15 lessons on creativity (and life) from The Beatles
This is the Rubesletter from Matt Ruby. I’m a comedian, writer, and the creator of Vooza. Every Tuesday, I send essays, jokes, and videos to your inbox. You’re on the free plan, for the full experience, sign up for a paid subscription.
"Get Back" shows what the creative process really looks like. Also: Jack leaves Twitter, why good moms are the worst audience members, superhero movies, why doxxing is weird, and more.
The just-released “Get Back” documentary has weird accents, tons of drama, and is twice as long as it needs to be. So basically, Peter Jackson made Lord of the Rings 4 but with Paul McCartney as Frodo. Still, I loved it. Here are 15 great lessons about creativity (and life) to learn from it...
🎙 The creative process is tedious and boring.
I’m a Beatlemaniac so this doc is all up in (and across) my universe. That said, I don’t know how normies could possibly sit through it all. The endless bickering and tension is so tedious I started to feel like I was living with my ex-girlfriend again.
Nonetheless, it’s a wonderful reveal of what writing/creating something from scratch is really like. We get to see the Fab Four flailing, making up crap, singing/playing out of tune, and sounding like a bunch of wannabe hacks instead of the greatest band ever.
We tend to envision geniuses experiencing lightning bolt moments because that’s sexy. But the reality is creating something from nothing is a grind. Analogy: Archaeology ain’t actually Indiana Jones running through a cave, it’s eggheads sifting through dirt for weeks on end in hopes of finding a fossil.
I’m not a huge fan of “Get Back” as a tune, but it’s still fascinating to see it emerge out of nothingness. It starts off as Paul noodling around on his bass and tossing out some melodies, but within minutes the framework for the song emerges and the blur comes into focus.
This doc is tedious is because the act of creation is tedious. Making stuff is failure upon failure until it’s not.
🎙 Pay more attention to the quiet ones.
George brings in “All Things Must Pass” and “Isn’t It A Pity?” to the group and they basically shrug. Astounding! These are two of the greatest songs written by anyone in that room and yet they just float by practically unnoticed. No wonder George was like “Screw this.”
In defense of the others, George grew enormously as a songwriter during their time together. He really was not at the level of Paul/John in the beginning. Sometimes we view people as they were instead of as they are without realizing how they’ve evolved.
Also, George’s brevity is something else: “I’ll play whatever you want me to play, or I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to play.” And then there’s his quitting: “Shall we go to lunch?” someone asks. “Um, I think I’ll be leaving the band now,” Harrison explains. “When?” “Now.”
🎙 The good and bad parts of a person often come from the same place.
Paul is fascinating. He’s a jerk, yet he’s also the engine. He’s a bully, yet he bends over backwards to be inclusive. He loathes John, yet when they sing together they look like they’re about to make out. It’s all so confusing; how are we supposed to feel about this character?
In fact, Paul feels like one of the siblings on the other everyone’s-streaming-it-right-now show: Succession. Just when you start to like him, he says something so cringeworthy you can’t help but hate him.
A great example of this is in the Beatles Anthology from a while back when Paul is interviewed, while steering his boat (!), and explains how humorous it is that Frank Sinatra used to introduce “Something” as his favorite Lennon-McCartney song even though it’s actually a George song, and then laughs aloud as if he’s just told the most fabulous tale; it’s pretentiousness masked as humility soaked in an I-don’t-get-how-I’m-perceived attitude that results from obscene wealth/fame.
Heck, even Paul’s songs generate conflicting emotions: “The Long and Winding Road.” No. Just no. With strings = No. Without strings = no. It’s a song made for elevators. “Let It Be” on the other hand is saccharine yet superb. Watching Paul hunt and peck it out in the background while others are debating nonsense is wonderful. Also, don’t sleep on George’s solo on the track – it’s one of his best.
I’ve always been a John stan, but I’ve come to dig Paul more and more over the years. His heart is in the right place, he just wants to spread good vibes, and his sense of melody and musicianship is freakin’ Mozartesque. Tip: McCartney 3, 2, 1 on Hulu is actually a better intro for those who aren’t already obsessed with The Beatles. (Rick Rubin is a great foil.)
OK, fine. Let’s do this: The Beatles vs. Succession = Ringo is Connor. George is Shiv. John is Roman. Paul is Kendall. And George Martin is Logan.
🎙 If someone’s on drugs, then their story is about drugs.
