1 - Lennon vs. McCartney

Return to all essays >>

1 - Lennon vs. McCartney



“Saint John”- as he is known these days - is not the same person that sang on the Beatle records.  There are two different legacies in place: pre- and post-death.


 Time magazine commented twenty years after his death:

“Lennon was certainly no saint. His personal life did not always match his philosophy.”

 Jonathan Gould recounted in Can’t Buy Me LoveThe Beatles, Britain and America:

“His murder turned Lennon into an awkwardly sainted figure: an apostle of Peace and Love who bore little resemblance to the sardonic and mercurial Beatle the world had known.”

In his book, The Mourning of John Lennon, Anthony Elliot writes:

“Since his tragic death in 1980, at the age of 40…Lennon has become an object of mourning, of fantasy, of intense feelings of hope and dread”- a “transcendent hero” who “haunts our culture.”

Professor John Kimsey of DePaul University states in Spanning the Historical Record: Lennon, McCartney and Museum Politics, that as early as 1981, McCartney had voiced concern that, in the wake of Lennon’s murder, a cult had emerged - one which deified Lennon, often at his own expense. He quotes McCartney as saying: “Since his murder, Lennon’s image and legend has skyrocketed so that they cast a long shadow, not just over McCartney, but over contemporary cultures.”

McCartney himself told Beatle biographer Hunter Davies that “since his death, his former songwriting partner had become ‘Martin Luther Lennon’.”


It wasn’t always this way. For years, Beatles fans were led to believe that for the most part, McCartney and Lennon were a “writing partnership” that together created all of the group’s great songs.




Decades later the mainstream view changed to one which has them writing the majority of their songs separately, with each throwing in lines here and there, adding to each others’ compositions. The other version - that the two were involved in an ongoing competition - became conventional wisdom; for example, if John wrote a great song, Paul had to write an even better one.




The two leading Beatles reacted to the breakup of the band in characteristically different ways: McCartney by moving on and clamming up; Lennon by laying waste to what he termed the ‘Beatles myth’. For some inexplicable reason, Lennon hated the Beatles’ success and constantly mocked their musical legacy:


 I would write books like “In His Own Write” to express my personal emotions. I’d have a separate songwriting John Lennon who wrote songs for the meat market. I didn’t consider them to have any depth at all. They were just a joke…..

We never write anything with themes. We just write the same rubbish all the time.

The music wasn't being heard. It was just a freak show: The Beatles were the show, and the music had nothing to do with it.

Why did Lennon feel the need to berate his own professional achievements and those of his band mates?  If he didn’t like being John Lennon the rock/pop star - why didn’t he walk away from it and leave public life?


Says British historian Professor Marcus Collins of Loughborough University:




“Though Lennon was an unreliable narrator, his version of The Beatles’ story heavily influenced subsequent accounts and, after his murder in 1980, ironically became a myth unto itself under the stewardship of Yoko Ono. Hand-in-hand with the veneration of Lennon went the denigration of McCartney, prompting McCartney to launch a concerted if counterproductive attempt to draw attention to his artistic contribution to The Beatles’ canon.”




Over the course of the 1970s, Lennon gave three key sets of interviews to Playboy and Rolling Stone in which he gives his account of the songs. Most of the subject matter focused on “who wrote what”, not how the song was performed or recorded.




According to the research of Michael Frontani of Elon University, this first set of interviews created two categories: “Lennon as artist and avantgardiste” and “McCartney as commercial craftsman”.




In those interviews, Lennon was extremely nasty to McCartney and claimed that none of Lennon’s greatest songs had much of his input.




To Lennon, all that mattered was who wrote the lyrics, as he never once referred to the arrangement, music or how the song was performed by all four musicians. It was clear his agenda was to have us believe that he was the sole driving force behind the band. The journalists who interviewed him had no interest in questioning anything he said.




As he believed he was the “poet” in the group, he wanted The Beatles’ legacy to focus on the lyrics, where he could reign supreme. The problem is that as great as the lyrics to the songs he wrote were, as many other bands showed, it didn’t matter who wrote the song, but how it was arranged, performed and recorded.






The music press preferred Lennon over McCartney




Lennon never commented on the musicianship of himself or his band mates. As rock critics tend to emphasize lyrics in their reviews, there is no mystery as to who they lined up behind: McCartney was the persecutor - not too smart, and his music was childish. Lennon was charismatic and avant-garde, while McCartney was simply ordinary.




Says John Kimsey of DePaul University:




“According to these interviews, Lennon is the founder, leader and truth-teller, while The Beatles, and McCartney in particular, are sugar-plum fairies.”




Frontani adds:




“Reflecting the values of the counterculture movement, writers and editors at The Rolling Stone, and the readers to which they appealed, often found common cause with John Lennon, while McCartney was often demonized as a commercial hack for his refusal to say anything of consequence.”




In his 1988 research study: McCartney or Lennon: Beatle Myths and the Composing of the Lennon-McCartney Songs, Todd Compton states:




“Lennon’s version of Beatle history suggests that McCartney’s impact on The Beatles was minimal, and when it became known that McCartney had written many Beatle songs alone, Lennon claimed it was still somehow his impact on McCartney that gave them their high quality- roughening up their sweetness, giving them some integrity. Or they were ballads, fitting to McCartney’s anti-myth. John was the beloved iconoclast mystic, the writer of hard rock; Paul was the bourgeois, light-pop, money-oriented vulgarian.”






McCartney fires back




McCartney kept quiet during the 1970s and 1980s, and only in 1997, 27 years after the group disbanded, did he open his mouth. In his authorized biography dictated to his long-time friend Barry Miles, he gives his side to the story.




In speaking of McCartney’s greatest songs Lennon is rarely mentioned, even for the lyrics.




Yet the more important question is not how much McCartney contributed to the arrangement of Lennon’s songs, but whether Lennon contributed anything to McCartney’s work. While Lennon was a great vocalist (although limited in range) and brilliant lyricist, he was far from being a great guitarist or piano player, melodist or arranger. He knew better than anyone that he needed McCartney to help him translate his words into great songs and all three of them to record his songs.




Of Lennon’s greatest songs before the end of 1966, regardless of who wrote which lines, much of the arrangement, how the song would eventually sound, was McCartney’s work (along with Ringo’s and George’s contributions). He was the better musician, and a great vocalist as well as a superb melodist. Lennon knew that he was better off with McCartney as a co-songwriter and composer than without him.




In his autobiography McCartney writes:




“I must have been special, because he’d have got rid of me. That’s the point about John. He didn’t suffer fools gladly. Given half a chance he would have elbowed me. And felt right about it. But I was his main collaborator. It was just that I brought a certain 50 percent and John brought a certain 50 percent.”




He could have made this statement without adding the word “certain”; he could have just said each side made an equal contribution. He didn’t because he was trying to be diplomatic.




Over time, McCartney wins over the critics




As the years passed, McCartney’s contributions to the success of The Beatles would eventually be recognized.




Steve Turner writing in The Gospel According to The Beatles, says:




“McCartney was the one who was the most proud of being a Beatle, of the need for public relations that were necessary to keep the enterprise alive, and keenest for the group to progress even further. He was solid and dependable.”




Geoff Emerick, wrote:




“It might have been Lennon’s band in the beginning, and he might have assumed the leadership role in their press conferences and public appearances, but throughout all the years I would work with them, it always seemed to me that Paul McCartney, the soft-spoken bass player, was the real leader of the group, and that nothing got done unless he approved of it.”

Return to all essays >>