It’s Sunday night, February 9, 1964. An entire nation was glued to a Sunday evening television show, and I was no exception. Seventy-three million people watched 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 bought 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 impact was so significant that we’re still listening to and talking about their music sixty years later.
Let’s have some fun for a few minutes. Let’s consider how we can learn to innovate like the Beatles.
Artists like the Beatles illustrate what theologians call “common grace.” God marked His image-bearers with an imprint of Himself (Genesis 1:26); one mark of this “image” is the ability to create. This gracious gift is found in all his creation. No matter our spiritual condition we share in our Creator’s benevolence (Matthew 5:45) using our creative natures for either good or evil. God’s common grace showed up in the Beatles’ music, music that at times points to a generous creator.
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. We can learn about innovation from God’s common grace in the Beatles.
Innovation starts with originality, a breaking out of the status quo. God does this all the time; Jesus could not be accused of maintaining life-as-usual. Creation is full of unexpected moments of creativity, but it requires us looking. Let’s look back sixty years and discover how the Beatles broke with the musical 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, the 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 music’s mold.
Innovators often come from everyday people rather than solitary geniuses. The Beatles brought an egalitarian quality to innovation. None of the band could read or write music. They shifted the songwriting domain from experts in “tin pan alley” (the street in New York City where the “expert” song writers worked) to two guys with guitars writing a song in a motel room. Instruments were not studied in a classroom but learned on stage in noisy ballrooms. They inspired a proliferation of “garage” bands — make-shift bands of regular guys (and girls) practicing in dad’s garage.
What’s amazing is that The Beatles only recorded for six years (1963-69) but made eleven albums of nearly all original material (the greatest hits albums appeared after their break-up). They hold the record for the most #1 songs in America (beat that Taylor Swift!). Most of their music still holds up today.
How can we innovate like The Beatles?
- Master the basics. The Beatles apprenticed in clubs as a “covers” band copying and playing the music of others. They learned how to craft a perfect three-minute song by studying songwriters like Chuck Berry, Carol King, or Buddy Holley. Mastering the basics meant working hard. Before the success of the Ed Sullivan show, their apprenticeship in clubs totaled ten thousand hours (according to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers). It’s been said that their repertoire of stage songs at 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 excellence?
- Work as a team. Lennon and McCartney drove the band’s sound, but it was shaped by the group and an unseen production team such as their record producer George Martin. Martin pushed them to excellence, forcing them to practice singing harmony for hours to perfect their vocal sound. Along with Martin were the engineers that pushed the boundaries of that era’s primitive technology. Innovation happens when we collaborate.
Who are you collaborating with? Who is a partner in ministry innovation?
- Encourage challenge and 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 the revolutionary Strawberry Fields McCartney returned with the poetic Penny Lane. Good innovation happens when there’s a friendly spirit of challenge that pushes one another for greater excellence.
Who challenges you for greater excellence?
- Look, listen, and borrow. Innovators borrow from others to make something new. We always stand on the shoulders of giants. Paul McCartney borrowed from Jamaican reggae musicians. George Harrison incorporated Eastern instruments and rhythms into his songs. John Lennon created songs from newspaper headlines and a circus poster. Innovators look, listen, and borrow from others, giving new twists and contexts, making them their own.
Who are you learning and borrowing from? How are you making this your own?
Let’s move beyond the music and the haircuts to learn to innovate like the Beatles. Have some fun and buy or download 21 (the 21 songs that were #1 records). Fill up your Apple music account or Spotify with a selection of their songs.
It’s time to loosen our imaginations and free them from the status quo. Let’s take our inspiration from the author Francis Schaeffer: “The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.”
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 with the words “scrambled eggs?”
- Who was the walrus?
- What did they pioneer in the song “I Feel Fine?”
- What album did Rolling Stone magazine label as the best rock album of all time?
- Only two artists outside the band every played on a Beatles’ record. Who was the guitarist on “While my Guitar Gently Weeps?”
- What song was heard in twenty-six countries on a live global television broadcast 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
- “The walrus was Paul” from Lennon’s I Am The Walrus
- First recorded guitar feedback.
- Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
- Eric Clapton
- All You Need is Love