When iconic musical foursome The Beatles first got their start, they were a skiffle band called The Quarrymen gaining some traction around the local Liverpool music scene in the ’50s. John Lennon, the band’s frontman, would ultimately meet up with future bandmates Paul McCartney and George Harrison to form a new lineup – an ensemble that would ultimately evolve into one of music’s most influential acts in the history of the art form. Such a strong legacy must surely be led by someone capable of pushing not only the creative envelope, but the technical one as well – at least, that is what one would initially think. The reality, however, is that John Lennon, the man who made the future of Rock ‘n’ Roll possible, couldn’t even play his own instrument.
Upon meeting Lennon for the first time, future lead guitarist George Harrison noticed something odd about him – his guitar only had four (some reports say five) strings, and Lennon himself was playing what appeared to be chords fabricated out of whole cloth. “What are you doing?” Harrison was reported to have said, and he proceeded to teach Lennon his first set of proper guitar chords. As it turns out, Lennon was playing real finger positions – for a banjo.
Yet in spite of this apparent setback in the newly established lineup’s technical abilities, the band kept rehearsing, kept performing shows, toured overseas, and ultimately landed a record contract under the guidance of music business mogul Brian Epstein. The Beatles, as they were now known, ultimately obtained a U.S. #1 chart-topper in “Please Please Me,” and the rest, you might say, is history.
The band continued to grow in musicianship and creativity, yet John Lennon’s technical prowess as a player remained paltry in comparison with his fellows (certain reports even depict Lennon as incapable of stringing and tuning his own guitar). However, The Beatles would go on to produce some of the most artistically creative, sonically arresting, and politically poignant music of their generation, and the modern world still feels the ripples of the first time Lennon ever plugged in his amplifier at the now historical EMI recording studio. The question is, if the band’s leader wasn’t technically-speaking a “real” musician, how did this success and mass appeal materialize?
My answer is simple: creativity. Passion. Artfulness. There is no greater case for art over technique as a viable pathway for the artist than the story of The Beatles, whose members’ technical abilities as musicians varied, yet whose music touched the world – and they did it all while having a technically herbivorous guitarist who couldn’t play a single chord as its primary songwriter. I believe this falls into play with what J.S. Bach once said about the technical side of musicianship, that as long as one hits the right spot at just the right time, any instrument is playable. For Lennon and The Beatles, they hit the “right spot” far more often than not. And this fact made them legendary.
The moral of this story is not to overexert oneself with the pressure to perform at symphony orchestra caliber – if the passion for music is there, and the right words hit the page, the next musical revolution could be right around the corner.