With the possible exception of Philip Norman’s 2016 Paul McCartney: The Life, there is no book in Beatles historiography which better exemplifies a jarring interpretive and narrative shift by a single author than Ray Coleman’s 1996 McCartney: Yesterday and Today. A semi-McCartney biography and in-depth examination of the history and legacy surrounding his song “Yesterday,” Coleman’s work is considerably less valuable for the limited amount of new evidence it reveals, and more for its stunning demonstration of authorial re-interpretation and hypocrisy. Examined absent of any authorial and historiographical context, Coleman’s McCartney is a largely lightweight, primarily complimentary, incomplete portrait of an artist and his signature song. Read in a vacuum, Coleman’s work would presumably be quickly read and, a few morsels of new information aside, just as quickly forgotten.
However, when evaluated as part of both Coleman’s contributions to and the overall arc of Beatles historiography, Yesterday and Today reveals the fundamental narrative shift occurring within the band’s story as the predominant Shout!-era version of both the breakup and Lennon/McCartney partnership began to crumble. It also prompts essential questions of how and why authors change their views on individuals and events. What motivates authorial re-interpretation by authors who have promoted singular narratives? What should motivate drastic authorial and evidentiary re-interpretation? And what tools does historiography provide to navigate and make sense of such jarring reversals?
Coleman’s work had already provided key primary and secondary sources for Beatles historians and fans. As an established journalist, Coleman gained access to the Beatles in the early days of their fame, and interviewed them often from 1963-1965. His personal interviews with them tapered off in the mid-60s, then experienced a resurgence in the band’s final years, primarily via interviews with Lennon. Following Lennon’s 1980 murder, Coleman researched and then published the first major posthumous biography of the musician, Lennon: The Definitive Life. The 1984 work utilized a substantial number of primary sources, including interviews with Cynthia Lennon, Julian Lennon, Yoko Ono and Lennon assistant Eliot Mintz. It was also, at times, hagiographic. Riddled with methodological and interpretive errors, Coleman’s work fostered and supported a profound pro-Lennon/Ono partisanship. While these at times seemingly partisan-inspired errors are most evident in the work’s first edition, the credibility and accuracy of later re-editions, published in 1993 and 2000, are also affected. As the first major posthumous biography of Lennon, and containing valuable primary sources, Lennon: The Definitive Life ingrained itself in the band’s historiography. The Beatles Bibliography describes it as “very successful commercially.” (The Beatles Bibliography, 114) and, to this day, it appears in the bibliography’s of numerous Beatles books.
In the first two editions of Lennon: The Definitive Life, Coleman embraces every major element of the Shout! narrative. He blames McCartney for the Beatles breakup, argues that McCartney and Lennon were never close friends and “never had much in common,” (Coleman, Lennon, 1984, 384) repeatedly dismisses McCartney’s contributions to the Beatles and, despite direct contradictory primary source testimony from George Martin, denounces McCartney’s musical genius. His condemnation of McCartney did not go unnoticed: In their review of the book, The Beatles Bibliography succinctly and accurately encapsulates Coleman’s apparent views: “John was a genius and Paul a superficial idiot.” (The Beatles Bibliography, 115). McCartney himself was aware of his less than stellar portrayal in Coleman’s work: In a 1984 BBC interview with The Tube, the interviewer specifically identifies Coleman’s Lennon as contributing to the pro-Lennon push dominating Beatles historiography at the time; an assessment with which McCartney concurs. (Courtesy of amoralto): http://amoralto.tumblr.com/
INTERVIEWER: I’ve just been reading the Ray Coleman book—
PAUL: Mm. That’s the same kind of thing, you know—
INTERVIEWER: —and there’s a tendency because he’s dead he’s a genius, and you’re alive and so you’re not, a bit.
In the interview, McCartney himself attributes Coleman’s pro-Lennon/anti-McCartney interpretation to Lennon’s “very forceful personality,” as well as McCartney’s own “anti”-Lennon position in the band’s acrimonious split. He also dismissed designating himself, Lennon or any one individual as the band’s source of genius: “None of us was the genius. None of us.” (Televised Interview with Paul McCartney, The Tube, November 1984, London).
The 1993 re-edition of Lennon inched away from some of its earlier, harshest anti-McCartney statements. (Such quasi-revisionism was not necessary regarding Coleman’s views on Harrison and Starr, as they are virtually non-entities in every edition. Ironically, for a biography which claims to be “The Definitive Life” of John Lennon, Harrison and Starr receive less attention from Coleman than does the far less important figure of Mintz).
