When the going gets tough, the tough get playful
“The 13 tracks on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band are the pinnacle of the Beatles’ eight years as recording artists. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were never more fearless and unified in their pursuit of magic and transcendence.”
– Rolling Stone on The Beatles
“We all live in a yellow submarine.”
– The Beatles on themselves
Last week was the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a record of immense importance to popular music. But here we aren’t going to delve into the musical importance of this moment but rather take The Beatles as a case study in deliberate, purpose driven reinvention.
1967 was the year when The Beatles took ownership of who they were and they did it with a mixture of childlike joy and a steely determination that belies their youth. Just imagine, you’re 25 years old, an international superstar, you and your three mates from Liverpool are mobbed on the street by adoring fans, appear in movies, tour the world and sell out stadiums. But you’re not happy.
Simply to admit that you’re unsatisfied despite the apparent dream come true in which you live would, for most people, be daunting enough. But to then do something unheard of, to quit touring entirely, to no longer play live, when all the world was screaming for more of you, just consider the self-possession that would take! Remember, you’re 25.
So we have a certain steeliness, do we not? A hardness of will to face down the press, the fans, the record and movie executives, peers and family who just don’t get what you’ve chosen to do. To get a sense of this, just imagine that you have reached the absolute pinnacle of your chosen field, in constant demand by all who can afford your services. Now imagine quitting that job and explaining that to your mother. See what I mean?
But it is not the steeliness that stands out the most. Because something very odd and ever-present about The Beatles seems more important. They were goofs.
From the outset, they were geeky, cheesy, silly, goofy guys. Their name, The Beatles, is a pretty awful pun to begin with. When other bands were giving themselves names designed to sound cool and sophisticated, The Moody Blues, The Rolling Stones, The Animals… even Cliff Richards backing band sounded like a group James Bond would have faced down, calling themselves The Shadows. Against this backdrop, you had four cheesy guys making bad puns.
This is what I see as The Beatles’ most potent advantage; a general unwillingness to take themselves too seriously, a childlike joyfulness which rendered their various affectations less pretentious and more like a child dressing up and playing make-believe. What they were, above all, was playful.
For evidence of this, we need only look at their albums, both in their art and their music. Consider A Hard Day’s Night, festooned with the Fab Four pulling faces or the tail of a loser done good in Act Naturally on 1965s Help! An album with another entirely goofy cover image of the lads standing like a bunch of shop mannequins in raincoats. But it’s later, as they grow more confident in their work and themselves, that the goofiness really comes out.
Revolver, an apparently hard-edged title, actually a pun on the fact that vinyl records revolve. The album was almost called After Geography as a jab at the Rolling Stones’ Aftermath, another pun which music fans will be happy ended up in the reject pile. Yellow Submarine and Octopus’s Garden; both could have been children’s party tunes, the former sits oddly between a yearning love song in Here, There and Everywhere, and the thumping rock of She Said She Said, a track complaining about a pretentious former lover.
Which brings me back to Sgt Pepper’s. For all the breathtaking innovation, this is an album which looks longingly at childhood and celebrates odd and quirky things. Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever – while not on the album they were both part of the project, released early as a double A-side – are literally songs about Paul and John’s respective childhoods. Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite was based on a poster for an old circus that John Lennon bought one day. Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds was inspired by a drawing by John’s son and drew heavily on a childhood favourite, Alice in Wonderland.
Playful to the last, Sgt. Pepper ends with the blast of a dog whistle, inaudible to most humans but intended to make dogs go crazy followed by a brief period of gobbledygook which when played backwards reveals the words “I will love you like your superman” playing over and over again (though interpretations differ, as you’d expect, and to my knowledge nobody has ever commented on what the truth of this little bit of trivia might be).
Under the immense pressure to deliver something that would justify the choice to stop touring and retreat into the studio with their strange new sounds, The Beatles may have been steely in their resolve but they remained light and playful in their execution. This teaches us something important that might seem to go against the grain for a lot of businesses and even seem antithetical to us individually.[clickToTweet tweet=”Playfulness isn’t a luxury for those who don’t have responsibilities, it’s a necessity” quote=”Playfulness isn’t a luxury for those who don’t have responsibilities, it’s a necessity” theme=”style6″]
When you have a high-pressure job, when you are working under great expectations and with a great deal to lose, it’s at those times when you need to be playful. Playfulness isn’t a luxury for those who don’t have responsibilities, it’s a necessity for those who do. We see this in the barracks humour of soldiers and in the notoriously dark humour of doctors and nurses.
Remaining playful under pressure is a way of telling the world, and reminding yourself, that you are free. You may be dealing with extraordinary things but that does not mean you are trapped by them. And, by embracing that freedom, you can find solutions that a mirthless mind would not see.
As George Bernard Shaw famously said, “we don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.”
Or, as I love movies so much, how about we consider the words of John Candy as Coach Irv Blitzer in 1993’s Cool Runnings, explaining to his team what was missing from their performance:
“You know the turns, you know everything there is to know about this sport. I’ll tell you something: you’d all better figure out how to stay loose out there. That’s something I can’t help you with”
Whether you’re the biggest band in the world or the Jamaican bobsled team, if you’re a banker, a computer programmer, a baker or a candlestick maker, one thing remains true: when the going gets tough, the tough get playful.https://openforideas.org/blog/2017/06/06/going-gets-tough-tough-get-playful/https://i0.wp.com/openforideas.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/thebeatles.jpg?fit=1024%2C576&ssl=1https://i0.wp.com/openforideas.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/thebeatles.jpg?resize=150%2C150&ssl=1Corporate Creativitycreativity,goofs,play,pressure,the beatles