10 - McCartney or Lennon?
10 - McCartney or Lennon?
In 1988 Todd Compton published the first essay on the subject of the McCartney-Lennon songwriting team: McCartney or Lennon? Beatle Myths and the Composing of the Lennon-McCartney Songs. He points out how The Beatles made their impact with music, not lyrics. Though lyrics are important, in rock music they are secondary to the music:
“Most of the greatest songs have unremarkable lyrics. Yet good lyrics with mediocre music don’t stand a chance. While The Beatles’ lyrics have been analyzed heavily, if they were published as a book of poetry, would they be popular?”
Beatles scholar Ian McDonald writes:
“Lennon and McCartney wrote their lyrics to create a mood or a tone, so as not to get in the way of the effect created by the music and the sound. There was just enough sense in a Beatle lyric for the listener to get the general idea. The rest came from the sum of the parts of the record as a whole. In a less narrowly structured sense, the two represented a classic clash between truth and beauty. Seeing music as a vehicle of thought and feeling, Lennon stressed
expression at the expense of formal elegance, which held no interest or value for him, per se. Intuitively, he cared little for technique and nothing for the rules, which he would go out of the
way to break.”
MacDonald commented that McCartney’s work, despite its shallowness, achieves the trick of matching popular appeal with quality of expression. He says that if the difference between talent and genius is tune, writing lies in the degree to which a melody, more than merely catching the ear, tells an emotional story. He states that McCartney is beyond doubt an intermittent musical genius.
On Lennon, he states:
“Reflecting his sedentary, ironic personality, Lennon’s melodies tend to move up and down as little as possible, weaving deviously through their harmonies in chains of repeated notes. Basically a realist, he instinctively kept his melodies close to the rhythms and cadences
of speech, coloring his lyrics with bluesy tone and harmony rather than creating tunes that made striking shapes of their own.”
Of McCartney’s lines he wrote that they are “the expression of a natural melodist, a creator of tunes capable of existing apart from their harmony, whereas Lennon’s lines tend to be allusive, moody affairs which make sense only when accompanied, particularly the more chromatic creations of his later style.”
In his book, Tell Me Why, Tim Riley offers his comparison of the two songwriters:
“Lennon’s musical personality is obsessed with rhythm, and his lyrics most often rise above Paul’s. Paul was primarily a melodic thinker, but in the lyricism of his vocal lines and in the sweep of his bass playing, his gift lies in linear phrases. Lennon’s jagged beats disrupt songs horizontally. McCartney’s texts are usually witty, charming, narrative, or sentimental. Lennon’s are more extreme, acerbic, confessional, or maddeningly obtuse.”
Musicologist Walter Everett points out Lennon and McCartney’s contrasting motivations and approaches to composition:
“McCartney is seen as the sentimentalist, non-intellectual, working-call craftsman who counts his pay in smiles and moves on to the next project, toiling to get every note just right. McCartney may be said to have constantly developed – as a means to entertain – a focused musical talent with an ear for counterpoint and other aspects of craft in the demonstration of a universally agreed-upon common language that he did much to enrich. Conversely, Lennon’s mature music is best appreciated as the daring product of a largely unconscious, searching, but undisciplined artistic sensibility.”
New York University Professor Thomas MacFarlane, author of The Beatles’ Abbey Road Medley, believes that despite his acknowledged musical brilliance, McCartney had a tendency to linger too long at various creative levels. Once a breakthrough was attained, he seemed
more content to produce works in a similar vein rather than push the creative envelope. This, he claims, contrasted sharply with Lennon, who had a fundamentally impatient nature and tended to look for creative departures as a matter of course.
McCartney the composer
George Martin remarked in his autobiography:
“McCartney would help John musically, because I think that he had a greater understanding of the theory of music, and harmony.”
McDonald states that The Beatles could have survived Lennon’s departure but not McCartney’s as Lennon knew that while McCartney could be superficial, he was also the better musician and melodist and, when pushed, could rival and sometimes surpass him as an expressive writer.
In fact, Paul McCartney is the closest thing our generation has produced to Schubert, a master of melody and writing songs that seem to have been there all along. Says Professor Daniel Levitin of McGill University in Montreal:
“Most people don’t realize that the well-known tunes Ave Maria and Serenade were written by Schubert. McCartney writes with similar universality.
For instance, Yesterday has a stepwise melody which is deceptively complex, drawing from outside the diatonic scale so smoothly that anyone can sing it. Yet few can explain what it is that McCartney has done.”
Todd Compton concludes his research study with these observations:
“McCartney is the writer who most set the tone of the mature Beatles and wrote most of the songs for their best album, Sgt. Peppers as well as many of the band’s hard rocking numbers. If one sees The Beatles as primarily superior and instinctive in the quality of their music, one is forced to regard McCartney as the dominant, creative Beatle. After forging a new musical language for rock in the early Beatles period, combining melodic sophistication and deep feeling with rhythmic vitality, he developed a wide-ranging technique of comic synthetic pastiche that allowed him to survey the whole spectrum of popular music.”
By January 1967 John Lennon was still a great songwriter- but his output had taken a huge nosedive. He was very far from his peak from 1963-1965. His best days were way behind him. After Rubber Soul he was replaceable where McCartney was not. There could have been a Beatles without Lennon – but there would not have been without McCartney. McCartney gave Lennon much more than he got in return from him.