Fans have long been divided on just who they love more, Lennon or McCartney. Smart versus lovable, political versus sentimental, rocky versus hooky – these are the classic (and somewhat misleading) lines of division drawn between a duo who arguably comprise the greatest song-writing team of all time. Such judgements also face another challenge: in the Beatles John and Paul wrote songs together but also apart despite sharing a co-writing credit on everything, making it hard sometimes to sort out who wrote what. To make an effective comparison you really have to turn to their solo work in the 1970s to establish what each could do beyond the influence of each other and the Beatles’ unique group dynamic. Now the point here isn’t to say who is better because that is obviously completely subjective. You can’t debate taste. What I propose to do is compare their solo work to the Beatles material and ask ourselves which one, John or Paul, more consistently met that standard, a standard defined by commercially innovative singles and highly listenable albums that contained little filler. Get ready for contention! I’m fairly certain my choices and observations will spark debate but hey, that’s half the fun of writing a blog. Please do join in with your own take on this classic, endless, ultimately irresolvable dispute.
Let’s start with singles. Personally, I think John’s got a leg up here and that is saying something considering what a hit single machine Paul has been as a solo artist. Don’t get me wrong, both John and Paul have crafted some amazing singles. My measure is, who has continued the commercial innovation that we associate with the Beatles the most as a solo artist? Here I think John has the advantage with songs like “Instant Karma,” “Imagine,” “Mind Games,” and “#9 Dream.” Each one exhibits the kind of musical creativity and ‘pushing of the pop song envelope’ that I associate with the Beatles work. I could imagine any one of them appearing on a 1970s Beatles album, if such a thing had come to pass. I’m not saying every John single was a winner. Paul certainly has a few Beatles-worthy singles moments as a solo artist – songs like “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” and “Band on the Run” – but they don’t branch out much from similar previous efforts with the band. I would grant that “Jet” and “Live and Let Die” met the Beatles innovation standard. Stepping away from singles for a moment, both John and Paul have got a few really special deep cuts on their 1970s solo albums, like John’s “Jealous Guy” from Imagine and Paul’s “Magneto and Titanium Man” from Venus and Mars.
What about albums? Rock critics tend to rate a few of John’s albums as the best solo work from a former Beatle, particularly Plastic Ono Band and Imagine. I’ve got to disagree. In terms of total listenability and an absence of weak cuts the hands-down winner is Paul’s Band on the Run. The difference in opinion here comes down to how much credence you give the ‘cool’ factor. Critics loved John over Paul because they saw him as serious, deep, and political. It was all part of the conversion of the music press from cheer-leading, teeny-bopper coverage to more serious journalism in the late sixties and early 1970s. And hey, if you like that sort of thing, cool. But the Beatles were not some underground indie band, judged by how ‘cool’ they were. They were a commercial juggernaut whose music was accessible to anyone with ears. Plastic Ono Band and Imagine are great albums but they’re not up to Beatles standards, in my view. Not all the songs are equally strong or accessible. This became only more pronounced on John’s later albums where he tended to feature one outstanding single amid a bevy of weaker material. In the case of Some Time in New York City there wasn’t even a decent single. By contrast, Band on the Run has no filler. All the songs are either great or very good. It’s the closest any ex-Beatle came to putting out something comparable to a Beatles album IMHO. And, just to throw in a really controversial claim, I think John’s most Beatles-worthy album is actually Double Fantasy because it’s the only one where all the songs are actually pretty good, even the Yoko tracks. And I’m not saying that McCartney’s albums were uniformly good either. Indeed, they too mostly suffered from a surfeit of rather second rank tunes cast amidst the hits.
Well there you have it, I rate John as the solo Beatle with the most commercially-innovative, Beatles-worthy singles and Paul as producing the album that comes closest to reproducing the Beatles trade-mark listenability. Controversial views, I know. Now whether you agree with these judgements or not, I do think there are some patterns here that are undeniable. Clearly, looking at his solo work, John just wasn’t an album man. Self-admittedly somewhat lazy, John was good for bringing in three or four really great tunes to every Beatles album session. His friendly (and sometimes not so friendly) competitiveness with Paul heightened his productivity within the group. But as a solo artist John lacked the drive to fill annual albums with top-quality Lennon material. By contrast, Paul could crank out tunes and albums with a Beatlesque eye to overall listenability and commercial success. But as a solo artist Paul never worked with anyone that challenged him the way John did and that limited his innovative creativity compared to his Beatles-era work. Compare that to John, collaborating with the likes of David Bowie and Elton John and getting some pretty impressive results (e.g. the Lennon/Bowie co-write “Fame”), and you get a glimmer of what might have been possible.
Pitting John against Paul was never gonna produce any clearcut ‘winner.’ Even their somewhat less Beatlesy solo work still contained some pretty stellar stuff from both. And, in the end, you don’t have to choose or play favourites. You can love them both. I know I do.
Top photo by Tom Murray from the Beatles ‘mad day out’ 1968.