Is it Lennon/McCartney or Lennon vs. McCartney?

First off, I have to say, this is one of the best written and well researched articles I have read in a long time on The Beatles.  Here we have an examination of the Lennon McCartney writing machine during and after the demise of the Fab Four.  I think the McCartney/Lennon rivalry of sorts was integral to the success of the band, but ultimately too it was one of the causes for its disbanding.  The thing that creates you is the thing that will destroy you.

I know the McCartney/Lennon jabs got bad in the 1970’s but that too is part of the story isn’t it.  I think that’s part of the mystique, warts and all, that fans love.  It’s kind of eye opening to see these guys write jabs at one another publically through song.  It makes us feel a part of that process too in a way.  Does it matter who writes deeper songs?  Does it matter that some of these are pure fluff?  No, not at all.  What matters is that these songs move us in some way.  I think that’s what John and Paul both would have wanted in the end.  Good music that moves you in some way.

Here’s what we’ve read.

A friend of mine just sent me an article from the August 27 issue of the National Review about Paul McCartney entitled “The Bard of Optimism,” by Kyle Smith. The article falls into one of the sadder conflicts of modern music history, the seemingly inevitable John or Paul argument.

Lennon’s assassination in 1980 would sadly prove to be a staggering blow to McCartney’s musical reputation. Lennon, after five years of silence, had in Double Fantasy just released his strongest work in years. Meanwhile, McCartney was entering one of his tougher creative periods, which would see him release a number of shallow songs like “Press” and “Spies Like Us,” as well as an ill thought re-recording of his previous Beatles material for the movie Give My Regards to Broadstreet. This period seemed to show an artist in decline.

The truth is that McCartney was thrown into an impossible situation, where he found himself and his reputation competing with a much loved, now martyred legend. John Lennon’s death perhaps saved him from the decline even the greatest artists of the ’60s like Bob Dylan found themselves in as they entered the third decade of their career. John Lennon would never write a great song again, but he also would never write a horrible one either.

The early innocence of the Beatles is what we want to remember. The one that saw John and Paul agree to credit all their song compositions as Lennon/McCartney even though they for the most part stopped writing as a real team very early in their careers. Nevertheless, the partnership remained healthy for a long time, both as a competition that spurred the two to produce great work, and as a sounding board.

This saw such musical moments as when Lennon muted the optimism of McCartney’s “We Can Work It Out,” with a pessimistic bridge, and McCartney’s addition of the middle section of “A Day in the Life.” It was the sort of musical partnership where even just a friendly reassurance – like the time Lennon assured McCartney, that the line “the movement you need is on your shoulder” in “Hey Jude” was indeed worth keeping – helped to make Lennon and McCartney the historic songwriting team they were.

Sadly, things got ugly.

The death of Brian Epstein left a void of leadership right at the time when Lennon met Yoko Ono. Lennon’s interest in the band began to flag, and McCartney’s perhaps understandable response was to try to take on a role of leadership, pushing the group into the disastrous Magical Mystery Tour project as well as earning the enmity of his three band mates, who suddenly felt like side men. You can see just how bad this got in the film Let It Be, where an enraged and fed up George Harrison tells McCartney acidly that he’ll play whatever Paul wants or indeed perhaps nothing at all.

Money of course always makes things worse. As Apple, the group’s idealistically naïve business project, started to bleed money, Lennon, Harrison, and Starr chose Allen Klein as their new manager, overruling McCartney, who probably rightly preferred his father-in-law Lee Eastman. It was a fracture that the group never recovered from. McCartney wound up suing his band mates and announcing that he had left the group, leaving Lennon enraged.

The Lennon/McCartney myth took a huge hit in the ‘70s, mostly from Lennon, who, in a historic interview with Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone, divvied up specific credit for nearly every Beatles composition. Lennon similarly declared in “God” that “The dream is over,” and “I don’t believe in Beatles.” Lennon than put an exclamation point on it with the acidic, vitriolic, and incredibly mean anti-McCartney rant “How Do You Sleep,” which in true contradictory Lennon fashion appeared on the same album as his utopian classic “Imagine.”