But, unlike the 2000 edition, in which Coleman backtracked to a more considerable and, at times, hypocritical extent, (see in particular Coleman’s declaration that McCartney’s close relationship with and deep understanding of Lennon’s personality make him a particularly credible source in denouncing Albert Goldman’s claims, (Coleman, Lennon, 2000, 17) contradicting previous editions of Coleman’s work, which had diminished the Lennon/McCartney friendship and McCartney’s own source credibility (Coleman, Lennon, 1984, 362) by painting him as a showbiz, artificial P.R. man) such revisions were relatively minor.
This ineffectual, half-hearted revisionism is part of what McCartney: Yesterday and Today so jarring. In the 1993 Lennon, Coleman was still explicitly denouncing the idea that McCartney was a musical genius. Three years later, in Yesterday and Today’s introduction, Coleman was not only repeatedly describing McCartney as a musical genius — “I believe Paul’s genius and creative muse stretches beyond the categories of music and art,” (Coleman, Yesterday and Today, x) — but explicitly condemning those rock critics who had previously criticized McCartney for his supposed superficiality. (Ibid). That Coleman had himself flagrantly and repeatedly done so was conveniently, and utterly, ignored. Such a dramatic revision between the 1984 original edition and 1993 re-edition would have made sense, in that it would it presumably have been prompted by the wealth of essential primary sources which had been unavailable to Coleman when researching and writing the first edition but which had then emerged prior to the publication of the re-edition. Such an authorial pivot as Coleman exercises in the three short years between the second edition of Lennon and the publication of McCartney, however, seemingly indicates that Coleman’s rampant revisionism was not primarily based on new evidentiary analysis.
Like Lennon: The Definitive Life, McCartney: Yesterday and Today leans heavily on journalist-style interviews, as Coleman concentrates on the creation and legacy left by “Yesterday.” The book is dependent on the extensive, retrospective interviews granted by Paul McCartney, Linda McCartney, and George Martin; without these interviews, the book would have been very difficult, if not impossible, for Coleman to write. Granting favorable portrayals in exchange for access, either to individuals or archives, is common enough across history. Whether such favorable portrayals are explicitly or implicitly promised, or simply result from crucial, hard-won access for interviewers to historic and charismatic figures, is usually left to speculation.
That Paul and Linda McCartney granted Coleman such access is itself interesting, given the previously noted evidence indicating that McCartney was well aware of his contemptuous depiction in Coleman’s earlier work. In comparison, when Norman requested interviews with McCartney for his 2008 Lennon biography, McCartney refused to meet with Norman in person, but agreed to answer his questions via e-mail. Why McCartney was more willing to meet and interview extensively with Coleman, whose portrayal of him had been just as negative, and not Norman, is unknown. By reputation, (at least, according to his widow, who wrote the foreword to the 2000 edition) Coleman was an affable interviewer, and perhaps McCartney retained some small measure of goodwill towards the reporter; a legacy of Coleman’s 1963-65 era interviews. However, it should also be noted that McCartney’s Coleman-era interviews coincide with a notable increase in McCartney interviews within that same time period – particularly for Anthology, and Many Years from Now. As noted in The Beatles and the Historians, after largely allowing Lennon and Ono’s interviews to outnumber his, therefore ceding their version of events to become concretized, by the late 80s early 90s, McCartney was launching his own press offensive.
Regardless, in Yesterday and Today McCartney does reveal to Coleman small amounts of previously unavailable information. The book includes one of the, if not the, first admittances by McCartney that “Yesterday” was presumably, and wholly unconsciously, written about his mother Mary, who died when he was fourteen. It also includes one of McCartney’s rare references to the physical discipline practiced by his father, Jim; however, Coleman stresses that, “despite the occasional ‘wallop,’” Paul’s childhood, unlike John’s, was a happy, healthy one. (Coleman, 27). Coleman speculates that Epstein vetoed “Yesterday” as a single, not only because McCartney is the only Beatle on it, but also because of the predominantly “wary” relationship between Epstein and McCartney. (49). It offers a very one-sided (and, at least according to Northern Songs, Rupert Perry’s study of the legal and business history of the Lennon/McCartney song catalog, incorrect) version of how and why McCartney and Ono failed to purchase the Northern Songs catalog when it became available in the 1980s. It is also riddled with many of the same interpretive and methodological errors – failure to cite sources, provide a bibliography, apply critical source analysis, or account for contradictory evidence — that weakened Lennon’s accuracy and credibility.
