The Disney + three-part Beatles documentary, Get Back by Peter Jackson is out and has immediately established itself as one of the most exciting and essential music documentaries ever. Going back in the time machine and watching what looks like brand-new footage of the world’s most successful band collaborating on some of their best-known songs is both nostalgic and fascinating. The music press has been rightfully gaga about the project, with youtube ablaze with internet music personalities weighing in on what makes it great.
One of my business friends commented, “I think we could all learn something from how the Beatles collaborate!” He added, “No ego, just focusing on getting the job done well. And this was done while having what looked like a ton of fun!”
I published some of the many exciting details about the Jackson film and why we’re talking today about a re-edit of a movie over fifty years old. Today, I want to explore my friend’s question and see if we can learn how the Beatles worked together, as shown in Get Back.
What Beatles Teamworking Looks Like
- Know the Goal – Know Your Role – Get to Work.
- Iterate, then, Iterate Again!
- Have Fun – Be Silly – Eat Lunch – Have Tea.
Know the Goal – Know Your Role – Get to Work!
It was interesting to see the Beatles show up for work every day (like the rest of us), grab some toast and jam, and then get to the business of making great songs. Working together, as long as they had created many hit songs, they knew where they were going and intuitively understood what each brought to the table. Developing this type of maturity is not easy for teams and typically is only forged through time. The Beatles had that time – Gladwell’s 10,000 hours – and as a result, much of Get Back shows the Beatles getting work done effectively.
The Beatles also put in a full day. These days were not always the most efficient, but nearly all days showed the boys focused, engaged, and moving the song forward. The Beatles rarely lost sight of the goal yet allowed enough space for magic. From the film’s perspective, simply spending time together is the minimum requirement for these most remarkable organic moments to occur (like when Paul starts up with Get Back out of nowhere). As convenient (and fashionable these days) as it might be to put “write Get Back” on everyone’s schedule on Tuesday from 10:00 – 11:30, that’s not how it worked for the most extraordinary musical creators ever.
Iterate, then, Iterate Again!
What becomes obvious watching Get Beck is that all these songs are repeatedly played – almost nauseatingly so. But, each new go at the tune would bring in another minor change, a unique detail added to the song. The next time, with this new version in tow, the lads would add another change layer. That process of iteration is how the Beatles worked.
Ringo would try a new tempo or drum pattern. Paul would change lyrics so they would be “More singable.” John would play the bass, or George would play the bass part on his guitar while Paul was playing the piano. Each refinement, learned by playing it through, makes the song a little bit better. We see Get Back go from a riff with mumbled lyrics to the music we all know today, courtesy of about 20 iterations (that we saw in the film).
Interestingly, the boys never seem to come unglued with this process. They stay focused on the work, knowing they’ll know when they have it right despite an unclear vision of where the song will end. Iteration is a skill created via discipline with a process and understanding “good enough” when it happens. I think we can all learn from this. Seek input from team members, build it in, then go again (and again) and make it better.
We can also learn how adding someone to the band as talented as Billy Preston can instantly change everything. The Beatles were in the doldrums until Preston stopped in. George brings Preston into the studio to say “Hi!” The piano and organ player is invited to sit in and stick around the remainder of the session, instantly adding indelible keyboard parts to many songs. Where would the music Get Back be without Preston’s great solo?
I was iterating output and iterating the team. Beatles approved.
Have Fun – Be Silly. Have Lunch!
The most frequent comment about Get Back versus Let it Be films is how happy and friendly the Beatles are in Get Back. The original Let it Be was a downer and wrongly focused on group tension as the film’s spine. Paul, in particular, was edited in unflattering ways and came across as a villain breaking up the Beatles. History has proven that wasn’t true, and Get Back clarifies the bigger story of the Beatles making great music and their process.
While the new film maintains the infamous argument with George saying to a very opinioned Paul, “I’ll play what you want or won’t play at all!” it also provides an abundance of good moments that occurred between them. Tensions notwithstanding, it was pretty awesome being a Beatle. They got along, could get things done, and did all while having fun together. No surprise, as the Beatles were friends who grew up together since their early teens and survived an unprecedented career arc. English civility is nearly always maintained, exemplified by the daily break for tea and lunch. The Beatles don’t seem to understand the American concept of a working lunch!
For the Beatles, music was their main connector and the passion they all shared. Because they knew hundreds of songs between them, it was not uncommon to see them spontaneously launch into one of those songs between the work of polishing up a new tune. In these light moments, the viewer sees this deep musical connection and sparks of genius that illustrate why they were the Beatles. They had something profoundly creative between them, which was still working perfectly well in 1969. This is not the band unhinged and falling apart seen in Let it Be, but a cohesive team who would regroup a month later to record Abbey Road, their final album with many career highlights.
One also must mention that the Beatles shared a great sense of humor and silliness. Fans were familiar with this Beatles’ dimension from the film “Hard Days Night,” their interviews, and annual Christmas messages. They were genuinely funny people, each in their way. Get Back, however, brings their humor to another level as a bit of fun is palpable nearly every day in the studio. And this is reassuring. Even with some genuine management tensions between them then, the Beatles in 1969, as they would prove with Abbey Road, were still capable of being at the top of the music game. Shouldn’t that be joyous and full of fun? Yes, and it appears it was (for the most part).
Business today, in my experience, is a collaborative team sport that involves creativity. Now with remote work, we all needed to collaborate more. If this new work-from-anywhere model gets some roots, it will be because we are more mature and skilled team members concerning collaboration and teamwork and getting things done. So maybe we can learn a few tips from a very mature and successful team, the Beatles.
Making time to get together as a team repeatedly, as the Beatles did, will help us better understand roles and goals amongst ourselves, allowing us to start quicker and be more efficient over time. The Beatles didn’t rush greatness, so maybe neither should we.
Iterating on work, over and over, with an eye on the best outcome (without being oversensitive to your idea of losing out) is also something the Beatles did. Also, mixing up the team might be just what we need. And if Billy Preston is the one who wants to join your team, the answer is a big “yes!”
Finally, wasting time and having fun, the Beatles showed us, seems to be part of a great outcome with established teams. So is civility, such as taking breaks for coffee, tea, and lunch. Perhaps teams should embrace these practices rather than eschew them in favor of “tighter schedules.” Clearly, in viewing Get Back, this worked for the Beatles.
I would also add one other insight I was reminded of watching Get Back, and that is this: If you want to get results like the Beatles, you might want to start with the actual Beatles. I remembered the line from the film Social Network, “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you would have invented Facebook!” Same sentiment. The rarest snowflakes are John, Paul, George, and Ringo (George Martin, Billy Preston, Glyn Johns, and others). Put them together, let them be themselves, and you get something that we’re still talking about fifty years later.