Several years ago, a 29-year-old co-worker told me her birthday was July 7. Being the ultimate fan/geek, I told her she had the same birthday as Ringo Starr. She seemed impressed. Then looked at me with an uncertain expression and said, “Ringo Starr . . . wasn’t he in a band?”
For people of my generation, that would be like asking if Lil Nas X is a rapper.
Every generation chooses its own musical heroes, and that’s as it should be. Yet I hope the Beatles will always be remembered — not only because they served as a cultural milestone for many generations but because they still have a lot to teach us— especially about writing.
As songwriters, the Beatles — John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Starr — crafted some of the most enduring pop and rock songs of all time: “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You,” “Yesterday,” “Penny Lane,” “Hey Jude,” “A Day in the Life,” and on and on. However, the qualities which made them one of the most influential bands in the world can be adopted by writers of any genre.
Herewith are five Beatles “secrets” that were in plain sight all along:
- Always grow.
The Beatles started out singing simple love songs such as “Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me,” but they soon wrote more complex music. “Strawberry Fields Forever,” less than five years removed from “Love Me Do,” is miles apart in terms of composition and experimentation. “Come Together” shows the Beatles playing with words, while “Something” transports the listener with its hauntingly beautiful melody and lyrics.
At a time when conventional wisdom told pop stars to play it safe and continue to churn out hits in a winning formula, the Beatles refused to play it safe. As creative artists, they never sat still. Neither should you.
2. Study new instruments.
Many musicians become known for playing one instrument. Not the Beatles. After their commercial breakthrough, Paul McCartney, known primarily for playing bass, took piano lessons and studied classical music. Lead guitarist George Harrison introduced the sitar, a middle eastern instrument, into the group. All four of the Beatles sang lead on various songs.
As a writer, you can always learn new tools of the trade — such as new technology, new avenues for publishing, and new skills that your characters may use.
3. Find an expert/mentor to help you.
The Beatles benefited from their apprenticeship to producer George Martin, who had spent years as a staff producer at EMI and head of its Parlophone label before taking on the four scruffy lads from Liverpool. If it wasn’t a match made in heaven, it should have been.
In the beginning, Martin called the shots in the studio. But, as the Beatles matured as songwriters and musicians, they exerted more control. Nevertheless, they relied on Martin to produce all but one of their albums for a simple reason: He knew what he was doing. Martin took the Beatles’ sometimes vague musical ideas and translated them into workable results. Working with engineer Geoff Emerick, Martin painstakingly edited two versions of “Strawberry Fields Forever” into a masterpiece — even though they were in different tempos and keys.
George Martin was in every sense a musical collaborator. He guided the Beatles and knew when it was time to step aside and let them complete their own journeys.
4. Stay true to your core values.
Although the Beatles experimented, their core message remained remarkably consistent. As late as 1967, they were singing “All You Need is Love.” They carried their optimistic visions of love and peace into their solo careers, which spawned huge hits such as “Imagine” (John), “Silly Love Songs” (Paul), and “My Sweet Lord” (George).
By contrast, contemporaries such as the Rolling Stones and the Who wrote very different kinds of songs. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” with its explicit lyrics about sexual frustration, and “I Can See for Miles,” about deception and betrayal, would have been out of place in the Beatles’ catalog.
Your core values will come through your writing. It may take several pieces for you (or your readers) to understand what your message is, but once it becomes clear, your readers will look forward to it in your work.
5. Know when to let go.
The Beatles broke the hearts of millions of fans when they disbanded in 1970, but, for the four men involved, going their separate ways was probably for the best. They had grown as individual artists. It was time to leave home.
Many explanations have been given for why the Beatles broke up — from financial difficulties they faced in managing their musical empire to the John’s constant companionship with Yoko Ono — but their history is one of gradual evolution: from Lennon and McCartney developing as individual songwriters to the decision to stop touring to manager Brian Epstein’s death . . . all of these things pushed each of the four in different directions as they no longer spent significant amounts of time with each other and struggled with the normal opportunities for growth faced by young adults: starting families, buying homes, developing their own circles of friends. The Beatles were “married” to each other in the public eye, but, to their credit, they questioned the constraints of that marriage and ultimately had enough confidence to break away.
As writers, we, too, need to know when it’s time to let go — whether it be of a story, a writing group, or a mindset. A story doesn’t have to be perfect — only great. A relationship is of value only so long as it is mutually nourishing. A mindset should never lock us into thinking we are just one thing or can do only a limited amount of tasks. If you write in a particular genre, that’s great — but don’t be afraid to explore other avenues.
My former co-worker may have had only the dimmest idea of who the Beatles were, but in this year — the 50th anniversary of the last album they recorded together — they still have much to teach writers, such as when to let it be.
Norman, Philip. Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation. New York: MJF, 1981.
An earlier version of this article originally appeared on www.greggildersleeve.com.