John, Paul, George and Ringo were musically self-taught but received detailed instruction in the arts of popular music, were completely ignored yet extravagantly supported, were outright copyists and extraordinarily original. They brought everything they had learnt to The Beatles and kept on learning.
They re-invented authentic pop music after “the day the music died” (Feb 3rd 1959) and went on to create a new template, what Rolling Stone called the “self-contained band“, which has dominated popular music ever since with little variation. Even in 2007, the digital age, when Radiohead elected to make In Rainbows freely available to download it was as an album; an art work still in the shadow of Sgt Pepper. Arguably Radiohead were trying to solve a business problem that The Beatles had failed to solve with Apple.
Analysing the break up of the Beatles in his book You Never Give Me Your Money, Peter Doggett writes that “together and alone, at odds and at one, the Beatles somehow managed to create and preserve music that is as enduring as their myth, perfectly encapsulating their own time and enriching every time to come”. My stories have been about encapsulating that time, the sixties, and now I want to propose a fresh understanding of that musical creativity to enrich our time.
The way the Beatles developed and grew both defined and liberated the decade for those who, like me, lived through it and grew up within its sashaying lineaments. They provided the ambient hooks of its soundtrack and were its standard bearers, surfacing a range of artistic, cultural, philosophical and political issues for us to engage with. Unlike the Rolling Stones, say, they made the sixties comprehensible for all, creating a fresh national sense of identity in the UK that helped us to both survive a decade-long Blitz of social change, and read the signs of the times; not least as they often wrote them.
I don’t think they were preternaturally talented, let alone gods descending upon us, which some American writing about the Beatles can seem to imply, nor do I think it tragic that they split up. They emerged at just the right time, lasted as long as they needed to and then split up at The End; sounding perfect forever.
I do think they were gifted, made the most of their abilities, learnt their craft together and, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in Outliers, emerged historically at just the time when they could. I am less interested in who was the most talented Beatle, rather more in how their history exemplifies Brian Eno’s observation that ‘perhaps every group of musicians should have written above them “This group is a musical instrument; treat it as such“.’ I think it is as such a group, a wonderfully creative group, that we can learn from them.
This blog has presented a set of stories about the Beatles impact during the sixties, well on me, in order to reflect upon and exemplify a process described in the Open Context Model of Learning. This model proposes that learning develops along a Continuum, which begins with a pedagogic approach, develops andragogic processes and then inculcates a heutagogic ability to play with form, a practical creativity. This “PAH Continuum” is also how I would describe lifelong learning and should, I believe, underpin all education.
We could describe “PAH” another way, by saying learning about how to be in the world develops best through a process which begins first with understanding a subject, then grows by learning how to negotiate the support of “more able partners” in advancing that understanding, and then ultimately flourishes in a creativity that is capable of playing with the form of that discipline beyond the original subject boundaries.
So in these posts I intend to use this model to look at how The Beatles themselves learnt to be creative, so that their creativity might enrich and develop our understanding of how we learn.
In writing these posts, and in listening to the Beatles work as a whole, somewhat more analytically than I did as a fan at the time, I found a number of ways of categorising their work but here I will focus on the “PAH Continuum”. I will identify a “Pedagogic” phase when they are engaging with and learning the given structures of their chosen subject, popular music, followed by an “Andragogic” phase when they are negotiating with their peers to better reflect their own musical interests and needs, finally moving into a “Heutagogic” phase when they re-invent and transform their chosen discipline.
From this perspective I will argue that they achieve Pedagogic Excellence with Hard Days Night, Andragogic Excellence with Rubber Soul and Heutagogic Excellence with… well that is a hard one as it is about redefining the form of the discipline under review. Obviously with Sgt Pepper, possibly with Revolver, arguably with Abbey Road; let’s see. I’ll get to that next week, but we need to conjure up The Beatles if we are going to analyse them.
The pre-history of the Musical Instrument known as The Beatles.
So first things first! We need to identify how, as Eno defines it, the Musical Instrument known as The Beatles came into being, Something in the way they create is very definitely greater than the sum of their parts.
In the most spectacularly ironic way for a gaggle of relatively unsuccessful schoolboys The Beatles served a demanding, hard and potentially unrewarding, apprenticeship. And kept at it for years. In Outliers Malcolm Gladwell identifies the 5 years that the Beatles spent from 1957-62 as that apprenticeship, during which they built up their craft skills, but it was more than that. It was also the Learning Journey from which “The Beatles” emerged. They weren’t just learning the craft of playing their instruments they were also involved in the practice of becoming a group; untypically for that time Lennon and McCartney were also playing with the craft of songwriting.
