the blog of dan pontefract | Did ‘The Beatles’ actually collaborate or were they working in silos?
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Did ‘The Beatles’ actually collaborate or were they working in silos?

The Beatles, many say, were musical geniuses.

A rare few imply they actually destroyed rock ‘n roll.

As a Beatles fan, I’ve grown up thinking their genius had more to do with the innate ways in which the Fab Four actually collaborated. How they proactively cooperated together (and with others) to brainstorm, write, and produce their songs helped push them to new creative heights. This collective genius, therefore, was born as a result of being the quintessential example that showcases how four men can utilize the Collaboration Cycle to bring about incredible results. Collaborating was their ‘ticket to ride’.

Then I started to think about it.

Maybe they didn’t actually collaborate?

Maybe they worked in silos, and the image of The Beatles is in fact a façade.

Maybe they were the Fab Ones not the Fab Four.

From Hierarchy to Heterarchy to Silos

Hierarchy

In the formative years of The Beatles (1957-1960), it’s my opinion that the band was in fact a hierarchy lead by John Lennon. He was the CEO of this new outfit, deciding who came into the band, who was out, and what they were called. For example, before they finally landed on The Beatles as their proper and iconic name, they were known by names such as Johnny and the Moondogs and Long John and the Beetles.

The CEO then quickly realized through those formative years that the team was much stronger than the individual. The team itself realized that only by working together, collaborating, cooperating, learning and sharing with one another would they became better as a group, setting up what was a remarkable transformation to true heterarchy. Those countless hours in Hamburg and Liverpool playing live and working through their strengths and weaknesses helped John realize that Paul, George, Stu (yes, the 5th Beatle) and whatever drummer they could procure were in fact fab together.

Heterarchy

Between the years of 1961 and 1967, one can make the case that The Beatles demonstrated every possible aspect of the Collaboration Cycle and thus were truly heterarchical. The strong ties within the group (now with a permanent drummer called Ringo) was evident, as was the impact other strong ties had within their collaborative years including Brian Epstein (dutiful manager) and George Martin (trailblazing producer). The weak ties extended throughout these years to the likes of Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Richard Lester and even Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Due to the fact they were continuously pushing each other, authentic with their feedback, ideas, etc. receptive to one another’s criticism or feedback, and always available to enrich the songs, the writing, the music … The Beatles were very much a collaborative team.

There are far too many examples to denote just how collaborative they were during these years, but I suppose the climax can be found in 2010 when Rolling Stone magazine crowned the greatest album of all-time as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Their collaborative skills, behaviours and general disposition are littered throughout this timeless classic. Their uncanny ability to push, prod and uncover new ideas for the betterment of both their professional skills as well as for the project itself (ie. the album) is nothing less than stunning. If I think of The Beatles as the definition of being collaborative, I refer you to the process that lead up to and including the release of Sgt. Peppers.

Silos

Things began to unravel towards the end of 1967 with the self-indulgent push by Paul to release Magical Mystery Tour, both the album and the dreadful movie. By 1968 and leading up to the eventual break-up in 1970, The Beatles natural and ground-breaking collaborative behaviours had all but disappeared in favour of becoming individuals in an organization. They were no longer a unified or cooperative team. They no longer thought of themselves as equals, they viewed one another as competitors.

When an organization (like The Beatles) becomes too large or perhaps too arrogant, forgetting what it was like when they were in fact collaborative, caring, authentic, receptive and enriching, they quickly develop silo-like behaviours.

The White Album (as it is colloquially known as) was a collection of individual offerings not collaborative, inspiring, Sgt. Pepper-esque material. John once even referred to Paul’s Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da as “granny shit”. The Let It Be album and documentary movie clearly demonstrates how siloed The Beatles were post 1968. And to top it off, the Abbey Road album could have been issued as 3 solo albums with the second side, in essence, being a solo Paul McCartney record from top to bottom. Furthermore, for the George compositions, John Lennon wasn’t even in studio to play his parts.

In Summary

The Beatles are a wonderful example of how an organization might rid itself of hierarchy to become much more collaborative, inspiring, and engaging for the betterment of goals, objectives and end results. As they shifted to becoming arguably the greatest band of all-time, they relied on one another, were open, trustworthy and authentic. This, in turn helped to create some of the most creative and ground-breaking music not just of their time, but of all-time.

The late stages of The Beatles demonstrate how silos and operating in a non-collaborative manner can actually assist in a lower grade product or business results. Sure, some of those songs between 1968 and 1970 are individual gems … but we can only imagine what could have been if The Beatles had kept their harmony in check both with their voices and with their behaviours.

3Comments

  • Gary / 8 April 2011 9:01

    Your analysis is incomplete. You ignored the disruption caused by Yoko Ono’s presence in the studio and the influence she had on John. Whatever hierarchy or group dynamic enjoyed by the Beatles was severed upon her arrival.

    Lennon wanted out as early as 1965 after the “more popular than Jesus” maelstrom. John hung in there under Brian Epstein’s structure. When Epstein died, McCartney tried to fill the void but lost credibility with Magical Mystery Tour. After that, Lennon found in Yoko Ono a “liberation” that set him on an antagonistic spiral with his band mates.

    You’re so busy dissing McCartney you fail to see that the competitive edge that had brought out the best in both songwriters became dull when Lennon no longer wanted to play the game. That loss of “spirit” and the emergence of George Harrison as more polished songwriter caused a new dynamic of tension between the players.

    The bottom line is that the organization’s goals changed but the collaboration that formed it did not agree on its direction. Lennon and McCartney were both too “big” to be dominated by each other. The existing Beatle format and identity could not transition to the new realities of two men growing away from each other. Their latter work reflected their increasing need for self-expression. As they grew more confident they discovered that musically they could step out on their own and leave the others behind.

  • Bryan / 9 April 2011 4:19

    Interesting thoughts, although I do agree with Gary’s point about competitive edge. To me though, the most interesting analysis is that of a good team versus a great individual after the break-up. Obviously Lennon and McCartney were gifted song writers (as was Harrison in later years), but when given the freedom to fully explore their own self-expression (without the soundboard of the “team”) and forced to fill roles that others did better, the results paled in comparison.

    “The only thing you done was yesterday, And since you’ve gone
    you’re just another day.”

    Their solo careers showed flashes of the brilliance (mostly Lennon’s) they achieved as a team, but also produced some of the least successful moments of their careers. It’s no different than brilliant minds separating to pursue new challenges at new orgs and losing the completeness that results from not only a shared vision and solid team dynamics, but no longer working with people you view as equals and those that aren’t afraid to challenge your thoughts.

    At least we can all agree Revolver is a record everyone should own and it would have been perfect if they dropped Yellow Submarine?

  • Dan Pontefract / 12 April 2011 10:51

    Thanks @Gary for stopping by. I’m actually a Paul fan, but appreciate your constructive yet venomous feedback nonetheless.

    @B-Ack – ‘how do you sleep?’ … excellent reference. What, you didn’t like Ebony and Ivory? I concur with your analysis – IBM graduates great minds who go on to start new companies or lead existing ones. I wish The Beatles had stayed together long enough such that they would have made several IBM’s after an eventual and understandable mutual break-up.

Want to leave a comment? I'd love to hear from you. Cheers, dp.