Monday 11 October 2010

Blessed Are The Prolific (pt. 1)

In a way this goes right to the heart of why Lennon & McCartney were such great songwriters. All other Be-atletudes lead to this. Being a singletasker, having a co-writer and limiting your options all allow you to be prolific and that is the one thing that will turn a good songwriter into a great one.

Here’s a favourite illustration

A ceramics teacher divided his class into two groups. One group would be graded solely on quantity of work – fifty pounds of pottery would be an “A”, forty would be a “B”, and so on. The other group would be graded on quality. Students in that group had to produce only one pot – but it had better be good.
Amazingly, all the highest quality pots were turned out by the quantity group. It seems that while the quantity group kept churning out pots, they were continually learning from their disasters and growing as artists. The quality group sat around theorising about perfection and worrying about it – but they never actually got any better.
Apparently – at least when it comes to pottery- trying and failing, learning from failure, and trying again works a lot better than waiting for perfection. No pot, no matter how misshapen, is really a failure. Each is just another step on the road to an “A”. It is a road littered with imperfect pots. But there is no other road.
John Ortberg: If You Want to Walk on Water, You've Got to Get Out of the Boat (p.148) The story he quotes is from 
David Bayles & Ted Orland: Art & Fear (p.29)


 200 Songs

Why were Lennon & McCartney so good?

Between 1962 and 1970 Lennon & McCartney wrote close to 200 songs. Almost all were recorded and released. The majority were top 10 hits as singles or album tracks. Whereas most writers today would throw away a song that wasn’t good enough for their next album or didn’t fit stylistically, the boys always had a reason to finish that song. And because of their insane recording schedule they always had to come up with more songs.

Here, There & Everywhere

The norm for today’s artists seems to be that they are either writing OR recording OR touring. Letting the studio or the road disrupt the habit of writing is a problem somewhat unique to SONGwriters.

For example, on the rare occasions that a novelist does go on a promo tour he doesn’t spend 200 nights a year for 2 years reading people his most recent book.

What could be more damaging to fresh creativity than regurgitating your previous efforts night after night without attempting anything new? Yet this is everyday life for many successful recording artists.

Road Songs


For a band with a schedule as insane as the Beatles had from 62-66 writing on tour was a necessary evil. From Me To You was written on a tour bus, All My Loving backstage, She Loves You in a hotel room. Can’t Buy Me Love was not only written on tour but recorded in a studio in Paris while they played a residency there!

It's All Too Much

Of course the band stopped touring in ’66 but The Beatles didn’t regard recording as a legitimate reason to take a break from songwriting either (which makes sense as they were always recording). And I’m not referring to the way many successful bands enter the studio with unfinished songs (though they were guilty of that too). I mean continuing to write new songs even as they were laying down songs they’d just finished.

Assistant producer Chris Thomas remembers Harrison playing Something to him on the harpsichord while they were recording Piggies for the White Album. McCartney gave Lennon a preview of MMT’s The Fool On The Hill while writing With A Little Help From My Friends for Sgt Pepper.

When the time came for shooting a video for the Lady Madonna single, instead of miming to the song the band decided to record a completely new song, Hey Bulldog, and let the crew film them doing that instead.

You would think that recording 32 songs for the White Album would have exhausted the supply but by the time it was mixed they already had Polythene Pam, The Long And Winding Road, Let It Be, Something & Maxwell’s Silver Hammer lined up ready to go.

Slow Down


With such a workload did they ever just relax and take a holiday?

McCartney wrote most of the lyrics to Yesterday while on holiday in Portugal with Jane Asher (having written the bridge while filming Help!). When the Beatles went off to find the meaning of life in India, Lennon, Harrison & McCartney wrote 23 songs in couple of month.

So I guess the answer is no.

Read Blessed Are The Prolific part two


  1. I couldn’t agree more. My ex-co-writer preferred quality above quantity, whereas I like too write and record many songs (like for instance my heroes The Beatles and Prince) and hoping one of them will turn out to be nice. Of course quality should not be neglected, I am a perfectionist for that matter. Also, I’ve just returned from a 2-days trip through Northern France, and 6 new ideas for songs popped up, so going on vacation can be beneficial indeed!

  2. Glad to hear your holiday was productive Rob. No one could accuse the Beatles of lacking quality, but I can't get away from the lesson that the only way to learn how to write songs is to write songs!
    Time for me to go and practice what I preach and get writing!

  3. Thanks Carl. Did you find me via Muse's Muse?

  4. THIS is the one for me. As an engineer (of the building design, not the studio) variety, I have a powerful compulsion to make everything perfect. It cripples me as a songwriter, and I'm just now starting to work past this problem...

  5. Thanks CJ - I feel your pain! I've found the Beatles to be a powerful example in this and I've started to see the fruit - some of the best songs I wrote last year were quick ones that i never would have even started if I'd not been trying to write a lot of songs. I've also started to decipher more about what my songwriting 'voice' is through writing a lot.

  6. Great post Matt. I always find The Beatles' work ethic inspirational. A quick point about holidays and time seems that taking time off and going to interesting places and having new experiences is a brilliant way to fill up the well for creativity. So when creative people take time off from their work, they probably end up just getting more inspired and keep creating in this 'time off'.

  7. Thanks Paul - certainly worked for Paul - Yesterday and Ringo - Octopus' Garden!