Things between John and Paul appeared to be thawing in the late ‘70s. Indeed, in Lennon’s last interviews he regained his love for the Beatles and what they had accomplished. Lennon also acknowledged that he had only had two true partners in his life, Paul and Yoko, and that he had chosen them quite well. His death ended this thawing, and left us with the endless John or Paul debates indicative of Smith’s latest flurry in the National Review.

Admittedly, time has been incredibly unfair to McCartney. Lennon has been cast as a genius while some would toss McCartney to the heaps as just a sunny schlock merchant. It’s stuck in McCartney’s groin so much that he released a live album, where he reversed his Beatle songwriting credits so they appeared as McCartney/Lennon, and got into a much publicized failed dispute with Yoko Ono, where he insisted that his song “Yesterday” be officially credited similarly.

Smith’s defense of McCartney, though of course goes way too far, as if the only way to rebuild McCartney’s reputation is to take a swing at Lennon’s. Smith writes that “Paul McCartney was not only a genius, but the genius: the most essential member of the undisputed best musical group, the author of a huge volume of brilliant post-Beatles work … in short, the most monumental figure in pop music.”

He goes on to claim that “starting in 1966, as the Beatles were graduating from ditty merchants to transformation force, every album contained more top-level McCartney compositions than Lennon ones. The first side of Sgt. Pepper, for instance contains seven classic songs – five written by McCartney. Let It Be contains three McCartney greats and one be Lennon. And so on.”

This is just sheer nonsense. Choosing Let it Be, the group’s final album (if it even was a group at this point) as starting point is absurd. While, Sgt. Pepper is perhaps a McCartney-led opus, trumpeting “Getting Better” and “Fixing a Hole” as classics is a weak argument. It is also one which ignores that it was Lennon’s addition of “can’t get no worse,” and the uber-honest line “I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her away from the things that she loved,” that saved “Getting Better” from being overly lightweight.

“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is hardly a song to be ignored, and the stone cold masterwork “A Day in the Life” was for the most part a Lennon composition. Smith seems to imply that Lennon’s edgy material on Revolver, as well as compositions like “All You Need is Love,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “I Am The Walrus,” “Revolution,” and his numerous brilliant compositions on the White Album, don’t exist. In truth, Lennon was producing great songs, but they were too experimental, challenging, or contrary for A-side status, which was routinely left for McCartney’s more pop confections.

Smith writes that “McCartney – unpretentious, industrious, determined, responsible, devoted to his family, undistracted by fads or marches – is driven to create beauty out of suburbia (“Penny Lane”), his mother’s death (“Let It Be”), or Lennon’s murder (the 1982 ballad “Here Today”). He approaches his calling the way true artists do: as a job.”

The last line about artists treating their work as a job makes my skin crawl. The rest is just an inane attack on Lennon, who wrote an equally beautiful song about suburbia (“In My Life”) years earlier. In fact, the companion song to “Penny Lane,” Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever,” takes the same subject, but is infinitely more complex and revolutionary, both lyrically and musically. Lennon also wrote about his mother’s death in the beautiful “Julia,” and the haunting, disturbing “Mother.” The fact that he wrote no song about his own murder can hardly be held against him. Do we really need to tear down one great artist to boost another?

It gets worse. Smith calls brave, great songs like “God” and “Working Class Hero” “silly hate songs,” a premise so absurd it needn’t even be dealt with. He cites National Lampoon’s mockery of Lennon as proof that he was off his rocker (it’s funny and has some truth, but my guess is that not even its author Christopher Guest would agree). Smith also completely ignores Lennon’s album Imagine, which besides the title track contains the beautiful and heartbreakingly honest “Jealous Guy.”

