Tuesday 6 September 2011

Blessed Are The Mundane

Be regular and orderly in your life ... so that you may be violent and original in your work. 
 - Gustave Flaubert

As well as being singletasking, prolificco-writers, with a fine crop of facial hair, the Beatles were such successful songwriters because they were creatures of habit.

Consider how consistent, even boring, they were in their careers as recording artists. They maintained not only the same line up, but had one manager, one record label and the same two roadies for the entire seven years.

The vast majority of their 211 songs were rehearsed, cut and mixed at EMI studios, Abbey Road under the watchful eye of one producer, George Martin.

And tools of the trade? It's only a slight generalisation* to say Lennon & McCartney recorded most of the songs with 2 basses, 3 electrics and 2 acoustics. Harrison, the biggest gearhead, seemed to average one new guitar per album which still adds up to less instruments than many pros take on tour today. The band shared, swopped and repainted guitars throughout their career. Ringo had five successive kits that were all essentially the same, until he went crazy and added an extra tom tom for Let It Be.

This frugality is mind boggling when compared with Slash's collection of 100 guitars (and rising) and Mike Portnoy's purple, siamese and albino monster kits.

Even the number of wives and houses was far less than the average rock star quota!

It's A Drag Man
All this resulted in a minimum of creative drag when it came to making music. Every new band member takes time to settle in. New producers and studios need time to get comfortable with. Even a new instrument takes time to get used to. And all that time could be better spent writing and recording.

Consider Abbey Road studios. In many ways it was a inhospitable grey place, characterised by harsh lighting, locked fridges and rough toilet paper. But whether George Martin and the team needed a harpsichord or a recording of a blackbird they knew where to find it. They didn't need to stop to figure out how to patch the reverb through the desk. In fact because everyone knew exactly how it all worked they had the ability to devise ways to make things not work properly, inventing ADT, flanging, close miking and the like.

The Beatles were products of their time and that means they had less choices available to them than we do today (as I've written about before). But that just means we need to pay more attention to this.

Don't Let It Be 

Let's look at Let It Be as a case study. It's universally believed to be The Beatles lowest ebb. What was going on? Lennon was going through a divorce. The band were deadlocked over whether Lee Eastman or Allen Klein should represent them. So how did they approach recording a new album?

They decide to film a 'making of' documentary. This involved them rehearsing on a film studio soundstage. Union rules meant they had work normal 'office hours' rather than the night shift they'd become used to, surrounded by a strange film crew rather than the normal handful of insiders. Glyn Johns was giving the job of capturing the album on tape at Apple's 'state of the art' 72 track studio which hadn't even been finished (and proved unusable when it was).

The result was a disaster. The follow up, Abbey Road was a return to form, because in part, it was a return to the usual people, place and methods too.


It's so tempting to start moving the furniture when you want to create something fresh and it feels like the more change the better. But the Beatles were able to evolve musically at such a phenomenal rate because they left so many other things untouched.

Think about it like this. Your kitchen is a workspace. You like to know where everything is and have everything you use regularly to hand. That's why it drives you (and me) nuts when they keep rearranging the shelves at the supermarket. There are times when we need to rearrange or decorate the kitchen. But they are the days when you order take out Pizza.

Is the point 'never sack the drummer, buy a new guitar or move house?'. No. It's that every change is a withdrawal from the 'bank of creative headspace' and it makes sense to maintain a healthy balance. So if you just fired half the band maybe you shouldn't record your next album in another country on that brand new digital format this time around.

In general aim for as little excitement as possible in your working methods. Your creative process should appear utterly boring to anyone else (unless they are interested in 'creative processes'). If you're doing anything sexier than drinking lots of coffee while you play the same 3 notes over and over again, I'd say you're doing it wrong. 

Blessed are they who can change what they do, because they rarely change how they do it.

*If you'd like my research to be a little more accurate you could always buy me a copy of Beatles Gear by Andy Babiuk or (thanks Roberta!) any other book on my Amazon wish list


  1. Interesting observations. Matt, and so true. Too many bands worship at the altar of technology at the cost of the music. Just look at top 40 radio today; lots of studio tricks and a wasteland of quality music.

  2. Thanks Geordie, I do think excessive choice means we agonize over details that don't really make much difference resulting in writing less songs...

  3. I think you're right there Matt. Another truth that brings this out so much is how prolific artists where back then, because nowadays you have artists who release material every few years, whereas back then you were expected to issue a couple of albums per year, as well as numerous singles that were not available on the albums.

    It's strange how something like digital recording should make the whole process quicker, seems to actually make people take longer to do these things, especially established acts that have the money to afford long stretches in the studio to get things done.

  4. Thanks Marv!

    I think digital is pushing the industry back towards the good old days of several releases a year, but it's not obvious because a lot of the established major label artists are sticking to the old formula. Record companies encourage this because they spend so much on promotion that they want to keep pushing the same product for as long as possible.

  5. Very wise observations there. Less is more in so many areas of our creative lives. The temptation to go Gizmo crazy ...or get GAS (Guitar Acquisition Syndrome) is all to easy to slip into
    That's one advantage of being fairly impoverished (as I am)
    You have to work with what you've got