What must it have been like, I wondered recently, to have had Paul McCartney’s brain in the 1960s? Every few days you’d wake up, perhaps sit at a piano, waggle your head a bit, say ‘Wa-hey!’ and your brain would produce a tune for you. Sometimes it might be something like Rocky Raccoon or Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, but then on other days it might be something like Yesterday or Let it Be.
Being a music lover devoid of musical talent, I have always regarded with awe and jealousy those rare people who can write memorable melodies. Not just Paul McCartney or Brian Wilson or Mozart or Handel, but anyone who can pen something everyone can whistle. Like the great atheist Bjorn from Abba. Or Noel Gallagher. Or even Pete Waterman, why not. It seems a mysterious witchcraft: the ability to arrange a limited number of notes in a particular, original sequence and rhythm so that hearers can easily and with pleasure repeat that sequence whenever they wish (or sometimes, with great irritation when they don’t wish).
Clearly it is an innate gift afforded to very few. Ringo Starr in some amusing interview told how he would try to write songs but when he presented them to the rest of the Beatles they would inform him that he had unintentionally ripped off a popular tune of the day, and he would say “Oh yeah.”
We can confidently and unhesitatingly dismiss the ‘Outliers’ theory of that audacious charlatan and peddler of the obvious or empty Malcolm Gladwell, whereby he posits that the Beatles’ genius can be explained by the 10,000 hours of practice they had in Hamburg nightclubs. This is clearly nonsense.
First, there are countless thousands of jobbing musicians who put in the hours but never write a Penny Lane or indeed a tune a tenth as good as the most innocuous Beatles album track.
Second, the gift nearly always declines with years rather than improving.eg. Paul McCartney’s brain in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. Generally speaking most bands’ debut albums contain their best tunes, and those artists with longevity (Dylan, Springsteen, Waits, Cave etc) rely on other qualities in their later years, ie. songcraft. Noel Gallagher had never even been in a band when his Muse provided him with all the melodies for the first two Oasis albums. It deserted him immediately afterwards, well before he had put in the 10,000 hours.
Third, Malcolm Gladwell has very silly hair.