Here’s the funniest stab at Lennon from Smith: “Lennon may have been a professional outlaw who wrote “Attica State,” but McCartney is the one who actually did time – nine days in Japan in 1980 after a pot bust.” This is an incredibly odd and facile argument from someone who celebrates McCartney’s polished home life over Lennon’s agony and rabble rousing. It also ignores the fact that Lennon was targeted by Richard Nixon and the FBI, and had to fight deportation hearings for years (due to the politicization of an earlier Lennon pot bust).

Smith goes on to laud McCartney’s recent work, which is fine, but one has to recognize the following: 1) McCartney wrote many of his finest recent songs when he had a Lennon figure like Elvis Costello to work beside, 2) much of that recent work has been spurred by his own sense of mortality in response to the death of his wife Linda.

The underlying thesis of the article, though, is that Smith hates Lennon’s politics. I suppose he has a right to. But what can’t be denied is that as a political songwriter and sloganeer McCartney, even when he has tried, can’t hold a candle to Lennon. McCartney’s response to 9/11, “Freedom,” for example, was a pathetic and embarrassing composition.

By contrast, Lennon’s great strength was as a sloganeer and an organizer. “All You Need is Love,” “Revolution,” “Come Together,” “Give Peace a Chance,” “Imagine,” “Gimme Some Truth,” and “Instant Karma” are unmatched in their love, compassion, and righteous anger. A song like “Freedom” was out of McCartney’s league, and despite his good intentions, only added fuel to the fire of his most vocal critics.

In the end, though, let’s put this inane rap battle to rest. The Lennon/McCartney partnership was something that has made us all better, more fulfilled people. Choose your favorite if you will, but let’s stop tearing down the one to laud the other. There’s plenty of other crap out there to rail against. Indeed as Paul said, perhaps we should just “Let It Be.”

Source:  Blog Critics


9 Responses

  1. Why is this even a discussion? They were and always will be equals. Anyone who compares them has no understanding of what the Beatles where about.

  2. the partnership of these two very different men is what made the beatles great, and together they achieved a level of genius few have, can, and will ever match. it’s wrong to compare them, because they were each so distinct from the other with their own strengths and weaknesses. they were brought together at a certain time to make musical history, and after separated neither could ever really reach the level they together had previously. i respect lennon, and i respect mccartney as the two different sides of the spectrum.

  3. Lennon is by far the best one. Who cares what people think. and YES IT IS A DIDCUSSION to those who have posted in the past. Maybe a bit late but there are new generation of beatle sfans like myself who don’t know all that was back then. The Beatles and John Lennon are my biggest influences and with John Lennon being my role model lets just “read the today” and give peace a chance. I think it’s a awesome topic and review on the history of the lennon/mccartney battle.

  4. As an “older” Beatle fan (I was 15 when they appeared on Ed Sullivan), I appeciate that there is a new generation of Beatle fans eager to learn the rich and fabulous history of the greatest band that ever cut a record. However, over the years there has been a Paul vrs John movement, mostly created by Paul because he could make some bad decisions whereas John could not. Asking Yoko to change the order of the credits on “Yesterday” obviously was a bad decision…and so on. But let the music do the talking. Songs like All You Need Is Love, We Can Work It Out, The Word…etc have thier roots in the basic principles of love and teamwork. Four very talented and unique individuals creating something singular and unique. History will spend the rest of time disecting and picking it apart to see what made it tick, but I strongly feel this is a mistake. The beauty is in the appreciation of the collective genuises that were the Beatles not the individual parts that make it happen. Analyzinig a jar of red paint will never get one to appreciate the wonders of a Picasso.

  5. “John Lennon’s death perhaps saved him from the decline even the greatest artists of the ’60s like Bob Dylan found themselves in as they entered the third decade of their career.”

    Well i was born in 1988 so its for me to really support that as false but, in my view, for post-Beatles John’s work is so much better, they have deep personal meaning that are also applicable for many music listenters. McCartney’s best post-Beatles are well-written but seem to not really be about anything: “Live and let die” “maybe im amazed” “silly love songs” “band on the run.” Compared to lennon’s “give peace a chance” “instant karma!” “love” “imagine” “jealous guy” “mother” “woman” “mind games” “just like starting over”, etc which all are derived from john’s life or visions for the world.

