Monday, 7 May 2012

Why Wasn't Brian Wilson As Successful As Lennon and McCartney?



[Important note. If you're going to comment on this post



No other band is more frequently mentioned as the Beatles songwriting equals as the Beach Boys (the Rolling Stones debate rages over who was edgier, cooler or more 'authentic'). Beatles Songwriting Academy focuses not just on how we can write great songs like the Beatles but how can we be great writers? One way to tackle that is to look at someone who had the biggest chance of matching their genius and yet sadly failed. Having just finished I Just Wasn't Made For These Times: Brian Wilson and the Making Of Pet Sounds. I present my findings here.

Similar and Different



Broadly speaking the Beach Boys were rawer and less well formed at the start of their recording career. Mike was 20, Al and Brian were 19, Dennis was 17 and Carl was under the legal limit for just about everything at 15. The band were signed just before the Beatles but unlike The Beatles, who had endured a punishing apprenticeship in performance in Hamburg and the North of England, they had no live experience whatsoever. Neither band had a massive amount of songwriting experience prior to being signed (despite the self generated hype that Lennon & McCartney had already written 100 songs). But from the outset The Beach Boys were more prolific, (releasing three albums per year to The Beatles two) but with less quality (the classic album Shut Down, Vol. 2 features two covers, one fake argument and a drum solo!) and more original tunes (The first two Beatles albums have six covers a piece).


However, where the Beatles were a totally self contained songwriting unit with three world class writers, from the earliest times Brian Wilson collaborated mostly with outside writers (usually lyricists). In fact the first album without outside help (other than a Christmas album) was Wild Honey, the band's 13th studio album. Even the legendary Pet Sounds album was co-written almost entirely with Tony Asher, an advertising copywriter with no songwriting experience. Previous collaborators included radio DJ, Roger Christian, which perhaps shows that Brian, like Lennon and McCartney, didn't hold lyrics in too high a regard.

One thing Brian and his English nemeses had in common was that they stopped touring prior to creating their groundbreaking work. In Brian's case the band continued to tour without him while he concentrated on writing and recording. Is touring the enemy of songwriting? (discuss).


Why wasn't he as successful?

However you compare the bands' early pop single/teen sensation form and however you rate Pet Smile vs. Sgt. Rubber Revolver it's beyond argument that Brian's explosive originality was cut short while The Beatles went from strength to strength and continued to release many quality songs well into their solo careers. Why did Brian crash and burn in such a spectacular fashion?


1) Without Equals

There's a phrase in Christianese 'unequally yoked' that borrows the imagery of a team of oxen plowing together. They have to be a similar size and strength or they won't be able to work together effectively without strain. Dennis Wilson himself admits “There wasn't one person in the group who could come close to Brian's talent” (p.13).



The Beatles were largely equals. 40 years on, try posting “Lennon (or McCartney, or Harrison) was the real songwriting genius in the Beatles” then sit back and watch the debate rage. But no one argues over who was the genius in the Beach Boys. (Here's a fun thing. Try typing "Mike Love is a ..." into google). Even as a band, George and Ringo were totally capable of fulfilling the vision of every song (not withstanding Paul's periodic descents into controlfreakery). In contrast Pet Sounds was almost completely a Wilson solo album. The Beach Boys played on one track, and sang on only 13 of the 36 minutes, much of it backing vocals. One of the stand out tracks, 'Caroline No' was even released as a Wilson solo single.

2) Lack Of Support

Being first among equals isn't a problem in itself. Think of the many visionaries who have thrived in bands and out of them. Springsteen, Waits, Sting, Dylan, Bjork, Van Morrison, Kate Bush. What destroyed Brian's usefulness was that those around him gave him little or no support when they failed to catch his vision but still considered themselves his equals.

On hearing Pet Sounds for the first time, band mate Al Jardine said “[We were] dismayed – and that would probably be an understatement” (p.166). Record label producer (and armchair psychotherapist?) Nik Venet said “I thought Brian was screwing up. He was no longer looking to make records, he was looking for attention from the business. He was trying to torment his father with songs his father couldn't relate to, and melody structures his father couldn't understand" (p. 186). Mike Love quotes Capitol Engineer Karl Engemann as saying “even though he like Pet Sounds a lot, he asked if we couldn't make more records like the old stuff” (p.186). The label as a whole showed a similar lack of vision when they killed the album's chances of charting higher by rush releasing Best Of The Beach Boys a mere two months after Pet Sounds.