Additionally they drew on a wide palette of influences both musically and creatively. Elvis for John, Little Richard for Paul, Carl Perkins for George, each reflecting differing ethnic sensibilities, as well as Motown and black American pop as well as, crucially, the one already existing “self-contained unit” Buddy Holly and the Crickets. And Paul also loved British Music Hall and John also loved the humour of the Goons; and, and, and…
Their time spent playing 6 hour sessions day after day for months on end in the outlier location of Hamburg meant they had to draw on all these influences and throw everything they knew into the crucible of their development just to survive. This unusual creative palette was far wider than, say, Cliff Richard, the biggest English Pop Star before the Beatles who, on the BBC’s Pop Britannia in 2005, said about his influences, “I wanted to be Elvis, literally to be him” The Beatles emergence however was about becoming Beatles. The Beatles ultimately transcended their qualities as individuals and developed a collaborative creativity that enabled them to move past their contemporaries seemingly without effort.
So who were The Beatles?
Pete Best wasn’t a “Beatle” but Stuart Sutcliffe was. Philip Norman in John Lennon; The Life thoroughly tracks their long development and growth. The cornerstone of which was the serendipitous meeting of the slightly drunk Lennon with the somewhat prim McCartney at Woolton Fete in 1957. Their shared love for various pop records, and their attempts to learn and play them with their guitars, resulted in a painfully slow process of learning by rote, demonstrating a patience rarely deployed on school work. As their ambition grew they recruited Harrison, who’s ability to play the instrumental Raunchy repeated Paul’s own rite of passage of playing 20 Flight Rock by Eddie Cochran; both moments neatly captured in the film Nowhere Boy. Sutcliffe was part of the Beatles “gang” and had creative cool but little musical ability, somewhat like Eno himself in the early Roxy Music. A key Beatles strength during their career was their collective decision making and this took time to evolve. Best however kept to himself and, despite his sex appeal, ultimately had insufficient musical skills to cut it professionally with The Beatles.
Presciently pre-figuring the Beatles later massive cross-over appeal the Hamburg exi’s, art students and their first middle-class fans, spotted the Beatles difference and included Astrid Kirchherr, who photographed them in black and white, gave them a look and the Beatle cut, and Klaus Voorman, who would create the Revolver sleeve and become part of the Plastic Ono Band. What Hamburg had done for them was help them learn how construct a live show and look like a cool band. Bob Spitz in The Beatles Biography identifies their return from Hamburg at the end of 1960 as the moment when the Beatles conquered Liverpool through the quality and excitement of their subsequent live performances; 1! 2!! 3!!! 4!!!!
As well as the exi’s Brian Epstein spotted something different in the Beatles and said they would become bigger than Elvis. Unlike Larry Parnes, then the most successful manager of Pop Stars, who signed British male singers to groom for stardom so that he could make money, Epstein untypically believed in the Beatles and their abilities. He was their first More Able Partner and, unlike Colonel Parker the manager of Elvis who signed contracts designed to maximise earning potential, Epstein wanted to help The Beatles realise their creative potential. As Lennon used to say to Epstein, “you take care of business Brian, we’ll take care of the music”. Brian Epstein becoming their manager, which happened almost a year after they gained the status as Merseyside’s best band, was the single most important factor in the Beatles getting a recording contract.
Ideal manager for The Beatles though he was at the time Epstein advised them to record a typical demo tape, with a mix of show tunes and standards, which would fail to make them stand out from other hopefuls when he arranged auditions with record companies. Nonetheless the many-headed beast needed to make The Beatles work was almost complete, and Epstein did work on their stage presentation and look, knowing they had the musical smarts to work as a live band, which was how their Merseyside following was first built.
The two most important things the Beatles did when auditioning for George Martin at EMI was to insist that they had songs worth recording and to stay true to their own authentic, provincial character. The first almost cost them the gig, but the second became the way forward. George Martin actually signed them for their presence and personality. The link between them was Peter Sellers from the Goons, whom Martin had produced, and whose creative humour became an early shared bond between them. In “The Beatles in the Studio” (BBC 2009) George Martin said that their method of recording in the early days was to attempt to write hit singles. This was the discipline of their chosen subject; writing hit singles. From their recordings they either produced a hit single or, if it wasn’t good enough, a B-side or an album track. John and Paul also discussed the process of writing “work-songs”, essentially filler written in two hours to the “Repeat 1” formula, when album deadlines were looming, and they also recorded cover versions. But their “pedagogic” strategy was to write, and record hit singles; albums were a by product at that time.
We can present those early meetings of the Beatles and George Martin from a more traditional teacher – learner perspective. George Martin presented them with a possible hit single, How Do You Do It, eventually a Number One for Gerry and The Pacemakers, “at the start I was like a master with his pupils.” However they fluffed the homework he had set them, deliberately recording a half-hearted version, which you can hear on Anthology. They presented Martin with four songs they had written themselves, of which, initially, Martin thought only Love Me Do had any potential. He worked on the songs with them; “At the beginning my specialty was the introduction and the endings, and any instrumental passages in the middle.” Fortunately their own slender homework was worth correcting; and they learnt quickly. As a teacher Martin was patient and knowledgeable, and he was the master of his own domain, the creative classroom of Abbey Road.
