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29 November 2021

Why the break-up of the Beatles still grips us

Even in 1969, Lennon and McCartney were still capable of making each other laugh and creatively turning each other on.

By Ian Leslie

Recently, the placidity of British kitchens was disturbed by a 79-year-old Paul McCartney swearing fulsomely at John Lennon. Speaking on BBC Radio 4, words tumbling out of him, McCartney recalled that after the Beatles broke up, “John turned nasty. I don’t really understand why.” He cited a track Lennon released in 1971 called “How Do You Sleep?”, a thinly veiled – actually, more or less unveiled – attack on McCartney, in which Lennon sings: “The only thing you done was yesterday.” McCartney dwelled on that line, which he claimed was suggested by Lennon’s manager Allen Klein. “I can see the laughs they had doing it and I had to work very hard not to take it too seriously… I was thinking, wait a minute, all I ever did was ‘Yesterday’? I suppose that’s a funny pun, but all I ever did was ‘Yesterday’, ‘Let It Be’, ‘The Long and Winding Road’, ‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘Lady Madonna’… F*** you, John.”

It sounded like McCartney was unburdening himself spontaneously, as if to a therapist, but he was actually reading from his new book, The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present, which includes a record of conversations he had over five years with the poet Paul Muldoon. The passage above is one of many in which McCartney works through his feelings about his most important creative partner. Fifty-one years after the end of the Beatles, and 41 years after Lennon’s death, he is still preoccupied by the unfinished business of their relationship.

He is not the only one. Newspapers have run recent headlines about McCartney recalling that Lennon asked for “a divorce” from the group, even though McCartney has said the same or similar for decades. On Thanksgiving weekend (the last weekend of November), millions of people watched The Beatles: Get Back, a three-part documentary on Disney Plus, directed by Peter Jackson. Over the course of nearly eight hours, it shows the band at work in the studio in January 1969 as they struggle to come up with new material for a planned – well, barely – TV special and concert (the sessions were filmed for the proposed show; some of the footage was used for the Let It Be documentary, released in 1970). The subtle interplay of all four band members is intensely watchable, but it is John and Paul who form the emotional core of the story Jackson tells. There is something about the almost mystical connection these two men had – the blend of creativity and conflict, intimacy and ego, tenderness and frustration – which is endlessly compelling. McCartney knows that he is always judged in comparison to his old friend, and The Lyrics can be seen as part of his long-running attempt to equalise their creative reputations. Lauded as a melodist, McCartney is rarely celebrated for his words. Lennon is more likely to be hailed as a literary genius. This clearly bugs McCartney, and not unreasonably. He has written some truly great lyrics – “Eleanor Rigby”, “For No One”, “Penny Lane” – and many good ones (along with many not-so good ones).

The reputational imbalance stems, in part, from a historic misunderstanding of how the pair worked together. We are used to thinking of songwriting partnerships as a division of labour between words and music: Rodgers and Hammerstein, Goffin and King. But Lennon and McCartney defied this binary. As this is confusing, the world long ago decided that McCartney did tunes and Lennon words (an impression cultivated by Lennon’s books of poetry, In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works). Hence this two-volume box set of the lyrics from 154 McCartney songs, written over the course of more than six decades, either on his own or with collaborators – primarily Lennon, but also his first wife Linda and a few others, including Michael Jackson (“Say Say Say”). Here, the Beatles’ songs are pointedly attributed to “McCartney and Lennon”, not “Lennon and McCartney”, except one, “A Day In The Life”, acknowledging Lennon as the song’s main creator.

The Lyrics is sumptuously made to a standard associated with high-end art publishers. It is lovely to hold and to touch and to look at. There are countless beautifully reproduced photographs, of McCartney – who in his younger years ravished the lens – his mother, father, brother and aunties, his wives (Heather Mills excepted), his children, his friends and notable collaborators. Many of the pictures are published for the first time. There are also handwritten lyric sheets festooned with doodles, scribbled diary entries, gig posters, newspaper reports, pictures of first pressings. It is a very fancy scrapbook.

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Indeed, the title is somewhat misleading: The Lyrics is about far more than lyrics. McCartney has already published Blackbird Singing: Poems and Lyrics 1965 1999, put together in 2001 with the help of the poet Adrian Mitchell. This book is something else: more like an autobiography, done McCartney’s way. Rather than publish a conventional life story, he has opted to tell this life through songs and pictures. This makes sense, since he is not a brilliant speaker or prose writer. His eloquence is found in his art: next to the splendour of the songs, McCartney’s talk can sometimes seem almost deliberately banal. Linda McCartney inspired both the torrential beauty of “Maybe I’m Amazed” and the description: “Linda was an upbeat lady.”

