Why Malcolm Gladwell Is Wrong About The Beatles

Has anyone ever profited so handsomely by stating the arse-shatteringly obvious as Malcolm Gladwell?

In his first book ‘The Tipping Point’ he pointed out that the growth of trends depends on their context. In ‘Blink’ he argued that instinctive, quickfire decisions can be more effective than considered ones.

In his latest, ‘Outliers’, Gladwell claims that what we regard as ‘genius’ has more to do with hard work than any innate genetic destiny.


In this interview to promote the book, Gladwell – the Sideshow Bob of cultural theory – deploys the “little hidden fact” that The Beatles did not emerge fully-formed with ‘Revolver’ or ‘Sgt. Pepper…’, but rather honed their craft in the sweaty clubs of Hamburg.

Now, quite apart from the fact that the world and its nan already knows about The Beatles’ Hamburg days, Gladwell is wrong on a number of counts. In what sense did The Beatles’ live proficiency drive the development of their songwriting ability? The two evolved separately.

The Beatles gave up playing live in 1966. Surely the creative heights they subsequently scaled with ‘Sgt Pepper…’ had far more to do with the new studio technology available to them – particularly multi-tracking – coupled with the boundless production expertise and ability of George Martin?

The idea that if you bash out ‘Twist And Shout’ enough times you’ll eventually come up with ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is absurd.

On a broader level, music history if full of spontaneous acts of creativity, little moments of genius that required no dues-paying. Jeff Buckley never sang a note until the age of 24. Within a year he’d written ‘Last Goodbye’. Similarly, Noel Gallagher wrote ‘Live Forever’ while sitting in a builder’s storeroom. He’d never been in a band, never played a gig.


Moreover, Gladwell’s theory is contradicted by the standard rock band career trajectory. We know from experience that most bands write their best songs at the start of their career. They may become more technically proficient over time, but rarely do they become creatively sharper.

By Gladwell’s logic, ‘Dig Out Your Soul’ ought to be better than ‘Definitely Maybe’ – and God knows only a lunatic would think that.

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