Monday, July 28, 2014

Were Lennon and McCartney "geniuses" or just a case of two heads better than one?

I have a curious way of determining my “favorite” music acts: Whoever has the most hits I like. It really doesn’t matter what their critical acclaim level is. It just so happens, of course, that it would be the Beatles who are my “favorite” musical act. For me, beginning with A Hard Day’s Night, virtually every song the Beatles recorded was a pop-rock confection. And let’s make no mistake—the Beatles were the greatest pop recording act of the rock era; the Rolling Stones are probably the greatest rock & roll act, even more so than Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry. 

When one examines the Beatles' catalogue, one notices an obvious change in songwriting acumen, from the typical boy-girl relational exposition, to more nuanced (and in John Lennon’s case, personal and political) subject matter and melodies, beginning with Rubber Soul. Another obvious difference in their two distinct periods was that in the first, Lennon was the lead singer on the majority of their hits; at the time he was the oldest and most forceful member—the “leader” of the band. His style of songwriting in the early years also fit in with the typical British Invasion hit-making of the time. 

There is no doubt that Lennon and Paul McCartney in the early years contributed “suggestions” to improve each other’s songs, but in the second half of the Beatles career it was clear that when they largely composed their own individual songs, McCartney’s more straightforward pop style predominated on the single releases. Lennon’s only post-1966 lead vocal on a Beatles’ No.1 hit was 1967’s “All You Need is Love,” which of course is a “pop” song (I'm one of those who thinks that Harrison's "Something" trumped "Come Together"). This might have due to the fact that Lennon was the more “creative” Beatle lyrically, but McCartney was the most inventive musically. 

This brings me to the Atlantic Monthly’s recent cover story on “genius,” which featured Lennon and McCartney on the cover, suggesting that their two minds equated to “genius.” The piece wasn’t very enlightening in establishing this thesis, although one assumes that there was a meeting of the minds in regard to their comparative strengths that cancelled out their weaknesses. The word “genius” is often used to describe people who have superior powers of memory, to be absorb and recall information. Of course this means little unless it is put to use, and having a focused, imaginative mind helps. 

However, in regard to their alleged “genius,” what Lennon brought to the table in their relationship was the aggressiveness and rebellion of the rock-and-roll spirit, while Paul was sweetness and “order.” But rather than a chaotic, clashing mishmash, they managed to find a certain “common ground” that reflected their essential “pop” sensibilities, despite the fact that Lennon often disparaged the term.

Their solo careers, however, make a weak case to call them “geniuses” as individuals, although McCartney still had a knack for writing catchy melodies, although no more so than, say, David Gates of the soft-rock group Bread, or Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees; he likely needed Lennon to “toughen” him up. Lennon, on the other hand, seemed to run out of ideas after his second “official” solo album, Imagine—perhaps due to the fact that he was actually a rather lazy musician and needed McCartney to “push” him. Today, while the Beatles continue to command the respect even of those who are completely ignorant of their music (because of their “reputation”), one notices that very few of their songs that have been covered actually became significant hits. The only cover of a Beatles song (not including “World Without Love” by Peter and Gordon, which the Beatles never recorded themselves), that hit number one was Elton John’s version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” 

That begs the question, how “great” were the Beatles, and were they really “geniuses.” And more to point, what was producer George Martin’s role in making Lennon and McCartney “great”? Many people imagine being “rock stars,” and few actually accomplish true “star” status. Elvis Presley was one of the “giants” of rock and roll, but he didn’t write a single song and wasn’t a notable instrumentalist. But he had a certain “style” and swagger that epitomized the form. Does that make him  a “genius”? Hardly. How about Bob Dylan? In Marin Scorsese’s documentary Don’t Look Back, Joan Baez recalls marveling at some lyrics Dylan had just written and asking him what they meant; Dylan shrugged and replied “I don’t know where this shit comes from.”

Perhaps some manner of “genius” is so “innate” that it is inexplicable. You simply have the capacity to do something that most people are simply not “wired” to do. Dylan certainly could do things that were at the time and are still unique with song lyrics. It is easy to label such “wiring” as “genius.” On the other hand, how do you explain the superior musical accomplishments of Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, both of whom were blind? Can they be called “geniuses” because they could do what even people with sight are unable to do?

Sometimes being a labeled a “genius” is a stroke of genius itself, being a matter of time, place and circumstance. That is certainly the case of the Beatles. Lennon’s personality as a young man could easily have turned him into a common thug, good at little more than alienating friends and enemies alike. McCartney might have just remained a Liverpool homeboy, using his charm to create a modest middle-class existence. George Harrison and Richard Starkey were just a couple of ordinary blokes on the lower-end of the social scale, having missed their good fortune of being sidemen in the greatest pop band in history. No one would be talking about “genius” then.

As it turned out, as solo artists McCartney had the most musical acumen of all of them. Lennon could always play with words (not always sensibly), but his melodies were simple two-note exercises (or just one note, such as “Instant Karma”), while McCartney was a little more musically “creative”; even on slightly embarrassing fluff like “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” he showed that he was rarely without ideas of how to turn trivial ideas into hits, because of a knack for the memorable melody or hook. Nevertheless, McCartney still wasn’t regarded as “substantial” as Lennon, just a purveyor of inoffensive tunes. 

