Every time I write anything about The Beatles someone tries to pull out the “overrated” card. It’s null/void here sorry, calling the Beatles overrated is just stupid. You might not personally enjoy their music – or maybe you’ve just not heard very much of it (I don’t know you and already I feel sorry for you) but if that’s the case I would invite you, right now, to not be part of this conversation.
Because this is about settling something.
The Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership offered so much to the world – so many gifts, pop songs that have lasted for 50 years and informed so much of what has arrived after. Most people know that John and Paul mostly worked separately and then competed with one another, looking at each other’s work with an editor’s eye – making suggestions, adding new parts to flesh out ideas. But for the most part Paul wrote his songs. John wrote his.
We know that Paul added a crucial part to John’s A Day In The Life, giving a new flavour, spicing it up so to speak. We know, too, that John provided the contrast for We Can Work It Out. John was, as seems a cliché to say, good at offering ironic twists, at playing with language, adding darkness.
If you haven’t already you should definitely check out Revolution In The Head – a tremendous (exhaustive) account of the songs. Of the work.
So you can argue all you want for Paul songs or John songs or a Paul sound or a John sound within the context of The Beatles – and it’s all really a big win either way. Great band, great songs. George adding a handful of gems into the mix too, sure.
But where it all gets messy – uneven, bitter, sloppy – is the assessment of the post-Beatles offerings from Paul and John. Actually – uneven, bitter and sloppy could be used in assessment of a lot of the work that John and Paul offered.
So what if you did have to pick? Work with me here – this is all just a five-minute distraction from the banality of real-work/real-life after all. Who would you pick?
I ask this question because on the back of writing about McCartney’s Ram and the reissue of McCartney II I notice a bit of easy target-practice that Paul seems to offer to people unprepared to listen, or listen-again.
Lennon though, he’s untouchable right? Has been since December 1980. Never mind that he had nothing to say for most of the five years before it and that his patchy, messy albums before that are not up to scratch compared with Paul’s finest moments.
Look, it’s hard to beat Plastic Ono Band – an absolute high in the post-Beatles work offered by any of The Beatles. It’s a tough album – but it’s superb. It’s not as easy to enjoy, as comfortable as the early solo/Wings offerings from McCartney. But many people would suggest it to be more rewarding. And they’d be right. The album is close to perfect for me – as a listening experience. And in fact always an experience to listen to.
But just a few years later – after and a few messy albums (all of them have something of merit, sure) Lennon had reduced himself to covering old rock’n’roll songs – the sort of thing you are supposed to do when you are in your 50s. Sure, he didn’t get that particular chance so he got in early – but after that he was spent artistically/creatively.
And when Double Fantasy was released it showed plenty of promise, some great songs – but (Just Like) Starting Over is far more hokey than anything Paul put to paper and then released on record. (Just Like) Starting Over is the sound of a ham, a cruel parody of John Lennon performed without irony by what was left of John Lennon.
You’ll not hear a bad word from me about Watching The Wheels – get it right and sentimentality is a hit, a winner. I love that song. And it’s moments like that where, on Double Fantasy, it feels like Lennon has a hit on his hands for the first time in nearly a decade. But what made it a hit – sad, but true – is that Mark David Chapman arrived on the scene, waited for most of a day, psyched himself up because the CIA had told him to, or because he needed to read Catcher In The Rye one more time, or both, and shot John Lennon.
That was the reason Double Fantasy did so well. That is why people love (Just Like) Starting Over. Finally it had the irony that Lennon couldn’t deliver in his hokey, hammy, schlocky, jokey, awful vocal take.
I’d take Paul McCartney over John Lennon. Any day. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate Lennon’s contribution to the canon – and I love the very best of his work. But Paul did more – for me.
I think he’s more musically talented – that would seem hard to deny or debate. I think his post-Beatles career up to the same timeframe as Lennon’s life allows – so just up to 1980 – was more rewarding and more interesting. And if you cherry-pick, take the albums I always mention – McCartney and Ram and McCartney II particularly, say – it’s more revealing. There’s more truth.
Lennon sung about Gimme Some Truth. I don’t think he gave us that much truth. I think he gave us a lot of bluster and some very good bluffing. And of course – yes – some wonderful music in fits and starts.
But Paul for me, over John. Any day.
Now I know this is an unnecessary argument. But you are on the internet. What exactly did you expect?
What I want to know – definitively – is which one do you pick? Paul or John? Lennon or McCartney? But let’s say, for today anyway, you have to pick just one of them. You can consider their Beatles work too or just leave that to the side – in particular, from 1970-1980 who delivered the goods for you? Who, judged on the best of the work they left behind from that time, gets the tick?
We’re still rediscovering – and seeing value added – to individual albums from Paul McCartney. Whenever John Lennon’s career gets re-celebrated/recalibrated it’s just another old hits collection. Mostly his individual albums are glossed over/left forgotten. Is that because they’re dated-sounding and obvious and have no hidden charms?
So what is your call on this? Lennon or McCartney? There are, after all, no wrong answers here.