Are some people destined for success, or is the whole idea of destiny a myth, a comforting tale that we tell ourselves? When artists or political leaders become household names, are they just lucky?
You might think that the Beatles, probably the most successful popular musicians in the last 50 years, were bound to succeed. But an astonishing new book, "Tune In," by Mark Lewisohn, suggests otherwise. Without explicitly saying so, Lewisohn’s narrative raises the possibility that without breaks, coincidences and a lot of luck, none of us would have ever heard of the Beatles.
As Lewisohn describes in detail, the young group became quite popular in local clubs in Liverpool, yet they struggled to attract wider attention. Lacking a manager, and with only modest prospects, they apparently came close to splitting up in 1961, fearing they weren’t going anywhere.
Eventually they asked two young secretaries, who were helping to run their Liverpool fan club, to manage the group. But the secretaries found it hard to get them bookings. The group’s initial break came when Brian Epstein, the 27-year-old manager of a Liverpool record store, happened to come hear them at a lunchtime session at a local club. Epstein was immediately hooked.
Incredibly, he decided they would be "bigger than Elvis." Improbably, he offered to manage them. He did so even though he lacked experience and even though the Beatles had become exceedingly unpopular with promoters and were, in Lewisohn’s words, "damaged goods," known for "being unreliable, unpunctual, arrogant."
Epstein turned out to be indispensable to the Beatles’ success, though at first his efforts proved futile. EMI, a prominent British recording company, refused to give them a contract. Epstein got them an opportunity to test for Decca, EMI’s rival, but the group’s performance was terrible, and it too turned them down. "The boys won’t go," the company’s representatives informed Epstein. "We know these things. You have a good record business in Liverpool. Stick to that."
The Beatles were stunned by Decca’s rejection. John Lennon said they thought "that was the end." In Paul McCartney’s words, "it was all a bit bloody hell, what are we gonna do?" Epstein ended up seeing every potential record company, and every one of them refused to sign the Beatles.
In apparent desperation, Epstein went back to EMI, where he played a Beatles tape for the producer George Martin, who was unimpressed. Martin saw "a rather raw group" with "a pretty lousy tape" and "not very good songs."
That might have concluded matters except for the intervention of two people, Kim Bennett and Sid Colman, who worked for one of EMI’s music-publishing companies. Epstein had played some Beatles music for Bennett and Colman, who liked what they heard. In a highly unusual move, Colman offered to pay EMI for the cost of recording a Beatles record.
But the resulting session, overseen by an unenthusiastic Martin, went poorly, and he decided not to issue any of the songs. He later confessed, "I didn’t think the Beatles had any song of any worth — they gave me no evidence whatsoever that they could write hit material."
When the group came back into the studio, he didn’t like them much better, but he reluctantly concluded that "Love Me Do" should be released as a single. He had little confidence in it, and when he mentioned the group’s bizarre name to his EMI colleagues, they broke out into laughter. EMI refused to support the song. In Martin’s words, "Nobody believed in it at all," referring to "Love Me Do."
The song might have dropped like a stone, along with the Beatles’ prospects, except for Epstein’s relentlessness (and the use of his own money for promotion). The group’s enthusiastic fan base in Liverpool ended up buying the record, and despite mixed reviews, Epstein’s pushing helped to make the song into an unexpected hit.
At this point, Martin, the original skeptic, made an astounding decision. He decided to ask the Beatles to record a real album, consisting mostly of Lennon-McCartney songs. Martin turned out to be a brilliant producer, perfectly matched to the fledging group.
There are many paths to success, and maybe the Beatles would have found one even without Epstein, Bennett, Colman and Martin. Lennon himself thought so, insisting that the Beatles were the best group in the world (using expletives before "best" and "world"). ‘’Believing that is what made us what we were,’’ he said. ‘’It was just a matter of time before everybody caught on.’’
Perhaps so. But Lewisohn’s masterful, step-by-step account raises the intriguing possibility that the Beatles’ success was anything but foreordained — and that the same can be said about countless others whose iconic status we now take for granted.
Cass R. Sunstein, the Robert Walmsley University professor at Harvard Law School, is a Bloomberg View columnist.