New Forms of Collaboration

Young Rick was insistent. “Why can’t we have a band,” he asked, “where everybody plays an instrument, everybody sings, everybody does it without some guy out in front of the thing running the show and deciding the way things are gonna go?” This was a radical notion, like communism. But maybe, I thought, for the first time in our or anyone’s imagination, the rhythm section could run the band!

— Levon Helm
This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band

Artistic collaboration has been a key issue for rock music, as with the other major twentieth century art forms, film and jazz.

Through the end of the fifties, the early rock’n rollers had used traditional patterns of collaboration. As in the blues and country & western, there was usually a front man, who was a combination of singer and band leader, surrounded by instrumentalists and backup singers. Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and others all fell into this familiar pattern.

Starting with Phil Spector, though, rock musicians began to experiment with new, more complex forms of artistic interaction. Armed with the ability to create music in the studio, rather than simply record it there, Spector was among the first to elevate the role of record producer to the status of auteur, orchestrating the work of songwriters, singers, musicians and recording engineers to realize a unique artistic vision.

The Beatles were among the first to pioneer another new collaborative arrangement: a group of relative equals, all sharing creative responsibility, and working together synergistically, thus elevating the group as a whole to the status of auteur. This new working arrangement was signaled first by the group’s name. Although their artistic identity was inspired somewhat by the name of Buddy Holly’s band, the Crickets, they chose not to single out any single member of their group as a front man. So in contrast to Buddy Holly and the Crickets, they were, simply, The Beatles.

This collaborative relationship was also reflected in their public image. Unlike any musical group before or since, they were commonly identified by radio disk jockeys with their string of first names, as in “Now here’s the latest hit record from John, Paul, George and Ringo.”

This means of identifying the group reflected their image in the public’s eye. All four had distinct personalities: John, witty and slightly roguish; Paul, warm and fun-loving; George, silent and thoughtful; Ringo, insecure and something of a loner. Yet despite being four unique individuals, they looked and acted as a cohesive group, starting with their signature haircuts and aided initially by matching clothes.

This unique public presentation was part of their charm. But the presentation was a reflection of their underlying working relationship, and this was the biggest part of their enduring artistic success. John Lennon recalls the decision he had to make when choosing other members of his fledgling rock group.

Was it better to have a guy who was better than the people I had in? To make the group stronger, or to let me be stronger? Instead of going for an individual thing we went for the strongest format — equals. (Beatles 2000)

As this quotation shows, John made a conscious decision to sacrifice individual prominence in order to achieve greater artistic strength.

The Beatles, and other rock groups that followed, discovered a way to create music together in such a way that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. At their best, these groups tapped into the strongest creative talents of each member, and brought their contributions together into a cohesive whole. Ringo recalls what it was like to perform as part of such a group.

The interesting thing about The Beatles was that we seemed to have telepathy. Without thinking, we’d all be up or bringing it down — together. It was magic.... (Beatles 2000)

Recording solo projects with session players is never the same as recording with the band. It will never be the same for me to play with anyone else. That’s not because The Beatles were greater than anyone else, it’s just that it takes all those years to be able to play together. The telepathy and the magic isn’t there with session people. It was like there were five people playing in The Beatles — the four of us and the magic. (Weinberg)

In a later quotation, Ringo also commented on the fragility of such interaction.

I felt with us four it was magical and it was telepathy. When we were working in the studio sometimes it was just... it’s indescribable, really. Although there were four of us, there was one of us; all of our hearts were beating at the same time. But the moment you think, ‘Oh, aren’t I playing well!’ then you turn into shit. (Beatles 2000)

Having a group of creative equals working together enhanced both phases of the artistic process: generation of ideas and editing. When recording a song, the Beatles had four separate minds coming up with ideas. None of them restricted themselves to a single instrument or fixed role: all of them came up with ideas for the others to sing and play, as well as themselves. But all of these ideas had to be approved by four minds as well. If something didn’t sound right to one of them, then they would rework it, or replace it with something else, until all the pieces were just right.

The tale of the formation of Buffalo Springfield is another, mythic example of the power of the rock group. Neil Young and Steve Stills had met before, on the East coast, but had parted ways. Both were attracted to something in the other, and had been trying to contact each other for some time, without success. Finally, they met when their cars passed each other on Sunset Boulevard, and Steve or one of his companions recognized the distinctive hearse that Neil was driving in those days. As recounted in Richie Furay’s remembrance below, what finally cemented the bond was the work that Steve and Richie had done on a song of Neil’s.

... the two Americans proceeded to play to their awestruck Canadian friends a song that one of the Canadians, Neil Young, had composed six months earlier up in Toronto. Unbeknownst to Neil, Richie [Furay] had brought Neil’s intensely personal song of angst and frustration, “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing,” out to LA, where he and Stephen [Stills] had worked up their own arrangement, complete with sweet harmonies and shifting time signature. Hearing his own creation performed so well by these two talented singers sealed the deal: they would form a group then and there. (Furay 1997)

What a seminal story. Neil, who already had the ability to write songs, play guitar and sing, was blown away by the ability of two others to add to his creation in a way that Neil alone could not. And so another great rock group was formed, this one with multiple singers, multiple songwriters, and multiple guitarists.

