It’s easy to forget that when The Beatles rose to fame in 1963, they were barely out of adolescence. With all their subsequent success, we often ignore the fact that those four lads from Liverpool had no idea how huge they would become. I doubt there was any talk of going on to be the biggest band in the world when they played those dingy clubs in Hamburg. They weren’t Oasis, after all. In reality, they weren’t even the most confident of musicians. At the height of Beatlemania, they were all feeling a little embarrassed about their respective levels of musicianship.
In a 1963 interview for the BBC program The Public Ear, The Beatles were asked about that very thing: “I haven’t got the patience to practice to become a perfect guitarist, you know,” Lennon said. “I’m more interested in the combination of my voice and the guitar I know, and to write songs, than I am in the instrument. So I never go through a day hardly without playing it whether I’m perfecting or not, you know.”
McCartney went on to agree, adding that there was one member of The Beatles who cared about his musicianship George Harrison, the group’s virtuoso. “George is the one of us who is interested in the instrument,” he said. “The other three of us are more interested in the sound of the group.” But, Harrison was quick to disagree with Paul, noting that he didn’t even practice all that often.
“To be a guitarist,” he began. “You’re supposed to practice a couple of hours a day. But, I mean, I don’t do that.” To which Ringo Starr replied: “To be anything, you’re supposed to practice a couple of hours a day.” But then, Harrison said something that, in retrospect, completely destroys our traditional image of The Beatles as these uniquely gifted payers. Because, while they are often regarded as some of the finest musicians the UK has ever produced, Harrison wasn’t so sure: “Well you know, I mean, the thing is… individually we’re all…I suppose we’re all crummy musicians, really,” he said.
And Harrison is absolutely right. The Beatles success was never down to their musical ability, it was down to the strength of their songwriting. It was their understanding of structure, melody, harmony, and texture that made them such a world-winning success despite their lack of musicality.
If you listen to any of those early hits, including ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘Please Please Me, it’s clear that The Beatles weren’t particularly interested in displays of virtuosity – rather they were looking for a unity of sound.