Best Overall: The Beatles

The Songwriting Team of Lennon and McCartney

By Gillian G. Gaar

In January 1963, the Beatles had one Top 20 hit to their name. By the end of the year, they were Britain’s biggest stars, with two hit albums and the accompanying singles, and John Lennon and Paul McCartney were being heralded as “The outstanding English composers of 1963” by William Mann in The Times. The Sunday Times went even further, calling Lennon and McCartney “The greatest composers since

Beethoven.” The latter statement is particularly remarkable, considering that it came as the Beatles’ recording career was just getting started, years before such classics as “Revolver,” “The Beatles” (aka The White Album), and “Abbey Road” were released. Already, Lennon and McCartney were being treated with greater reverence than any of their peers; it was years before Brian Wilson’s work with the Beach Boys was given such accolades, for example.

The fact that Lennon and McCartney were composers is what has made The Beatles such an enduring band. While singers, or singing groups, need not write their own material, for a band to have any credibility, it must perform original songs. The Beatles were especially fortunate in that they had three composers in the group, though George Harrison’s contributions were destined to be overshadowed by the juggernaut that was Lennon and McCartney, who wrote songs at such a prodigious rate in 1963 and 1964 that they supplied numerous other artists with hit songs as well as looking after the interests of their own group.

By the time John Lennon and Paul McCartney first met on July 6, 1957, at a church fete in Liverpool (Lennon being 16 and McCartney having just turned 15), each was already writing songs. Though different in many ways, the teenagers shared an affinity for rock ’n’ roll and a burgeoning creativity, which now found a new direction. McCartney joined Lennon’s band, the Quarrymen, and the two began to write together, the first thing McCartney providing was discipline; as Philip Norman observes in his Lennon biography, “Paul’s presence had an immediate effect within the Quarrymen, changing what was still essentially a group of mates having a laugh into something altogether less easygoing and more focused.” Indeed, by 1959, all the other original members of the group had left, gradually replaced by George Harrison on guitar, Stu Sutcliffe on bass and Pete Best on drums.

Mark Lewisohn’s book, “The Beatles Live!” chronicles the original material that became an increasing part of the band’s setlist over the next two years: “Hello Little Girl,” “The One After 909,” “Like Dreamers Do,” “Hold Me Tight,” “Love of the Loved,” “Ask Me Why,” “Tip of My Tongue” and “P.S. I Love You,” among others. All of these songs would end up being recorded by The Beatles or other artists. Still, when producer George Martin first met the band on June 6, 1962, at London’s Abbey Road Studios (Sutcliffe had left the group and subsequently died, and Best was two-and-a-half months from being replaced by Ringo Starr), he was unconvinced of the strength of Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting. “When the Beatles came along, the stuff they offered me was not very good at all,” he told Mojo. “I didn’t know that they could write great songs. But once they got on their golden treadmill, they were inspired.”

Sources like Lennon’s 1980 Playboy interviews and Barry Miles’ 1997 biography “Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now” provide much insight into how the two worked together. During their initial years as recording artists, The Beatles were required to put out two albums a year and additional singles. “The demand on us was tremendous,” Lennon told Playboy without exaggeration. “So the [songwriting] cooperation was functional as well as musical.”

“Collaborating with another writer makes it twice as easy,” McCartney agreed. “The ricochet is a great thing.”

Early Beatles songs were often written “Eyeball to eyeball,” Lennon explained, “both playing into each other’s noses.” One reason Lennon and McCartney were able to write quickly was the songs then were fairly simple. “In the early days, lyrics didn’t really count as long as we had some vague theme; she loves you, he loves her, and they love each other,” Lennon said. “It was the hook and the line and the sound we were going for.” Even then, the two worked to vary the formula. After establishing an upbeat pop sound on “Please Please Me,” they made gave the music a bluesier touch on “From Me To You,” while on “She Loves You,” they changed the narrative voice from first to third person.

Lennon and McCartney in the studio. AP photo

What frequently happened with the songs was that one partner would have the original idea, then the other would provide feedback that refined the song. An early example is “I Saw Her Standing There,” for which McCartney had the opening couplet “She was just 17/She’d never been a beauty queen.” Lennon suggested changing the latter line to the more suggestive “You know what I mean.” McCartney not only suggested the lines about “Norwegian Wood” in the song of the same name, but also came up with the final lines about burning the house down, giving the song “a little sting in the tail,” as he put it.

The songs also revealed the contrasting personalities of the two. As Lennon pointed out, McCartney’s verses for “We Can Work It Out” are positive and optimistic, while Lennon’s chorus (“Life is very short/and there’s no time/for fussing and fighting my friend”) show his impatience. The same can be said of another example McCartney loves to cite, the writing of “It’s Getting Better,” recalling how on his singing “It’s getting better all the time…” to Lennon, his partner responded, “It couldn’t get much worse….”

