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Two of Us: inside John Lennon’s incredible songwriting partnership with Paul McCartney

Paul McCartney, left, John Lennon, right, in front of The Beatles drum riser
Greatest pop songwriting team ever? United States Library of Congress

John Lennon was acutely aware of his place in the musical lineage, and the strengths and weaknesses of his own songwriting. His tendency to speak in bold strokes – “Before Elvis there was nothing!” – belied at times both the variety in his work, and its complicated legacy.

Lennon would have been 80 years old on October 9, and his son Sean’s recent interview with Paul McCartney highlights a few aspects of how their partnership shaped popular musical practice. McCartney recalls seeing Lennon around locally – on the bus, in the queue for fish and chips – before their famous first meeting at the Woolton Fête, noting with approval at the time Lennon’s nascent identification with the Teddy Boy sub-culture.

Importantly, their shared social milieu was an important foundation for the musical partnership. Sean Lennon also wonders about his father’s insecurities as a musician and a feeling that: “Somehow he wasn’t officially a true musician, and everyone else was.”

McCartney’s response is telling: “I don’t think any of us were, tell you the truth. And I think that was a very good, strong thing about us, actually.”

Part of the significance of The Beatles as a phenomenon, and the Lennon-McCartney partnership within that, was that its overwhelming industrial and creative success helped to ingrain the “band” as a modus operandi for making popular music into common cultural currency.

The self-taught, peer-driven mode of music making that emerged from early rock and roll and skiffle was solidified as the next generation of its exponents – including Lennon and McCartney – took advantage of the relaxing social conditions as the 50s gave way to the 60s, and closed the gap between amateur and commercial activity.

Joint ventures

Mick Jagger once referred to the Beatles as a “four-headed monster”. Indeed, The Rolling Stones’ own creation myth – a youthful Jagger and Keith Richards re-kindling a childhood friendship at Dartford train station over a chance encounter and a package of blues records – occupies a similar place in the historical narrative to Lennon and McCartney’s first encounter.

An important underlying aspect of how such partnerships worked, however, is that as well as springing from self-taught musicianship, and the rough-and-tumble of social lives away from the formal demands of school and adult society, they combined what had hitherto often been separate functions – that of songwriter and performer. This wasn’t exclusively the case in rock.

The role of the songwriter as a marker of authenticity in rock music – singing one’s own compositions – drew from a Romantic wellspring, harking back to the 18th century, of artists as a source of inspiration and value beyond being mere entertainers. It also drew from folk traditions, as singer-songwriters asserted their individuality – Bob Dylan is a case in point here.

But there was a growing sense of authenticity in bands, residing in the membership as well as the music. It mattered, for instance, when Ringo Starr contracted tonsillitis and was replaced for part of a tour of Australia by replacement drummer Jimmy Nicol. And songwriting partnerships such as Lennon-McCartney, and Jagger, Richards (as they appeared in the credits) were at the heart of this.

They were also central to the power dynamic within bands. There was – and is – a financial advantage to being credited as a songwriter on top of being a performer in terms of the rights and royalties that accrue. A band is a partnership on several levels: social, creative and financial. Indeed, some acts have deliberately reoriented their arrangements to account for this.

R.E.M., the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and U2, for instance, made a point of co-crediting all band members regardless of who wrote a particular song or passage. And Queen shifted to such an arrangement and away from individual composers’ credits, partly as a way of reducing intra-band disputes about which songs to choose as singles.

Moving apart

In the case of the Beatles, Lennon and McCartney had ceased to co-write the songs several years before the band actually split, although as performers and bandmates they continued to help shape them in the production process. Tensions across one of these axes might be sustainable. The Beatles took divergent paths as the 60s wore on, as is natural enough for school-friends as they move through adulthood and start families.

But by the end of the decade, simultaneous divergence in the creative, social and financial pathways made the partnership unmanageable. “Musical differences” is often jokingly referred to as a proxy for personal enmity. But in truth, the various threads are often hard to fully disentangle.

Ultimately, Lennon and McCartney complemented one another as personalities and as musicians. McCartney’s melodic facility smoothed over some of Lennon’s rougher edges. Lennon’s grit added texture and leavened some of McCartney’s more saccharine tendencies.

Their legacy, though, was more than just musical. Their success coincided with, and helped to shape, an explosion of youth culture as both creative and commercial enterprise.

We can’t know, of course, what would have happened had Lennon lived to 80, especially given that – their business problems receding into the past - his personal relationship with McCartney had become warmer again by the onset of the 1980s. With the hurly-burly of the Beatles behind them, they found common ground over the more prosaic matters of middle age.

As McCartney put it:

We’d chat about how to make bread. Just ordinary stuff, you know. He’d had a baby by then – he’d had Sean – so we could talk babies and family and bread and stuff. So that made it a little bit easier, the fact that we were buddies.

But the fact that their evolution as songwriters and as friends took place in tandem is still felt in the emergence of popular musical enterprises from schoolyards and youthful peer groups in rock and beyond.

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