Lennon v. McCartney: The Best Beatle? (Feature)

By Kendall Supple

The Beatles were, and continue to be, one of the most influential groups in the history of music. A small band of boys from Liverpool, (or, most of them, anyways) the band was not an overnight success like they appeared. Many know the Beatles story as “the british invasion”, or “beatlemania”, and believe the boys were launched to instant stardom— however, such was not the case. As with most incredibly popular groups, all four of the well known Beatles were not members from the beginning. The band began with two incredible musical minds: John Lennon, and Paul McCartney. The pair were a dynamic duo; expert songwriters and a seemingly everlasting flow of creativity. It is often Lennon and McCartney together who are credited with the majority of the Beatles’ success, but despite this, it is hard not to wonder which brought more to the table. In the end, who was the best Beatle?

From left: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr

To adequately tackle this kind of a question, a bit of history is necessary. The journey to the Beatles’ musical revolution started in 1956 with a young, 16 year old boy named John Lennon. He had an ear for music and a fine taste for the arts. Not unlike many other boys his age, he started a band; The Quarrymen, a skiffle group. Skiffle music, which was popular in working-class areas at the time, was a kind of do-it-yourself pop music that used household items as instruments. John recruited his childhood friend from school, Pete Shotton, and several others to join the Quarrymen. Not long after the band’s formation was a 15 year old Paul McCartney introduced to Lennon, who was thoroughly impressed with McCartney’s guitar skills. As it seems, well-versed guitarists were hard to come by in a skiffle band. Paul was quickly inducted into the band, and thus, the dynamic duo of songwriting was born.

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The band played on through 1957, but as time went on, more and more members slowly dropped out. McCartney knew of a boy named George Harrison who was fairly skilled with the guitar. Lennon was hesitant to let Harrison join, due to his much younger age (3 years below Lennon and 2 below McCartney), but after filling in for another band member at a gig, Lennon allowed Harrison into the group. They recorded a few songs as the Quarrymen, but as the interest of the other members dwindled, Lennon, McCartney and Harrison found themselves to be the only ones left in the group by 1959.

Lennon  all the while had been studying at a college in Liverpool, and it is there that he met his best friend, Stu Sutcliffe. Suttcliffe was a talented artist— perhaps the reason he and Lennon connected so well— but after enough badgering, Lennon convinced him to join the group as the bass guitarist. The boys played primarily small gigs in clubs or bars; it was at a small club called Jacaranda that the boys met their first booking manager, Allan Williams. It was then that they decided a name change was necessary, and after a few attempts, they settled on “The Beatles.” They soon acquired a road manager, Neil Aspinall, and a permanent drummer, Pete Best.

Best, Sutcliffe and Harrison playing a gig in Hamburg, Germany

Immediately after Best joined, Williams shipped them off to Hamburg, Germany for a gig, in hopes that it would lead the boys to fame. The trip did not yield the fruits Williams was hoping for, sadly, and Sutcliffe quit the band while there to see about a girl. Paul took over the bass part, and the band was down to four. After changing managers (enter Brian Epstein) and being rejected by a record company, things were looking grim. Best, although at the time considered the most handsome of the group, was nothing short of an individual; he did not acquire the signature moppy, bowl cut hairstyle, nor did he mesh with the other members of the band. He was fired from the group in 1962, and replaced by none other than Ringo Starr.

By now the Beatles were starting to gain popularity in Liverpool as well as Germany, but fans were outraged at the replacement of Best. Not long after, the group was finally signed to record label, and “Love Me Do” was released as their first single. Surprisingly enough, it was not an overnight success. As aforementioned, the group was nothing at all close to that; “Love Me Do” struggled to climb on the charts, and the group was beginning to get discouraged. Despite this, they continued writing and recording music, and in 1963 their second single, “Please Please Me” finally paid off. It hit number one and held that spot for 30 weeks.

After achieving some success, it was time for the boys to learn how to act with their crowds. They were, for the most part, naturals with people; funny, jovial and exceedingly charming— primarily when the press was involved. Their humor was light, but sarcastic and boyish. The fans and press alike ate it up, enthralled by these fresh-faced young musicians.

By the end of 1963, the Beatles were extremely popular in England, but they did not have the desired audience in America. After many more singles, and many failed attempts, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was written and recorded with the goal of being signed by Capitol Records. Initially, it was rejected, but after some badgering it was discovered that the producer had not even heard the song, and upon listening to it, signed the Beatles right away. An obscene amount of money was spent by Capitol Records to promote their newly signed group, a whopping $40,000 to promote one single. It allowed for Capitol to launch an enormous marketing campaign, which spread the word far and wide: “The Beatles Are Coming”.

It was then that “beatlemania” really took effect. The famous plane landing at John F. Kennedy International Airport in 1964 with thousands of screaming fans (mostly teenage girls) was just the beginning. Mobs of reporters gathered, ready to bombard the boys with questions. Not surprisingly, the group handled the slew of questions well, and came off as witty, good-humored young lads, only solidifying their popularity. Not long after, the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, and somewhere in the realm of 70 million people tuned in to see them. Their first U.S concert was a mere two days later, at the Washington Colosseum. They returned to New York to play two shows at Carnegie Hall and appear two more times on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Their first trip to America was nothing short of a fantastic success, and made the Beatles a worldwide phenomenon. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” became the fastest selling single in history, selling over one million records within two weeks of its release in the U.S, and hit number one like a rocket.[add citation] Not two months later did the Beatles hold all of the top 5 spots on the singles charts with “She Loves You”, “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, “Twist and Shout”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, and “Please Please Me”. That same year, the Beatles took home the Grammy award for Best New Artist, and “A Hard Day’s Night” won for Best Vocal Performance by a Group. Due to the success of “A Hard Day’s Night”, it is not at all surprising that a film about the Beatles by the same name was released soon after. It gave the fans a better idea of the personalities of the boys, and cemented their stardom.

Cue summer, 1964, and an announcement that stunned the world: the Beatles were to embark on a world tour never before done by a band of their caliber. Australia, Europe, The U.S and New Zealand were all in the roster. In the U.S alone, they played 30 shows in 32 days in 24 different cities. The tour was a massive success, and was at the time completely unheard of. The boys were on a roller coaster that only seemed to go up. Their 5th album, Help!, featured the most popular Paul McCartney song, “Yesterday“, and only furthered the success of the Beatles. The album did so well, in fact, that the band opted to make a movie out of it. Below is a still from their trailer for Help!

What set the Beatles apart from other well-known and popular groups was their genuine musical talents. It would have been very easy for the group to continue with their pop sound, reusing the same formula for success over and over. This, however, was not something that these passionate musicians could possibly do. They pushed themselves to explore new and unique sounds. From these new sounds, their seventh album, Revolver, was born in 1966. It would do on to be considered by critics as the best Beatles album ever recorded.

Despite the success of Revolver, the Beatles found themselves in a bit of hot water over an offhand remark by Lennon in an interview (saying, in essence, that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus) and it contributed to their decision for this to be their last tour. It was around this time that the songwriting styles of McCartney and Lennon began to differ, although they still put both of their names on the songs they produced. Lennon began experimenting with stronger drugs than just marijuana; LSD, for example. With more complex recording styles and musical nuances, it became harder and harder to recreate these sounds on stage when touring. Additionally, the band themselves could barely be heard above all of the screaming from the audience. It was all of these factors that brought about the decision to stop touring.

With the fall of 1966 came some much needed down time for the group. It is here that each Beatle started showing parts of his own personality outside of the uniformity of the group, and it is an excellent example of Lennon and McCartney’s separate accomplishments. Lennon published two books during this period, and also acted in a movie. Notably, Lennon did not produce anything musically during this period. McCartney, however, went on to compose a movie soundtrack, which was the first musical work to be written and released by a solo Beatle. This was a true testament to McCartney’s dedication to music.