In another interesting example, Lennon recalled McCartney playing him the opening verse of “Michelle,” then asking, “Where do I go from here?” Lennon suggested a play on what Nina Simone had done in her cover of Screaming Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You”: “I love you, I love you…,” which, with a change in emphasis, became “I love you, I love you…” in “Michelle.” “My contribution to Paul’s songs was always to add a little bluesy edge to them,” Lennon explained to Playboy. “Otherwise, y’know, ‘Michelle’ is a straight ballad, right? He provided a lightness, an optimism, while I would always go for the sadness, the discords, the bluesy notes.”

Lennon’s edginess, both musically and lyrically, was something McCartney agreed with. “If you analyze our songs, John’s are often on one note, whereas mine are often much more melodic,” McCartney said. “I enjoy going places with melodies. I like what John did, too, but his are more rhythmic.”

Lennon also stated, “I always had an easier time with lyrics, although Paul is quite a capable lyricist — who doesn’t think he is, therefore he doesn’t try,” later citing McCartney’s lyrics for “Hey Jude” as being strong, pointing out he made no contribution to them. In fact, Lennon made the valuable suggestion of not changing something, in another example McCartney likes to cite. When first playing the song for Lennon, McCartney explained he planned to change the line “The movement you need is on your shoulder.” “You won’t, you know,” Lennon told him. “That’s the best line in it!” “That’s collaboration,” McCartney said. “When someone’s that firm about a line that you’re going to junk, and he says, ‘No, keep it in.’”

In later years, Lennon and McCartney wrote together less frequently, especially as their songwriting styles began to diverge. McCartney’s songs were more apt to tell stories about such imaginary personalities as “Rocky Raccoon” or the title character of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” “He makes ’em up like a novelist,” Lennon said. “I’m not interested in writing third-party songs. I like to write about me; ’cause I know me.”

But there were still occasional instances of the two working together, and creating some of the Beatles’ best work, such as “A Day in the Life,” which saw Lennon and McCartney combining two partially completed songs (Lennon’s “I read the news today…” verses and the middle “Woke up, fell out of bed” section by McCartney) to extraordinary effect. And even during the tense days of the “Get Back”/“Let It Be” sessions, “I’ve Got A Feeling” pulled off the same trick: McCartney’s rock passages nicely balanced by Lennon’s more soothing counterpoint.

Lennon and McCartney being the dominant songwriting team in The Beatles was the bedrock the group was founded on, to the point where Lennon told Playboy, “I think it’s possible for John and Paul to have created the same thing with two other guys. It may not have been possible for George and Ringo to have created it without John and Paul.” He soon amended that statement in the same interview, saying, “On the other hand, who knows? It mightn’t have worked without them.”

Certainly the fact that Starr’s joining the band was like the final piece of the puzzle falling into place suggests that each member of The Beatles played a role in making the group what it was.

But what would have happened had the group’s makeup changed? When “Yesterday” was recorded, there was momentary speculation whether it should be released as a McCartney single, given that he wrote the song in its entirety and is the only Beatle to appear on the recording. What if McCartney had followed that advice and then left the group to pursue a solo career? Would Lennon have then begun collaborating with Harrison? The two had actually worked together before, co-writing “Cry For A Shadow,” an instrumental the group recorded during sessions as the backing band for Tony Sheridan.

Ironically, such a situation might have been to Harrison’s benefit, as Harrison had long complained about being very much the junior songwriting partner in The Beatles. McCartney later revealed he and Lennon had considered drafting in Harrison to co-write with them in the early days, wondering, “‘Should three of us write, or would it be better to keep it simple?’ We decided we’d just keep to two of us.”

So Harrison ended up being something of a third wheel as a songwriting Beatle. So, had McCartney or Lennon ended up leaving The Beatles, he may well have been drafted in as the remaining partner’s co-writer (Harrison had also co-written a song with McCartney, “In Spite of All The Danger,” recorded at a home studio in Liverpool with the Quarrymen back in 1958). And would Starr’s nascent songwriting talents also have been tapped? Starr received a few songwriting credits during the Beatles years (most notably on “Don’t Pass Me By”), but didn’t really develop his songwriting skills until the late ’90s, when he began working with Mark Hudson. Would the departure of Lennon or McCartney have meant Starr would have developed as a songwriter much sooner?

The “Lennon & McCartney” credit later became an issue for McCartney, who felt that coming second in the listing made him seem less important. He even asked Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, if the name order could at least be changed on “Yesterday.” But as Howard Sounes writes in his biography of McCartney, “Fab,” Ono was afraid this might set a precedent: “If they went through the catalogue deciding which were John’s songs and which were Paul’s, it might become apparent that, more often than not, Paul’s songs made more money.” After an outcry from fans who considered the “Lennon & McCartney” credit sacrosanct, the matter was dropped.

In the long run, does it matter if Lennon is credited for co-writing “Yesterday” or McCartney is credited for co-writing “Strawberry Fields Forever?” After all, Lennon & McCartney-credited songs don’t become “Beatles music” until the final recording, when all members of the group have made their contributions (one reason why covers of The Beatles’ songs are never truly satisfying). Though Lennon and McCartney each went on to write solo classics, their work together set a high standard that was hard to surpass individually. Asked recently by the Guardian if he missed writing with Lennon, McCartney was quick to respond, “Are you kidding? Of course I bloody miss it … I really had the greatest writing partner.”


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