What emerged from the auditioning process and their early studio work was that The Beatles had found their musical More Able Partner; George Martin. They had just enough subject discipline to survive the audition on their playing ability, and in so doing found someone who could scaffold and develop their writing and recording abilities. Martin also rejected Pete Best as someone not good enough to be a recording artist, as the version of Love Me Do recorded with him testifies. Martin enabled The Beatles to put the last piece of the jigsaw into place; John, Paul, George and Ringo, as they were known by their entry date into the gang of four who changed lives forever.
Crucially George Martin also sent them away to rework their demo of Please Please Me and they came back with one minute and ten seconds of their first number one single. Martin put the hooks up front and the signature sound of the Beatles in 1963 was complete. This sound features an urgent rising intro which hooks you in to the song which then has clear, simple lyrics built around I, Me, You and a harmonica re-inforcing the melody. It was their first template for hit singles. As a listener at the time it switched my focus away from the story presented in the lyrics and onto the optimistic excitement generated by the sound. With their vocal harmonies responding to the underlying drive of the music it created a top-heavy “trebly” sound that worked incredibly well on the music distribution system of choice in the early sixties, the tinny transistor radio, where potential record buyers scoured the airwaves waiting to be hooked by possible future purchases.
Albums were not the focus of record buyers in 1963 and Please Please Me was designed by Martin to simply mirror their stage show; big opening, big finish, a mix of tunes in between and all recorded in one day long session of ten hours. It was a fan souvenir not an art work; that was yet to come. The second album With The Beatles repeated the formula, but with more time for recording and an arty sleeve. It felt like an event at the time, which it was, but with hindsight it is remarkably similar to the first album.
Pedagogical Excellence – Hard Days Night
So what marks Hard Days Night out as the apotheosis of this early Beatles style? Firstly the Beatles, actually Lennon and McCartney, wrote all the songs, they had moved well beyond copying homework; essaying hit singles from their own template. They had also developed a range of templates they could call on, as well as hit singles they also had; the harmonica-driven sing-along (I Should Have Known Better), ballads by John (If I Fell) and ballads by Paul (And I Love Her), they had George’s track (I’m Happy Just to Dance With You) and Ringo’s track (missing), they had drumming-driven club-ravers (Tell Me Why) and mid-tempo Country-pickers (I’ll Cry Instead). As well as the song templates they also had good musicianship, sharp ears and a remarkable ability to arrange songs quickly, yet distinctively. Back from their triumph in America they impressed Geoff Emerick, their engineer, by “how much more professional they had gotten.”
So a bunch of skills and a lot of craft to call on; what else? Well their working process was remarkably discursive and focussed on problem solving. Allied to that you had the mutual drivers of competition between John and Paul to be the songwriter of the next hit single and the collaborative processes initiated and supported by George Martin in the studio. Lennon and McCartney would share their first draft of songs with each other and then develop them mutually; Lennon sharpening the lyrics, Paul sweetening the melodies. During recording George would work in a middle eight and Ringo added his light-handed rhythmic backbeat. Lennon, who never did homework at school, wrote Hard Days Night overnight when they lacked a title song, appropriating the phrase from Ringo when Richard Lester, the director, selected Hard Days Night as the title at the last minute.
Brian Epstein, their other more More Able Partner, was fastidious in planning their schedules, meeting their needs and taking care of them and their requirements. Epstein freed them up to focus on making music and Martin enabled them to make their musical reach greater than their fan-like grasp. And how did this sound at the time? Well like the best pop music ever heard and suddenly we had a frame of reference to make sense of the world as it changed around us.
Hard Days Night was a single, an album and a film; all of which were innovative in varying ways, and all hugely successful. Hard Days Night was box-office second in 1964 only to the iconic Bond film Goldfinger, in which Connery explicitly mocks The Beatles music. They also worked closely with Lester, a jazz musician who, for his work on Hard Days Night, was dubbed the “Father of the Music Video” by MTV. I Should Have Known Better from the film exemplifies this.
So why did things change after this multi-media triumph? Well they had cracked America and Lennon had published In His Own Write just before Hard Days Night. As a published author, who illustrated his own book, he gained a different kind of artistic attention. Most importantly whilst Hard Days Night represented a unique triple whammy of success The Beatles weren’t interested in repeating it. And as an album Hard Days Night was an accidental creation. Great review of it here though.
Tune it next week to find out how you continue to develop creatively once you have already become Royalty at the Toppermost of Poppermost. Could it be the Fifth Beatles?