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Still, McCartney’s reflections, as edited by Muldoon, are rich in detail about his upbringing in Liverpool and his early inspirations (what he calls “the great trawling net of my youth”). Muldoon is eager to present McCartney as a figure who straddles high and low culture, and he can push a little hard on the high (was “A Hard Day’s Night” really inspired by Eugene O’Neill’s 1956 play Long Day’s Journey Into Night?). But Muldoon does well to draw out the authentic strands of literary influence on McCartney’s sensibility: Lewis Carroll – a passion shared with Lennon – Shakespeare, Dickens, and Dylan Thomas. Alan Durband, McCartney’s English teacher and a former pupil of FR Leavis, played a pivotal role. In words as in music, the young McCartney was an innovator who fed greedily on tradition.

Just before his death in 1980 Lennon described McCartney, perceptively if ungenerously, as “quite a capable lyricist who doesn’t think he is, so he doesn’t go for it”. At his best McCartney is as good if not better than anyone, including his former partner. He can write lyrics of devastating economy (“Your day breaks/your mind aches”). But there is no question that he can get lazy when it comes to words. One of the quirks of The Lyrics is that it includes examples McCartney himself doesn’t seem to rate. “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” is there, even though it consists mainly of the title. “Spirits of Ancient Egypt”, an unremarkable Wings song, is included primarily so that McCartney can tell a story about how he became interested in Egyptian mythology. The book showcases McCartney’s lyrics, but does not fetishise them. It suggests that they -are there, above all, to serve the songs – and that the songs make up a larger canvas, or mosaic, that the artist himself is only now stepping back to contemplate.

The songs are arranged alphabetically, rather than chronologically. That may be a pragmatic decision, but it also fits with what I take to be McCartney’s conception of his life’s work: an attempt to capture, in song, as much of the variety of human life as one artist possibly can. Unusually for a memoirist, he makes no attempt to mould a narrative arc from the diverse materials of his experience. Time, for McCartney, is not so much an arrow as a kaleidoscope, throwing up new worlds to explore. As you turn the pages, you shake the kaleidoscope.

Other than the author, the figures that loom largest in the book are McCartney’s parents, Jim (cotton salesman, amateur musician, and genial soul) and Mary (loving and fiercely hardworking, lost to cancer when Paul was 14), and Lennon, whom he met shortly thereafter. From the beginning, their mutual attraction was mixed with a certain wariness. We twice hear the story of Paul being recruited to John’s group, though with subtly different slants: the first time emphasises John’s reluctance to ask him directly, the second Paul’s own reluctance to be seen to say yes too quickly. The two new friends shared an obsession with rock and pop songs, but it would be a while before they admitted to each other that they had written one or two themselves (songwriting, back then, was something other people, mainly Americans, did). “We took each other by surprise,” says McCartney.

In those early days they spent a lot of time gazing at each other across guitars. Paul was left-handed, John right-handed: when writing songs, “I was looking in a mirror, and he was looking in a mirror.” The mirror helped each of them see themselves in a new way, John becoming more Paul, and Paul more John, in a process of mutual self-creation. As McCartney puts it, “We became versions of each other.”

It wouldn’t be long before they took the world by surprise. Global fame put all four Beatles into a high-pressure capsule, which somehow remained intact for seven years. At first, success pushed Lennon and McCartney even closer together, as they spent so much time together on tour in hotel rooms, writing new material. By the time we see them in Get Back, the band hasn’t played live in over two years. Lennon and McCartney have begun, quite naturally, to spend more time apart. The effortless intimacy they once shared has degraded. Both have found new partners – Yoko is there, sitting next to John, saying very little. Linda drifts in and out, with her daughter Heather. The vague aspiration that initiated the project, to “get back” to being a live band, may have been in part a yearning on Paul and John’s part to recapture their old closeness. But they can’t: they are growing up and apart.

When McCartney said “f*** you” to John on Radio 4, it sounded more amused than rancorous. The barbs that Lennon sent his way in the 1970s cut deep at the time but the years have alleviated, if not entirely dissolved, the pain. A sense of gladness prevails. McCartney still writes with Lennon sitting across from him, a present absence: “I’m very conscious that I don’t have him around, but I still have him whispering in my ear after all these years. I’m often second guessing what John would have thought – ‘This is too soppy’ – or what he would have said differently.”

The Beatles’ “divorce” was primarily between Lennon and McCartney, and it came with all the misunderstanding, frustration and jealousy often associated with such events. Yet even in 1969 the two men were still capable of making each other laugh and creatively turning each other on, and one of the joys and privileges of watching Get Back is seeing them do so. At the end of the film, the Beatles walk out on to the roof of Apple Corps headquarters in London to play live for the first time in years, to whoever is around to hear them, having decided that anything grander is just too much hassle. It is cold and windy up there, and they start off nervously, stiff fingers stretching across fretboards, vocal cords tight, uncertain if they can still do this thing. But then Paul catches John’s eye, and John looks back, and they grin, and suddenly everything clicks.

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This article appears in the 01 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The virus strikes back