Tuesday, December 14, 2004

The Continuing Story of Pooh-Poohed Paul (from Martin Pollard)

Think of England welcomes its first guest contribution - a spirited defence of the reputation of Paul McCartney from none other than international-standard debater Martin Pollard.

All contributions on any subject will be considered for publication. Just email me.

Last year, Paul McCartney was rounded on by Yoko Ono (and a section of the British public) for changing some of the credits on his live solo album from "Lennon-McCartney" to "McCartney-Lennon".

Ono focused on the fact that the former was the most famous songwriting 'trademark' in the world, and at one point it was even rumoured that she would sue McCartney. The whole incident had the air of nit-picking and the reopening of old wounds. But it was more interesting for highlighting one important point: Paul McCartney continues to feel undervalued and underrated for his part in the most important band in the history of pop music. I, for one, sympathise.

Let’s look at the evidence. First of all, if it hadn’t been for McCartney, there would have been no Sgt. Pepper, no White Album, no Abbey Road. For the last 3 or 4 years of the Beatles’ existence he was essentially their musical director, encouraging and occasionally cajoling them to stay together, focus on their work and act professionally. Without this influence it’s almost certain that John Lennon and George Harrison would have gone off in an LSD-fuelled haze long before, and Ringo Starr, thoroughly disillusioned with the band and its members, would never have come back after walking out in 1968.

Secondly, McCartney has long suffered in the shadow of Lennon. This has a number of explanations, including the fact that he’s still alive (old rockers just aren’t cool) and that the Frog Chorus ever saw the light of day. McCartney was also more reticent about publicly destroying his bandmates’ reputation, while Lennon once dishonourably described him as just "the one who wrote Yesterday".

Lennon continues to benefit from a popular perception that he was a revolutionary figurehead. This is clearly misguided: he dithered between denouncing Mao Zedong and supporting revolution, speaking out against the Vietnam War and moaning about not being able to live in the United States, writing songs about peace and including a picture of Hitler on the front of the Sgt. Pepper sleeve. Lennon was just too cynical about the world in general to be a true revolutionary. But he did lie in bed with Yoko Ono for peace (something for which he was roundly derided at the time) and he recorded ‘Imagine’, a pleasant little tune whose occasionally nauseating lyrics are inexplicably idolised the world over. McCartney, on the other hand, tended to just get on with being a musician and songwriter.

Most importantly, McCartney simply doesn’t get enough credit for the songs he wrote for the Beatles. When the "McCartney-Lennon" story broke, he illustrated this perfectly with the anecdote that he had once gone into a school music room and seen a score for Hey Jude which credited the composer as Lennon. In fact, it's a McCartney number through and through, and was accomplished enough for Lennon not to alter a note of it, and later to say that it was his partner's finest ever work.

In the first half of the Beatles' career, Lennon is the composer regularly credited with being the more prolific and accomplished of the two. Nonetheless, the list of songs largely composed by McCartney would take some beating by anyone's standards: Can’t Buy Me Love, Drive My Car, And I Love Her, Things We Said Today, Here, There and Everywhere, Got To Get You Into My Life, Eleanor Rigby, Yesterday. The last two have passed into the popular consciousness as two all-time great pieces of music in any genre: Yesterday being so original that its composer spent a long time agonising over whether he’d actually copied it from someone else.

By 1967, Lennon and McCartney were essentially writing their own songs, then getting their partner to help finish them off. This style of working is exemplified in a double A-side single that still gets named regularly as the best single of all time: Lennon’s trippy, multi-time-signatured Strawberry Fields Forever and the technical brilliance of McCartney’s nostalgic Penny Lane. Even so, Ian MacDonald, author of the fantastic history Revolution in the Head, claims that 1967-69 marked a steady decline in the quality of Lennon’s songwriting: a period in which he still managed to knock off Revolution, Come Together, Dear Prudence, Happiness Is A Warm Gun and Sexy Sadie.

McCartney, however, was gaining more and more momentum, writing tracks for the White Album as diverse as Back in the USSR (which, ironically for Lennon, was championed in Communist Russia), Helter Skelter, I Will and the beautiful Blackbird. By 1968 he was almost single-handedly ensuring the band’s survival – he directed (and wrote the majority of) the classic B side of Abbey Road, including two of my favourites, Golden Slumbers and You Never Give Me Your Money. When Let It Be was finally released in 1970 after the Beatles had split, it was the McCartney numbers – Two Of Us, The Long and Winding Road, Get Back and the title track – that really held the attention.

All of this is, of course, not to say that Lennon himself was overrated. His melodies, his lyrics and his voice all mark him out as a highly accomplished, instinctive musical prodigy. (Along with Starr, he was also able to act in the Beatle movies.) But if Lennon was a 'genius', then so was McCartney. Both had an equal role in shaping the Beatles into a band the like of which we have never seen again: one which wrote dozens of tunes that are instantly recognisable across the generations; produced 13 albums in seven years, at least five of which are acknowledged all-time classics; and sold 1.1 billion records but never 'sold out'.

The Respect for Paul Campaign begins here!


Brit said...

Martin -

I'd agree that McCartney is too often underrated.

He'll always be less fashionable than Lennon, partly because he just comes across as a nice chap, without the obvious dark and brooding side of Lennon.

McCartney would be considered a musical genius if he'd just written 'Yesterday' (apparently the tune came to him in a dream, and he gave it the working title 'Scrambled legs' or something), but the fact that he also wrote 'Let it Be', 'Hey Jude', 'Penny Lane', 'Eleanor Rigby'....

At first I took the view that his demands for changing 'his' songs to 'McCartney-Lennon' were pretty pathetic - what with him being a multi-millionaire feted wherever he goes - but actually I can sympathise.

He probably sees his songs as his babies - so naturally he wants them to bear his name.

His solo stuff was never up to the quality of Lennon's, mind. Though Lennon's was never up to the quality of anything he wrote in the Beatles.

And I like the Frog Chorus.

martpol said...

How dare you subtitle my article with "the genius writer of the Frog Chorus"?!

Brit said...

Heh heh.

martpol said...

I can't believe I forgot to mention She's Leaving Home.