My first urge here was to disable comments. You know, in case somebody actually reads this post. I’m not interested in arguing about this. If you disagree, sorry, I’m right and you’re wrong, and I’m tired, tired, tired of all the nonsense.
So a Rolling Stone writer named Rob Sheffield just published a book titled Dreaming the Beatles, which I was very much looking forward to reading, only to discover it had a chapter called “Paul is a Concept by Which We Measure Our Pain”, a play on the lyric from Lennon’s post-Beatles song, “God”.
Jesus Beverly Christ, really? This shit again?
I’ve been fighting this battle all my life. Somehow, following John’s untimely assassination in 1980, on the heels of an admittedly depressing decade of silly love songs and pop of varying quality from Paul, the ludicrous myth that John was the real talent in the Beatles, with Paul a mere hanger-on, became dogma. Sheffield is clearly ambivalent, but really, he regurgitates all the horse manure that has for so long fueled this ridiculous school of thought, as if there really is something about Paul and his career after the Beatles that turns him into some sort of dastardly culture criminal, a traitor, a charlatan, an embarrassment, a transparent fraud. We’re supposed to feel let down for some reason, duped, and suspicious of McCartney’s motives and frame of mind. What did he ever do anyway? Everybody knows all the best Beatles work was John’s, right?
Supposedly, people just despise Paul. His detractors in the rock press carry on like he’s just a biscuit shy of Mengele, for Christ’s sake.
Well, I call bullshit. Bullshit. The plainly obvious reality that Lennon’s advocates have never been able to accept is that to adore John at Paul’s expense is to love image over substance, to crave the bad boy over the good kid, to respond to acerbic wit over diplomacy. It depends, really, on what the Beatles were to you. Is it about attitude, the air of social upheaval, quips, snappy answers to reporters – is it about image? Or is it about music? If it’s music, and you think all those great songs are John’s, or that the best of John’s are better than the best of Paul’s, sorry, friend, you’re badly, desperately, out to lunch. You’ve bought a bill of goods. You don’t know Jack.
Think about it. Which songs do you think little kids will know by heart two centuries hence? Help? Maybe. Yesterday? Much more likely. For one thing, Yesterday boasts one of the most perfect melodies in all of Western music, whereas Help, typical of John’s compositions, has almost no melody at all, its verse being a single note repeated over underlying chord changes. John was a master of chord changes, yes, but to my way of thinking, a supreme gift for melody is the rarest gift of all, and as composer and musicologist Howard Goodall has stated, the Beatles left behind a treasure trove of sublime melodies perhaps matched in Western music only by Mozart. Those are, almost exclusively, Paul’s melodies.
Have a listen to their 1964 mega-hit Hard Day’s Night. This is one of those early songs that they wrote eyeball to eyeball, and John was clearly the one writing the verse, McCartney the chorus – they trade positions as lead singer as the song transitions from one to the other. John’s verse is melodically as flat as a pancake. The chorus soars and dives, pure McCartney. The word often used for John’s non-melodies is “horizontal”. Paul’s melodies are described as “vertical”. You’ll pardon me for pointing this out, but vertical is harder.
Yes, John could write melody too, off and on. There’s Girl, gorgeous, no argument. There’s Norwegian Wood, fascinating. Yet John’s most famous Beatle melody, rightly praised to the skies – In My Life – was actually written by Paul. John’s lyrics, Paul’s tune, Paul has always said so, and Paul has never, ever tried to take credit for anything John ever did. You might stress that memory is a tricky thing, but look, all you have to do is listen to that marvelously vertical cascade of notes. That’s Paul. Only someone with an agenda would deny it. It’s the same story, by the way, with Ticket to Ride. The words are clearly John’s, that’s his personality shining through. The tune, though, is classic Paul. It’s like a fingerprint. It might not be exclusively Paul’s, but he had a hand in that melody, plain and simple.
Ever notice how rarely Beatles songs resort to the fade out as a way to end the song? Sometimes they do, when it’s for effect, but more often they come to a tidy and satisfying conclusion, and often that conclusion is a “plagal cadence”, a dieing fall, just like hymns that end with an “Amen”. Again, pure Paul. Yesterday ends with an Amen. So does the achingly beautiful She’s Leaving Home. Also And I Love Her, and Eleanor Rigby, among others. Paul was a choirboy in his youth, familiar with Anglican hymns and plainsong. Like the musical sponge he was, he soaked in the compositional techniques of Medieval music, and deployed them repeatedly, just as he did with the various elements of R&B, rock, country, show tunes, and even English Music Hall.
