The magic of The Beatles is unparalleled, and it’s a phenomenon that we will never witness again in the realm of music. The core of this magic was the songwriting partnership between John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The reason why the two started writing together, as Macca once revealed on the Jonathan Ross Show, is that when they were performing just about 24/7 in the early days in Hamburg, Germany, The Beatles were competing with other similar rock ‘n’ roll bands. As the Liverpool group were waiting to go on stage as they sat in a dressing room, they would hear the first band’s set and, unfortunately, it resembled theirs a little too much.
“We were singing these Little Richard and Chuck Berry songs in clubs, and there’d be other bands on the bill and we would be sitting in the dressing room and we’d hear them do ‘long tall sally!'” McCartney sings the chorus of the Little Richard tune before adding: “They’d pretty much do our act. So we had to come up with a trick to defeat this. So John and I started writing. There was no great muse.” Hearing Macca discusses this topic makes the Fab Four more down-to-earth and relatable. The reason why they began writing together was, for the most part, a practical solution to a problem they encountered.
This is the common denominator of the songwriting partnership; Lennon and McCartney were together for years and worked together to overcome adversity. “The Beatles became this phenomenon, but it wasn’t – it was just two guys trying to work it out,” Macca added.
One specific occasion that is retrospectively momentous, but at the time seemed like just any old day, was when Paul McCartney came to St. Peter’s Church in Woolton, Liverpool, in the summer of 1957 to watch The Quarrymen perform skiffle music. The Quarrymen were made up of John Lennon, Eric Griffiths, Colin Hanton, Rod Davies, Pete Shotton, and Len Garry. While the band were setting up, a mutual friend introduced Lennon to McCartney and the rest is history, as they say, his history.
“I remember coming into the fete and seeing all the sideshows,” McCartney recalled. “And also hearing all this great music wafting in from this little Tannoy system. It was John and the band.” The meeting would solidify an unspoken understanding that somewhere underneath the surface lay chemistry ready to spew forth.
It wasn’t just a common love for ’50s rock and roll that brought the two together. Acting as a force that constantly pushed the two forward and together was a mutual sense of loss. Lennon was always the Beatle who was associated with having dealt with the death of a close relative. On the contrary, McCartney lost his mother at a young age as well. In an interview with Stephen Colbert in 2019, Macca said: “We had a kind of bond that we both knew about that, we knew that feeling.”
True art happens when an understanding of the technical meets an undeniable source of passion, and both had that very thing. While McCartney was considered more of the ‘melody guy’, Lennon found his true outlet through lyrics. Conversely, McCartney had a natural ability to write well-structured lyrics that told a story. McCartney focused more on storytelling, while Lennon approached lyric writing from a poet’s perspective; he created images and striking turn of phrases.
“He knows the records I know, I know the records he knows. You’re writing your first little innocent songs together,” McCartney told Rolling Stone in 2016. “Then you’re writing something that gets recorded. Each year goes by, and you get the cooler clothes. Then you write the cooler song to go with the cooler clothes. We were on the same escalator – on the same step of the escalator, all the way. It’s irreplaceable – that time, friendship and bonding.” The pair found themselves on equal footing.
When they wrote together, the two would spend hours upon hours in the same room often finishing each other’s songs and fusing their two perspectives. Later in their career, however, things got complicated. “That was business, it got to a point where it really got crappy over business. That rubbed off on me, and for years I thought, ‘oh yeah, me and John, bitter rivals’, all this stuff,” McCartney told Jonathan Ross. Macca refers to their professional music partnership as ‘the business’. Somebody once said to not ever go into business with your family, which is an underlying paradox when it comes to bands. In order to be in a successful group, you need that same kind of bond with one another, that kind of chemistry that forms from knowing one another inside and out, like a brother or sister. It gets complicated, though, because that band is inherently in a business together – perhaps it is inevitable.