Wilson biographer David Leaf sums Brian's predicament up pithily


“When you're on the edge, you need to know that if you jump, somebody will catch you. And sadly, despite all he had accomplished as an artist, he just didn't have that kind of support in his life”   (p.208).

Ringo many years after the Beatles split summed them up as “just four guys who loved each other”. Pre-acrimonious split they displayed such a unity of purpose that the Stones dubbed them a 'four-headed monster'. In Parlophone/EMI they had a label that wouldn't have dared to tell them what to release, so long as they released something. In George Martin they had a producer who recognised their talent and was prepared to let them experiment even if he didn't quite get it. And in Brian Epstein they had a manager who, for all his failings, genuinely loved them (and in more than a physical sense). This never seems to have been Brian Wilson's story. The Beach Boys manager was Brian's abusive father and failed songwriter Murry Wilson.


3) Unable To Cross Over

If Brian didn't get enough support from the band for his pioneering work, the American public seemed pretty clueless too. From the outset the Beatles managed to cross boundaries of age and class. Even before Lennon and McCartney really hit their groundbreaking stride highbrow music critics were fawning over their 'aeolian cadences'. McCartney won 11 Ivor Novello (songwriting) awards before he was 25. They were embraced by everyone from small children to the royal family, from the gutter press to the BBC and endlessly discussed by religious and psychological pundits. By contrast The Beach Boys seemed to be teen sensations, unable to grow up. In many of Wilson's songs (like Wouldn't It Be Nice) the singer is a kid looking forward to being an adult. When I'm Sixty Four has a similar point of view but with a much older head on it's shoulders. The Beatles started as street wise young adults and grew up quickly.


4) Poor Visuals

Beatles album covers were trend-setting and iconic, the B&W With The Beatles, The wonky Rubber Soul, Abbey Road. Sgt. Pepper forever changed the way album covers were perceived. How many Beach Boys covers can you remember?

Mike Love says “[Paul McCartney] mentioned that we ought to take more care with our album covers. Paul was the mastermind behind the Sgt. Pepper album cover, which was detailed and brilliant. Ours...was a photo taken at the San Diego Zoo.” (p.183). And what are 'Pet Sounds'? Tony Asher says “I thought it was a goofy name for an album – I thought it trivialized what we had accomplished” (p.182).

The Beatles made music video an art form. Even within trainwrecks like Let It Be and Magical Mystery Tour there are stone cold classics videos like the roof top performance and I Am The Walrus. If you've ever watched the promos contained on the Pet Sounds 40th Anniversary Edition you'll see excruciatingly amateurish home movies that make the average YouTube video seem like Spielberg.



5) Low Tolerance For Drugs

Brian couldn't take his drugs. Which is a big statement when you're contrasting him with someone who called a board meeting to announce he was Jesus Christ in the middle of an acid-induced meltdown. But where Lennon merely went on to making a lousy album with Yoko before leveling out, Wilson didn't bounce back. Ever. Once again, there was no one who was really there to support him.


So how can you maximize your potential as a songwriter? Get a good graphic designer and stay away from drugs...? That would help. But above all, a songwriter needs people around him/her who recognise and support their gift.



Buy I Just Wasn't Made For These Times: Brian Wilson and the Making Of Pet Sounds



41 comments:

  1. Yes, all of what you say is very true, but you've forgotten a major factor; Brian Wilson's mental illness, made much worse by his cocaine addiction. Combined with his lack of social supports and terrible psychological care, his mental health issues caused him to drop out of the public eye. While the solo Beatles continued to produce music, Brian Wilson holed up and isolated himself. It's hard to be successful when people think you're dead.

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  2. Totally agree - mental illness is a major issue, which is pretty much out of our control. I wonder how much he could have walked through it and continued to create if he'd had a supportive manager/label/band mates. I think that was one of the things that ultimately allowed the Beatles creativity to run it's full course. Sadly many bands have to survive/endure being messed up by label and management.

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  3. I agree with all of this.

    I think in some ways it's possible that with the earlier period of Beach Boys' albums there are more throwaway titles because Brian was forced to write so much material?

    The fact that he was relied on so much would only add to that mental instability, and the band's questioning of his songs would further it even more.

    In the Classic Albums programme about the Who's Next album, The Who's manager Chris Stamp said how he used to chat with Pete Townshend and pick out songs and ideas that stood out. When Townshend would ask about another piece that Stamp wasn't too enamoured with he would say, "we'll get back to that later." Rather than just outright say "no that's rubbish," he would sort or put it to the side almost. This is what people should have done with Brian Wilson maybe?

