Local Bands Can Learn a Lot from the Beatles
I know, you’re thinking, “Why is this bloody baby-boomer going on about the Beatles?” Well, I’ll tell you. I just finished a great summer read, an 800-page tome on the Beatles that only covers the period through 1962. The book is All These Years. Volume 1 is titled Tune In (If you want to stretch a summer read into fall you can get the 1700-page deluxe edition). There will eventually be three volumes in the series that was contracted by the author way back in 2004. This is going to take a while.
The author is Mark Lewisohn who had to endlessly endure the question of why the world needs yet another book about the Beatles, much less three. Honestly, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read; entirely engrossing. I’ve read several books about the Beatles both as a group and as individuals. For some reason, however, there are several things that struck me in this book that hadn’t struck me before. I thought I’d share a few because there are so many things that aspiring musicians could learn from them.
The Beatles built a huge following as a cover band. That’s right, by the time they released their first single, “Love Me Do,” in October of 1961 they had amassed a large and loyal fan base out of Liverpool and the surrounding area. That base is what helped keep the single alive and build momentum. And they did it all with covers of American groups, primarily. I don’t know why this hadn’t occurred to me and it makes me think quite differently about how to build a following. Madison is fortunate to have a vast number of good songwriters across a wide spectrum of genres. The Beatles got the same yawns a cover band gets at the Badger Bowl when they play an original. It’s not that the Beatles chose not to play their originals, it is debatable how many arrows they actually had in their quiver, deep into the year 1962.
They made the covers they did their own. They took liberties with the arrangements of their covers and they chose many of the B-sides to hit singles. They absorbed the musical culture of the time and assimilated the best qualities of their idols into their own style.
They called themselves the Beatles. Perhaps their single biggest influence was Buddy Holly and the Crickets. The name Beatles is an extension of this reverence. And the name Beatles caused them nothing but mockery on their way up the ladder. I always found the name clever and had not realized how much consternation and ridicule it generated. But it was a name that stuck. They used this to their advantage with Lennon publishing his famous column in Mersey Beat in 1961 in which he humorously recounted a short history of the band explaining the origins of the band name thusly: “It came in a vision – a man appeared on a flaming pie and said unto them, ‘from this day on you are Beatles with an A.’”
They were exceptional singers. I’ve said this many times: A group that can sing good harmonies are a cut above. People can’t always grasp the technical mechanics of what makes an instrumentalist great or a rhythm section tight. But it seems that people really respond to good singing because, as a listener, it takes less musical know-how to appreciate and the lyrics can be relatable. There are many quotes in the book from the Beatles’ peers at the time remarking about how they sang such brilliant harmonies, often as part of rearranging a cover to make it their own. They stood out from the competition in this way. They also had three lead singers, four with Ringo and even previous drummer Pete Best was known to take a number. Since the fans tended to latch on to one Beatle as their favorite this kept them anticipating.
They were funny. Lennon in particular was a stage clown and the Beatles were exciting to watch largely because of their humor. People had an unbelievably good time in the Cavern Club, a stinking, wet cellar in Liverpool that was probably the most exhilarating place on Earth at that time.
They were themselves. They followed a path of no compromise during a time in which Tin Pan Alley was the status quo. Producers and publishers found the material to shape the artist. The Beatles turned that upside down. Their humor carried over into their interviews and every facet of their lives. It was their personalities that won over all the people around them; all the influential people who helped to make them. They were also fully capable of pissing people off with their determination and adventurism but never wavered in their individualism. They got into lots of trouble and were heavy drinkers which put some promoters off. They were also speed freaks because…
The Beatles worked their butts off. I was never cognizant of just how hard it was for the Beatles in Hamburg, Germany. This is where their identity became solidified. Their living conditions were horrid and they played multiple shows in a day for months. In total they spent thirty-eight weeks in Hamburg over a couple of years or so and it is estimated that they performed 1100 hours. That’s the equivalent of three hours a night for an entire year. And that’s just Hamburg. Back home they played ceaselessly with little time off. At the Cavern they had a residency for a time. The clubs grew along with rock and roll and the Beatles conquered most every new room they played – again, with nearly all cover songs.
