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Guest Dullblogger Chris Dingman has just written a very interesting and well-expressed post on Paul McCartney’s essential contribution to the Lennon/McCartney partnership, and you should probably read that before reading this. This post began as a comment to that post, but as I wrote I felt it ranged too widely, and touched on something too essential, not to be surfaced on its own.
It’s true that Paul was the more natural musician, and the Beatles were, after all, a band — but they were so much more than their music, just as Valentino was more than movies, and JFK was more than politics. Music was the means of expressing something much, much bigger. During the life of the Beatles (and even today) there was an unspoken, deeply felt psychological transaction taking place, and while the music was the occasion for that transaction and reinforced it tremendously, it wasn’t nearly the whole thing. It’s the difference between the glory of the Beatles as a concept, and the equal glory of the Beatles as a working band, that is at the heart of the endless John versus Paul debate. We all know that John’s lying when he says that the Beatles were “just a band that made it really really big.” And it’s Paul’s and Ringo’s post-Lennon embrace of the larger significance of the Beatles that makes them so beloved. They codify what we all knew.
There are a lot of really fine musicians in the world, but very few capture the world’s imagination. John Lennon’s personality was a perfect fit for his time, in a way Paul’s was not — Paul would’ve been successful at any time, but he wouldn’t have changed the world. As the BBC declared in 1969, John was a man of his decade, and once that moment was over, he was over. Whereas there would always be a place in the world for Paul. John knew that, and that’s at the heart of his post-68 ennui, and probably explains a lot of his rage at Paul, too.
We must remember that Paul’s musical gifts weren’t necessarily an advantage in the early days of rock and roll. Technical skill, virtuosity, melodic gift… these all existed in profusion before Elvis snarled onto the scene, wiping more musically gifted performers off it (Sinatra, for one; every jazz player ever, for another). What was being sold in the ten years before Beatlemania wasn’t music as much as an attitude, and I trot out this commonplace to remind that it’s John’s personality, not Paul’s, that satisfies the Brando-esque necessities of the early rock-and-roll icon. (This isn’t a slight against Paul; I don’t have it, either. I think one has to be broken in a very particular way for it to occur.)
But this burning fire comes at a price — young John is nobody you want to trust; the Beatles may have had to become “the biggest bastards on Earth” to make it, but is there any doubt that this came a bit more naturally to Lennon than the other three? I just watched “Streetcar Named Desire” for the first time, and Brando’s Stanley Kowalski is very Lennon-like — in his love of drink, his defiantly disordered life, his violence and tenderness, his cruelty and need. If you wanna know what John and Cyn were like, pre-Beatlemania, go watch Stanley and Stella.
John’s attitude is so strong that it makes you forget that he wasn’t born on the wrong side of the tracks. Young Paul could charm you; but young John would probably EAT you. John Lennon was very, very good at not giving a single solitary fuck, and that was necessary equipment for the leader of the Beatles. It was only after John had set an outrageous goal (“I want to be the most famous man in the world”) and then achieved it at an absurdly young age, that he grew lazy and careless, but we mustn’t let the old man’s decadence blind us to the young man’s ferocity. Post-acid, post-Yoko, John’s simply not the same person he was. He coasted for the rest of his life on what he’d achieved by age 26, and that’s why he was so goddamn sad. (And a lot nicer.)
It was only after the Beatles remade pop, that the type of skills Paul has in such abundance became a valuable commodity in rock and roll. Even if he hadn’t become a teacher, Paul without John would’ve been just as likely to write musicals or toil in the English equivalent of the Brill Building (whatever that was). Paul alone likely wouldn’t have changed the world, because one never gets the sense that young Paul really felt the world needed changing. Unlike a lot of people, Paul McCartney was not an angry young man, and it’s possible that the 1957-67 youthquake would’ve moved against a solo Paul, not for him. (As the later, post-1968 iteration did.)
John Lennon was desperate in a way Paul wasn’t, and isn’t, and we owe it to the man to recognize this, and see the sweat and stakes in it. It’s not romanticism that convinces me that desperation is a portion of genius. Following a dream is very, very hard; it consumes you and you must allow it to consume you, even though you feel every bite. John was absolutely willing to stand athwart the mainstream for as long as he could hold out; Paul was not. This is not a slam, it’s just a difference in personality. Shit, it’s probably a sign of Paul’s vastly greater mental health.
John had to envision a new world, because he simply didn’t fit into the old one. In this way he’s like so many artists and writers of his generation. Like John Osborne and Joe Orton, Mary Quant, Michael Caine, David Bailey, Peter Cook and Brian Epstein, John Lennon could not have thrived in any other historical moment; and when that moment had passed, didn’t thrive. Lennon in the 60s is a fierce fucking creature; in the 70s, he’s a doped-up bear being fed by tourists.
John was clearly the more natural leader, and that simply must not be underestimated. While we can push back against the Wennerian idea that John was the genius of the band and the rest won the lottery, we can’t lose sight of the fact that it was John, not Paul, who formed the group, and led the group, had the absurd idea that it could change the world (not just The Crickets, Part II). Young Paul imitates, because he’s gifted enough to do so; young John is only proficient enough to be himself, desperately. John attracted the similarly desperate Epstein, and closed the deal with him in Spain. Goldman may believe that John went to Spain with Brian to make sure he stayed the boss, but perhaps John did this because Paul wouldn’t — Paul sacrifice his sexual identity for the sake of the band? C’mon. That’s altogether too desperate.
But it was John and Brian’s vision for the band that turned it into The Beatles; and during the mania, it was the group’s wit and cheek and brashness — all John traits, not Paul ones — that were remarked upon. We can be Paul-boosters here, because his early contributions are less celebrated, more in the background, and his later ones were unfairly dismissed by a jealous Lennon and a cadre of rock assholes. But the fact remains that John Lennon was the engine that made the Beatles happen. Nobody else — not Paul or George or Ringo, or George Martin, all vastly more talented in the making of music — saw the future like John did, because none of them were as restless. They didn’t need to be. Paul’s contribution was that, once Lennon and Epstein had got them to the mountaintop — each man destroying himself in the process — they stayed there, and (mirable dictu!) continued to improve.
Without John Lennon, the Beatles wouldn’t have happened. Without Paul McCartney, they would’ve been circling the drain by ’66. How nice that we got both. And what a shame John and Brian had to be consumed by their effort; but most are consumed for less.