Part 8 of Learning…With The Beatles, The Assessment
This set of posts have been reviewing the The Beatles life story album-by-album, using the Open Context Model of Learning as a framework for evaluating the processes of learning that they went through and how that affected their music. The reason for this is to try and uncover exactly what constituted their enduring creativity and how we might learn from it today. The Open Context Model of Learning is concerned to examine how the education process itself might be structured to enable more creativity to emerge from it naturally rather than being a thing apart uncovered in various culture contexts outside of formal education.
The Beatles themselves, “four underachieving schoolboys” who “changed the world”, seem ideal subjects for such an analysis of how you might learn creativity. Not least as the author is also fan and can bring some additional musical and contextual insights to the analysis. Having written these posts and reflected on the insights provided by them I think there are some real lessons to be drawn out. Most notably in fact that the creative phase of learning is deeply rooted in the collaborative phase. Building meaningful collaborations is the core of creativity. Lets examine how The Beatles work reveals that to us.
Open Context Model of Learning
Firstly some words about the Open Context Model of Learning which posits three phases in learning which will be used as the basis for this discussion.
Pedagogic; when we learn using the focus of a subject discipline to structure our learning.
Andragogic; when we both learn how to negotiate what we want to learn both within and beyond that subject discipline, and how to collaborate with others in that learning
Heutagogic; when we learn what the structure and the form of our learning is and we start to play with the form and create afresh
So the Open Context Model pre-supposes that we need to understand the structures of the subject under study, but also that we need to identify processes of collaboration and strategies for creativity. Fortunately George Martin, who signed The Beatles to his label Parlophone explicitly uses educational analogies in discussing their work together identifying that he was like a schoolteacher in the early days and that after Yesterday they became collaborators, reflecting the first two stages of the PAH Continuum.
The Beatles and the Open Context Model of Learning
This author argued that we could map these three phases of learning to three phases of Beatles music, which I will discuss next. In fact for various reasons discussed below the Open Context Model Phase of The Beatles own learning process as creative musicians ended when they recorded I Am The Walrus on September 1967 and was then followed by a phase of permanent re-invention covering, The White Album, Get Back and Abbey Road. Arguably their ability to continually re-invent themselves ultimately rendered it impossible for them to carry on just as much as the Kleinian motion concerning their finances discussed in You Only Give Me Your Money did.
Pedagogic Excellence; From the Parlour to the Scream
This early phase of The Beatles development concerns the time they focussed on writing and recording “hit records”. The music industry in England in the early sixties basically treated pop music as a “here today, gone tomorrow” concern and the artists themselves were disposable. The smart ones aimed to be all round family entertainers. The real money spinners before The Beatles were soundtrack albums. The biggest selling albums of 5 of the years of the decade (swinging sixties) were very square soundtrack albums. In an irony that he must have lived with ever since Cliff Richard finally hit gold dust with this formula with Summer Holiday in the very week that Please Please Me went to number one and changed the rules of the “hit record” game. Please Please Me was significant for any number of reasons but here are two. The Beatles refused to record potential “hit records” written by songwriters other than themselves, and George Martin, in his words the “school master” of his studio, reshaped the 1′ 10” of Please Please Me that The Beatles offered him, into the signature sound of Beatlemania. Harmonica-driven rising chords, the excitement embedded in the music hitting you even before you get to the “I, Me, You” lyrics. Right through your feet and direct to your heart. 1963 saw the elaboration of that style whilst their other influences emerged and blended into their evolving Mersey Beat sound. Boil Please Please Me down and you have recorded the essence of Mersey Beat.
The massive success of the self-penned “hit record” Please Please Me meant they needed to put an album together to capitalise on this success and George Martin, clearly in charge of directing The Beatles musically in early 1963, astutely decided that the Please Please Me LP would be a version of the stage act that had made their name. The workaholic Beatles played a live concerts relentlessly throughout 1963, and a “fan souvenir” album, not only made sense but tied in with the prevailing notion of albums being soundtracks.
Refining The Subject; With The Beatles
Their second album, With The Beatles, released the day Kennedy was shot in Dallas synchronistically enough, merely evolved the framework of the first album. However instead of being their live act caught in the studio they used that framework and upped their game by writing several new songs. Significantly the first five songs are all Lennon and McCartney originals and the album, only released on November 22nd yet still the biggest selling record of Bealtlemania year 1963, opened with three cracking new tracks, one of which All My Loving would later be released on an EP and then top the Australian charts 6 months later. Whilst this was a better recorded album, and Lennon didn’t have a cold, it didn’t represent any development musically; essentially it reprised the first album with little more care and attention. Culturally however it was a massive event, coming after the media-baptised birth of Beatlemania and their Royal Variety Performance and marked the beginning of Beatles releases being cultural events dominating the media landscape in the UK. And whilst With The Beatles in itself didnt represent a musical or a creative advance on Please Please Me it did contain the track that gave their friends the Stones their own breakthrough and their globally their most significant single I Want To Hold You Hand, was released a week later. So three key tropes of Beatles musical activity, classic singles, great albums and support of fellow artists, were in place by November 1963. It was shortly followed by a fourth trope, dominating Christmas (when albums were more likely to be presents than purchases). And the fifth trope of multimedia, updated in 2009 by The Beatles Rock Band, when Top of The Pops was launched on January 2nd 1964. However most of the events between October 13th 1963 and January 2nd 1964 represented the growth of the social phenomenon of Beatlemania rather than the evolution off their musical abilities. Furthermore the events of February and March 1964 when the modestly triumphant Beatles, “we thought we just would be able to buy some new albums” conquered America; essentially saw them globalising Beatlemania.