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  4. That's a good strategy from Chris Stamp. Better than "A Rock opera? Why can't you just write more songs like 'My Generation'?

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  5. Writing music and meeting high expectations can stifle creativity. You only have to look at bands that have massive success then fail on their second albums. I can only imagine being the lone writer in such a high profile band, alongside unwanted comparisons with Beatles would have produced an unbearable pressure for Brian
    The Beatles would have had healthy competition within the group and there would have been a culture of trying to impress each other with their ideas - hence a stronger comaraderie and continued experimentation. Furthermore, having 3 great writer in the group, ideas and influences would bounce around more freely and so it was less likely any individual would suffer writers block.

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  6. yeah I think you're right Gareth - that genuine community that the Beatles shared was an important safety net...

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  7. Having watched a bunch of lennon and Wilson documentaries lately it occurred to me how similar either problems where. IE both had drug problems, went through periods and intense withdrawal, and got involved with dominating personalities (Yoko and Wilson's therapist) who it is claimed saved their lives but who many feel also had a huge negative impact with accusation of exploitation.

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  8. Spot on Ron! that's why it's so interesting to compare them...

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  9. Poor assumption to say that the Beatles were more successful than Brian Wilson. Support or not, huge record sales or not, Brian Wilson was every bit as successful as the Beatles. You can't buy into the hype of the huge promotional scene that was rock and roll music, to evaluate success. Otherwise you might try to convince me that rap is music, and that Kanye is a genius. The Beach Boys are fantastic, every bit as talented as the Beatles, and are American !

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    1. Sorry, John Martin, but that's just wish thinking on your part. There is no metric you can use whereby the Beach Boys can be considered as successful, as accomplished, as talented, whatever, as the Beatles. Try it, It can't be done. The Beatles were more commercially successful, but also far more critically acclaimed. They excelled the Beach Boys and everybody else not just in crowd appeal, but in songwriting and song-producing excellence. Perhaps others were more gifted instrumentalists (though this is doubtful in McCartney's case), but nobody on earth did as much with his/her gifts as the members of the Beatles (while IN the Beatles -- once Yoko comes on the scene, and they split up, it's all over).

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    4. The Beach Boys are way better than the Beatles in my book. There are no "metrics" in music.

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    5. It's OK to like the Beach Boys more - but isn't it contradictory to say "there are no metrics" and "the BB's are way better"? What criterion are you using to come to that conclusion?

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  10. Thanks John - I did choose the word 'successful' carefully. I deliberately avoided 'creative' 'inspired' 'talented'. You seem to be taking issue with 'successful' but by every conceivable measurable metric he was less successful - album sales, singles, live concert revenue, royalties from cover versions, the list goes on. I wouldn't argue that Lennon and/or McCartney were 'better' than he was. That would be foolish. But in terms of using what talent he had, the issues raised in the article and some of the comments are reasons why perhaps he didn't live up to his potential.

    And at the end of the day I'm not primarily concerned with the Beatles or Beach Boys, but how we as writers today can get the most from the talents we have.

    And no. I would never try to convince you Kanye is a genius. He is doing such a stellar job of that himself. ;-P

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  11. Dude, it aint 1960 anymore...Brian gave it everything he had, and therefore was as successful as the beatles....Being concerned about young writers, as we should be, would be not equating success, necessarily with royalties and money. Tis that simple. Support thineself oh young artist, and depend on no one but yourself. I am a successful writer because my dad lived long enough to hear my craft develop into some good songs, and he loved them. I have a catalog of bands that I opened for, people I wrote tunes for, one night stand girlfriends, and so on... but alas, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Young writers, do not equate levels of success by comparing royalty checks. That is what you are doing here, and trying to connect here. You missed the point. You are equating success with money. Very poor...You sound like an x-generation guy or later...Most of us super talented guys won't make it. We will have to drive trucks and sell widgets. Ask the guy who wrote JIngle Bells. Of course he is dead, but he was a complete failure by your standards. If you are in the arts and your standards of success are based on money. you are in for a large flop, and a depressing descending ride. There are tons of writers as talented as John, Paul, and brian, Trouble is we bury most of them before we ever hear them. Be happy with the song you wrote because you got to write it. That makes you a success, Thanks for all your hard work here. I get bad flashbacks of musical dictation at Ohio State when I read the mechanics. Blessings, Johnboy

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    1. "There are tons of writers as talented as John, Paul, etc..." Please name some. You string a lot of words together, shovel out a lot of word salad at us, but all your blather amounts to nothing. Example: "Most of us super talented guys won't make it." You're certainly being kind to yourself. You've constructed a fairy world of fuzzy thinking that supports your notion that you're a misunderstood genius. Very well, but don't start applying the same logic to people for whom all the data can be collected, e.g. Brian Wilson vs. Lennon/McCartney.

