In the fall of 1966, during a stretch of nine weeks away from the Beatles, John Lennon wrote a song. He was in rural Spain at the time, on the set of a movie called How I Won the War, but the lyrics cast back to an icon of his boyhood in Liverpool: the Strawberry Field children’s home, whose sprawling grounds he’d often explored with his gang and visited with his Aunt Mimi. In late November, the Beatles began work on the song at EMI Studios, on Abbey Road in London. After four weeks and scores of session hours, the band had a final cut of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” That was December 22.
On December 29, Paul McCartney brought in a song that took listeners back to another icon of Liverpool: Penny Lane, a traffic roundabout and popular meeting spot near his home. This sort of call-and-response was no anomaly. He and John, Paul said later, had a habit of “answering” each other’s songs. “He’d write ‘Strawberry Fields,’ ” Paul explained. “I’d go away and write ‘Penny Lane’ … to compete with each other. But it was very friendly competition.”
It’s a famous anecdote. Paul, of course, was stressing the collaborative nature of his partnership with John (he went on to note that their competition made them “better and better all the time”). But in this vignette, as in so many from the Beatles years, it’s easy to get distracted by the idea of John and Paul composing independently. The notion that the two need to be understood as individual creators, in fact, has become the contemporary “smart” take on them. “Although most of the songs on any given Beatles album are usually credited to the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team,” Wikipedia declares, “that description is often misleading.” Entries on the site about individual Beatles songs take care to assert their “true” author. Even the superb rock critic Greg Kot once succumbed to this folly. John and Paul “shared songwriting credits but little else,” he wrote in 1990, “and their ‘partnership’ was more of a competition than a collaboration.”
Kot made that observation in a review of Beatlesongs, by William J. Dowlding—a high-water mark of absurdity in the analysis of Lennon-McCartney. Dowlding actually tried to quantify their distinct contributions, giving 84.55 credits to John—“the winner,” he declared—and 73.65 to Paul. (His tally also included 22.15 credits for George Harrison, 2.7 for Ringo Starr, and 0.45 for Yoko Ono. For a few lines in the song “Julia,” Dowlding gave 0.05 credits to the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran.)
For centuries, the myth of the lone genius has towered over us, its shadow obscuring the way creative work really gets done. The attempts to pick apart the Lennon-McCartney partnership reveal just how misleading that myth can be, because John and Paul were so obviously more creative as a pair than as individuals, even if at times they appeared to work in opposition to each other. The lone-genius myth prevents us from grappling with a series of paradoxes about creative pairs: that distance doesn’t impede intimacy, and is often a crucial ingredient of it; that competition and collaboration are often entwined. Only when we explore this terrain can we grasp how such pairs as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy all managed to do such creative work. The essence of their achievements, it turns out, was relational. If that seems far-fetched, it’s because our cultural obsession with the individual has obscured the power of the creative pair.
John and Paul epitomize this power. Geoff Emerick—who served as the principal engineer for EMI on Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, some of The White Album, and Abbey Road—recognized from the outset that the two formed a single creative being. “Even from the earliest days,” he wrote in his memoir, Here, There and Everywhere, “I always felt that the artist was John Lennon and Paul McCartney, not the Beatles.”
One reason it's so tempting to try to cleave John and Paul apart is that the distinctions between them were so stark. Observing the pair through the control-room glass at Abbey Road’s Studio Two, Emerick was fascinated by their odd-couple quality:
Paul was meticulous and organized: he always carried a notebook around with him, in which he methodically wrote down lyrics and chord changes in his neat handwriting. In contrast, John seemed to live in chaos: he was constantly searching for scraps of paper that he’d hurriedly scribbled ideas on. Paul was a natural communicator; John couldn’t articulate his ideas well. Paul was the diplomat; John was the agitator. Paul was soft-spoken and almost unfailingly polite; John could be a right loudmouth and quite rude. Paul was willing to put in long hours to get a part right; John was impatient, always ready to move on to the next thing. Paul usually knew exactly what he wanted and would often take offense at criticism; John was much more thick-skinned and was open to hearing what others had to say. In fact, unless he felt especially strongly about something, he was usually amenable to change.
The diplomat and the agitator. The neatnik and the whirling dervish. Spending time with Paul and John, one couldn’t help but be struck by these sorts of differences. “John needed Paul’s attention to detail and persistence,” Cynthia Lennon, John’s first wife, said. “Paul needed John’s anarchic, lateral thinking.”
Paul and John seemed to be almost archetypal embodiments of order and disorder. The ancient Greeks gave form to these two sides of human nature in Apollo, who stood for the rational and the self-disciplined, and Dionysus, who represented the spontaneous and the emotional. Friedrich Nietzsche proposed that the interaction of the Apollonian and the Dionysian was the foundation of creative work, and modern creativity research has confirmed this insight, revealing the key relationship between breaking and making, challenging and refining, disrupting and organizing.
John was the iconoclast. In early live shows, he would fall into the background, let Paul charm the audience, and then twist up his face, adopt a hunchback pose, and play dissonant chords. Sometimes, he deliberately kept his guitar slightly out of tune, which contributed to what the composer Richard Danielpour calls “that raw, raunchy sound.” He was difficult with the press, at times even impossible. In the studio, he clamored constantly to do things differently. He wanted to be hung from the ceiling and swung around the mic. He wanted to be recorded from behind.
While John broke form, Paul looked to make it. He was the band’s de facto musical director in the studio and, outside, its relentless champion. “Anything you promote, there’s a game that you either play or you don’t play,” he said. “I decided very early on that I was very ambitious and I wanted to play.” Among the Beatles, he said, he was the one who would “sit the press down and say, ‘Hello, how are you? Do you want a drink?,’ and make them comfortable.”
Distinctions are a good way to introduce ourselves to a creative pair. But what matters is how the parts come together. So it’s not right to focus on how John insulted reporters while Paul charmed them. John was able to insult reporters because Paul charmed them. Their music emerged in a similar way, with single strands twisting into a mutually strengthening double helix.
The work John initiated tended to be sour and weary, whereas Paul’s tended to the bright and naive. The magic came from interaction. Consider the home demo for “Help!”—an emotionally raw, aggressively confessional song John wrote while in the throes of the sort of depression that he said made him want “to jump out the window, you know.” The original had a slow, plain piano tune, and feels like the moan of the blues. When Paul heard it, he suggested a countermelody, a lighthearted harmony to be sung behind the principal lyric—and this fundamentally changed its nature. It’s not incidental that in the lyrics John pleaded for “somebody … not just anybody.” He knew he was at risk of floating away, and Paul helped put his feet back on the ground.
And John knocked Paul off his, snorting at his bromides (as with Paul’s original “She was just seventeen / Never been a beauty queen”) and batting against his sweet, optimistic lyrics, as in the song “Getting Better.” “I was sitting there doing ‘Getting better all the time,’ ” Paul remembered, “and John just said, in his laconic way, ‘It couldn’t get no worse.’ And I thought, Oh, brilliant! This is exactly why I love writing with John.”