Keith Richards’s *Life*

I very much enjoyed this book, which also gave me an excuse to dig out old Rolling Stones albums and listen to them again (“Dear Doctor” is perhaps my favorite Stones song, an odd choice).  If it were a 2013 publication this memoir would make my best books of the year list.  Here is p.167:

“The only reason we got a record deal with Decca was because Dick Rowe turned down the Beatles.  EMI got them, and he could not afford to make the same mistake twice.  Decca was desperate…they thought, it’s just a fad, it’s a matter of a few haircuts and we’ll tame them anyway.  But basically we only got a record deal because they could just not afford to fuck up twice.”

Comments

How does this poorly written, boring and utterly banal explanation of Decca's decision prove the quality of Richards's autobiography?

Life was a fantastic book, maybe the first rock memoir that I didn't regret reading.

That Sunstein article was misleading because of a cherry picked chronology. It was fundamentally dishonest.

Cherry picked because he misrepresented the specifics of the Beatles history or because he picked their history in particular out of the larger space of successful artists?

Generally though I think its hard to deny coincidence and "luck" plays a large role in artistic success, at least more so than (say) athletic achievement etc.

Cherry picked in chronology. Of course the Beatles' success had an element of luck, everyone's does, but he minimized the effort and overstated the luck, and he did this by presenting a timeline that no one would use if they were telling any other story while leaving out details that are almost universally acknowledged to be essential to the story.

You can tell this luck story about almost anyone, the problem with telling it about the Beatles is that once they got the recording contract they were basically gold. Also even in Sunstein's telling just look at how many second chances they got after screwing up.

Sunstein is a fundamentally dishonest person, but I really like his writing. He is very persuasive to those who aren't experts in the facts. But on that score I don't think he could have supported an interesting premise better in the limited space he had. One gets the impression that if one person had not been persistent for a little while longer, things would have been very different. This is how his thesis jibes with Nudge. Of course, The Beatles might very well have found fame and fortune, albeit slightly delayed, had the nail, shoe, horse and rider been lost on a particular date. Sunstein's butterflies spawn lots of cyclones.

Putting aside these quibbles with Sunstein's chronology, the larger point is that Sunstein's story is not really all that surprising, since luck plays a large role in most success stories (and since the Beatles are vastly overrated anyways) ... by way of example, consider Island Record's gamble on Bob Marley ...

But it is fitting that you use the word "gamble." Presumably the producers have non-trivial costs and resource scarcity to contend with, and the musician has to be worth their investment. That Epstein shouldered the cost of the recording changed the cost-benefit calculus.

I don't believe in luck, per se, but rather think the successful stack the odds in their favor on events that are seemingly (but not actually) random draws.

The Beatles succeeded with good marketing and a faddish appetite for their home brew, particularly in the huge US market. One also can't argue with their endurance from one generation to the next. It's a Disney-like appeal to the simple or primal nature of man melded with the zeitgeist.

I can't help but associate the thesis with Nudge, and I can't grasp the pivotal "but for" decision. Instead, I see people with different visions of the potential market, some who turned out to be right. It is more a story of tenacity than luck.

My jab at Sunstein is that his choice architecture smacks of deception, abuse of power, and paternalism. Success is about being the best shyster.

"Just because something isn't a lie does not mean that it isn't deceptive. A liar knows that he is a liar, but one who speaks mere portions of truth in order to deceive is a craftsman of destruction." - Criss Jami

The producers who rejected the Beatles probably couldn't differentiate good music from popular music.

I still think The Beatles, severally and jointly, are the most over-rated musicians in history (perhaps until recently). I'm certainly not saying the music is bad or that they lacked talent. In my opinion their music is insipid but perhaps radical for the era in which it debuted. Some of their songs are far better than others. Love Me Do is about as insipid as a song can get, and I can easily imagine a producer booting them off the stage before the first stanza ended.

I certainly don't get the cult adoration.

Nah, if anything, The Beatles are underrated. They didn't have to be nearly as good as they were to be as popular as they were, but they were.

An interesting proposition.

Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, and Katy Perry seem to provide evidence for your claim.

At least one of these four is as talented as any member of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. Of course she will never have "Boomer cred", but I assume she does not care.

Very funny. Did you actually have one of the four in mind?

I am no expert on popular music, but TC has reviewed Taylor Swift very favorably

If you listened to the duet that Taylor Swift did with Stevie Nicks, you wouldn't think TS was ready for the big time. Oh, she's probably a good singer for a high school choir, on karaoke night, or compared to the people in the subway stations.

With all of the synthetic enhancements, it's hard to tell if anyone is really good anymore.

What needs explaining isn't the decline of pop music after the Beatles - if you aim music at the 8 to 12 year olds it will be rubbish - but the awfulness of pop music between the end of the swing bands and the coming of the Beatles.

Pop music didn't decline after the Beatles. Barely anything white people recorded in the 60s was worth listening to, no matter how aging farts keep forcing their nostalgia on us. Pop music's peak was from about 1977-1990.

