Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Beatles' Decca Audition and Why We Should Be Open to Genius in our Schools

The Beatles Van in 1963, after Pete Best was replaced by Ringo (2nd from left)
New Year's Eve, 1961.  Around mid-day, the Beatles piled into their road manager Neil Aspinall's Commer Van for a trip to London.  It was frigid and they were driving through a snowstorm, which turned the trip into a 10-hour lumbering journey of missed turns.  They got in at 10:00 at night, "just in time to see the drunks jumping in the Trafalgar Square fountain", as John put it.  They were on their way to London to make history, although they didn't quite know it yet.  More specifically, they were on their way to the London Decca studio for a now-historic and infamous audition.

The next morning, New Year's Day of 1962, the 4 young men (John, Paul, George, and their drummer at the time Pete Best) showed up to Decca for their audition.  They started at 11 and played for about an hour.  Having been an already-seasoned club band, they chose 15 songs directly from their act- 12 covers and 3 Lennon/McCartney originals.  The boys were nervous (this was a big deal- an audition for a major record company) and tired.  
The order of the songs at the session:
  1. "Like Dreamers Do" (Lennon/McCartney)
  2. "Money (That's What I Want)" (Gordy/Bradford)
  3. "Till There Was You" (Meredith Willson)
  4. "The Sheik of Araby" (Smith/Wheeler/Snyder)
  5. "To Know Her Is to Love Her" (Phil Spector)
  6. "Take Good Care of My Baby" (King/Goffin) (not released)
  7. "Memphis, Tennessee" (Chuck Berry) (not released)
  8. "Sure to Fall (In Love with You)" (Cantrell/Claunch/Perkins) (not released)
  9. "Hello Little Girl" (Lennon/McCartney)
  10. "Three Cool Cats" (Leiber/Stoller)
  11. "Crying, Waiting, Hoping" (Buddy Holly) (not released)
  12. "Love of the Loved" (Lennon/McCartney) (not released)
  13. "September in the Rain" (Warren/Dubin) (not released)
  14. "Bésame Mucho" (Consuelo Velázquez)
  15. "Searchin'" (Leiber/Stoller)

The tapes have since survived and been bootlegged/released in various forms throughout the years.  Here are a few samples, pulled from Youtube:

Besame Mucho

Like Dreamers Do


The Sheik of Araby

The songs were selected by Brian Epstein to show the range of the band- they were plainly eclectic selections, from ballads to obscure songs, to flamenco, to blues, to rockabilly.  But this was exactly who the Beatles were- eclectic.  Paul's father had been a trumpet player and jazz pianist- Paul had grown up listening to a huge variety of music and it clearly impacted his eclectic tastes.  John had a troubled childhood, was an artist and player with words.  George joined the group as a friend of Paul's, had been hooked by Elvis, and was obsessed with guitars. Pete Best was....well, Pete was just along for the (short, as it turned out) ride.  It was this rich, eclectic, varied background in music and poetry that set the stage for 7 years of creative, world-changing impact.

Decca took a few months to decide on whether to sign the Beatles and, ultimately, passed on the greatest band in the history of music.  Explaining their rejection of the Beatles, they used these now-famous words: "Guitar groups are on the way out" and "the Beatles have no future in show business".  As far as historical mistakes go, this one ranks right up there with starting a land war in Asia.

As the magnitude of this mistake became clear, we've now come to know that one of the main reasons Decca passed on the Beatles was because of that very eclectic nature that they actively sought to put on display.  The songs they presented were so varied and sometimes obscure, that, as Paul said years later, "they just didn't know what to do with us."  

And Decca wasn't the only one and certainly not the first to overlook the genius that the Beatles brought to the table.  Not by a longshot.  Sir Ken Robinson related these stories from Paul in his recent book, The Element:

Paul said "he'd always loved music, but that he never enjoyed music lessons at school.  His teachers thought they could convey an appreciation for music by making kids listen to crackling records of classical compositions.  He found this just as boring as he found everything else at school....(Paul) went through his entire education without anyone noticing that he had any musical talents at all."  (p. 11)

(in Paul's words)- "The music teacher completely failed to teach us anything about music.  I mean, he had George Harrison and Paul McCartney in his classes as kids and he couldn't interest us in music.  George and I both went through school and no one ever though we had any kind of musical talent at all." (227-228)

Here was a teacher who had 2 of the most gifted (and passionate) musicians the world would ever know in his music class, and he never noticed a thing.  How many kids are sitting in schools right this moment, geniuses ready for the making, that we aren't recognizing?  This brings a lot of questions to mind:
  • How do we recognize the early signs of genius?  
  • Why do we miss these signs?
  • Early signs of genius will often look like nonconformity.  Breaking out from the pack.  How do we encourage this?  How do we move away from stifling this in schools?
  • How are our procedures and rules impeding kids from expressing themselves?
  • How do we foster an environment of mutual respect so that kids feel safe expressing themselves, even if they will be looked at as different?
  • How can we make "different" safe, and celebrated?

The most important thing we can do as educators is to keep an open mind and recognize genius within our students, in all it's forms. We need to expose our students to a myriad of experiences, let them dive in deeply, then pay attention to them and be open and receptive to what they come up with and what direction it leads them.  

So the question for us really is- Do we know what to do with these kids?

1 comment:

scott's thoughts said...

Well said Steve, but what a major culture shift. The pundits would not know how to measure this and the bean counters would struggle to fund the experiences neccessary to cultivate genius. Thankfully, you and many teachers like you have the passion to overcome these obstacles.