Innovation Lessons from Bohemian Rhapsody

by Peter Cook

Here is an in-depth interview we did at Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Lounge with Barry Ainsworth, the man who engineered “Bohemian Rhapsody”, perhaps one of the greatest and most innovative rock songs ever written. Click on the picture to view or via this link Bohemian Rhapsody :

Barry Ainsworth worked on records for people as diverse as Otis Redding, Dusty Springfield, The Kinks, Rush, Deep Purple, Yes, Jack Bruce, Hawkwind and a very long list of music acts from the 1960’s and 70’s. Barry started his career working in Liverpool’s Cavern, where the Beatles began their meteoric rise to fame. His innovation contribution has been mostly in the design engineering of devices and technologies that have allowed us to mix hundreds of sounds together to create recordings which we now take for granted. Here are a few highlights from the full feature film:

Constraints and Creativity

Barry is a master of what is called The Theory of Constraints – essentially using constraints as a spur to ingenious thinking. Read more at Constraints Boost Creativity. In the film Barry discusses the use of 3-track recording at Liverpool’s Cavern. The constraint of fewer tracks meant that people had to put much more emphasis on getting it right first time when recording a piece of music.  Once mixed down there was no opportunity for correction unlike in a digital recording studio today. Unlimited tracks in a recording studio can produce a certain kind of laziness, as Jack White of the White Stripes has also commented on:

“If it takes me three steps to get to the organ, then I’ll put it four steps away. I’ll have to run faster, I’ll have to push myself harder to get to it.”

Innovation

Barry did not just create – he put resources behind his ideas to convert them to innovations as he demonstrated with pioneering work to develop mobile recording studios and his work to automate recording processes. He applied servo motors to mixing desks so that it was possible to move 24 sliders automatically without needing 12 pairs of hands to operate the desk. Without this it is unlikely that Bohemian Rhapsody could have been produced. This required considerable prototyping, tinkering and improvement. Proof positive that Innovation = Inspiration x Perspiration.

Handling Precocious Talents

To work with volatile creative talents such as Queen requires an unusual balance of a large amount of patience /humility and strong assertiveness skills to ensure that the end result is the best it can be. The recording process for “A Night At The Opera” took 3 months and a special set of skills is required to manage all the egos and perspectives required. These skills are directly transferable to the leadership of creative people in any industry. Barry’s insights into handling the volatile mixture that was Deep Purple are also a case study in handling powerful egos in itself.

Barry and I are available for keynotes and longer masterclasses on parallel lessons from music for innovators in business. These can be supplemented by musical performance.

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Peter Cook leads Human Dynamics and The Academy of Rock, providing Keynotes, Organisational Development and Coaching. He is the author of seven books on business leadership. His three passions are science, business and music, having led innovation teams for 18 years to develop life-saving drugs including the first treatments for AIDS and the development of Human Insulin. Peter is Music and Business editor at Innovation Excellence. You can follow him on twitter @Academyofrock.

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