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For the Beatles’ eighth studio album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band released in the summer of 1967, McCartney created the fictional Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the theme was carried continuously through the album, making the interesting new sound a huge success. Sadly, not long after the release and success of Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein passed away from a drug overdose. This shook the band terribly, Epstein having been the figurative bond that held the boys together. They opted not to replace him, and instead decided to manage themselves. McCartney took point on this task, being perhaps the most excited and enthusiastic member, and he proposed the idea for Magical Mystery Tour. In the winter of 1967, Magical Mystery Tour hit the charts, and was the first of the Beatles’ work to be outright abhorred by critics.

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After a tough hit by critics on Mystery Tour, the band elected to take a spiritual journey to India. While this so called journey turned out to be a scam, and Lennon was so outraged that he wrote a song about the whole experience, it gave them the clarity they needed to write the White Album. The White Album (so called for it’s blank white cover art) featured the first song written by Starr, and established him as a competent songwriter, but tensions between the group members was becoming more and more obvious. It was also around this time that Lennon met what some consider to be the doom of the Beatles: Yoko Ono.

The White Album

Neither Lennon nor McCartney were doing well in their respective relationships, and around the same time Lennon separated form Cynthia, McCartney called off his engagement to Jane Asher. This re-pairing of the two most prominent Beatles effected them both in vastly different ways. McCartney was refreshed, revitalized and ready to produce more music, and Lennon was slowly beginning to lose interest with what it meant to be a Beatle. Despite the success of Yellow Submarine in 1969, the tensions between the two did not end. The Northern Song dispute drove a further wedge between Lennon and McCartney, and Lennon opted to take a year off “for peace” with Ono. It was during this time that Lennon seemingly overnight became an Anti-Vietnam advocate, and boldly returned his Most Excellent Order of the British Empire award to the Queen on political grounds. Despite further clashing with the rest of the group, Lennon and the others managed to pull together to create Abbey Road. Abbey Road was up to snuff with the rest of the albums, and “Someday” proved Harrison to be a noteworthy songwriter right alongside McCartney and Lennon.

The album cover to Abbey Road

After the absolute disaster of the Beatles’ Apple company, and the lack of success for the Magical Mystery Tour film, it was evident that the group needed the guidance that Epstein had always given them. All were reluctant to replace their late friend, but agreed they needed legal representation. Allen Klein came with a reputation that preceded him, and McCartney was not shy about his wariness. Lennon, however, put his full stock in Klein, and the disagreement over the trustworthiness of one man divided the two even further. It was no secret that Lennon was done being a Beatle. He wanted to invest his time in other projects, with Ono, and in music that meant something more to him than the poppy Beatles music. He wrote “Cold Turkey” about being in drug withdrawals, and wanted to release it under the Beatles name. McCartney, perhaps the most dedicated and enthusiastic Beatle, would not stand for it.

Let It Be, the Beatles’ last studio album, was the result of as much tolerance each man could muster. The animosity between McCartney and Lennon was too much to ignore, and the chasm of creative differences was too deep. The break up was inevitable. Starr and Harrison were also growing apart from the group creatively, and had different ambitions in mind, but the real heat was between the greatest songwriting duo of the decade, Lennon and McCartney. McCartney was the only one of the group who genuinely wanted to keep it going, but despite his best efforts, he knew the curtain had to close at some point. The actual process of the breakup was messier than he had previously predicted. After McCartney was the one to make the statement that the Beatles were dissolving, the other members—Lennon in particular— were furious. They refused to let McCartney out of the legal contract binding the Beatles together, and after a few years in court and some scathing name-calling on each member’s part, the Beatles breakup was finalized by a judge in a court of law in 1975.

Finally, the question remains: Who was the best Beatle? Undoubtably Lennon and McCartney were both exceptionally talented songwriters as well as musicians. Lennon started the group, and some might argue that if it hadn’t been for his unfortunate death in 1980 outside of his New York apartment, Lennon would have gone on to produce innumerable amounts of musical contributions. This is beside the point, however; in the end, McCartney was the best of the Beatles. He was optimistic, enthusiastic, and dedicated to what the Beatles meant. He was, and continues to be, a brilliant songwriter and his creativity in creating some of the most memorable Beatles albums (i.e his creation of the theme for Sgt. Pepper) to be released. He was the best, the brightest, and the one who loved most what it meant to be a Beatle.



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