    I also disagree that Paul’s stuff from sgt. pepper on are better, in fact i would say quite the opposite. peppers best songs are by lennon: lucy in the sky, a day in the life. magical mystery tour is the same: lennon’s strawberry fields, all you need is love, i am the walrus far outweigh paul’s hello goodybe, penny lane. White album no contest john’s hhappiness is a warm gun, im so tired, julia, cry baby cry, sexy sadie, bungalow bill, revolution 1 trump pauls contributions

    I suppose its really purely subjective, their both fantastic song writers it just seems that John wrote more songs with meaning and Paul wrote more-popish songs.

  6. i dont know why mccartney is a bit insecured about lennon, for me both are extra talented songwriters the difference lies on the content and range because lennon’s songs has more substance and more innovative than mccartney’s though melody wise mccartney’s songs got the edge but lennon’s songs are far more interesting and you can feel the honesty in his songs and you can feel that sometimes in your life you have felt the same message and during their solo works lennon’s songs in terms of quantity and quality are more superior than mccartney’s songs where it marks the decline of mccartney creatively and that’s a fact im not placing lennon ahead of mccartney the records speak for itself and you can imagine what lennon could have done more if he is still alive.

  7. See? This is what I’m TIRED of reading.

    Did you know, dear writer, that Lennon WASN”T the one who had the idea for the tape loops in “Tomorrrow Never Knows”? That was a McCartney, Emerick and Martin work? Emerick got the idea for the loops and Paul did the most work. Lennon wasn’t even present at te studio when it was done.

    That it was McCartney who organized the arragements and thhe orchestral part in the middle of ” A Day In the Life”

    That the music (not the lyrics) of “In My Life” are McCartney’s?

    That the mellotron part of “Strawberry Fields Forever” was composed by McCartney?

    And where is the optimistic. McCartney in “You Never Give Me Your Money”? IMO, McCartney songs in that album are superior than Lennnon’s. As his songs are also superior in Revolver. By the way, where is “McCartney optimism” in that Abbey Road? He seems pretty gloom to me in that one.

    All this is in Geoff Emerick book. He gives many details about the Beatles studio work.

    Dear writer, I’m also fan o Lennon’s. I think his songs are superior in “White Album”. But I’m not going to be blind to McCartney’s contribution to Beatles experimentalism. He was the one who started it. “Revolver” and “Sgt Pepper” were pretty much idea. (and I think “Fixing a Hole” and “Getting Better” are masterpieces)

    You are just repeating the same old clichés I’m TIRED of hearing. You didn’t do your homework. You take a weak composition of Paul and say he is a bad political song writer (is this something bad?) . Well, I think John’s politics are naive and shalllow. I enjoy his other work way more.

    But I’m losing my time with this. Paul is still alive and he won’t be recongnize so early.

  8. For everyone who gets up in arms about how Paul asked that the writing credit be reversed on some songs – guess what on the Beatles first album ALL the original songs were credited as McCartney/Lennon.

    Then John went on a trip to Spain with the band’s manager and when he came back Paul McCartney was told that from now the credits would all be Lennon/McCartney and he had very little choice but to agree to it. So basically John went behind Paul’s back, used Brian Epstein’s favoritism towards him to his advantage and got the song credits changed in his favor.

    But PAUL is the one who is being petty for trying to get the credits reversed back on a few songs which are very clearly HIS compositions? George Martin even tried to talk Brian Epstein into releasing Yesterday as a Paul McCartney solo single because the Beatles really had nothing to do with it. Brian naturally refused and the rest of the Beatles refused to allow it to be released as a Beatles single in the UK for the same reason–it was different from everything else they’d done and none of the rest of them were on it(when it was released in the US, because they had no say in the US singles, it was a huge hit).

    So if Paul wanted to change the credits around on songs that John little or nothing to do with, that actually seems like a very fair concession and in fact while John was still alive, Paul switched around the credits on the Wings Over America live album, he played some of his Beatles songs during that concert tour(Yesterday, I’ve Just Seen a Face, I think Lady Madonna, can’t remember exactly). John didn’t seem to have any problem with it.