Once again, technical achievements had an important role to play in rock. The ability to work together in this new way was only made possible by supporting advances in technology. To have a group of creative equals is only possible with a relatively small group of musicians. Three, four or five members seemed to be the maximum possible. With larger numbers of musicians the coordination and play of egos were too difficult, and the structure of the group tended to revert back to that of a frontman accompanied by sidemen. (Even groups of five tended to be unstable, and tended to result in the eventual exclusion of one of the members, as with Brian Jones and the Rolling Stones.)

It was only the combination of electronic amplification and the ability to assemble a finished track in the recording studio, though, that gave such small groups the ability to create compelling and complex music. Amplification gave such groups the ability to be as loud as they wanted, letting them play to audiences in the largest concert halls and amphitheaters. But it was the recording studio that ultimately provided the freedom for small groups to create large, complex pieces of music, without having to write formal arrangements, and thus without sacrificing the spontaneity and urgency of music created directly by the players themselves. Four band members could lay down a basic recording, with minimal instrumentation, and with each voice and instrument recorded on a separate track. They could then overdub other parts, layering on top of, or even replacing, the original recording. In this way four musicians could produce tracks with many more than four parts.

This form of collaboration, with the group as a creative unit, was so successful that it became the predominant pattern of collaboration for rock during the sixties.

To work together in this way, of course, required a group of sympathetic individual artists. The individual members of a group had to agree on the basic goals and artistic values of the group as a whole in order to make such a creative partnership work.

It is important also to consider the role of the producer. For all of their albums but one, The Beatles used the same producer: George Martin. The Beatles owe much of their clean and classic sound on recordings to this distinguished individual. Jimmy Miller produced several albums for the Rolling Stones and Traffic that are often considered their best, and he contributed to the distinctive, multi-layered sound of these albums. While few producers attempted the level of control that Phil Spector demanded in the studio, many played more subtle but still important roles in collaborations that produced many great works of rock art.

This element of collaboration also supports rock’s persistent theme of liberation. In this case, group collaboration offered a release from the constraints of isolation, and freed rock musicians to form a new sense of community. No longer were artists restricted by their individual limits, and forced to work in creative separation. Instead, they worked as a group, each retaining their individuality, yet being supported by, and part of, a larger whole. This feeling of community, that started with the collaborative working arrangement I have been describing, came to inform much of the lyric content and intention of later works by these artists.

Within each such rock group, almost invariably, there was another collaborative pattern at work: that of the singer/songwriter. There was an unspoken agreement in most groups that the member who wrote the bulk of the lyrics to a song would also sing the lead vocals. This only made sense, since the author’s understanding of the lyrics, and their emotional intent, made him or her best qualified to convey this intent through the vocals. Other group members would then play supporting roles, following the lead of the singer/songwriter. Note that this relationship held true in most rock groups, whether they had a single lead vocalist and author of their lyrics, as with the Rolling Stones, or multiple singer/lyricists, as with the Beatles.

As more distinctive songwriters appeared — people such as Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young — the singer/songwriter began to be the dominant collaborative pattern. These were people whose songs were so unique, and whose output was so prolific, that they did not want to share each album with other composers. This shift was also supported by the change in emphasis from performing live to studio recording. In order to tour, you needed to have a band of regular musicians who were willing to play together night after night. To record an album, though, you only needed a very temporary collection of supporting musicians.

It is important to note, though, that in many of these cases there were often enduring relationships between songwriters and supporting musicians, even when they were not given equal billing as part of a group. Bob Dylan had The Band, Jackson Browne relied on guitarist and violin player David Lindley on many of his finest albums, and Neil Young had a long collaborative relationship with the band called Crazy Horse.

Individual Expression vs. Group Cohesion

When a group of artists share a creative vision, then the entire group can be more than the sum of its parts. But when there is disagreement about creative goals, then working as part of a group requires some compromise on the part of each individual. The longer such compromise is required, the more it can grate, with the suppressed impulses of each individual artist becoming stronger, until release is required.

In truth, all rock groups have always involved at least some of both — synergy and compromise — so there has always been some tension between the desire for individual expression and the cohesion necessary to form a group.

This tension reached the breaking point in the late sixties. As individual artists such as Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix came to the fore, there was a growing pressure on other artists to prove that they could make it on their own. This pressure was increased by the sentiments of the rock press at the time, which focused on the contributions of individual group members — partly because it was so much easier to analyze these groups by decomposing them into their constituent parts, than to discuss the synergy between their members. Brian Wilson, it was revealed, was the “real genius” behind the success of the Beach Boys. John Lennon, similarly, was discussed as the prime mover within The Beatles, with detailed analysis of which songs were really his, and how they were so much better than Paul’s. Suddenly most group members were being viewed as boat anchors that were weighing down the “real artists” lurking within each group.

All of this resulted in the breaking up of many rock groups. Some, such as Blind Faith and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, stayed together long enough only to produce a single album. Others, such as Cream, Buffalo Springfield and the original Traffic, stayed together for only three or four albums. The parting of ways of The Beatles was of course the most spectacular.

Unfortunately, in every case I can think of, the artistic merit of the music that came from these isolated individuals was at a level distinctively below that of their prior groups. As one example of many, none of the ex-Beatles achieved anything on their own that matched the value of their group achievements.

The distinctive collaborative patterns of rock musicians proved difficult to sustain, yet contributed strongly to their most enduring artistic achievements.


The following recordings are particularly good examples of this element in action.

Next: Electronic Amplification