Okay, time for the John versus Paul column that I’ve been threatening to write for weeks. You probably know my views already. As much as I admire John Lennon’s work, there’s no doubt that Paul McCartney was the more talented Beatle. But let’s set the argument up properly.
The conventional view among cool people is as follows: Paul is/was a wimp. He wrote sweet ballads (Yesterday, for instance) and played the cute one in the Fab Four, but he was essentially a lightweight.
John was the cool one. His songs kicked ass and gave the band its hard rock edge. He had a gift for lyrics that McCartney lacked and his commitment to social issues was much deeper. He took drugs and lived the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.
To assess whether these caricatures are accurate, we need to look at the Beatles’ life and work through four phases. Phase one was the lovable mop-top period (I Wanna Hold Your Hand, etc.) Phase two was the time when they moved away from pop and invented modern rock as we know it today. Phase three was their work in the last days of the band (Abbey Road/Let It Be, etc.) And phase four was the solo stuff.
In phase one, I don’t think there’s much to choose. They wrote most of the songs together, and while you could argue that Paul wrote better ballads (compare his Things We Said Today to John’s silly If I Fell), the big hits (She Loves You, etc.) were joint efforts.
John’s claim to fame is phase two. While Paul still did the normal stuff, John began listening to Bob Dylan and writing complex lyrics (You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away or the brilliant Girl). They came out equal on Sgt Pepper. But on the The White Album, John had the experimental stuff (Revolution No. 9, for instance) while Paul did pop—excellent pop, (Obladi, I Will, Martha My Dear, etc.), but pop nevertheless.
In the Beatles’ final phase, much of John’s output was markedly inferior to Paul’s. Of the last singles, it is a no-contest between the great Get Back and The Ballad of John and Yoko. Abbey Road owes its reputation to the second side, which is nearly all Paul (You Never Give Me Your Money, etc). On the first side, I’m not convinced that John’s hymn to simultaneous orgasms (Come Together), with its borrowed riff, amounts to very much. And while none of the songs on Let It Be is very good, John’s stuff is far worse than Paul’s (his best song is Don’t Let Me Down, compared to Paul’s anthemic title track).
The solo stuff, I reckon, is a no-contest. The first solo John album was notable for its pain, but do you really remember such songs as Mother or Working Class Hero (famous for its use of the F-word). As for Jealous Guy, I reckon Brian Ferry sang it better than John. Of the solo John singles, most are now forgotten (Whatever Gets You Through the Night, No. 9 Dream, etc.) while the few good songs (Freda People, for instance) were lost even then. John’s solo reputation rests on Imagine, which is a nice enough sentiment and a pretty, middle-of-the-road tune. But hard-edged rock? Forget it. This is the sort of song Paul could have written in his sleep.
Now, compare Paul’s solo stuff. For one, it has range. The multimillion-selling Mull of Kintyre may be crap but C. Moon was a classic. Band on the Run is, I reckon—and you can start sending in your abusive responses now— better than any Beatle album but three (Revolver, Pepper and Abbey Road). There is hardly a duff track on the record and Let Me Roll It, a Lennon-pastiche, is probably better than any song Lennon wrote during that period.
Paul’s problem is that he has lost the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff (too much marijuana, I suspect), which is why he followed Band on the Run with the twee Venus and Mars . But even the solo songs that were ignored or derided when they came out became hits for other people ( Maybe I’m Amazed for Rod Stewart or Live and Let Die for Guns N’ Roses) much later.
What does that leave us with? Some broad areas of conflict:
Lyrics: I accept that Paul wrote Hello Goodbye around the time John wrote Strawberry Fields. But then, he also wrote The Fool on the Hill around then and Eleanor Rigby (possibly the Beatles’ best lyric) even before that. So I do not agree that only John could write lyrics. Both could write crap (how does She’s So Heavy rate as a lyric?) but both also wrote great words.
Rock : Of all the claims made on John’s behalf, this is the one that always surprises me. Between the two, Paul was the rock ‘n’ roller. Who do you suppose wrote Back in the USSR , Lady Madonna , Get Back , I Saw Her Standing There , or any of the songs that still get people dancing in the aisles? Paul was the Little Richard fan, he was the guy who deliberately made his voice hoarse to sing Oh Darling! ; he was the rocker. Name five great rock songs that John ever wrote and you can go on a date with Yoko Ono.
Social Conscience: Oh yeah? Who do you suppose wrote Give Ireland Back to the Irish? And whose response to calls for a revolution was “well, you know, we’d all like to change the world…..” Both Beatles were social revolutionaries in their own way, but neither really wanted to buck the system that had made them rich.
Wimp factor : If you read accounts of John’s last years, then you’ll know he spent all day in his Dakota apartment listening to Barbra Streisand singing The Way We Were . Now, I don’t have anything against the song, but cool it is not. John referred to Yoko throughout as “Mother”, and was her slave. So, yes, Paul is a bit of a wimp. But I think they both were, in their own ways.
Is that a convincing enough case? I don’t suppose it is. On this one, we’ve all made up our minds already. And from the time the media portrayed John as the sardonic Beatle and Paul as the cute one, the die was already cast.
But if you disagree and can tear yourselves away from your copies of Dark Side of the Moon for long enough to reply, I’ll be happy to debate with you.
Write to Vir at pursuits@ livemint.com. Read all his previous columns on www.livemint.com/vir-sanghvi