You may not realize it, or for some reason may not want to admit it, but it’s Paul that endures, Paul’s work that keeps the Beatles front and center over 50 years after they first hit the charts. Which songs do you think will remain a part of our cultural DNA into the indefinite future? She Said, She Said? I’m Only Sleeping? Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey? Dr. Robert? Sexy Sadie? I Want You (She’s So Heavy)? Hey Bulldog? Such songs are great, if you’re a rock & roll aficionado, but as much as rock & roll writers adore the genre, it’s an inherently limited form of music. Paul annoys the rock critics because he so often demonstrates that to him, standard rock & roll fare is not the be-all and end-all. Oh, he can do it, sure, but there’s so much else to explore. Sometimes this spirit of experimentation, and his inherent sentimentality, leads Paul astray, and you end up with something treacly, even horrible, but mark my words: it won’t be I Am the Walrus, or even the magnificent Strawberry Fields Forever, that any average person on the street will be able to sing on demand in the 23rd century. It’ll be Here, There and Everywhere, Eleanor Rigby, With a Little Help From My Friends, Hey Jude, Let it Be, Golden Slumbers, Penny Lane, and dozens of others attributable wholly or principally to McCartney.
Even early on, when John was clearly group leader, it was often McCartney who stepped to the fore at critical moments. What song kicks off their very first album? Paul’s instant classic I Saw Her Standing There. Which was the first to be sung at the monumental first appearance on Ed Sullivan? Paul’s highly melodic and surefire crowd pleaser, All My Loving. You want to start out on the right foot, throw Paul out there.
But hey, John was the real talent.
The Lennon hagiography is bolstered greatly by Paul’s often dismal output in the 1970s – I blame it on dope, Paul smoked pounds of the stuff at that point, and I think it dulled him down something awful – but Lennon did some pretty awful stuff in the 70s too: Some Time in New York City, anyone? Meanwhile, some of Paul’s 70s output, reviled at the time, has been thoroughly reassessed. His album Ram, for example, was condemned as ferociously as a crime against humanity when released, but now look at how it’s received by latter day fans and critics who bring less baggage to the table:
What people started to hate about Paul was that he was outwardly so damned content, happily married, enjoying the fruits of fame, and seemingly un-tortured, unlike the agonized Lennon who issued forth primal screams on his first solo album Plastic Ono Band, as he railed against God, his former band, the schools he went to, and just about every institution he’d ever encountered. People seem to love tortured, angry artists, it makes them seem more authentic. Nobody ever seemed to feel that all this angst was a bit rich coming from a multi-kabillionaire demigod celebrity with unresolved mommy issues. No, Paul was the phony one, because he guardedly hid his heartbreak over the dissolution of his beloved Beatles under a shiny surface of optimism and good cheer. He wrote odes to domestic bliss. He started having kids and bringing them up right. He stayed unerringly faithful to his wife. He didn’t seem ashamed to just have fun, even though he wasn’t giving us the sort of classics he used to. Hey, it’s just a bit of lark, he seemed to be saying. I’m having a ball here. Oh, hateful man! Shame!
What really irks is that while venting contempt at Paul for being so stable and domestic and bland and nice, which was presented as a fraudulent pose, Lennon’s fans were prepared to give him a pass for being a complete and unmitigated dick for so very much of the time. And make no mistake: Lennon was, very often, an outright dick, and a nasty SOB who reveled in hurting those who loved him the most. Brian Epstein, obviously besotted, asked John what he should call his autobiography; “How about Queer Little Jew?” responded John. Asked to comment on Ringo winning an award for best drummer in England, or some such, John quipped “He’s not even the best drummer in the Beatles”. On his overly-praised album Imagine, John included the merciless and unforgiveable anti-Paul diatribe How Do You Sleep?, as if Paul had ever done anything to John, or anybody else, that would cost a man of good conscience any sleep. Paul’s biggest sin, at the end, was fighting with the others about who should manage the group, a fight in which, it would soon become obvious, he was absolutely right. Paul thought the stable hand of attorney Lee Eastman, father of his new flame Linda, should get the job, he being likely to have their best interests at heart; the rest were passionately in favour of notorious flim-flam artist and lying cheat Allen Klein, whom they all ended up suing before long. What a jerk, that Paul.
Also, he was a perfectionist in the studio, and sometimes exhorted the others to lay down take after take to get the songs just right, sometimes in a way that in retrospect, he admitted, was overbearing and insensitive. Like I said, Mengele. Meanwhile, John got to skate on his many real sins, including bouts of outright misogyny – just listen to Run For Your Life, a shocking blight upon the Beatles catalogue. Listen to the middle 8 in Paul’s Getting Better, in which Lennon jumps to the fore. When John sings “I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her, and kept her apart from the things that she loved”, do you suppose he’s just goofing around? That isn’t really him?
