I ain’t got nothing but practice, girl, eight days a week
At a Paul McCartney gig a few years ago. He has played for two hours in front of 80,000 people, but after the show he does a “grip and grin” session with visiting media.
As a songwriter and musician, McCartney has nothing to prove, he’s world-famous, richer than God and has been instrumental in changing the course of popular culture. He’s post-iconic. But here he is, dutifully posing for pictures with media deadbeats, making sure everyone is in frame, throwing his arms around countless shoulders and smiling as if he’s actually enjoying it.
From a corner, I stare over at him with a mixture of awe, respect and love. (C’mon, he’s a Beatle.) Once McCartney makes sure that everyone has had their picture taken with him, he moves over to a bunch of radio types and records a series of inane station indents – “Hi, this is Paul McCartney and you’re listening to . . . ”. He works the room with a broad smile, always ready with a cheery anecdote and a friendly slap on the back.
Ask an indie band today to record a radio station ident and you’d have to revive them with smelling salts. Ask them to actually press the flesh of the media and they’d pout and sulk. Can you imagine hearing, oh, Thom Yorke saying: “Hi, this is Thom from Radiohead and you’re listening to Dublin’s best pop music station, 98 FM”. Ask most of them to pose for a cheery photograph with their thumbs up for a fan and they’d be ringing the Priory to book in with “nervous exhaustion”.
To this day, Paul McCartney still jumps through media hoops because that was the way he was brought up in showbiz. When he was scabbing gigs around Liverpool, there were no government grants, arts councils, beer companies or mobile phone operators around to pick up the tab and smooth over the expenses.
To get to the “toppermost of the poppermost”, The Beatles knew they had to put in the hours and learn their craft. The only reason McCartney ever sat Lennon down and suggested they write some original songs was because too often at shows, they would hear the band on before them playing cover versions far better than The Beatles could play them. There was no “the media won’t cover us”, “the record label won’t give us any money”, “radio won’t play us” excuses. They took the boat to Hamburg and played five shows a night, eight days a week.
From August 1960 to December 1962, The Beatles played to drunk sailors and disinterested hookers in dive bars. The money was crap and so were they – to begin with.
In his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm “Tipping Point” Gladwell examines the idea that true excellence at any complex task requires a critical and minimum level of practice. He finds that researchers in the field have settled on the “magic number” required for true expertise: 10,000 hours.
The neurologist Daniel Levitin writes: “In study after study (of excellence in any given field) this number crops up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or 20 hours a week of practice over 10 years. No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.”
By the time The Beatles finished their extended grind in Hamburg, they had played live some 1,200 times – before they ever released a single. Most of today’s bands don’t perform 1,200 times in their entire career.
Obviously, practicing anything for 10,000 hours will not automatically make you a genius. The point is, according to Gladwell, you can’t be a true genius without it. And if an opportunity arises, you’ll be in the right postion to take advantage of it.
Towards the end of their Hamburg stint, the Beatles went into the studio with Tony Sheridan and recorded a cover of My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean. Back in Liverpool, a fan went into a record shop and asked for a copy of the single. The guy working behind the counter, Brian Epstein, didn’t have it in stock but resolved to order a copy and investigate further.
McCartney: a master at playing to the galley