During their Hamburg days, The Beatles slept in the same room together and they were a solid unit and were rarely without one another. “We wrote a lot of stuff together, one on one, eyeball to eyeball,” recalls John Lennon with Playboy in 1980. “Like in ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand,’ I remember when we got the chord that made the song. We were in Jane Asher’s house, downstairs in the cellar playing on the piano at the same time. And we had, ‘Oh you-u-u/ got that something…’”
They were two peas in the same pod and were inseparable. While Macca is determined to describe their relationship like any other best friendship, there is really no other way to describe their songwriting partnership as nothing short of a miracle. Lennon once added, “And Paul hits this chord, and I turn to him and say, ‘That’s it!’ I said, ‘Do that again!’ In those days, we really used to absolutely write like that—both playing into each other’s noses.”
The eventual break up of the Beatles is a long-discussed issue that is attributed to several factors. The very nature of the Lennon-McCartney relationship can be described as the nuclei of the band; if there is tension in this core and cracks start appearing, then it becomes fragile and vulnerable to any external factors.
Some blamed Yoko Ono for the break-up of The Beatles and while Ono’s presence had an impact on the relationship between the lads, the biggest catalyst was probably the death of Brian Epstein and the struggle that arose between Lennon’s insistence that Allen Klein be the new manager versus McCartney’s desire to take the reigns. Lennon recalled in Rolling Stone, “I knew that we were in trouble then. I didn’t really have any misconceptions about our ability to do anything other than play music, and I was scared. I thought, ‘We’ve fuckin’ had it.’” Epstein’s death probably hit Lennon the hardest, which probably had a lot to do with the fact that he never really had any father figures in his life. It goes without saying, Epstein was one of the most important men in his life.
Later, Lennon’s bandmates grew to resent Yoko Ono, in particular George Harrison. Ono recalled, according to Rolling Stone, that she said: “I don’t think you could have broken up four very strong people like them. So there must have been something that happened within them – not an outside force at all.” Lennon and McCartney created their relationship – and only they could end it.
When Lennon first brought Ono into the studio, during the Sgt. Pepper sessions, Ono was whispering to Lennon the entire time. Out of frustration, McCartney quipped: “Fuck me! Did somebody speak? Who the fuck was that? Did you say something, George? Your lips didn’t move!”
Sgt. Pepper was McCartney’s brainchild, while Lennon was experiencing an extreme low in his life. The resentment that was fed towards Yoko Ono by the rest of the group only fed into Lennon’s increasing anger towards the band and the rest of the world who were verbally abusive to Ono, even to the point where he had to protect Ono from physical abuse from others outside their inner-circle.
In many ways, Lennon found a ‘new McCartney’ in Yoko Ono. She began doing for him what McCartney had kind of done for him in the early days. She was expanding his mind, pushing his artistic boundaries, daring him to be himself in a way that no one else has ever asked of him before. “This was a fairly big shocker for us,” McCartney told Rolling Stone, “Because we all thought we were far-out boys, but we kind of understood that we’d never get quite that far-out.”
By their next album, the now-iconic White Album, Lennon began finding his voice in a way that he never had before. He started writing songs like ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’, ‘Dear Prudence’, and ‘Revolution’. Sgt. Pepper track ‘A Day in the Life’ could have been on the White Album.
Perhaps it was inevitable that two people as close as them would eventually have a falling out. Things began deteriorating while recording The White Album, so much that the album presented a fractured band – it was either ‘John Lennon and his band’ or ‘Paul McCartney and his band’ and so forth. The group began seeing very little of one another and stopped functioning as one cohesive outfit. This wasn’t just in Lennon and McCartney’s relationship – George Harrison would end up bringing in Eric Clapton to help him record ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ because the others weren’t showing any interest in Harrison’s material. McCartney described it best when he said: “There was a lot of friction during that album. We were just about to break up, and that was tense in itself.”
At this point, Lennon had begun using heroin and was spending more time with Yoko Ono and away from the group. Lennon and McCartney began hating each other’s work, which was a real turning point as it was no longer just an issue of managerial matters, but instead, their resentments bled into the very fabric of their perceptions of one another. McCartney was extremely critical of the experimental nature of Lennon’s ‘Revolution 9’ which was informed by Ono’s avant-garde sensibilities, while Lennon began to hate McCartney’s more whimsical side on songs like ‘Martha My Dear’, ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’.
