American TV host Ed Sullivan, left, talks with three members of the British pop group The Beatles during a rehearsal for their appearance on his TV show, in New York, Feb. 8, 1964. From left, Sullivan, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney. George Harrison, the fourth member of the group missed the rehearsal due to illness. (AP Photo)
- Mark Lewisohn, author of "The Beatles: All Those Year, Volume 1 - Tune In"
- Vivek Tiwary, author of "The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story"
- Tim Riley, author of "Lennon: The Man, The Myth, The Life"
Fifty years after The Beatles appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" – inspiring a generation of Americans to don collarless jackets and mop-top haircuts – we examine the Fab Four's magic formula for creativity, innovation, and success.
1. Putting together a good team
As the founder of the band, John Lennon was the de facto leader. But he was always receptive to the other’s ideas. “The Beatles were uniquely a four-piece group where all of them had a voice,” Mark Lewisohn says. They also found a likeminded counterpart in manager Brian Epstein, who fought tirelessly to preserve the group’s unique approach, even against skeptical record companies. “No record label wanted to sign The Beatles,” Epstein biographer Vivek Tiwary points out. “Brian was the first to believe.”
2. Don’t repeat yourself
Never a group to rest on their laurels, The Beatles were always moving on to the next phase, a quality Lewisohn attributes to Lennon. “It just so happened that it was a key part of his makeup, a key part of his personality in life, that he didn’t like to repeat himself,” Lewisohn says. As he notes, once the famous, collarless Beatles jackets became popular after their Ed Sullivan appearance, “The Beatles suddenly said, ‘oh, we’re not going to wear them anymore.’”
Of course, never doing the same thing twice means coming up with a lot of new ideas. Luckily, in producer George Martin, they found someone who was always willing to try “a lot of weird, wacky, experimental stuff with them,” as Lennon biographer Tim Riley notes. During one such studio session, Paul McCartney suggested turning around a giant, 6-foot-tall speaker – the “White Elephant,” as they called it – and using it as a microphone for Paul’s bass. The result was the famous driving bass riff in “Paperback Writer.” But, true to form, they never used the White Elephant for the same effect again – once it succeeded, they moved right along to the next idea.
4. Surround yourself with the right crowd
Part of the reason The Beatles were so fruitful creatively is they surrounded themselves with a host of creative people of all types, not just musicians. Martin, for example, had a background in classical music and producing comedy and novelty records. The iconic album artwork for their groundbreaking 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was born out of their associations with artist Peter Blake. “The ideas came from the people The Beatles were mixing with,” Lewisohn says. “The Beatles themselves craved the company of people who turned them on.”
5. Work hard, and then work harder
“The Beatles had a very strong work ethic which they ascribed to their Northern England, working-class upbringing,” Lewisohn says, noting that in the earliest days of the band in 1961 and 1962, the group was playing an astounding 350 shows per year. Even at the peak of their success, The Beatles never slowed down. Between 1963-1968, they cumulatively had just six to eight months off, and during that time they still wrote songs.
6. Stick to your guns, and trust your audience
As Tiwary notes, The Beatles were “strong-minded, strong-willed, and opinionated young people.” Throughout the years of experimentation, The Beatles maintained the sense that the public would come along with them – and, if they didn’t, that was the public’s problem, not theirs. “That is the essence of The Beatles,” Lewisohn says. “They were only ever true to themselves.”
Want to hear more about Beatles manager Brian Epstein? In this exclusive web extra, we continued our conversation with biographer Vivek Tiwary about plans to make a movie out of Epstein's life - the first movie, in fact, to have gotten the rights to use actual Beatles songs.