A friend of mine just sent me an article from the August 27 issue of the National Review about Paul McCartney entitled "The Bard of Optimism," by Kyle Smith. The article falls into one of the sadder conflicts of modern music history, the seemingly inevitable John or Paul argument.Lennon’s assassination in 1980 would sadly prove to be a staggering blow to McCartney’s musical reputation. Lennon, after five years of silence, had in Double Fantasy just released his strongest work in years. Meanwhile, McCartney was entering one of his tougher creative periods, which would see him release a number of shallow songs like "Press" and "Spies Like Us," as well as an ill thought re-recording of his previous Beatles material for the movie Give My Regards to Broadstreet. This period seemed to show an artist in decline.The truth is that McCartney was thrown into an impossible situation, where he found himself and his reputation competing with a much loved, now martyred legend. John Lennon's death perhaps saved him from the decline even the greatest artists of the '60s like Bob Dylan found themselves in as they entered the third decade of their career. John Lennon would never write a great song again, but he also would never write a horrible one either.The early innocence of the Beatles is what we want to remember. The one that saw John and Paul agree to credit all their song compositions as Lennon/McCartney even though they for the most part stopped writing as a real team very early in their careers. Nevertheless, the partnership remained healthy for a long time, both as a competition that spurred the two to produce great work, and as a sounding board.
This saw such musical moments as when Lennon muted the optimism of McCartney’s "We Can Work It Out," with a pessimistic bridge, and McCartney’s addition of the middle section of "A Day in the Life." It was the sort of musical partnership where even just a friendly reassurance - like the time Lennon assured McCartney, that the line “the movement you need is on your shoulder” in "Hey Jude" was indeed worth keeping - helped to make Lennon and McCartney the historic songwriting team they were.Sadly, things got ugly.
The death of Brian Epstein left a void of leadership right at the time when Lennon met Yoko Ono. Lennon’s interest in the band began to flag, and McCartney’s perhaps understandable response was to try to take on a role of leadership, pushing the group into the disastrous Magical Mystery Tour project as well as earning the enmity of his three band mates, who suddenly felt like side men. You can see just how bad this got in the film Let It Be, where an enraged and fed up George Harrison tells McCartney acidly that he’ll play whatever Paul wants or indeed perhaps nothing at all.Money of course always makes things worse. As Apple, the group's idealistically naïve business project, started to bleed money, Lennon, Harrison, and Starr chose Allen Klein as their new manager, overruling McCartney, who probably rightly preferred his father-in-law Lee Eastman. It was a fracture that the group never recovered from. McCartney wound up suing his band mates and announcing that he had left the group, leaving Lennon enraged.The Lennon/McCartney myth took a huge hit in the ‘70s, mostly from Lennon, who, in a historic interview with Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone, divvied up specific credit for nearly every Beatles composition. Lennon similarly declared in "God" that “The dream is over,” and “I don’t believe in Beatles.” Lennon than put an exclamation point on it with the acidic, vitriolic, and incredibly mean anti-McCartney rant "How Do You Sleep," which in true contradictory Lennon fashion appeared on the same album as his utopian classic "Imagine."Things between John and Paul appeared to be thawing in the late ‘70s. Indeed, in Lennon’s last interviews he regained his love for the Beatles and what they had accomplished. Lennon also acknowledged that he had only had two true partners in his life, Paul and Yoko, and that he had chosen them quite well. His death ended this thawing, and left us with the endless John or Paul debates indicative of Smith’s latest flurry in the National Review.Admittedly, time has been incredibly unfair to McCartney. Lennon has been cast as a genius while some would toss McCartney to the heaps as just a sunny schlock merchant. It’s stuck in McCartney’s groin so much that he released a live album, where he reversed his Beatle songwriting credits so they appeared as McCartney/Lennon, and got into a much publicized failed dispute with Yoko Ono, where he insisted that his song "Yesterday" be officially credited similarly.Smith’s defense of McCartney, though of course goes way too far, as if the only way to rebuild McCartney’s reputation is to take a swing at Lennon’s. Smith writes that “Paul McCartney was not only a genius, but the genius: the most essential member of the undisputed best musical group, the author of a huge volume of brilliant post-Beatles work … in short, the most monumental figure in pop music.”