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    3. Easy, Master of Loons. You're going to give yourself apoplexy. If only you and I could both be alive 500 years from now, when the only popular music from the 20th century which will be actively listened to (rather than being of merely historical interest) will be the Beatles. And the reason for that is predominantly the songwriting of Lennon/McCartney.

      It's already happening. There are complete transcripts of all the Beatles' music. The entire score to every song, undertaken by a team of transcribers. There are many massive volumes devoted to analysis of the Beatles as musicians. Alan Pollak's Notes on every Beatles tune is a landmark of musicology. By the time Mark Lewisohn is done, there will be, if you consider the Extended edition, 6 800 page volumes dedicated to the career of the Beatles.

      No other popular music act has created a legacy comparable to that of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis. None. You may chalk it up to luck (and the Beatles were certainly extraordinarily lucky), but luck only got them to Beatlemania. The only reason the Beatles turned from a fad to the greatest musical act of all time was the extraordinary songs they turned out, month after month. Brian was certainly a factor in their initial success, but he was not a factor in their record-making, which is what we revere them for.

      No songwriters have ever have ever created an oeuvre of such consistent quality. As with all great artists, they made what they did look easy, even obvious. I'm sorry it makes you so butthurt, and you have to take refuge in calling me an asshole for daring to question your own greatness. I make no claims to greatness myself; like Salieri, I am merely able to recognize greatness in others. Whereas you are only able to recognize greatness in the mirror, I suppose.

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    4. Thanks Jim for your gracious reply and intelligent comments. My policy to anyone who hides behind an anonymous profile whilst being abusive on the comments is to delete without even bothering to read the full post, let alone respond. They are not worth mine or your time.

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  12. John - YOU are still missing the point. The main point is about writers needed some kind of support system within their band to keep creating long term. Brian didn't have it. The Beatles did. If you're just going to keep arguing about definitions of success you're not getting it. I'm really glad every time I see Brian Wilson sat motionless behind a keyboard on stage singing God Only Knows. But if he'd had more support and a sympathetic band etc etc we could have been seeing something more wonderful. A less-fractured man (his words) singing a whole new album of equally wonderful new songs.

    Sorry if the 'mechanics' here give you bad flashbacks. Maybe this is not the site for you...

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  13. So, who was better: Mozart or Beethoven? Silly question, I guess.
    However, Brian Wilson was/is a gifted songwriter whose primary downfall was his sense that he was in a competition with The Beatles, a competition he couldn't win. The depth and breadth of The Beatles music, combined with the amazing orchestration and vocal harmonies was too much. He (Wilson) needed a better band and a drummer who could play drums. Rubber Soul sealed the deal, and Sgt. Pepper put an exclamation point on it. It seems almost pointless to argue about support systems, drug abuse, and degree of fracture.

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    1. Thanks Dan for your thoughtful comment. Your point about orchestration and the ability of the band is true, but on the recordings (rather than live) Wilson had a band that exceeded the Beatles in ability - The 'Wrecking Crew' - a team of session musicians that played on countless hits. And arrangement wise I think Brian, while far more instinctual than George Martin wasn't completely outclassed.

      While I agree comments about support systems etc can be academic my purpose all through this blog is to find what working musicians today can learn, emulate or avoid from the Beatles (or in this case Brian Wilson). A lot of people believe that talent (even genius) is enough. But I think the take away point from this is genius needs support to survive and, for those of us who aren't geniuses, the moderately talented will be far more effective if their bandmates, manager, producer are all pulling in the same direction.

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  14. John Lennon, and Paul Mac... has said and met Brian Wilson hundreds of times, and Pet Sounds was so progressively appreciated, especially that the Beatles(John) called Brian up saying -"that's the best album I've ever heard".
    Sgt Peppers smacks of some of that coincidence. Respect goes to the earlier release -but Sooo, there you go.
    Different Strokes for different folks, it's still all good.
    Brian's mental illness contributed to some, other's was in-band schisms. and John knew that soon enough, as he said, he's not well you know?
    But respect for genius effort bore its fruit for both Beach Boys and Beatles.

