Lennon/McCartney not Lennon v. McCartney

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Noel Gallagher: If John Lennon were alive today, he’d be writing shite like “Biker like an Icon” too.

A friend of mine just sent me an article from the August 27th edition of the National Review about Paul McCartney entitled The Bard of Optimism. 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, right at a time when 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, which 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 martyred legend, one whose death perhaps saved him from the decline even the greatest artists of the 60’s 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 the 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, which saw Lennon mute the optimism of McCartney’s “We Can Work It Out” with a pessimistic bridge, McCartney’s addition of the middle section of “A Day in the Life,” or 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.

Sadly, things got ugly. The death of Brian Epstein left of 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 groups 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,” wrapping it up with a response to a perceived slight from Paul with the acidly, 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, and indeed in Lennon’s last interviews he regained his love for the Beatles and what they accomplished, acknowledging 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 One, 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 (if it even was one at the time) 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 and ignores that it was Lennon’s addition of “can’t get no worse” and the uber-honest “I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her away from the things that she loved” 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 of Pepper “A Day in the Life” was for the most part a Lennon composition. Smith seems to imply that Lennon’s edgy material on Revolver, “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; 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); and 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 in fact to the politicization of an earlier Lennon pot bust).

Smith goes on to laud McCartney’s recent work, which is fine and laudable, 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 hits to his happiness – his feeling of his own 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, when he has tried can’t hold a candle to Lennon. McCartney’s response to 9-11, “Freedom,” was bathetic and as a composition embarrassing. 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 So This is Christmas”, 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 added fuel to his critic’s fire, leaving one to wish that he could have just put aside the old injuries and sang one Lennon’s songs to fit the occasion perhaps indeed “All You Need is Love”, which would have been a huge statement and a reiteration of everything McCartney truly believes.

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 let’s “Let It Be.”

11 Responses to “Lennon/McCartney not Lennon v. McCartney”

  1. I read your McCartney/Lennon article with interest. However, I must point out that the album McCartney released immediately after Lennon’s demise did not contain “Press” (1987) or “Spies Like Us”. The album Tug Of War was, in fact, one of McCartney’s biggest commercial and critical successes. So, your assertion that this was “one of his tougher creative periods” doesn’t hold water. In fact, from 1981 through 1984, McCartney scored two #1 albums, another Top 5 album, and released singles which spent a collective 19 weeks at the top of the charts. However, I do agree that McCartney tends to be unfavourably compared to Lennon, from this point on.

  2. I find it funny on one hand but sad on another when people start to take sides of the McCartney/Lennon debate.

    Like everybody everywhere, we all have a desire for fame and fortune. Even the 2 regular normal teenage kids in Liverpool that were to become the most famous songwriting team in history sought fame, fortune and yes, girls !!!!

    They paid their dues and owe each other an immeasurable debt of gratitude for had they not met each other and not teamed up, then most likely neither McCartney and Lennon would have ever made it into the history books of music.

    To try to separate them and judge them independently shows shallow understanding and appreciation for what it takes to make a team, ANY team, whether it be in music, sports or business.

    Like all humans, there are personal stories of success and failure throughout the partnership and as they grow and become more independent thinkers and dreamers, as in all partnerships they eventually go their separate ways to pursue their personal passions. This is healthy personal development and should be recognized as a positive step in maturity of any individual.

    The story of the Beatles is an eternal blessing to the world and mankind. To criticize, overanalyze or look for deeper meaning than what it is, is what media people do looking for a hot topic to gain increased readership of this enormously popular musical group. As I mentioned earlier, everybody wants more fame and fortune.

    That is except for Sir Paul McCartney. He does not need either at this point in his life. He exemplifies what it means to be a world-class professional musician and songwriter ‘par excelance’, with an uncomparable legacy of music. Lennon would presumably also be in the same position if he were alive, although he seemed quite happy as a stay at home dad, not picking up his guitar for long periods of time. They each paid their dues on the road and in the studio and would be reaping the reward of their earlier success without the need to sell more record, CD’s or MP3’s as applies to todays music market.

    McCartney’s as Lennon’s music is autobiographical. Yes, they both would and do try to appeal to their world-wide audience of past, present & future fans and music lovers sharing their own personal message whatever it be, love, anger, peace, fun, happy, sad. And of course both would relish in good reviews and despises bad ones in spite of their desire to just ignore all media opinions. This is what professionals must do. Can you imagine writing a very personal autobiography of your life and having the critics call is too-much-this or too-little-that ?

    I am thankful that McCartney and Lennon had a chance to mend fences before his passing. I find it a bit annoying how Yoko continues to overmarket John and his life. Remember the Broadway play that failed miserably ? Now the peace memorial in Iceland ?? This is Yoko’s mission, to promote John, make him an Elvis-like commercial extravaganza. Special concerts and albums of Johns music. She will continue to do this as long as she is with us. This is her right as his estate executor. And I am within my rights to be annoyed. Everybody is entitles to their opinion.