By the time The Beatles were working on their last album, Abbey Road, McCartney was perceived as being over-domineering. “Paul would be rather over-bossy, which the other boys would dislike,” George Martin said, according to Rolling Stone. “But it was the only way of getting together It was just a general disintegration.” By saying this, George Martin wasn’t really taking one particular side, but his comments speak volumes to the reality of the situation. Martin was simultaneously part of the group but as an overseer and not as a band member, therefore it can be assumed that his perspective had some degree of objectivity.
The final time the band played together in a studio was Abbey’s Road ‘The End’ on the 18th of August, 1969. A month later, in September, Lennon had informed his bandmates that he would be leaving, despite manager Allen Klein’s advice to wait. The climax of this conflict erupted when, in the offices of Apple – an umbrella of entertainment, covering audio, video and merchandise – Allen Klein had suggested Lennon stay quiet. The bubble, however, would burst.
“When I got back [from Toronto] there were a few meetings and Allen said, ‘Cool it,’ ’cause there was a lot to do [with The Beatles] business-wise, and it wouldn’t have been suitable at the time,” Lennon told Jann Wenner in 1970. “Then we were discussing something in the office with Paul and Paul was saying to do something, and I kept saying, ‘No, no, no’ to everything he said. So it came to a point that I had to say something.”
When those official, yet no less dreaded words were uttered, the rest of the group did agree. “I must admit we’d known it was coming at some point because of his intense involvement with Yoko,” McCartney said. “John needed to give space to his and Yoko’s thing. Someone like John would want to end The Beatles period and start the Yoko period, and he wouldn’t like either to interfere with the other.” The group and Allen Klein were gathered in the Apple offices and were due to renew their contract. McCartney added: “But what wasn’t too clever was this idea of: ‘I wasn’t going to tell you till after we signed the new contract.’ Good old John – he had to blurt it out. And that was it. There’s not a lot you can say to, ‘I’m leaving the group,’ from a key member.”
It was all over by 1970. While The Beatles were definitely over, the animosity certainly wasn’t. The feud would continue into the music. Paul McCartney and his long-term lover Linda recorded their 1971 album Ram on the heels of legal action to dissolve the Lennon-McCartney partnership, and feelings were still hot. The song, ‘Too Many People’ would be perceived by Lennon as a shot against Lennon and Yoko Ono. In Crawdaddy magazine, Lennon said: “I heard Paul’s messages in Ram – yes there are dear reader! Too many people going where? Missed our lucky what? What was our first mistake? Can’t be wrong? Huh! I mean Yoko, me, and other friends can’t all be hearing things. So to have some fun, I must thank Allen Klein publicly for the line ‘just another day’.” Lennon is referring to his song ‘How Do You Sleep’, which was an obvious dig at McCartney.
Sure enough, McCartney would admit to his pettiness that was soon and gladly reciprocated by Lennon. “I was looking at my second solo album, Ram, the other day and I remember there was one tiny little reference to John in the whole thing. He’d been doing a lot of preaching, and it got up my nose a little bit. In one song, I wrote, ‘Too many people preaching practices,’ I think is the line. I mean, that was a little dig at John and Yoko. There wasn’t anything else on it that was about them. Oh, there was ‘You took your lucky break and broke it in two.’”
Eventually, things had a chance to cool down afterwards. The two didn’t talk for a very long time and years later after Lennon’s death, some speculated on if the two ever reconciled. “I was very lucky before he got killed we were mates and we were ringing each other and we were talking about – I don’t know – we used to make bread,” McCartney told Jonatha Ross. “So we’d talk about, ‘what’s your recipe, man?’ So it got very normal again.” Just like they had shared pain as kids, now they were back on speaking terms, and relating based on being dads.
“He had Sean, so now he had a baby and I was bringing up babies, so we could talk about that,” McCartney added, reflectively. “So it got very nice. And I say, to this day, I am so glad because it would have been the worst thing in the world to have had this great relationship soured and he gets killed. So there was some solace in the fact that we got back together and we were good friends.”
The relationship between Lennon and McCartney was certainly tumultuous and hard, but there were just as many good times had between the two and should always be known for the indelible mark they have made on popular music, together as one.