I’ve already ordered Malcom Gladwell’s new book, Outliers1 just on the strength of a few excerpts I’ve stumbled upon. His New Yorker magazine style of writing is easily consumed2, and his ideas are usually interesting, if not always perfectly formed. His theories are what they are, but truth be told, I really just like his anecdotes. Speaking of the Beatles, I did not know this factoid about their Hamburg days…
Is this a general rule of success? If you scratch below the surface of every great achiever, do you always find the equivalent of the Michigan Computer Centre or the hockey all-star team – some sort of special opportunity for practice? Let’s test the idea with two examples: the Beatles, one of the most famous rock bands ever, and Bill Gates, one of the world’s richest men.
The Beatles – John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr – came to the US in February 1964, starting the so-called “British Invasion” of the American music scene. The interesting thing is how long they had already been playing together. Lennon and McCartney began in 1957. (Incidentally, the time that elapsed between their founding and their greatest artistic achievements – arguably Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the White Album – is 10 years.) In 1960, while they were still a struggling school rock band, they were invited to play in Hamburg, Germany.
“Hamburg in those days did not have rock’n’roll music clubs. It had strip clubs,” says Philip Norman, who wrote the Beatles’ biography, Shout! “There was one particular club owner called Bruno, who was originally a fairground showman. He had the idea of bringing in rock groups to play in various clubs. They had this formula. It was a huge nonstop show, hour after hour, with a lot of people lurching in and the other lot lurching out. And the bands would play all the time to catch the passing traffic. In an American red-light district, they would call it nonstop striptease.
“Many of the bands that played in Hamburg were from Liverpool,” Norman continues. “It was an accident. Bruno went to London to look for bands. But he happened to meet a Liverpool entrepreneur in Soho, who was down in London by pure chance. And he arranged to send some bands over. That’s how the connection was established. And eventually the Beatles made a connection not just with Bruno, but with other club owners as well. They kept going back, because they got a lot of alcohol and a lot of sex.”
And what was so special about Hamburg? It wasn’t that it paid well. (It didn’t.) Or that the acoustics were fantastic. (They weren’t.) Or that the audiences were savvy and appreciative. (They were anything but.) It was the sheer amount of time the band was forced to play. Here is John Lennon, in an interview after the Beatles disbanded, talking about the band’s performances at a Hamburg strip club called the Indra: “We got better and got more confidence. We couldn’t help it with all the experience playing all night long. It was handy them being foreign. We had to try even harder, put our heart and soul into it, to get ourselves over. In Liverpool, we’d only ever done one-hour sessions, and we just used to do our best numbers, the same ones, at every one. In Hamburg we had to play for eight hours, so we really had to find a new way of playing.”
The Beatles ended up travelling to Hamburg five times between 1960 and the end of 1962. On the first trip, they played 106 nights, of five or more hours a night. Their second trip they played 92 times. Their third trip they played 48 times, for a total of 172 hours on stage. The last two Hamburg stints, in November and December 1962, involved another 90 hours of performing. All told, they performed for 270 nights in just over a year and a half. By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, they had performed live an estimated 1,200 times, which is extraordinary. Most bands today don’t perform 1,200 times in their entire careers. The Hamburg crucible is what set the Beatles apart.
“They were no good on stage when they went there and they were very good when they came back,” Norman says. “They learned not only stamina, they had to learn an enormous amount of numbers – cover versions of everything you can think of, not just rock’n’roll, a bit of jazz, too. They weren’t disciplined on stage at all before that. But when they came back they sounded like no one else. It was the making of them.”
The excerpt goes on, click if you want to read more. Or just buy the book!Footnotes: