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Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University.
“The Beatles: Get Back” documentary, which is my pick for best movie of the year, showcases an underappreciated aspect of Paul McCartney: He’s more than just an artistic genius — he’s one of the greatest managerial talents of the last century.
In a recent interview, Ringo Starr put it well: “If Paul hadn’t been in the band, we’d probably have made two albums, because we were lazy boogers. But Paul’s a workaholic. John and I would be sitting in the garden taking in the color green from the tree, and the phone would ring, and we would know, ‘Hey lads, you want to come in? Let’s go in the studio!’”
“Get Back” presents a reality-TV show version of this process in action. Almost everything that gets done goes through Paul. He is energetically testing and trying to improve musical ideas, whether his own or those of the group. He always seems focused. In one scene, while experimenting on the bass guitar for a few minutes, he seems to conjure up the song “Get Back” from virtually nothing.
He has what Silicon Valley venture capitalists call “founder energy.” Chris Dixon, a partner at the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz and a professional judge of (non-musical) talent, tweeted how much respect he gained for McCartney by watching the documentary. The Beatles were one of the greatest startups of their generation: In addition to making music, they revolutionized social mores on a wide range of issues, including sex, drugs, fashion and politics.
As for work ethic, McCartney has been writing and performing songs since 1956 with no real breaks. The sessions for the “Let It Be” concert and album, as portrayed in “Get Back,” started only a few weeks after the work on the so-called White Album was concluded. And after “Let It Be” was to come “Abbey Road,” the Beatles album where McCartney most clearly takes the lead.
After the Beatles broke up, McCartney kept going. Many fans and critics prefer his work with the Beatles, but the totality of his achievements is jaw-dropping. He has three solo albums on which he plays every instrument, and he has composed in virtually every musical genre, including heavy metal, blues, music hall, country and western, gospel, Latin, pastiche, psychedelia, electronica, new wave, drone, lounge, reggae and more. Working with producer George Martin, he was one of the first popular musicians to master the use of the recording studio, in spite of having no technical background. He also learned how to compose for classical orchestra and wrote several major choral works, including the well-received “Ecce Cor Meum.”
His vocal range once spanned four octaves, and he is considered one of the greatest bass players of all time. The list of those he has collaborated with includes not only John Lennon and George Harrison, but also Ravi Shankar, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Elvis Costello, Carl Perkins, the Everly Brothers, Kiri Te Kanawa, David Gilmour, Kanye West and Rihanna. He studied the avant-garde and helped incorporate the ideas of John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen into popular music.
He grew up in a very poor area of Liverpool (you still can visit the house) and became music’s first billionaire, through royalties from songwriting, revenue from concerts and shrewd investments in royalty rights to others’ songs (he also inherited money from his late wife). Well into his 70s, he was still putting on 2 1/2-hour live shows, a practice stopped only by the pandemic.
He has been an active painter, published two children’s books, and this year oversaw the production of the gorgeous two-volume set “The Lyrics,” a memoir of sorts told through his songs. He was also, by all accounts, a very active father, helping to raise five children.
McCartney was not a perfect manager. At times he pushed Harrison too hard, and that led to Harrison threatening to leave the Beatles, as shown in “Get Back,” which resulted in a more general group dissatisfaction. In his solo career he has sometimes released sub-par material and been too tolerant of less talented subordinates.
Still, the point stands: The ranks of great founders and managers rightly includes people such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates. But that list is longer and more diverse than is commonly believed — and Paul McCartney stands pretty close to the top of it.