White people??

Agreed. Life is a great book. One of my favorites Stones songs is Jigsaw Puzzle from the same album.

Funnily enough, my favourite is No Expectations from the same album.

No Expectations might also have to be my favourite C-F-G chord song -- the song transcends the simplicity of the chords.

Yes! I loved Keef's memoir.

I liked this quote: "We ended Cliff Richard's run of hits when he recorded our 'Blue Turns to Grey' - it was one of the rare times one of his records went into the top thirty instead of the top ten. And when the Searchers did 'Take It Or Leave It', it torpedoed them as well. Our songwriting had this other function of hobbling the opposition while we got paid for it."

Oh, my. Yes, this is either a reflection of Sunnestein’s redistributionist views or his views are a result of this perception of the world. Let’s see, I guess they were lucky too in that none of them were killed by a V-1 or V-2 in WWII. I guess John was lucky he wasn’t walking with his mother when she was struck and killed by a vehicle. I guess Ringo was lucky in that he was only very sick as a child, but he didn’t die. Pete best was lucky, but then unlucky! The Beatles were very UNlucky in that they were not discovered or signed earlier, forcing them to play in Hamburg and live in bad conditions, tour Scotland in the winter.... They were unlucky that London looked down on the North, otherwise they would have been richer and more famous sooner and maybe we would have had more albums. But as “luck” would have it, they pre-recorded a response a reply to Sunnenstein: Taxman.

I did not read the book but I am curious, did the author show below average, average, or above average empathy to other human beings? I could care less about his interesting but not overwhelming artistic accomplishments in comparison to this question.
Slightly off topic, but I have listened to perhaps four or five thousand melodies that were sold to the public in the 1960s and 1970s as "hit songs" or wannabe "hit songs" , about half of which could not have been produced in later decades due to harsher and selfisher copyright laws. The five or six most famous acts were , in my opinion, responsible for no more than three to four percent of the best melodies. Now, I am not a real musician, but I am, in fact, a musician, and I would rather have, if given the choice, one more good song to my credit than double or triple or even thousandfold as to popularity; others seem to have made other choices.

I don't know if I would say he exhibited above average empathy, but I was surprised by the occasional evidence of a genuine conscience. In one part he expressed disdain for Mick's and Bill Wyman's incessant womanizing, he considers himself to have "saved" Anita Pallenberg from the sociopathic Brian Jones, and he is happy to babysit the children of one of his groupie/drug contacts when she has to leave suddenly. His drug use comes across, at least by the mid-1970s, as a horrible addiction he is unable to overcome no matter how hard he tries, and not willful indifference to others. I was also surprised by the overall honesty of his memoir--he certainly doesn't hesitate to present situations even when it doesn't present him to advantage.

Despite all that, there still seems a high level of unawareness of how his lifestyle might have affected others.

I suspect, if not for being overwhelmingly famous and rich early in life, and the drug addictions, he might have turned out to be a pretty decent guy.

It's only rock and roll. But I like it.

Yes! Great book - the most interesting passages relate how rock music was adapted from Black American roadhouse music

One thesis is that the 60's produced such smart musicians because it was still an age of Einsteins taking out garbage. Would McCartney or Jagger be musicians in the age of hedge funds? Not bloody likely.

But those were also the days before the destruction of grammar school education. Would any of the Beatles, well maybe Paul his parents had more money, have learned anything? Mick and Keith might do alright, but plenty of smart middle class kids still try to make it in entertainment. Honestly do you think Mick would have done better than being Mick Jagger by being a hedge fund manager?

It would be an interesting question asking various titans of finance if they think they are more successful than Mick Jagger.

Interesting question.

The life of a lead singer of pretty much any, even moderately successful, group, means great emotional connection with a lot of people, a lot of fun etc. On the other hand, as you get older, you may feel that your life lacks some substance.

I love playing the guitar and singing, but I wouldn't be very happy if my entire life consisted of that.

Dear Doctor is my fav Stones song too, but I'm not happy about that because the more I learn about Tyler's mood affiliation the less I like him.

Die Walküre is my favorite opera.
How do you think I feel?

Beatles were just lucky. Right place, right time. No talent at all. I would have been just as big as they were, if I had been a little luckier.

I might have discovered that E = MC sq. if I had been lucky enough to have been born with Einstein's brain and capacity for sticking with it, in the right place and right time. It's all just luck.

I have to disagree.

I am an amateur singer, and I do often meet other amateurs and semi-professionals on rehearsals, jam sessions etc.

There are some astonishing talents among them, yet unknown beyond the 3 local pubs. The problem is probably with media exposure. Access to radio/TV is extremely limited. These days, you must pay some heavy money (at least here in the Czech republic) even to take part at a summer festival or be a warm-up group which plays before the famous group in a concert. By heavy money, I mean something between 2 and 6 average monthly salaries.