Who was it, anyway, who was so distressed at hearing that John had abandoned wife Cynthia and son Julian that he drove over to see the two of them, composing along the way a little tune, Hey Jules, that he hoped might be some small consolation to the child? Ringo? George? Ever the diplomat, Paul later changed the title to Hey Jude, a massive hit that was, evidence suggests, John’s favourite among all of Paul’s songs. Even in his bitchiest post-Beatles I-hate-Paul phase, John could never be dismissive of such monumental work. During the famous Rolling Stone interview, John, griping, asked Jann Wenner which lame McCartney ditty was made the A-side of a single instead of his own Revolution, and responded with something like “Oh, all right, that was a worthy one” when told it was Hey Jude. Of course John, always exquisitely self-absorbed, thought Hey Jude was for him, not his abandoned son. He thought it was a coded approval from Paul of his decision to run away and romance Yoko Ono.
So here we sit, awash in cognitive dissonance. John was great. Paul was only so-so. Yet we’re approaching the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper at the time of writing, and all across the world celebrations and symphonic performances of this, pop music’s most epochal album, are being planned. Most well-versed observers think that if Sgt. Pepper isn’t the greatest album ever made, it’s Revolver, or Abbey Road – each of them an album in which Paul was either more prominent, musically, or utterly dominant. You may admire a Lennon song like And Your Bird Can Sing, on Revolver, it rocks hard and brilliantly, but where do you suppose that stands next to Eleanor Rigby? Be honest. Virtually the whole of Sgt. Pepper belongs to Paul, really, and Abbey Road is celebrated mainly on the strength of Paul’s song cycle on Side 2 (albums had sides, back then), the legendary “long medley”, as well as two amazing Harrison compositions, Something and Here Comes the Sun (in reaction to which Paul pulled John aside and said something along the lines of “We’ve always assumed we’re better than George, but not anymore” – odd, for such an egomaniac, or so John described him).
“Ah”, you counter, “but wasn’t the best song on Revolver John’s Tomorrow Never Knows?” Some people think so. From a purely musical perspective, I don’t agree, but it was certainly the most astonishing and avant garde. And who was it that was absorbing the techniques of the musical avant garde at the time, and whose inspiration were the tape loops that became so crucial to the disorienting newness of the song? You think that was John? Give your head a shake. It was Paul.
O.K., but even if Paul did dominate Sgt. Pepper, isn’t its best song A Day in the Life, and isn’t that, unequivocally, an all-Lennon masterwork from start to finish? Give your sorry ill-informed head another shake. Yes, it’s the best song on the album – I’ve argued the best piece of popular songwriting in history, actually – but no, it was not purely John’s work, as Lennon himself, down through the years and in spite of all the rancor, was always at pains to make clear. It was the purest collaboration with Paul, 50/50 all the way, and you can read my entry in the Songs of the Day archive if you want the real story.
Who, do you suppose, was the Beatles’ best musician? Who could master almost any instrument, including the drums, to the point that John’s funny but cruel quip that Ringo wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles actually had some basis to it? Whose astonishingly inventive and melodic bass lines made every Lennon song just that much better?
Indeed, Paul was the only real virtuoso in the group. The others were good, often very good, and their ensemble playing was always fantastic, but Paul was maybe the greatest bass player who ever lived. Many contend that the title belongs to Motown’s James Jamerson, which is certainly arguable, but it’s hard to imagine any bass player having more impact on the tone and flow of a song than Paul always did. Maybe call it a draw. Listen carefully to the previously mentioned rocker of John’s, And Your Bird Can Sing. Just listen to what the bass is doing back there. Same deal on John’s proto-psychedelic tour de force, Rain, or A Day in the Life, Come Together, Hey Bulldog, Something – oh, how Paul does his utmost to give George his very best on Something – McCartney’s bass lines were practically songs in their own right. Some say he wasn’t really a proper bass player at all, misunderstanding the intended role of the instrument as a rhythmic device, and misusing it to make harmonic and melodic counterpoint instead. Hell, he was playing lead bass half the time – the damned thing wasn’t supposed to be singing its own songs. It was supposed to be chugging along adding muscular “bottom end”, complimenting the drums, not going off on soaring forays of its own. Right?
Even something as universally deplored as the 70s hit Silly Love Songs features a bass line that amounts to a clinic on how to be creative with the instrument. Paul’s bass lines are full-blown compositions, and thus every song in the Beatles’ repertoire is in part a McCartney song.
