From John Lennon to Brian Wilson: 7 of Paul McCartney’s favourite songwriters
It’s no secret that most of The Beatles’ songs were co-written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon, at least on paper. But if we were to look at McCartney’s prowess as a songwriter separately, there’s no better way than to list his countless achievements throughout his life. He has written over 150 charting songs and is credited with writing more than 32 number one hits. He has won 18 Grammys and has been inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice.
Though The Beatles’ legacy perhaps precedes McCartney’s, his time with The Beatles was a phase in his long and exciting musical journey. A self-taught musician, McCartney believed more in his instincts than the theoretical rules of music. He has even said in a number of interviews that there isn’t any proper way to write a perfect song, and even if it does exist, he is unaware of it. In fact, the absence of a map is what intrigues him the most about composing a song.
Among McCartney’s inspirations, the first name on the list is John Lennon’s. Lennon and McCartney were in fact a duo long before Beatles was formed. McCartney had joined Lennon’s amateur teen band called The Quarrymen after they caught each other performing at a village fete. Macca gave Lennon a backstage show that he would never forget and The Quarrymen later evolved into The Beatles. At the beginning of the band, the pair worked like well-oiled-machine, writing some of the most memorable songs in pop history. As they naturally separated during the band’s rise to prominence, choosing to write mainly on their own, the two writers came to the studio with most of their songs somewhat formed. It meant McCartney got to witness Lennon’s writing from a new perspective.
During a chat with Jarvis Cocker at the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts and Culture, McCartney revealed how much he admired all of his “fellow Beatles,” to wild applause: “John [Lennon], who was pretty cool, and George [Harrison] and Ringo [Starr]. Having worked with John so one-on-one, I got to see his [songs] before the world. I’m a big fan.” Elucidating on the songwriting procedure of the duo, he said, “When we worked together on something, often what would happen is that whoever would be the creator of this song would bring in the first verse and then we’d sit down, and we’d take it from there. Little things he did were brilliant.”
George Harrison and Ringo Starr had to be among McCartney’s most admired musicians too. The band’s lead guitarist Harrison wrote a few songs in the early years but could never seem to have many of his songs land within the band nor did he try particularly hard to land them. During his visit to India, he focused more on strengthening his songwriting skills and the result was a number of hits like ‘Within You Without You’ and ‘Love You to’. In fact, most of the Beatles’ albums from 1965 onwards have at least two compositions by Harrison. Though initially skeptical about his songwriting capabilities, McCartney later told Lennon “Until this year, our songs have been better than George’s. Now this year his songs are at least as good as ours.”
Talking about the band’s drummer Starr, McCartney said, “Ringo would do these little malapropisms, he would say things slightly wrong like people do, but his were always wonderful, very lyrical … they were sort of magic.” Starr’s idiosyncratic turns of phrases were so unique that it was called “Ringoisms.” Phrases like “a hard day’s night” and “tomorrow never knows” were even used as song titles by Lennon. Starr often helped to finish half-written Lennon-McCartney songs such as the ‘Eleanor Rigby’ which contains the line “darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there.”
Though the songwriting partnership dominated the Fab Four, Harrison and Starr enjoyed some of the most commercially successful releases after the band’s break up. While Harrison’s All Things Must Pass is widely regarded as the finest Beatles solo album, Starr’s 1973 LP Ringo is a beloved record too. It’s clear these releases proved a point that McCartney likely knew for a long time, The Beatles were a potent songwriting force across the bat.
Inevitably, next on McCartney’s list is Bob Dylan, an icon who doesn’t need any introduction. “I always like what he does. Sometimes I wish I was a bit more like Bob. He’s legendary … and doesn’t give a s***! But I’m not like that” McCartney told the Uncut magazine. He even confessed that many Beatles songs were inspired by Dylan: “Yeah, we certainly got a lot from Dylan, and I know I had one of his first LPs at home before The Beatles. I used to play that quite a lot so I was steeped in him… There’s an awful lot more because ‘Strawberry Fields’ and ‘Penny Lane’, those are very much us remembering our youth.”
The Beach Boys’ frontman Brian Wilson is also among McCartney’s favourite. The most significant and innovative songwriters of the late 20th century, Paul McCartney rightly called him “One of the great American geniuses” at his Songwriters’ Hall Of Fame induction in 2000. The variety of work that he has done, ranging from the Beach Boys single ‘Surfin’’ to the revolutionary album Pet Sounds is remarkable. Even McCartney’s favourite song of all time is ‘God Only Knows’ from the album.
“God Only Knows’ is one of the few songs that reduces me to tears every time I hear it. It’s really just a love song, but it’s brilliantly done. It shows the genius of Brian. I’ve actually performed it with him and I’m afraid to say that during the soundcheck I broke down. It was just too much to stand there singing this song that does my head in and to stand there singing it with Brian,” stated McCartney after performing the song with Wilson in 2007.
During his interaction with Jarvis Cocker, McCartney also named Stevie Wonder as one of his inspirations calling him a “musical monster.” He even collaborated with Wonder a couple of times, the first being ‘Ebony and Ivory’ and the latest being ‘Only Our Hearts’ from his album Kisses On The Bottom. “Stevie came along to the studio in LA and he listened to the track for about ten minutes and he totally got it. He just went to the mic and within 20 minutes had nailed this dynamite solo.
“When you listen you just think, ‘How do you come up with that?’ But it’s just because he is a genius, that’s why” said McCartney talking about their recording sessions of ‘Only Our Hearts.’
In Wonder, McCartney saw a contemporary whom he admired greatly but there’s one name that will forever remain on this list for his huge influence on McCartney and his Beatle bandmates — the duck-walking rock juggernaut, Chuck Berry. While John Lennon was always outspoken about his adoration for Berry, once saying that he was the embodiment of the sound, McCartney was also a huge admirer. Sharing a tribute to the ‘Johnny B. Goode’ singer following his passing the singer wrote on his website: “To us, he was a magician making music that was exotic, yet normal, at the same time. We learnt so many things from him which led us into a dream world of rock & roll music.”
“From the first minute we heard the great guitar intro to ‘Sweet Little Sixteen,’ we became fans of the great Chuck Berry,” he continued. “His stories were more like poems than lyrics – the likes of ‘Johnny B. Goode’ or ‘Maybellene.’” The singer concluded his tribute by referring to Berry as “one of rock ‘n’ roll’s great poets.”
If there’s one artist’s opinion on songwriting we take seriously, it’s Paul McCartney’s. That’s why, given that he’s shared such superlatives about the seven names below, we thought it was best to share an introductory playlist into the brilliance of McCartney’s favourite songwriters. From his Beatles bandmates to Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Brian Wilson and Chuck Berry, the below playlist is bursting with talent, much like McCartney himself.