Paul McCartney is undoubtedly one of the top five rock musicians of all time. Some may rank him #1. Yet no one can credibly make that statement if his recording career started after The Beatles. His solo work has been inconsistent and mostly average.
I realize to say such a thing is nothing short of blasphemy for diehard McCartney fans. Sure, he had a few hits, but only the true believers would suggest the solo Paul McCartney ranks with other rock legends from the 1970s and beyond. The odd thing about this is the Paul McCartney of 1969 was undoubtedly at the peak of his powers and producing genius work.
This is obvious to anyone who watches “Get Back” on Disney+. Throughout the 9+ hour documentary we are treated to an extraordinary inside look at a clearly fraying Beatles, unquestionably led by Paul, working to record new material for their first live performance in years.
We see his creative process up close as he crafts some of the greatest rock songs of all time: Get Back, Let It Be, The Long and Winding Road, I Got A Feeling. He’s focused, disciplined, confident and seemingly blessed with an incomparable ability to generate legendary music on command.
Paul drives the entire process, often at times at the expense of the others in the band. George quits for a few days during the film in frustration of Paul’s dismissive treatment of him. And Paul and John seem to be on totally different wavelengths and uncomfortable working together. The only one Paul doesn’t seem to annoy is Ringo.
But amidst all the tension something else is going on that explains why Paul never achieved the level of genius once The Beatles broke up. And it has significance not just for those interested in music history, but for those seeking to understand how each of us can do our best work.
For all the band’s troubles, Paul needed the structure, systems, and rituals that the four of them developed over years of working together. Seth Godin refers to it as a practice. But whatever we call it, what we see in “Get Back” is how systems and processes matter as much as, if not more than, talent to producing great work.
The Paul McCartney of the 1970s was just as talented and gifted as the one in 1969. He could still sing, play and perform during that period just as well as his Beatles days. Yet he never again came into a studio and produced what he did during the making of this documentary.
I think one can make the same argument for other musicians. Was Sting ever as good after The Police? How about Pete Townsend and The Who? Both men were the primary songwriters for their bands, yet their solo work never achieved the heights of what they did with their groups.
It’s not because they got older, their talent faded or they lost interest. It’s because they needed all the elements, both the tangible and intangible, that came with the creative process of producing with their bands. Paul McCartney, for all his undeniable talent, could never recreate on his own the unique working dynamic he had with The Beatles and his work suffered as a result.
If “Get Back” teaches us anything it’s that genius is more perspiration than inspiration. Showing up every day and working in an environment that we’ve consciously constructed to allow us to succeed is how great work happens. Talent alone is not enough. Great talent without a disciplined process results in unrealized, wasted potential.
The working culture The Beatles masterfully crafted together, even with all its disfunction towards the end, was their true genius. That culture was so powerful that even as their personal relationships unraveled, they still could bang out one of the great albums of all time in three weeks. The great tragedy of “Get Back” is watching them slowly destroy something so rare and magical when they had so much more to give.
Neither you nor I are anything like The Beatles, but it’s worth taking time to understand what our “practices” need to look like to maximize our potential. Correctly identifying and mastering, as well as ferociously protecting, the process to do our best work will drive our success more than whatever talent we possess.
I wonder what we missed because Paul, John, George and Ringo failed to properly respect and protect their process back in 1969. The thought makes listening to “The Long and Winding Road” that much more poignant.