This is a summer of discontent. We’re experiencing street protests, a divisive election, and the cloud of a pandemic. I say it’s time for a little fun, some whimsy, and a shot of innovation! For our whimsy and innovation boost, let’s return to 1964.
It’s Sunday night, February 9, 1964. An entire nation is glued to a Sunday evening television show and I’m no exception. Seventy-three million people are watching one show that night — setting a viewing record.
It was reported that crime dropped in New York City during this hour. After watching this show, my friend Dennis brought a guitar and grew his hair long. What made this hour so special? The Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show!
This former club band from Liverpool, England captured the attention and imagination of America. For a month in 1964, their records occupied the top five spots on America’s top ten singles’ list. Their music, hair styles, and clothing changed the look of a generation. This imprint was so significant that we’re still listening to and talking about their music fifty years later. Maybe in our summer of discontent this band can give us an innovation boost and a shot of love — something desperately needed today.
I’m writing not from nostalgia or as a fan but as an admirer of their innovation. There were better song writers, performers, and instrumentalists than The Beatles. What distinguished their influence was their innovation. The church, and world, badly needs fresh approaches and ideas today. We can learn from The Beatles’ example.
Innovation starts with originality, a breaking out of the status quo. Fifty years after their Ed Sullivan debut, it’s easy to forget how they broke with the status quo. Here are some examples.
Instead of relying on professionals to write their songs, The Beatles’ wrote their own. Instead of a backing band with one lead singer, this band had three lead singers. Instead of paid studio musicians backing a singer, they all played their own instruments. They broke and threw away pop musics’ mold.
Innovators often come from everyday people not solitary geniuses. The Beatles bought an egalitarian quality to innovation. None of the band could read or write music yet they shifted the domain of songwriting from the experts in “tin pan alley” (the street in New York City where the “expert” song writers worked) to two guys with guitars in a motel room writing a song. Instruments were not studied in a classroom but learned on stage in noisy ballrooms and bars. They inspired a proliferation of “garage” bands — make-shift bands of regular guys (and girls) practicing in dad’s garage with cheap guitars.
What’s amazing is that The Beatles only recorded for seven years (1962-69) but made eleven albums of nearly all original material (the greatest hits albums came later). They hold the record for the most #1 songs. Most of their music still holds up today — check out the movie Yesterday released in 2019. We can learn from their spirit of innovation.
Here are some lessons about how to innovate like The Beatles.
1. Master the basics. The Beatles apprenticed in bars and clubs as a “covers” band, copying and playing the music of others. They learned how to craft a perfect three-minute song by copying songwriting masters like Carol King, Buddy Holly, and Chuck Berry. Mastering the basics meant working hard. Before the success of the Ed Sullivan show, their apprenticeship in clubs and concerts totaled ten thousand hours (according to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers). It’s been said that their repertoire of stage songs for any given show was over two-hundred . . . and this was before 1964.
Who are the “masters” you’re learning from? Who is your model for excellent teaching, small group leading, or discipling another?
2. Work as a team. Lennon and McCartney drove the band’s sound but it was shaped by the group. The band worked together to compose the sound, the instrumentation, and the vocals. The unsung hero was their studio producer George Martin. Martin pushed them to excellence, forcing them to practice singing in harmony for hours to perfect their vocal sound. Along with Martin were engineers that pushed the boundaries of that era’s technology. Innovation happens when we collaborate.
Who are you collaborating with? Who is a partner in ministry innovation?
3. Encourage competition. It’s a myth that Lennon and McCartney co-wrote every song. In their early albums, they composed together but over time they wrote separately. There was a fierce competition as to who would have the “A” side of a single, the side that would be played on the radio. When Lennon recorded Strawberry Fields, McCartney returned with Penney Lane. Good innovation happens when there’s a friendly spirit of competition that pushes one another for greater excellence.
Who challenges you for greater excellence?
4. Look, listen, and borrow. Innovators borrow from others to make something new.
Paul McCartney borrowed from Jamaican reggae musicians. George Harrison incorporated Eastern instruments and rhythms into his songs. John Lennon derived songs from a newspaper’s headline (A Day in the Life) or from a circus poster (For the Benefit of Mr. Kite). Innovators look, listen, and borrow from others, giving new twists and contexts, making them their own.
Who are you borrowing and learning from? How are you making this your own?
Artists like The Beatles illustrate what theologians call “common grace.” God marked his image-bearers with an imprint of Himself, the ability to create. This gracious gift is found in all of his creation. No matter our spiritual condition we share in our Creator’s benevolence, using our creative natures for either good or evil. God’s common grace showed up in The Beatles’ music, pointing us to a generous creator.
Let’s move beyond the music and haircuts and learn to innovate like The Beatles. Have some fun this summer and buy the cd or vinyl album of 21 (the 21 songs that were #1 records). Fill up your Apple music account or Spotify with a selection of their songs. In the summer of our discontent, let’s loosen our imaginations a little. “The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars,” writes Francis Schaeffer.
Remember, He loves you! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!
A Beatles Quiz
- What was the name of the Liverpool club that propelled them to stardom?
- What was the name of their first number one record in America?
- What two songs did they record in German?
- What was the name of their first movie?
- What song started out humming the phrase “scrambled eggs?”
- Who was the walrus?
- What did they pioneer in the song “Eight Days a Week?”
- What album did Rolling Stone magazine vote as the best rock album of all time?
- Only two musicians outside the band ever played on a Beatles record. Who was the guitarist on “While My Guitar Weeps?”
- What song was heard in twenty six countries on a live global television broadcast from Britain in 1967?
- The Cavern
- I Want to Hold Your Hand
- She Loves You and I Want to Hold Your Hand
- A Hard Day’s Night
- A guitar fade-in to open the song.
- Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band
- Eric Clapton
- All You Need Is Love