Don’t let anyone tell you that songwriting is easy. There are certainly times when songs arrive fully formed, but more often than not, they require a hell of a lot of trial, error, and hard graft. Even John Lennon, whose songwriting partnership with Paul McCartney is the stuff of legend and produced some of the greatest songs ever written, found the whole process to be nothing short of “torture”.
“Songwriting is about getting the demon out of me,” Lennon once said. “It’s like being possessed. You try to go to sleep, but the song won’t let you. So you have to get up and make it into something, and then you’re allowed to sleep”. John also noted that aside from “the ten or so songs the gods give you”, writing for The Beatles was an incredibly gruelling process in which it seemed as though his songs were actively resisting him. It was as if as soon as he approached an idea, it sensed him coming and scurried away, refusing to come out no matter how hard he tried to tease it out.
Paul McCartney once gave an interview in which he revealed how Lennon struggled to finish material, starting songs only to give up on them halfway through: “John would often have the melody and the lyrics to one verse, McCartney began, before adding: “And the trickiest thing is making any more of it. The second verse is nearly always the killer because you’ve often said it all in the first verse, but by pushing yourself you can actually get a second verse better than your first.”
But even McCartney himself wasn’t immune to the challenges of pop songwriting. “It’s always more difficult because you mustn’t repeat yourself– you’ve got to take the idea somewhere else, but it has to have the same metre and the same melody,” he said. “That was often where he or I needed help.”
McCartney’s antidote was to ensure that he and Lennon spread the weight as much as possible, helping each other to fill any gaps in their knowledge or ability. “There tended to be four verses in our songs, one chorus that repeated endlessly, and a middle-eight. So if it was John’s idea, generally I would come in at the second verse,” Paul said. “The first verse was always good to finish with– it was like, ‘Remember what I told you at the beginning of this song? I’m going to reiterate it now.’ That was always a good little trick”.
By honing and sticking to neat formulas such as this, Lennon and McCartney were able to overcome almost all of the obstacles that faced them when they sat down to write. A creative partnership in the truest sense, John and Paul’s success as songwriters was surely down to their ability to encourage one another in the midst of creative block. Paul’s comments seem to suggest that he avoided being too interior about his songwriting, choosing to focus on formulas, rules, and methods instead.
Lennon, meanwhile, often ended up overthinking a song to such an extent that all he was left with was a dried husk of a song floating in a pool of self-deprecation. Their approaches were incredibly different but they paired wonderfully well, allowing for a selection of songs that have stood the test of time.