Sunday, 26 January 2014

Lennon vs McCartney: Why I Prefer Paul

Because I can be a little obsessive at times, periodically I like to go through my iTunes collection and listen to all of my music in order, from A to Z. For individual artists, I try and listen to their discography in chronological order, because I like to believe I can tease out some progression from earliest albums to latest.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that I spent yesterday listening to a lot of Beatles albums, and was reminded of an idea I've long had, but rarely vocalized: Paul McCartney was a much more important member of the band than John Lennon.

In the UK in particular it seems to be fashionable to make fun of Sir Paul, possibly because he's seen as more slight (musically) than John Lennon. There's also the troublesome question of his post-Beatles output - while John was writing songs like "Imagine", Paul was coming up with stuff like "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey". Not that I have anything against songs like "Band on the Run" or "Live and Let Die", though.

But if you take the Beatles' body of work, I think he deserves a lot more credit than people seem to give him. The only greatest hits album I have by the Beatles is 1, the compilation of all their Number 1 singles in the US and the UK - the majority of the songs are Paul's, which suggests that he had a better ear for a winning pop tune. And it's generally accepted that as time went on, Paul became the leader, or at least the one cracking the whip and getting the others into the studio.

The other thing I was noticing yesterday was that John's lyrics, particularly toward the end of the Beatles' career, weren't particularly good - having read obsessively (there's that word again) about where the ideas for the band's songs came from, it's pretty clear he seems to have spent his time dashing off lyrics based on what he read in the newspaper. Listening to a lot of his songs on, for example, the White Album, there's a lot of deep-sounding lyrics that on closer inspection are actually pretty silly. At least Oasis was up-front about writing lyrics that didn't make sense.

I think the reason people so revere John Lennon - apart from the fact that he died too young - is that we're so much more attracted to the figure of the tortured artist. John Lennon clearly didn't give a fuck by the end of the Beatles, which is probably tied in with all the attention-grabbing stuff he and Yoko Ono would do, and that's what people respond to, despite the fact that (I think) Paul wrote better songs. Not only that, but the more avant-garde stuff - tape experiments and what-have-you - came from Paul rather than John (presumably because John was more taken with his various gurus and conceptual artists).

But more crucial, and what people seem eager to forget, is that the reason both Paul and John are so famous now is because they worked so well together. A lot of Lennon's most famous songs are heavily influenced by McCartney, and vice versa. But ignoring the partnership fits in with this slavish devotion to the tortured artist archetype - the artist labors, alone and unappreciated, in his garret and descends from time to time to show off his genius. The picture fractures a little when you consider that the artist was working with some other guy who's just as talented, and they bring out the best in each other.

I suppose the above may seem deeply scathing toward John Lennon, and I don't really mean to be. "Nowhere Man" is a great song, as is "Norwegian Wood" and a million other great ones John wrote and sang. But I feel like a lot of people dismiss Paul's contribution to the band without really thinking about how a lot of what we think of as archetypal Beatles music came from him. Certainly without him, the band would probably have broken up earlier, and more messily.

So let's hear it for Paul - poppy and bubble-gummy he may be, but those of us unlucky enough to have missed the 60s owe him some gratitude for having provided a great template of what music was like then.