Friday, February 05, 2010

Paul McCartney's brain

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.

Q.E.D.

21 comments:

Willard said...

Whe-hey-dooby-dooby-doo.
Tra-la-la.
Doop, doop, doop, doop, doop, doop, doop.
Wh-hey. Tra-la-lee.
Zippy-doo-daa.
Fern Britton's knee...

It's hard to describe, Brit, this waking up with original melodies on the brain. You either have it or you haven't. But look at it another way. You could be a good drummer and, in humble opinion, Ringo had better luck with women than either John or Paul. I mean, she's a Bond girl.

Peter Burnet said...

Cheer up. Some people write memorable lyrics, others memorable limericks.

I'm not sure your theory about the talent declining with years holds up when measured against the Broadway masters, G & S, Gershwin, Berlin, etc. Is it possible the problem with rock bands is that initial success spawns a kind of artistic pretentiousness? It certainly did with Lennon.

Brit said...

I say, that IS good, Willard. I'll be humming that all day.

Good point, Peter. But to clarify: I don't have a theory about talent - I merely make an observation in order to trash Gladwell's.

worm said...

Is a decline in song writing talent inversely proportional to the amount of time you are photographed making 'thumbs-up' or 'peace' signs?

Gaw said...

My own non-intuitive, lateral, off-the-wall theory is that if you grow a hairstyle like Albert Einstein's and look all droopy, people will think you're very clever. I've decided to try to benefit from this insight whilst I still can.

Peter Burnet said...

worm, I do believe you have nailed it. Imagine the loss if old J.S. Bach had ever said to himself: "How can I justify wasting my life writing counterpoint when people are going hungry? I want to make a difference."

Gaw said...

Every day you'd wake up, perhaps sit at a laptop, waggle your head a bit, say 'Wa-hey!' and your brain would produce a post for you.

So might a blog historian write in 2050. Perhaps you are the McCartney of blogging? Avoid posting on frogs.

Brit said...

Very flattering, Gaw, but I can't take any such credit. I merely put in 10,000 hours of blogging on Brothers Judd and the Daily Duck.

David said...

What's with the Rocky Racoon hate? It might not be a great, timeless classic, but the world needs Rocky Racoon, too.

Brit said...

Hate? Not at all, the point was merely that it is of a different order of tune to Let It Be. You Rocky Raccoon fans are very sensitive.

malty said...

If Macca has a brain how come the blonde Geordie Long John Silver, and the age thing, how come Ludwig from Bonn, still knocking them out well into his fifties, all about inspiration.

Hence, post wedding day, Macca's rhythms went thump clack, thump clack, thump clack.

Inspiration, inspiration, inspiration.

Joey Joe Joe Jr. said...

I love the new Beatles theme of the blog Brit, especially as I'm slowly making my way through the remasters (one-by-one mind you, the box set is too big an investment.) Talking about the fab four, have you seen Nowhere Boy yet? If you can get past the fact that Aaron Johnson looks and sounds more like Ray Quinn than John Lennon, it's quite lovely.

ghostofelberry said...

i think creative gifts are generally sparked into life by personal need - as a way of understanding the world & one's self - even if the artist himself might not think he has such a need (i would guess, if you asked the Fab 4 in 1964, if they had this need, they would have thought it ludicrous).

This is more obviously the case with writers, philosophers - Nietzsche, for example, or TS Eliot. But i think that need is the fire behind all creativity.

Pop music seems to do with youth - perhaps why so many rock stars die age 27 or 28. When you hit 30ish your sense of yourself changes - it might be that pop musicians lose the need at that age, especially if they're rich, and so the gift disappears. i'd guess that a Neil Young or Nick Cave has a deeper need, and so will keep making music, each song like a question, because their world somehow seems a bit "off", not quite right. When Morpheus says to Neo, "all your life you've felt there was something wrong with the world - and this feeling has brought you to me", he could as well be the Muse.

i met someone recently who was a composer in an earlier life, centuries ago. He's just a kid now, doesn't like classical music, but is unusually adept at the guitar - he picked it up one day and within a few months it's like he was born with it. Before i knew who he was i felt there was "something" in him, a kind of force; i suspect it's like what Bertrand Russell saw in Wittgenstein in 1911, an unformed potential, a great need.

Brit said...

I haven't sadly, JJJ Jnr. Not been to the flicks since Brit Jnr was born as it seems a waste of a babysit. I do want to see Avatar though as I hate missing out.

Elb - intriguing theory. But does it explain Pete Waterman and Bjorn from Abba?

Joey Joe Joe Jr. said...

If it wasn't for the 3-dimensional goodness I'd say don't waste your babysit on Avatar. Surely the most interesting aspect of a plot which includes an inter-species love story is the technicalities of alien mating. But the moral, social, psychological and (perhaps above all) logistical issues extraterrestrial loving brings up are completely brushed aside and instead we're offered an old oppressor goes native yarn, which works better with cowboys and indians anyway. The 3D is fun though.

ghostofelberry said...

Indeed, according to my theory Bjorn and Waterman are existential heroes at heart, and will one day commit suicide to prove my point. i hope.

Gadjo Dilo said...

My word, Malcolm Gladwell does have very silly hair. And his "We can't all... sing like the Beatles" (my italics) kind of makes me think he's missed the whole point of The Beatles.

Outa_Spaceman said...

One of the advantages of being able to play the guitar and sing at the same time is not having to own any Beatles albums.
All I need is my battered copy of 'The Beatles Complete' song book...

On hearing that, in his youth, Eric 'God (awful)' Clapton wouldn't have anything to do with guitarists that didn't know the complete works of Robert Johnson, I toyed with the idea of avoiding the company of musicians that didn't know how to play the 27 No. 1's of the fab four...

I still ended up playing with folk musicians though..

Vern said...

Regarding Nick Cave, his early stuff with the Birthday Party is awful, and the Bad Seeds didn't get good until Tender Prey recorded when he was 30-ish... then his best album is probably the Boatman's Call, recorded when he was 40-ish...

Joey Joe Joe Jr. said...

By the way Brit, not everybody shares the opinion that McCartney's post-Beatles career represents a decline in quality.

Sean said...

Our dogs think I am a genius, Our cats think I am just plain crap, but they are under the evil spell of my wife.

Gladwells point is the hard work put in, allowed them to capitalise on the genius when it reared its head.

Nature/nurture I think the answer is both, but drugs I am sure help out a lot.