How the Beatles and Beach Boys Used Creative Competition

How we can benefit from it too

Posted Aug 31, 2019

ScanPix/Wikimedia Commons
Source: ScanPix/Wikimedia Commons

"Kids, would you please start fighting?" implores Wharton psychologist Adam Grant in a recent New York Times opinion piece. In it, he argues that creative innovation occurs by harnessing the power of constructive disagreement and healthy competition, the capacity to work with and make something out of dissonance.

The Creative Benefits of the Wobble

Bolstering his point, Grant cites research findings that the most creative adults sprung from families replete with friction and disagreements. We're not talking abusive households, but rather those that aren't the "Leave it to Beaver" types. Because as Grant notes, it takes a bit of a 'wobble' to learn how to take risks necessary for discovering new territory.

In a study of thirty-somethings asked to write an imaginative story, the most creative products came from the adults whose parents had shown the most conflict and differences in a variety of areas, including worldview, child-rearing philosophy, and interests. When the most creative scientists and architects were examined alongside their equally skilled but less original counterparts,  the trailblazers generally had more tension in their families of origin.

Learning from the Beatles and the Beach Boys

The Beatles are a virtual case study in how to capitalize on this friction and use it to expand one's own creative process and production.  When John Lennon was working on a nostalgic and obliquely psychedelic song about his childhood, Paul set to work to find his own. They began to compete and 'wobble' in the ways in which Grant alludes.

Find Your Own Lane  

Strawberry Fields Forever was an ode to the Salvation Army children's home John could see from his window. It became a vehicle to evoke more innocent days and to illustrate how John always felt on the periphery.  It also beautifully expressed the dream-like fascination John had with the Hindu teachings of losing one's ego and the mystical way one can be both lost and found through creative work.  

With a completely different feel and pulse, McCartney conjures up walking to the very place which was the connection point for Paul and John in their youth. Penny Lane was where both boys would catch the bus to get to each other's houses. Yet in it, we hear the very different style and sensibility of Paul himself, the rollicking, straightforward guy on a jaunt. In totally Paul fashion, you think it's going to be a conventional take through town and then hear his own little surrealist flourishes, including the distinctive piccolo trumpet solo.  

What's important for us to remember is not to get caught up in invidious comparison. Why can't I find my Strawberry Fields? Instead, it serves us better to use that as a springboard to find on our own Penny Lane. 

Make Your Own Pet Sounds

The Beatles didn't only compete with each other. They also took that creative jockeying to other bands working alongside them, using it to make even more innovative sounds.  And those other bands, most notably the Beach Boys, found a way into the game.

Brian Wilson was reportedly so blown away by the Beatles album Revolver that he vowed to find a way to make an album just as good.  After listening to it, he went straight to work on a song that Paul McCartney says is his favorite in all of music history: God Only Knows. What's more, Wilson lived up to his own vow and used his invisible competition with the Beatles to create the masterpiece album Pet Sounds.  

So, go ahead, be inspired by the greatness of somebody else, and use it to fuel your inspiration.  Your work will naturally 'disagree' with theirs and find its way of becoming your own Pet Sounds.     

Take a Detour With Support 

When George Harrison asked Eric Clapton to play lead guitar on his new song While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Clapton protested as if it was sacrilegious to have a non band-member play on a Beatles recording. This just wasn't done. But Harrison persisted.

He knew he needed the support of his good friend to help bring his new vision-inspired by recent trips to India-to the table.  In addition, he recognized that having Clapton on board would help to ease the tension in the band and galvanize them to take this detour together. What emerged was what many consider to be one of Harrison's very best songs.   

When we're pushing the limits of our creative competition, it helps to gather some stabilizing support, one that helps us to expand towards a larger vision. We want to make sure that we are still in the wobble and not about to topple.