So it was that neither achieved the kind of critical acclaim as solo artists as they did as together with the Beatles. They were no longer “competing” with each to write a better or just as good a song as the other, so the “motivation” was less than it had been; McCartney as much as admitted that he didn’t like those in his band Wings to “suggest” improvements to his songs. Many great songwriting teams—like Mick Jagger/Keith Richards, Elton John/Bernie Taupin and the Brill Building duos—generally featured one contributor who focused on lyrics, and the other at composing music. Lennon and McCartney were never that kind of combination, but with the Beatles they did nevertheless listen to and incorporate improvements to each other’s songs. When they went solo, they didn’t listen to anyone (except maybe John with Yoko).

Besides Dylan, Paul Simon was one of the few solo songwriters whose work is considered “classic.” One may consider the fact that if all the songs that can be solely credited to Lennon or McCartney during their reign with the Beatles and separated into a “solo” career, would their critical reputation still hold, provided all other circumstances were in play? Probably not. McCartney would likely be considered no more “substantial” than, say, Tommy James, and Lennon would in the first instance be seen as not dissimilar to any other of a string of “British Invasion” stars, to eventually turn into a good, but not great, imitator of Dylan. 

Nevertheless, it is an established fact that hundreds of millions of admirers and fans everywhere embraced the Beatles and their music as no other in the rock and roll era, and some would say that not even Elvis Presley can make that claim. And the Beatles were special because they composed all of those number one hits, and it was their fresh creativity and willingness to experiment with new musical ideas that turned rock and roll into an “art” form. Nevertheless, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the Beatles by themselves could never have reached those heights or even imagined them without the help of George Martin, their producer from the very beginning. There are those who suggest that it was “chaos” that reigned without the professional touch of Martin, who is in fact never mentioned in the Atlantic story. 

Neither Lennon or McCartney could write musical notation (although McCartney learned to later), and the songs were usually just scraps of ideas in which Martin would suggest improvements, while the pair would experiment with different riffs until  a composition was sufficiently “’whole” to commit to tape. This was particularly true at the start, when Lennon and McCartney were still writing typical pop-rock songs common to other British Invasion groups, their principle focus that of creating singles for radio play, and mostly fill-in for albums—although the Beatles’ “filler” tended to be of higher quality that most.

Later, Martin was a facilitator of their ideas, and his extensive experience with other genres (including comedy records) was invaluable to the group. In the book All You Need is Ears, Martin is quoted: "On the one hand, the increasing sophistication of the records meant that I was having a greater and greater influence on the music,” although he admitted that the Beatles took more control of the direction the music was taking.

Martin’s vital contribution to the Beatles’ success cannot be overstated—and it is usually understated. When the Beatles went off on their own for the first and last time in the studio, the infamous Let it Be sessions was the result. The filmed version of the sessions shows a group in throws of break-up, constant arguing, McCartney “directing” a disinterested Lennon and an irritated Harrison. Lennon would later call the sessions “badly recorded shit” that was recorded with “bad feeling.” Although “purists”—including McCartney—disliked Phil Spector’s reworking of the session tapes into a whole album, the fact is that as the dreadful Let it Be-Naked album amply shows, Spector in fact accomplished a miracle in making it listenable. A few months after this mishap, McCartney contacted Martin to produce them again like he had in the past, and these sessions—Abbey Road— turned out to be the “swan song” worthy of the Beatles.

In the exhaustive “The Beatles’ Recording Sessions,” Mark Lewisohn wrote that “George Martin was, as ever, a vital ingredient in the process, always innovative himself, a tireless seeker of new sounds and willing translator of the Beatles’ frequently vague requirements.” Curiously, the Beatle’s rarely acknowledged Martin’s role in shaping their music, and although McCartney saw fit to enlist Martin’s services for his last commercial successes, Tug of War and Pipes of Peace—Martin could be contradictory in his own assessments. 

Martin himself described Lennon and McCartney as “geniuses” as songwriters, at least later on when they stopped touring and spent more time in the studio, beginning with Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But in a 1999 interview with the Irish Times, he asserted that his job was to “put a frame around” a song, such as “a rhythm section to do this or that and so on,” as well as deciding what “the thing should sound like, and then shape it in the studio. (The producer) may also be an arranger, in which case he may write the necessary parts”—in fact the producer “shapes the whole lot. It’s like being the director of a film.” This sounds quite a bit more of a contribution than generally acknowledged. 

Had the Beatles started out with a less competent producer who didn’t bring with him a wealth of experience and creative ideas of his own, would the Beatles be what they would become? Early success brought them confidence in their abilities to experiment and create, and the record company backing to do what they wanted. But it is also clear that without Martin’s guiding hand and musical gifts, the Beatles would have gone in a different direction. They might have remained together as long as their true competitor, the Rolling Stones, but only because they didn’t experience the kind of suffocating adulation that prevented them from leading real lives. Their “genius” lasted only so long as they could stand being with each other.

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