“But Paul was lousy at lyrics!” you exclaim. “John was the poet!” True, Paul never went in for the stream of consciousness stuff that you hear in John’s later songs, but Paul’s reputation as a lousy lyricist stems, again, from the dope-addled albums of the 70s, when he clearly stopped caring whether the words meant anything, so long as they fit the melody. In his Beatle days, Paul’s lyrics were straightforward, but usually clever and effective. Listen to Eleanor Rigby. For No One. Penny Lane. Hey Jude. Paperback Writer. Blackbird. Any of it really. The knock against Paul’s lyrics is a bum rap. It’s just part of the misguided mythology that surrounds him in some quarters.
I’ve been fighting this fight for years.
So yes, Paul has, over the years, done some poor work. He’s been unforgivably happy, stable, in love with being in love, proud of his work with the Beatles, determined to keep making music, determined to find something positive in almost any experience, and a host of other similarly unpardonable transgressions. He’s always kept his cards close to his chest, and never worn his heart on his sleeve – the cad! He has expressed, again and again, unfailing love and admiration for his partner John, who may just have been starting to regret having never returned the favour, when Mark David Chapman took him away from us – tantalizing, heartbreaking little hints of reconciliation were beginning to appear near the end. Moreover, despite snarky ideas to the contrary, born out of Paul’s shell-shocked failure to provide what the crowd thought was an appropriate emotional response to the question, posed just hours after the murder, “how do you feel?”, or something similarly inane – Paul, dazed, could only offer a glassy-eyed “It’s a drag” – John’s murder clearly crushed Paul. To this day, whenever he’s in concert, he makes a point of singing Here Today, his touching tribute to his old mate, and always reminds the crowd that if you love somebody, say so, before you lose the chance. Yet I’m to believe that the man lacks depth.
Paul has also become the curator of the Beatles legacy, touring incessantly, and playing three hour sets of material that everyone among the multitudes that fill the huge stadiums he always sells out can sing along with him, off by heart. I’ve been to a couple of those concerts. The stands are full of aging boomers like me, but also teens, little kids, men and women in equal numbers, everybody, all shapes and sizes, all come to pay homage to the man I’m convinced will one day be regarded as the greatest songwriter who ever lived. Despite the ambivalence and disappointment which, we’re assured, hover over him like a rain cloud wherever he goes, people seem compelled to give him a ten-minute standing ovation just for walking on stage. Grown men cry as the legendary songs are played to perfection. People look at each other with a “can you believe we’re actually here to experience this?” expression on their faces. After the three hours are over you realize, amazed, that he barely dented his catalogue. My brother and I once did the math, and reckoned he’d have to play for ten straight hours before he got to a song he’d written that the whole audience wouldn’t immediately recognize after just a couple of notes.
Still, I’m supposed to denigrate the man because he hasn’t always lived up to his potential. He allowed himself to get lazy, and frivolous, and sometimes lost the thread. Sure. So what? That’s a war crime or something? He also gifted all of us the most beautiful and moving songs any of us are ever going to hear. By the ton. What, exactly, am I supposed to feel angry about? What? He didn’t do enough for us? We deserved more?
Meanwhile, almost unnoticed, he’s been making some great music of late. He is giving us more. Queenie Eye, linked below, was inspired by a chant used in a kid’s game back when Paul was a boy in Liverpool. It’s a typically wonderful piece of pop song-craft, beginning with a mellotron – the same keyboard instrument that Paul used at the opening of Strawberry Fields Forever, yes, it was Paul who supplied that beautiful little intro to John’s masterpiece – which rocks its way to a surprising middle that dials everything down to an almost dreamlike state, before surging back to a rousing conclusion. I’m convinced that John would have loved it.
Look, don’t take my word for it here. Ask Paul Simon. Bob Dylan. Pete Townsend. Brian Wilson. They’ll tell you. They’re all on the record. Hell, even Rolling Stone, a publication dedicated to hating McCartney over the years, now rates him as a better songwriter than John. They put him #2 behind Dylan:
Yet Dylan, we know, wouldn’t agree. McCartney, he has said, “is the only one I’m in awe of”.
And still, the gen. pop. will consistently opine that John was the real talent in the Beatles. That seems to be the current misconception, but trust me, history will bear me out. McCartney is the quintessential Beatle. To quote John, I am right, and will be proved right.
Consider this: if Paul himself ever read this, he’d be incensed. He’d stick up for John, praise John, and rail against my characterization of his beloved friend as a frequent dick. Shallow? I wish I could be as shallow and lacking in gifts. Maybe then, people would still know my name centuries from now.