    I agree with May, I get tired of hearing the same old cliches from people who seem determined not to think for themselves but just parrot what the “cool” people say. Yes John added to We Can Work it Out but Paul added to a lot of John’s songs too, stuff that John gets credit for as the “ground breaking Beatle” – not just the things listed by May but also Come Together, Paul’s contributions changed the way the song sounded musically(and made it less obvious that it was essentially very similar to a song by another artist(was it Chuck Berry? Can’t remember), John did end up getting sued for it anyway(unfairly imo) but it would have been worse had Paul not made those changes, including to the tempo. Would that song really be such a classic without that unique sound? So a song like Come Together for example sounds like it sounds, because of what Paul McCartney brought to the table in their writing partnership.

    With regards to their solo careers, Paul’s output is extremely varied – and frankly there were plenty of times when he freakin’ rocked. His lyrics varied, some of them were throwaways but he also wrote plenty of great ones, meaningful ones. Sometimes songs are just meant to be fun that doesn’t make them less well done and it doesn’t make them less complex as compositions. There is a place for both types of songs and Paul’s written plenty of both types.

    • McCartney is great – obviously – but let’s not kid around. Pop songs are not just about melodies. They are also about lyrics. In addition, they are about experimentation.

      As a melodist, I have nothing bad to say about McCartney. I disagree with a lot of folks even about his 80s output. Songs like Pipes of Peace, Ebony & Ivory, Wanderlust, My Brave Face, This One, No More Lonely Nights etc. are melodically amazing. And whoever claims anything to the contrary, has absolutely no idea what he or she is talking about. I prefer Lennon’s melodies but that’s my preference. I can’t say that he wrote better melodies. They were very equal.

      Lyrically, Lennon’s stronger delivering lyrics that carry artistic depth. I needen’t give examples. We all know songs like Across the Universe, I Am the Walrus, Revolution, She Said She Said, In My Life, Hapiness Is A Warm Gun, Help, Strawberry Fields Forever, Julia, Hey Buldog – the list is too long to go on. However, at best McCartney shines, too. Yesterday has a great set of lyrics and so does the Long And Winding Road. And well, Penny Lane or Blackbird are not bad either, are they? How about Lady Madonna or Hey Jude? I would mention Elanor Rigby but I won’t because Lennon cowrote the lyrics to that song. My point being the same that Lennon made in his famous Playboy interview that McCartney at best was quite a “capable lyricist.”

      Experimentation is a difficult thing to discuss because we sort of look at this from a modern perspective, which renders songs such as “Tomorrow Never Knows” & “I’m the Walrus” very exciting and songs like “When I’m Sixty Four” and “Michelle” more in the vain of something that maybe Frank Sinatra and other crooners had already done to death by the mid-sixties. McCartney did experiment but his experimentation was not at the same level as Lennon’s. The fact that Yesterday has a string quartet does not surprize me as the song sounds like a standard that needs it. This is not the same a adding strings to Helter Skelter which would be more of an experimentation and an avant garde thing to do. There’s also another lever to this, I claim that true experimentation goes beyond tape loops and sound affects. To me it’s found in the structure and the chord sequence of the song itself. I love John deciding that Tomorrow Never Knows has only one chord and building a song on that one chord alone. In other words, experimenting if it could be done with just one chord. Walrus is more of the same thing. Also, breaking a beautiful pop song like A Day In The Life with that symphonic orgasm (this was Lennon’s idea and not McCartney’s as somebody here claims – so get your facts right if you want to build a case for Paul and credit him for the stuff that he actually did) is experimentation because it breaks traditions.

      Finally, even though as a songwriter John had the obvious lyrical and experimental edge over Paul, it does not mean that Paul was anything less than brilliant at best. Besides, his vocal harmonies and arranging skills as well as his constant “we can do better” attitude is truly what makes the Beatles what they are.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: