Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Beatles, Hamburg, German Strippers and Practice

Over the last 15 years I've had the honour of working with loads of really smart strategist, but to be honest I've started to find that more and more often, the smartest planners are missing the simplest and biggest truths.

I've always believed that one of the greatest abilities a strategist can have is the ability to make difficult things simple, but in sharp contrast to that belief I'm hearing a consistent and universal pattern of complaints from agency creatives about strategists that make simple things - difficult. 

Just a few months back, I worked at TBWA Chiat/Day in Los Angeles where I overheard a planner - who had a reputation for being "really smart" say there will never be another Beatles! 

He continued into an incredibly long and complicated explanation of media and how it's changed, of television and how the "critical mass" had been reached in 1964, and how the alignment of 7 key factors had essentially created a perfect "popular culture storm". Wow, I thought to myself - that sounds really complex. So complex as a matter of fact that I just didn't buy it. 

I started to think about my own love of the Beatles,  of myself after work, as a lover of music not an agency guy. I love the Beatles because they simply wrote, played and sounded great. Simple.

So, I decided to do my own research into why the Beatles simply wrote, played and sounded as brilliantly as they did. A test to see if there was a simple answer. 

The info below will give an opinion on whether or not there will be "another Beatles". I did not read journals of social science. I chatted to my Uncle (he was in a Beatles cover band and an avid fan since I was a kid), read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers and watched the documentary Shout - that's it:

The Beatles came to the United States in February of 1964, starting the British invasion that transformed the face of popular music. It was a MASSIVE thing! I know this will piss a lot of people off, but Lennon was right - they kinda were bigger than Jesus. Which is especially weird, because his look was VERY in style in 1964.

The first thing that surprised me during my research was just how long the Beatles had actually been a band before they "hit it big". John and Paul had been playing together since 1957, that's 7 years before even arriving in America. 

What happened during those 7 years is the REALLY interesting bit - in 1960 when the Beatles were still a struggling high school rock band, they were invited to play in Hamburg, Germany. Hamburg wasn't known for great live music back then, what they were known for was numerous and fantastic strip bars. 

A club owner named Bruno had the idea of bringing young, English rock groups to play at his strip bars so, this German version of Tony Soprano went to London - and by good or bad luck, happened to meet a would be Liverpool-based entrepreneur who promised to send him "London's best" - what Bruno got was, Liverpools average, including The Beatles. 

The Beatles first International job however, was NOT average. Bruno, having previously worked at the German equivalent of US county fairs, had a different rock club model than CBGB's. He wanted bands...and strippers to perform for HOURS as 2nd, 3rd and 4th audiences cycled in and out of his venue, a "non-stop strip tease" was the basic idea. Can you imagine the Beatles and naked German girls? That's just awesome! 

Hamburg didn't really pay very well, the acoustics and audiences were kinda shit, BUT the amount of time that the Beatles were made to play...was insanely differentiating from other bands. Here's a great quote from John Lennon (You can find this quote in Malcolm Gladwells book - Outliers): 

"We got better and more confident. We couldn't help it with all the experience we gained from playing ALL night long - it was handy being from Liverpool because we had to try even harder than the locals, put our heart and soul into our performances to get ourselves over (to Hamburg). In Liverpool we only ever did 1 hour sessions and we only did our best numbers - the same ones, over and over. In Hamburg we had to play for 8 hours so, we really had to find a new way of playing." 

They played like this 7 nights a week! And as they got better the 12:30 closing time was extended till 2 most mornings - I gotta say this again, 7 days a week! 8 hours a night! How do you even think about doing something like that without a WHOLE LOTTA COCAINE??!!!

Now here's some simple math to contest the complex "7 factors" that my strategic friend waxed poetic:

The Beatles went to Hamburg 5 times in less than 2 years - On the first trip they played 106 nights - 5 or more hours each night. On the 2nd trip they played 92 times. On their 3rd trip they played 48 times - for a total of 172 hours on stage. Again, ALL within less than 2 years.

The Hamburg experience totalled 270 nights in just over 1 year and 6 months.  By the time the Beatles actually did end up on American television, they had performed live an estimated 1200 times.  Most bands do not perform 1200 times in their entire careers!

So, is it the complex 7 factors ? Personally, I don't think so.

To quote the fantastically simple Sir Winston Churchill: "Continuous effort - not strength or intelligence - is the key to unlocking our potential."

The Beatles simply tried harder than any band before them...and because of that, I KNOW we will see another Beatles before we die. Keep your eyes on the hardest working bands as we inch towards our next musical revolution. It may or may not be bigger than grunge, may or may not be bigger than hip hop, but we're due. 

Personally, I think it will happen in '09 and I'm watching Radiohead closely.


  1. you are so damn smart T!! i took a beatles class in college and it was the best semester EVER.

    this is your cuz Amy btw. love you and miss you nerd!

  2. There will only ever be one "Beatles." Something else MAY come along SOMEDAY, but it won't be that. More importantly, don't you have something better to do with your time?

  3. Don Quixote.. perhaps tilting at windmills just a fraction? ;o)

    Are you saying that the Beatles were the Beatles because they played a lot? Are you saying their constant playing and practice was the factor which made them so loved... that the effort of playing for 8 hours day after day made them in fact NEED to find simplicity/shortcuts in their music which somehow appeals to the masses... or something else entirely? Perhaps playing for hours on stage with semi-nude women did something for their confidence, giving them that inner confidence and rockstar glow which can cause the unravelling of even the most controlled female ;o)
    "There will never be another Beatles" is both completely true and untrue depending on the parameters used to define the statement. I would have loved to have reread your post knowing what parameters you had in mind.
    In saying all that I do have to absolutely bow to your powers of persuasion - you had me nodding "Yes" towards the end of the post despite the fact that I had no idea what I was agreeing with.

    Thank you for your posts. It is so incredibly refreshing to stumble upon someone who has such insight, let alone passion, for the understanding of human motivation... and rare that it happens to exist in a male ;)

  4. Nina you are an absolute doll. Thank
    you so much for the wonderful compliment. It makes
    me want to work even harder. :)

    And nice to meet you :)


  5. Making people work harder is the last thing I want to be responsible for!
    However, selfishly, if that means you blog more I'll take the credit.

    I'll have to thank Sarah for the introduction. She was so adamant that I "would just LOVE this blog!". I thought perhaps you put her on commission ;)

  6. I thought this was a great blog post.
    I only found it by accident by I'm recommending it to everyone.
    I also like Nina's comment about defining parameters.
    I just bookmarked it and I'll definitely visit more often.

  7. I think you maybe right on the RadioHead tip too.

    It reminds me of a story I was told about Jack Nichlaus (I think) the famous golfer - he had just sunk a 40 foot putt, teh crowd went wild and a reporter asked him "How did you do it Jack, that the most mazinbg putt ever", He replied "I have taken that shot over 1000 times in practice, I grew up on this course, I knew if I could just get the ball there practice would kick in"

  8. Tamer,

    You really make the point that the more complicated the answer, the less likely it is to be the right one.
    Practice makes perfect - but of course it helps to be songwriting geniuses too.
    Just one point, you say '7 days a week! 8 hours a night! How do you even think about doing something like that without a WHOLE LOTTA COCAINE??!!!" I don't think it's the scoop of the century to suggest a whole lotta amphetamine may have been crucial to this workrate...