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  15. You have to take into consideration that despite his lack of support, he performed the jobs of 5 or 6 people and created a work that actually frightened the Beatles. How many bands can claim that? (The answer is 1) Even George Martin said that without Pet Sounds there would have been no Sgt Pepper. I'm glad that he lived long enough for the world to catch up with him and understand what a great accomplishment PS was and is.

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  16. As a fan of both I love this type of article. Consider the parental dynamics. Brian had a domineering father and John was dominated by Aunt Mimi first then Yoko. Paul, on the other hand had a supportive father who was, like Murray, a musician. A large part of Brian's problem is that he had no George Martin (who was a constant through most of the Beatles' career) to smooth out the edges the way John and Paul did. The Beach Boys name was unfortunate as it locked them in to their "teenage" image which I think scared off many possible covers. I always felt vindicated when my parents favorites (Ella, Sinatra, Bennett) started to cover Beatle tunes. It amazes me how few covers Brian got even after Pet Sounds. Brian had mental issue and when he went against his band he was also going against his own family as well. The Beatles also went through bootcamp (Hamburg) which strengthens the band and taught them how to work as a team. I recently read about how the Beach Boys were booed off the stage when they first played Seattle. They had several hit records by then but no stage act.

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    1. All really good points Steve - especially Hamburg and George Martin

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  17. i guess Pet sounds sounded so progressive at the time. i listened to it for the first time around 10 years ago. i didn't get it. it didn't sound anything special to me. just some nice music.

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  18. Agreed. I doubt many people listen to the BBs for pleasure anymore, and I think their direct influence on music is nil. (Dons fireproof suit...)

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    1. On the contrary, I find myself playing the Beach Boys much more nowadays, especially the Today through Surf's Up period.

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    2. I think that might be the most ignorant thing I've ever read on the internet.

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    3. Absolutely not. The divide in critical influence between the Beatles and BB is huge and getting larger every year. You must not pay much attention.

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    4. The idea that not many people listen to the Beach Boys for pleasure any more is laughably stupid, and you knew that, due to your flameproof suit comment, so I'm just giving you what you wanted. As far as the Beach Boys influence on other musicians, it's everywhere. Admittedly not as influential as The Beatles, but definitely up there with The Velvet Underground. You're the one not paying attention.

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    5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_impact_of_the_Beach_Boys

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    6. Just to make a few points Jeremy and Jim

      I still listen to the Beach Boys for pleasure! (early stuff as well as Pet Sounds)

      I would agree their influence on modern culture and music is much less than the Beatles and arguably diminishing over time - but that is not a reflection on the worth of Pet Sounds or Brian's gift. I think there are a number of factors

      The Beatles released 12 (or so) albums and quit. The Beach Boys never quit. They are still working now. That means A) we still can't properly assess their legacy yet and B) they have made a lot of dross, cash-ins etc and their dross-to-classics ratio is much worse

      The Beatles also released 2 very watchable full length films and a number of great music videos. These have served to keep the Beatles in the public mind.

      The Beatles 'legacy' has been incredibly well managed over the last 20-30 years. Circ De Soleil, Anthology project, Remasters etc etc.

      Lastly and most importantly - this thread has been getting a little 'heated' - please make sure you abide by the comments policy

      thanks

      http://beatlessongwriting.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/whats-your-comment-policy.html

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  19. "The BB are way better than the Beatles in my book..." Fine, but history does not agree with you. Not even a little bit. If you think that shouldn't matter, read TS Eliot's "What is a Classic".

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    1. The Beach Boys are clearly classic pop music, and anyone who tells you otherwise is an idiot.

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  20. I wonder if the Beatles would have been as successful without George Martin? Also Brian was John Paul George (Martin) and George (Harrison) 1 against 4. In later years Dennis Wilson was growing into a good song writer and producer obviously learning from his brother. I am a fan of both but slightly prefer the Beach Boys. I grew up in the UK but moved to North America at 17. So have the culture of both sides of the Atlantic. Also the Beatles stopped touring because they could not reproduce their studio sound on Stage. The Beach Boys did cover what the wrecking crew were doing in the studio on stage primarily because besides being writer producer arranger player Brian was also the teacher. His downfall definitely was lack of support from Family, Band members and record company.

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  21. thanks Iain - I agree with your comment about George Martin (and would extend that to Brian Epstein as well).

    "His downfall definitely was lack of support from Family, Band members and record company". That is true. As other commenters have pointed out Lennon had a significant drug problem but never encountered the level of opposition from his creative circle that Brian experienced.

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