The Beatles had Pete Best and his Mum. Pete Best’s mother Mona actually wanted to manage the Beatles. She ran the Casbah Club, one of the earliest rock venues in Liverpool where the Beatles gigged. Mona and eventually Pete managed the group’s bookings. Without this dynamic the group would probably have dissolved. It’s hard to believe but rock and guitar groups were already being declared dead. Mona kept them going at a time when they were pissing off the other clubs and promoters with their volume, their behavior and their music.
Understand that this is precisely where the majority of local bands are positioned. They are like some approximation of the Beatles before professional management. A vast majority of musicians don’t want to commit to more than this. It means taking an extreme risk and putting trust in another person or entity to manage your affairs and we all know how trustworthy the music business has been. In fact, until the Beatles came along, the artists had very little say over what they did and especially what they recorded. More importantly, however, most musicians aren’t willing to accept that what they are doing is conducting “business.” That’s a dirty word to a vast majority of “artists” who accept the notion that commerce and art are twains that should never meet. Left to their own devices the vast majority of bands will fall apart over internal squabbles over distribution of duties. Had Pete Best not been sacked he may have well gotten fed up with doing a majority of the work for the Beatles in the business sense and buggered off on his own.
The trouble for Pete Best was that he was not a very good drummer and was the outcast of the group, not socializing and really barely interacting with the other three. But he had been instrumental in building the Beatles’ following in part because he was the best looking. He was a tremendous asset to the Beatles. That is until…
The Beatles took on Brian Epstein. On the verge of breaking up at the end of 1961, Brian Epstein found them. A year later they were poised to become a worldwide sensation. They had to find each other. The Beatles’ story is one of those where a series of improbable events had to happen for history to be made. This is what makes the book so captivating. I’ve often said that every successful musical act needs a good manager. I believe that even more now despite the fact that modern technology makes it possible for an artist or a band to take all these aspects unto themselves. Without Brian Epstein there was in all likelihood no George Martin and subsequently no Dick James and on down the line. Epstein had every opportunity to take advantage of his situation as well. As a retail record outlet owner he could have bent the rules. But he didn’t. The Epstein family (furniture) business motto was fairness. Epstein applied that to the Beatles. Together they consciously decided they would make it from Liverpool, on their own terms, when all the pressure was on them to relocate to London. They chose to be themselves and anyone who didn’t like it could just sod off.
But most importantly…
The Beatles believed. They always believed they would be big and they had each other’s backs. John Lennon said, “We were the best fucking group in the goddamn world…and believing that is what made us what we were.”
I couldn’t begin to count the number of times I’ve spoken to local bands about the lack of interest they perceive the city has for local music. Yet, the clubs and bars that circle the outer ring of Madison host primarily cover bands and do a much brisker business. The patrons of these outer-ring clubs don’t crossover a whole lot with the downtown clubs where bands play mostly originals and vice-versa. VO5 is a band that does disco-era covers in full period wardrobe and they do it very well. They are certainly one of the city’s biggest draws. People like them because they put on a show. For them. This is an important point because the Beatles’ Liverpool fans had a unique bond with the band. They were theirs. VO5 succeeds at making the party for their audience and making it fun. Unlike the Beatles, however, it’s doubtful their fans could name the members. Like most cover bands VO5 get paid very well while the creatively original bands languish, working for a percentage of the door at sparsely attended events.
Of course, there are some exceptions. Beth Kille has done particularly well because she is so personable with her fan base, communicates very effectively and is ever-present in her service to the community. Madison County practically owns the top-40 country niche, draws well and mixes originals with covers. The same could be said for Natty Nation and the reggae niche.
The one thing all these performers have in common is great singing. Perhaps the strategy should be aimed at how to build a following that’s loyal and how to adapt to the different rooms that Madison has to offer, throwing more covers into the set list when appropriate. A recording is about the music. A performance is about the show and a band will have a lot of trouble branching out without showmanship.
And then there is this chasm that exists between Madison and Milwaukee. Though they are only an hour apart, neither city’s bands seem to do well breaking the other’s market. Now there is a wall that needs tearing down.