What was more astonishing than even this unprecedented global success was that The Beatles then released their first pluperfect album as the soundtrack to a movie devised by United Artists as a scam for them to make money from the attendant inevitable million selling soundtrack album (It sold 5 million). George Emerick commented that when they came back from the US to finish Cant Buy Me Love they had “a new confidence about them” and this revealed itself in their next album.
Allegro Goon Troppo
The Beatles, George Martin and the director Richard Lester, all fans (or collaborators) of The Goons, collectively produced Hard Days Night. A brilliant single, an iconic movie (a Nouvelle Vague tribute, but often with more invention and life) that invented the MTV video format – check I Should Have Known Better, and their first fully self-penned album. All captured in the memorably heutagogic Ringoism of a “Hard Days Night”. Provocateur in Chief Lennon recognised its value and, overnight, wrote the deathless single with the climactic opening chord demanded by Lester (my personal favourite single). In passing the film also captures the social context out of which they emerged. The impoverished black and white of fifties England (cleverly spoofed in Summer Holiday as the film turns colour as the Cliff and The Shadows plan to leave England). The transformation to the more egalitarian sixties is captured in Hard Days Night in the escape from the socially oppressive cocktail party to the freedom of the playground and then in the TV studio where the Beatles musical artistry lets them be themselves. (Because by then the joy playing in front of fans was becoming limited by the adulatory screaming)
So by their third album The Beatles had perfected their apprenticeship in the discipline of making hit records FOR the music business, whilst recording several classics beloved of fans. They transformed the expectations of the music listening public, if not the music industry. They also worked collaboratively as a group with an already sophisticated creative process.Lennon and McCartney working out new songs face-to-face in a style developed at Englin Road and fortified by tea, toast and ciggies. Then demoing it in the studio to develop harmonies with George, who also worked out a guitar solo whilst George Martin worked out how best to record it in terms of musical arrangements and the craft affordances of the magical mystery context of Abbey Road Studio 2. Finally Ringo, weakened by a childhood illness, listened intently before producing rhythms that served the song. The Beatles collaboratively produced perfectly recorded songs, the mark of their crafty pedagogic excellence. And up to now they had focussed on hit records, the terms of their very poorly rewarded deal with Parlophone and EMI.
You couldnt improve on Hard Days Night, it showed that the Beatles had learnt their lessons well, perfected them and in so doing changed the rules of the game. In the summer of 1964 they had provided the template of the self-contained rock band which whilst easing the path of those that followed, also provided a challenge in terms of quality. And as Tim Riley says in Tell Me Why they had move “Beyond Adolescence” with the “idea of an album as…a forum for ideas”
Learning from Learning…With The Beatles.
Baudelaire said that nations get great men in spite of themselves and perhaps that was the case with The Beatles. Growing up in the fifties they were part of a generation in debt to their elders who had won the war but lost a peace measured out in rations and, as Pete Townsend astutely pointed out, never failed to remind the “restless generation” of the fifties about the debt that they owed to their elders and moral superiors. Secondly the 1944 Education Act created the possibility of educational for all but without any real opportunities to take advantage of it. As the Beveridge Report sought to remove “squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease” a burgeoning class of education working class kids entered society. The plateglass universities and the Robbins Report didnt open up Higher Education until the sixties. The Beatles grew up in a social context designed to broaden their horizons educationally, whilst making them feel guilty moral inferiors. Furthermore as Jeff Nuttall argues in Bomb Culture, the Atomic Age had also created a sense that the apocalypse was due right about now so what was the point in obeying rules? Perhaps The Beatles generation had moved from being restless to being socially reckless. The single most significant act in The Beatles creating themselves as a group was McCartney turning down a proper apprenticeship to join the band full time, whatever that meant at the time. That act of McCartney marks a shift to sixties thinking from fifties thinking.
Another factor in this contextual backstory was the long-standing tradition of music making in the home rather than consuming music at home. Combine this with the music hall tradition of entertainment, which still thrived in the fifties and was often the family choice of entertainment when they went out, if they weren’t raucously “rolling out the barrel” down the pub, and music-making was strongly socially embedded in the fifties.
The Beatles themselves grew up in music making families, McCartneys dad was even a band leader, but were also in the right place at the right time as Britain, which socially had never had it so good, discovered “hire purchase” and began its long march to consumerism through radios and record players and singles. A friend of mine who knew The Beatles in 1963 and 1964 even thinks that “Beatlemania” after Hard Days Night, signifies the arrival of the music-consuming generation as fans as opposed to the generation of music-making fans who loved listening to The Beatles as live performers of music rather than as a spectacle previously seen on TV.
Educated, restless and reckless, The Beatles had been socially scaffolded into a nowhere land, but their love of music, and the attendant adrenaline rushes it grants to its successes, suggested trails to blaze which would ultimately lead to EMI, Parlophone and George Martin. The ambitious Martin also wanted recognition for his work as a producer and greater status for his “joke” label Parlophone. The Beatles had conquered Hamburg and Liverpool and wanted to conquer London, Britain and the world of the “Poppermost.” In a marriage made in the listed building heaven of Abbey Road Studio 2 they brought their character, sound, creativity, energy, wit, irreverence and decisiveness (their group identity in fact) and let Martin instruct them in how to take their resources and turn them into hit records. They brought everything they had learnt outside of school and took it to a school of hit record making and, in my opinion, graduated with Hard Days Night.
The Beatles were memorable because they didn’t do what we expected, they didnt play what we expected and they also sounded completely different; or as Monty Python almost said “nobody expects the sixties revolution.”