Then again, think of all the non-Anglo-Saxon rock and pop music. With rare exceptions unknown out of their own linguistic area. This quite obviously isn't caused by lack of talent. Just being born in the Anglosphere probably increases your chance to become a world-known musician by an order of magnitude.

Luck and talent are not exclusive. The point is not that their success was due solely to luck and their talent had nothing to do with it. It's that there are other people just as talented as the Beatles who never got the same break they did. This applies to many other fields as well. Giant success is often due to factors outside of people's own control - luck, knowing the right people, etc. - that gives them the opportunity they need.

And this point is the bare bones difference between liberals and conservatives. To liberals, a good sized portion of your success (not just the Beatles, but Warren Buffett and Mitt Romney and the posters here, if they are 'successful') is indeed due to luck, and factors out of your control: who your parents are, what country you are born in, blind random luck during life, etc. Conservatives of course see success as solely driven by the succeeder, no luck or negligible luck involved. Liberals believe the successful, because they had a good deal of luck, owe something back to the unlucky. Conservatives obviously do not.

I think this description is rather inacurrate, on both liberals and conservatives. More of a caricature.

Besides, this is a false dichotomy. Simpler minds may think solely in categories of luck and hard work, and many voters do possess simpler minds; in reality, the overall successfulness will be a mix of factors in and out of your control.

In your description, I do miss an important third category of success factors, and that is, avoiding to do really stupid/dangerous things. This is, in my opinion, very important. You can be smart and hard working, but if you waste yourself and play "planking" on a balcony on the 20th floor, plop, down goes all your luck and hard work.

Plenty of people I know lead troubled life because of their own destructive habits, starting with gambling and alcohol.

Fair enough, Marian.

Although being born alcoholic (and perhaps even prone to gambling addiction) may be another 'luck' factor out of your control.

I am aware about the hereditary component of alcoholism, indeed quite personally. I don't think that anyone is "born an alcoholic", unless the mother drinks heavily during pregnancy; but may are surely born with a possible genetic disposition towards alcoholism, and this is probably what we're talking about.

There were some heavy drinkers in my family tree throughout the 20th century, and even though all but one of them died before I was born, I still consider the possibility of having their genes in my genome. These I combat by avoiding liquor altogether and having some periods of abstinence even between individual bottles of wine. So I think this can be kept under control, though this is just an anecdote.

In the Czech society, which drinks at any occassion, this makes me an awkward outlier, but better an outlier than an alcoholic - two acquaintances have passed through rehab already, and this is sort of fate that I wish upon no one.

I am not sure whether such risk management would work for populations whose genetics make them especially susceptible to alcohol, like Amerindians. Maybe there the only way is total abstinence.

If you liked Keith's biography, you should read Mick's (mistakenly published) response to it:

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/low_concept/2010/11/please_allow_me_to_correct_a_few_things.html

"Keith actually seems not to understand why I would want my dressing room as far away as possible from that of someone who travels with a loaded gun."

Hate to break it to you, but that wasn't actually written by Mick Jagger.

I thought it might be but wasn't sure. After your comment, I found this:

http://www.hitsville.net/2010/11/07/mick-jagger-on-keith-richards—a-postscript/

Luck is a factor in any outcome. Luck = whatever you can't predict or control. It interacts with effort and ability (both of which are at least partly matters of luck).

Part of being talented is being able to find breaks. Or getting breaks is a talent. Most musicians work hard at getting breaks.

Everyone benefits or loses from luck.

On the whole, good and bad luck probably evens out. Pete Best's bad luck was Ringo's good luck.

But the Beatles greatest key to their success was the song writing collaboration of Paul and John. It was partly luck that they met, and that they had George Martin to help them translate their vague ideas into pop hits, but their (esp. Paul's) song writing abilities weren't luck. Except in the genetic lottery sense.

It was lucky for them that they hit N. America first, and lucky for all the other English pop bands too.

Luck is a major factor but it favors the "prepared mind" as the great biologist once said.

Most unsuccessful or semi-successful musicians think they are just as good or even better than the ones who made it Sometimes they are correct too (with some exceptions). But commercial success requires only a limited amount of musical skill. Musical ability is only one ingredient, and not the most important. After that, successful bands and singers hire the really good musicians to work for them.

That is one of the petty problems I had with the msgking's description of liberal position up there. It divides people into lucky and unlucky categories, which, by definition, should not exist.

If luck is random, then good and bad luck must on average cancel out over the entire lifetime, that's definition of randomness. As the set of people is huge, there will be some outliers, but the strong law of huge numbers will ensure that they are rare.

The problém is different than the random nature of luck, though. By "having luck", people usually mean "making good use of random opportunities". That is NOT the same as having random opportunities, and indeed the ability to make good use of unplanned events may be a part of individual's mental abilities, just like many other abilities. It may even be partly hereditary.

Why is Dear Doctor an 'odd' choice? It's a fantastic song one of their most (justly) celebrated albums.

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