains that “rock musicians’ interest in Indian sounds multiplied rapidly” after George Harrison introduced the Indian sitar to the song “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).” Also, the string quartet on 1965’s “Yesterday” would make its way into the music of other groups around the same time. This exchange of musical innovations worked both ways; for example, the Beatles were able to take elements from Bob Dylan’s music and meld them into their own. Their relentless experimentation and questing for the “new” is one strong element that makes the Beatles’ music attractive and rewarding for study and enjoyment.”
The Beatles loved technology. They innovated songs and the way they produced songs. They used a wide range of techniques in the studio to differentiate their sound including guitar feedback, classical musicians on popular albums, artificial double tracking, close miking of acoustic instruments, sampling, direct injection, synchronizing tape machines, and backwards tapes. The recording process was summed up by Paul McCartney: “We would say, ‘Try it. Just try it for us. If it sounds crappy, OK, we’ll lose it. But it might just sound good.’ We were always pushing ahead: louder, further, longer, more, different. That love of technology lives on today with the release of The Beatles Rockband
Oddly, McCartney seemed uncomfortable using templates to write songs. Perhaps using a template seemed like cheating, making him feel less creative. This is a fallacy about creativity and creative people. My sense is that creative people in any field use a template of some sort. How could creative people like Robert Frost, Shakespeare, da Vinci, and Disney continue to pour out masterful work over and over? Like the Beatles, they used templates. It gave them the direction, the signpost, and the inspiration to apply their creative mind in a structured, systematic way.
Many have studied and commented on the contributions of The Beatles and the lessons learned. And in the end, it was their prolific use of structured innovation templates that made their contributions possible.
Drew Boyd is Director of Marketing Mastery for Johnson & Johnson (Ethicon Endo-Surgery division). He is also Visiting Assistant Professor of Marketing and Innovation at the University of Cincinnati and Executive Director of the MS-Marketing program. Follow him at www.innovationinpractice.com and at https://twitter.com/drewboyd
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