    Even before John’s passing, as hard as that may be, it is easy and tempting to try to compare McCartney’s musical strength to Johns. John had so much anger and was mostly reclusive taking time to figure out what was important to him. The only real piece the world will remember from John is the beautiful and deep Imagine. It is undoubtedly a resounding musical landmark for the politically directed Lennon who always had the ‘edge’ in his compositions. Yes he had many other well written and popular compositions but nothing compared to Imagine in it’s message and popularity. This is what ultimately defines ‘the test of time’. You insist on comparing to the more family oriented McCartney who gave us loving and fun memories of Maybe I’m Amazed, Band on the Run, Live and Let Die, Uncle Albert, even Silly Love Songs just to name a few of many time tested popular favorites. Sales of over 100 million with 60 gold songs. Those statistics speaks for themselves regarding the strongly critical terms you use to put down McCartneys solo career. Pointing out his jail time in Japan and denigrating his ‘Freedom’ chant in response to 9/11 is really taking pot shots to. In such a long life and career, there are many opportunities for pot shots like these.

    I just read that Yesterday, a 100% McCartney composition by the Beatles has been covered by an incredible 3000 artists around the world. Paul will sadly have to live with the deal he struck with John in the beginning to credit all Beatles songs as Lennon/McCartney, especially on songs like this that John contributed zero to. I am sure that many other Beatles compositions were covered, both McCartney, Lennon, not to exclude the other Beatles. Here Comes the Sun and Something are beautiful world-class compositions that need no help standing on their own.

    Paul & John were different personalilites and while together they put out a legacy of immortalized Beatles albums together, they individually put out their own legacy of autobiographical music history on their own. This reflects on them as human beings, individuals, pursuing their own interests and lives, not of the previous team that they once were and that we tend to judge and compare them by.

    Enjoy the Beatles, Enjoy Lennon, Enjoy McCartney. McCartney will continue to write his life story and we should encourage and welcome his therapeutic contribution to the world without judgement and criticism. Buy them or don’t buy them if you choose. He has spread and earned the love of so many human beings making the world a better place through his love and optimism that you hear on TV, radio and even people whistling down the street every day.

    One of the most amazing things that I remember from the DVD of the McCartney tour in Russia is the admission by Gorbechov (I believe), that the freedom and love culture spread through the Beatles music was a major direct and immistakable contributor to the fall of the Berlin wall. Together the Beatles HAVE built a more peaceful world. Not McCartney more than Lennon or Lennon more than McCartney. Together through their music. But the Beatles are not done.

    Let this musical culture continue to spread throughout the world to bring us even closer to the world of Imagine.

  3. Don’t sweat Lennon too hard man. McCartney was good also. And when you say, “Do we really need to tear down one great artist to boost another?” well it doesn’t make sense considering what your doing the whole time is bashing McCartney. They were both amazing TOGETHER, after the Beatles though they pretty much were both flops so just relax and enjoy the music dude.

  4. You’re all crazy. John was better and always will be. The world is a cold mean place as well as a place of wonder and beauty. John was truthful about that. He was a musical genius. Only the good die young.

  5. how could you say lennon or mccartney was better?! i mean they were the BEATLES! it took both of them. they needed each other. do you have any idea how much impact they made on the group EQUALLY?! how dare you.

  6. And in the end
    The love you take
    Is equal to the love you make…

    They equally both have my respect…

  7. I think Both contributed a lot to music and as a team were great but i personally like John’s music and lyrics more .

  8. I think of them as one. They complement each other. Like Ying-Yang. That’s why The Beatles are the best music in the world and John Lennon solo or Paul McCartney solo isn’t as good (though excellent stuff). I think death dignifies people… in this society it is better to live fast die young than having a full life and grow old and wise… Cult to youth. That’s why people have surgeries and struggle to keep on being young and adult people are scum.

  9. I just want to comment on Noel Gallaghers STUPID
    Comments on what John Lennon would be doin now.

    I tell you what he would not be doing….spending time with either of the Gallagher Brothers!!!….

    I mean let’s face it they actually think their music is as
    Important to Musical history as Lennon & McCartneys!!!
    Dream on!!!!

  10. If John Lennon was here today he would be revered not only for his musical genesis, because he was a real figuare to the word Art. Lennon is 100 times the artist, rock star than paul mccartney can ever measure up to.

    It was Lennon who started the beatles and it was Lennon’s influnence that drove the beatles to no.1

    If you still have doubts buy Lennon’s albums and hear every from ‘Imagine’ to ‘Isolation’.

  11. Lennon and McCartney contributed equally to the Beatles. McCartney was the hit maker and probably contributed more from a sales point of view (particularly singles) but Lennon was the one that gave the Beatles an edge. Fundamentally if the Beatles had consisted of only Paul, George and Ringo then they would have been a commercially successful pop group like the Kinks and if the Beatles has consisted of only John, George and Ringo then they would have been a marginally less successful but more respected cutting edge kind of band like Pink Floyd. What makes the music of the Beatles so great is the combination of Lennon AND McCartney and yes I can understand why it frustrates Paul to see Johns name first on ‘Yesterday’ but then again Paul gets his name on such masterpieces as ‘All you need is Love’, ‘Strawberry Fields’ and ‘I am the Walrus’.

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