It feels like John’s barely trying, like the well is dry, like he’s more interested in canoodling with Yoko than he is in actually writing new songs. Except he’s the one who delivers “Across the Universe,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” and “Dig A Pony.” And damn, those are the best songs on the album. Also, John’s joking lip-syncing-to-the-camera while Paul sings is the most hilarious part of the film. John’s that a**hole you can’t help but love.
How John was addicted to heroin seems worth mentioning though, y’know? Feels like that probably had something to do with his empty tank.
And btw, Ringo downing beers and looking haggard at morning sessions tells me he had some extracurricular activities going on too. When you’re the glue, you need some liquor I guess.
More on John’s habit:
Also worth mentioning: The whole band’s career was spurred on by drug use.
As Bill Hicks once said, “If you don’t believe drugs have done good things for us, do me a favor then: Go home tonight, take all your albums, your tapes and your CD’s and burn them. Cause you know what? The musicians who made that great music that has enhanced your lives throughout the years, real f*cking high on drugs, ok?”
🎙 You have to go through cauliflower to find your “no other lover.”
On YouTube, there’s a wonderful bit from these sessions where John helps George with the lyrics to “Something.” George is struggling with a specific line…
Eventually, George hits upon “attracts me like no other lover.”
John also offers a good lesson on creativity when he advises George not to stop and analyze the lyrics and to instead go over them in the future. They're taping everything so it’ll be there later. It’s easy to derail the possibility of spontaneous magic by getting too analytical.
Reminds me of a photography teacher I once had who advised us to get a shot first, any shot, because you never know how a scene might change over time. His message: Capture something while you can and then work on refining/getting the perfect version afterwards.
🎙 You can’t expect past people to have today’s values.
So much fur. Like everywhere, on everyone. Fur. Fur. Fur. The way society has completely flipped on this fashion faux pas is phenomenal. It’s the perfect example of why we can’t retroactively apply cancel culture. The values of today weren’t even on the radar back then. Yesterday, all fur’s troubles seemed so far away.
🎙 Cameras change everything.
The whole project feels like the prototype for reality TV. Cameras and mics everywhere to the point where the subjects seem to not even notice they’re being filmed and start to, well, act naturally. It’s Big Brother set on a soundstage/studio instead of a house. No wonder so much petty bickering ensues; omnipresent cameras have a way of creating friction. At least there were no confessionals back then and we didn’t have to hear anyone talk about their “journey.” (Though it woulda been fun if Paul offered George a rose when asking him to come back.)
🎙 Deadlines and constraints are the secret ingredients to creativity.
The deadline motif (“we’ve got two weeks to write an entire album!”) shows the power of constraints. As SNL’s Lorne Michaels says, "The show doesn't go on because it's ready; it goes on because it's 11:30.” Deadlines are like steam, they make the engine go. Plus, they force you to eliminate perfectionist tendencies. Your only option is to focus on the core and abandon the polish. And the great thing about rock ’n roll: It’s all about rough edges.
🎙 Ask yourself: Am I acting like a character in a future mockumentary?
They’re gonna sail a boat filled with fans to some ancient amphitheater in Libya to perform!? We hear way too much about this performance that never happens, delivering some major Spinal Tap/Stonehenge vibes.
Need more proof the original Beatles doc inspired Tap? Michael Lindsay-Hogg directed the 1970 version while Tap features Sir Denis Eton-Hogg as the head of Polymer Records.
But wait a minute. Cruises with rock bands are all the rage nowadays. And Pink Floyd, who also recorded at Abbey Road, went ahead with the whole concert in an amphitheater in a strange land thing (they did it at Pompeii) – and damn if it isn’t a truly glorious concert film. So maybe we should give Lindsay-Hogg more credit for his innovative thinking.
Anyway, smoke some weed and veg out on peak Floyd:
🎙 Authenticity is often fakery in disguise.
The variety of voices Paul can sing with is remarkable. He can croon like an old timey lounge singer, belt like an aggro rocker, whoop it up like Little Richard, do a jokey cockney accent, or deliver pure honey vocals that melt into the harmonies of his cohorts to the point where you can’t even tell who’s singing. Basically, he’s got a whole vocal toolbox and can pull out the right one for any job. All that is a good reveal on how much we overvalue “authenticity” in art. There’s a whole lotta fakin’ going on with Beatles vocals – and it’s great.
Speaking of fakery, The Beatles were jerks who managed to sound excruciatingly pretty. In life, we often mistake pretty for nice. But sometimes pretty is mean; because pretty can get away with anything.
🎙 If you don’t like the vibe in a room, add in someone new.
Billy Preston’s arrival shows the importance of shaking up the snowglobe every once in a while. There was endless quarreling when it was just the Fab Four alone together, but as soon as Preston (or Eric Clapton) showed up, the boys were on their best behavior and got along just fine. Just bringing in a witness can make people change their behavior. We do things around family members who fatigue us that we’d never do around strangers we want to impress.
🎙 Good production is often about the things you omit.
Phil Spector put too many bells and whistles (ok, strings and horns) on the original album. When told Spector would get production credit on "Let It Be," George Martin said: "I produced the original, and what you should do is have a credit saying 'Produced by George Martin, over-produced by Phil Spector.'" Great shade, Mr. Martin. The man even produced his insults perfectly!
🎙 Men blame things on women for no good reason.
Maybe this doc can help put to bed the theory that Yoko Ono was responsible for the band’s breakup. McCartney even says about Ono: “She’s great. She really is all right. They just want to be near each other.”
Actually, an even more fascinating documentary would be one where we find out what Yoko and Linda McCartney were gabbing about on the sidelines. Also, I’d rather have Yoko hanging around than the silently brooding Hare Krishna dudes George has lingering on the fringes. Y’all here to pray, play tambourine, or what, my dudes?
🎙 “Yes” leads to all kinds of good things.
Given the bitter tone of these sessions, you can see why John moved towards Yoko. She was his yes in a sea of nos. And that makes their origin story even more intriguing.
If you’re unfamiliar, Yoko met John in December 1966 when he attended her show at London’s Indica Gallery and was moved by her Ceiling Painting/Yes Painting. The installation involved climbing up a ladder to view a note through a spyglass, which displayed just one word: “Yes.”
Their collaborations for the next few decades all feel like riffs off this piece that brought them together. Some good quotes from them on it:
🎙 Collaboration is all about negotiation and compromise.
After years of being in a band, one of the most relatable parts for me was George getting an electric shock every time he touches the microphone. This happens more than you might think when you combine electric guitars, mics, and mouths. No one ever believes it and you’re like, “Here, you try it!” Alas, that’s how cool being in a rock band is – every once in a while you get electrocuted a bit and you just chalk it up as part of the gig.
The whole doc also reminded me how much being in a band is like being married to three other people. It’s a neverending reminder that creative collaboration, like marriage, is about negotiation and compromise.
Sometimes your bandmates will shock you. They’ll deliver pools of sorrow and waves of joy to you. You’ve just gotta chalk it up as part of the gig and get back to where you once belonged.
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🌀 Omicron is the worst Transformer name yet.
🌀 I'm "I need to use the light on my phone to read the menu" years old.
🌀 Shared to-do lists belong in the passive aggressive hall of fame.
🌀 Post-show convo:
🌀 Good moms are the worst audience members. They love to groan and tsk because their minds have been taken over by childrearing. Bad moms, on the other hand, are ideal audience members. Anyone who owns a "There might be wine in this" coffee mug is ready to laugh (and/or die).
🌀 Maybe Biden has dismal poll numbers because everyone in charge of everything has dismal poll numbers because we keep blaming people for pandemic crap that's beyond their control. On the other hand, maybe the problem is Trump goes out and speaks to 20,000 people in arenas while Biden's big live event is (no joke) touring a dilapidated bridge in Woodstock, NH.
🌀 Hotels are cheaper than Airbnb. Taxis are cheaper than Uber. We're right back where we started. What the hell was the last decade for?
🌀 Re: the Constitution, America needs to update its software. We're still running the same OS we did in 1776.
🌀 Instead of a hot take, it should be called a quick bitch.
🌀 This gerrymandering stuff is so crazy. It's like if the Warriors got to draw the 3-point line wherever they want before every game.
🌀 Will never forget this convo with my Israeli dad when I was a kid: Me: Is it spelled Hannukah, Chanukah, or something else? My dad: All English spellings of Hebrew words are bullshit. Everyone's just spelling it however they think it sounds. They don't understand us. Me: Got it.
1) Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård interview. Here, he discusses superhero movies, indie cinema, and the death of word of mouth.
2) Dr. Becky Doesn’t Think the Goal of Parenting Is to Make Your Kid Happy. We want it to switch off bad feelings when we should just try to dim them.
3) The built-in trap when it comes to shows about bad people. The problem: Bad people are incredibly fun to watch.
This also explains our last President: “Forced to choose between morality and entertainment, the bulk of viewers tend to choose the latter.”
4) Kathleen Belew, a historian who’s spent her career studying political violence, explains how society becomes more violent after wars.
5) A kind way to offer help. This line at the end is killer:
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