The Transcendent Creativity of The Beatles

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This week, The Beatles have released their new (and apparently last) record, Now and Then. It’s a John Lennon song from 1976 that has been embellished by Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, together with some contributions from George Harrison from 1994.

As a long-time Beatles fan, I think it’s instructive to examine the band’s astounding creativity from a psychological perspective. In my view, two main concepts are helpful here: group flow and “transmissive creativity.”

It is impossible to explain the sheer volume and quality of The Beatle’s creative output simply in terms of technical ability or melodic skill. In less than seven years, from October 1962 to August 1969, the Beatles recorded and released 213 songs, including 188 originals—a rate of more than 30 songs per year.

They released 12 albums (13 if you include Yellow Submarine, which included four new Beatles songs) and 12 standalone singles in the U.K., with other new songs as B-sides.

Nowadays, bands tend to leave at least two years between albums, often longer. The entire oeuvre of The Beatles was compressed into a period that might see the release of two Coldplay or Kanye West albums, containing perhaps 25 songs. But even more amazing is the consistent quality of their material and the speed at which they evolved.

The band that recorded the mature multi-faceted art-pop of Abbey Road in 1969 was barely recognizable as the effervescent young beat group who recorded the Please Please Me album six years earlier. The Beatles moved from one creative phase to the next before listeners had time to process their previous manifestation.

Fans lucky enough to live through the Beatles’ recording career often say they eagerly awaited the next album, wondering where the Beatles would go next. It was taken for granted that each album would be a major progression, a journey into further uncharted territory.

Group Flow and Transmissive Creativity

Creativity isn’t simply due to talent. On an individual level, it depends on psychological factors such as relaxation and concentration. It emerges most readily from the state of “flow,” when an artist becomes so focused that they lose awareness of themselves, of their surroundings, and of time.

In this state, artists are often surprised at the material that emerges and at the speed and intensity of their work. They feel as if they are channeling their creativity, as if it is coming through them rather than from them.

On a group level, creativity depends on cohesion and harmony. Ideally, this leads to a state of “group flow” in which the group becomes an entity greater than the sum of individuals. In this state, a group can access what I call “transmissive creativity.”

A group (or individual artist) can transmit a range of qualities and forces. On an instinctive or energetic level, they can transmit sexual energy, aggression, and frustration. Many heavy metal and punk groups transmit on this level.

On an emotional level, a group or singer may transmit joy, love, or mental anguish, as the best soul music does (Marvin Gaye is a good example). A band or singer may also transmit on an environmental level. In a previous paper, I used the British bands Black Sabbath and Joy Division as examples — bands that powerfully channeled their urban-industrial environments.1

More widely, musicians may transmit on a cultural level, channeling prevailing trends or the mood of the general population. More subtly, they may transmit spiritually, channeling transcendent qualities, such as unconditional love and universal peace, and values such as acceptance, empathy, and compassion.

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In the latter examples, transmissive creativity becomes transcendent. I use the term “transpersonal creativity” to describe when an individual or group channels material from beyond their conscious mind, on an environmental, cultural, or spiritual level.

Transpersonal means “beyond the self” or “beyond the ego.” Whereas some musicians may transmit their energy, aggression, or emotion, others may act as a conduit for transpersonal forces and phenomena.

On the other hand, some music may not be transmissive at all. This is sadly the case with most popular music.

The Beatles’ Group Flow and Transmissive Creativity

The Beatles attained an intense state of group flow due to their shared background in Liverpool and the hundreds of hours they spent playing in the dingy clubs of Hamburg before their success. Far from a collection of four individuals, they became an extremely cohesive unit, greater than the sum of their parts.

This was reflected musically—for example, they had three singers rather than one—and in their democratic, egalitarian approach. All their decisions were based on unanimous agreement. If any of them disagreed with a plan or suggestion, it would be vetoed.

When Roger McGuinn of the Byrds asked Harrison if he believed in God, he replied, “We don’t know about that yet,” implying that they had to decide unanimously about this too. “It was as if they had combined minds,” McGuinn commented.

This “group mind” enabled The Beatles to be powerfully transmissive on a transcendent level. Initially, they transmitted on an energetic and cultural level. They transmitted the “zeitgeist” of early 1960s Britain, expressing new freedom, autonomy, and optimism. These qualities quickly transferred to the U.S. and other parts of the world.

Even more significantly, during their peak mid-to-late period (roughly 1966-68), The Beatles became a conduit for more rarefied cultural and spiritual forces. They heralded and contributed to a global shift in consciousness.

This was exemplified when their song All You Need is Love was broadcast worldwide in 1967 as a part of the first-ever global satellite transmission. Around this time, they acted as global ambassadors for consciousness expansion and self-exploration by advocating psychedelics and then meditation and Indian spirituality.

And this is why The Beatles are still popular, 53 years after they broke up. More than a half century later, their transcendent creativity is still transmitting to us.

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