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20 August 2014

Battle of the Beatles: Paul McCartney

Who was the fabbest of the four?

By Alan Johnson

I can’t quite remember if it was Susan Kelly or Christine Roberts who liked John best. I’m sure it was Pauline Bright who swore allegiance to George. If Ringo had an advocate in the “Who’s the best-looking Beatle?” debate taking part in our corner of west London I’ve forgotten who she was, but all the other girls I knew (and I knew a lot in 1964) were devoted to Paul.

Bliss was it in that dawn for music fans to be alive, but to be young was very heaven. This was the year that the Beatles’ status shifted from “British sensation” to “international phenomenon”; the year when Cathy McGowan announced to the nation live on Ready Steady Go! that “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was number one in the US Billboard Chart (at the same time as other Beatles releases stood at numbers two, three and four).

It was unimaginable that such a thing could happen. Since rock’n’roll began it had been stamped “Made in America”. With the exception of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, everything worth listening to came from across the Atlantic. Our home-grown pop stars were Elvis Presley tribute acts that assumed a Memphis drawl to hide their Surbiton accents. Eventually they’d follow Tommy Steele into variety and sing the likes of “Little White Bull” for a family audience.

Now the hurricane of musicality from the Mersey had blown all that away.

The Beatles didn’t fit comfortably into the mods v rockers conflict of the time: we mods knew what music we didn’t like, which was basically anything associated with greasy-haired rockers. So, white artists such as Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Gene Vincent were reviled while Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Wilson Pickett were revered. The Beatles were certainly too successful for the ultra-mods, who prided themselves on liking artists who nobody had heard of.

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We male devotees of the Fab Four adopted an air of condescending disdain when asked by our girlfriends to name a favourite. Our preference had to be bestowed with a more manly pretext than looks. For instance, we’d admire George’s guitar break on “All My Loving”, or John’s sense of humour.

But I liked Paul best predominantly because of his amazing looks. I so wanted to have those almond eyes, that perfect hair, the pouting lips. None of this could be admitted. Alone in the flat I shared with my sister, I’d use her old school hockey stick as a substitute bass guitar, holding it left-handed as I mimed in front of the mirror to the Beatles for Sale LP. When “Paperback Writer” was released I wondered at our secret affinity as much as any love-struck girl, because at the time I did want to be a paperback writer (as well as a rock star like Paul).

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My love for the Beatles is such that I hate to promote my favourite by suggesting any imperfection in his colleagues but basically the only serious competition to Paul comes from John who, whisper it softly, was actually a bit of a rocker. I know, I know – I’ve seen those photos of Paul with his hair slicked back but that was in the Hamburg days. The thing is that John never seemed comfortable to leave that look behind him, whereas Paul fitted perfectly into the mop top and collarless jacket.

On stage, Lennon looked as if he was riding an imaginary motorbike, or perhaps a very thin horse: he stood, legs apart, doing little squats, with an unremarkable guitar hoisted too far up on his chest. (Those were the early days, before the Rickenbacker.) To his right he was gently upstaged by the cool and confident Paul, the Höfner bass a left-handed compliment to his individuality. And that McCartney voice, with its incredible range: one moment a gritty roar (“I’m Down”), the next a soft caress (“And I Love Her”).

I could never claim that Paul wrote better songs as some have tried to do. Leonard Bernstein once said “She’s Leaving Home” was equal to anything Schubert ever wrote. “And Your Bird Can Sing”, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “In My Life” would be enough to settle any argument that John’s output wasn’t at least as good as Paul’s.

It’s in the post-Beatles period that I believe Paul nudged ahead. For some inexplicable reason, this is the period where John was portrayed as cool and Paul as twee. It is true that “Imagine” received a better critical reception than “Mull of Kintyre” yet while both records sold millions, few Beatles fans would consider them the equal of the Lennon/McCartney canon. It’s also true that “The Frog Song” suggested Paul had morphed into Tommy Steele.

But I’ve been relistening to Wings (trying to forget that Alan Partridge called them the band the Beatles could have been). The Plastic Ono Band didn’t produce anything comparable to “Band on the Run”, or even “Venus and Mars”. Pre- and post-Wings, the music has flowed from Paul like a blackbird singing in the dead of night. I offer “Maybe I’m Amazed” – and Flowers in the Dirt, his amazing collaboration with the only artist worthy of a mention in the same breath as Lennon and McCartney, Elvis Costello.

Paul was my favourite Beatle and, having just reached the age of 64, I’m pushing Vera, Chuck and Dave off my knee to listen again to the single biggest influence on popular music that the world has ever known. 

Alan Johnson’s memoir “This Boy” is published by Corgi (£7.99)

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