Coleman’s views – on McCartney’s artistry, personality, and relationship with Lennon – in Yesterday and Today were stark, virtually complete reversals of his previous interpretations provided in Lennon: the Definitive Life. Decades later, under similar circumstances, Norman was forced to issue an explicit authorial mea culpa, and provided varying and at times contradictory motivations for his sea change on McCartney. In 1996 Coleman not only failed to acknowledge his previous errors, fundamental interpretive shift and the motivations behind it; he also had the audacity to condemn some of his fellow authors for promoting the same flawed version of McCartney and the Beatles that Coleman himself had helped concretize into orthodoxy. The 2000 edition of Lennon: The Definitive Life, offers further revisions on McCartney’s musicianship, character and the Lennon/McCartney friendship and partnership (although, as previously noted, some of this revisionism suited Coleman’s purpose in using McCartney as a source to dismiss Goldman’s work). It also removes Coleman’s earlier, explicit anointing of Lennon as the band’s sole genius.
Lacking direct evidence from Coleman explaining this shift – lacking even acknowledgement that his interpretation had shifted – the motivations for such a drastic authorial re-interpretation are up for speculation. In addition to the aforementioned pattern of authors purposefully or subconsciously providing favorable portrayals in exchange for access, other, larger forces in Beatles historiography must also be accounted for. A wider view of Coleman’s work – including his biographies of other rock/pop figures, including Brian Epstein – could offer insight into whether Coleman’s habit of producing methodologically flawed, hagiographic portrayals was his modus operandi. (While I have read all the editions of the Lennon biography as well as the McCartney biography, I have not read any other of Coleman’s work, and cannot answer the question with any amount of authority). If such semi-hagiographies were Coleman’s standard methodological and interpretive approach, his swift and seismic reversals on McCartney, when writing a McCartney biography, would fall into a greater, overall pattern.
Additionally, by 1996, a fundamental sea-change was occurring in the bedrock of Beatles historiography. The essential The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions had been published 8 years earlier, and the primary sources it revealed had chipped away at the Lennon Remembers/Shout! versions of how the band functioned in the studio. In 1995 another crucial work, Revolution in the Head, was published. While Ian MacDonald’s musicological study suffers from some of its own issues, particularly regarding authorial speculation, MacDonald’s informed analysis flatly denounced the earlier, simplistic musical evaluations provided by Norman, Coleman and others, all of whom had dismissed McCartney’s contributions. 1995 had also witnessed the broadcast of the video version of The Beatles Anthology; another primary, if retrospective, source, which pushed back against the prevailing narratives of the 1970s and 1980s. By 2016, authors and Beatles authorities, including Adam Gopnik and Robert Rodriguez, were speculating that Norman’s pivot on McCartney was at least as motivated by Norman’s own efforts to regain some measure of credibility and impartiality on the musician – and therefore redeem his reputation as a Beatles authority – as it was based on a genuine change in perspective. One can speculate that Coleman may have realized, by the mid-90s, which way the narrative winds were blowing, and possibly wrote a favorable portrayal of McCartney in Yesterday and Today in an attempt to shore up his reputation as a Beatles authority.
Revisionism in and of itself is not a weakness or an interpretive flaw. To the contrary, evidence-based revisionism deepens historical understanding by introducing new sources, providing new perspectives, and examining old stories and individuals from new angles. The rub is not that Coleman pivoted away from a previously flawed interpretation. It’s that what evidence we have indicates that his stunning reversal was less motivated by an open-minded willingness to incorporate new evidence which contradicted his earlier interpretations – which, in itself, is a necessary and admirable quality for historians to have – and more as a desperate attempt to either gain access to McCartney and/or to implicitly distance himself from his earlier interpretations without bothering to explicitly denounce them … To plant himself, as the saying goes, “on the right side of history.”
Questions and comments are welcomed, by both first-time readers and traditional posters. Have at it!
13 thoughts on “Count me out/in: Ray Coleman’s McCartney: Yesterday and Today”
Amazing, Erin. Extremely well written and informative, I am going to go over it a few times, and hope for an open dialogue on this subject.
For a moment this is my first intuitive reponse, as I have been suggesting in my response to Beckerman’s recent article in the NorthJersey.com about Paul at last getting his due in critical assessment. I see you write about it too…
Is the meaning of genius not something like ‘talent to the power of a zillion’?
What did John think about it? John said in the late sixties quite a few times, he considered himself a genius. What did Paul think bout it?
Take a moment, and look and listen to Alec ‘Trump’ Baldwin in his speech for Paul McCartney ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RL76v3qoEeI ) at the Kennedy Center Honors with Michelle and Barack Obama attending. When Baldwin says at 2.20 “Paul McCartney is a genius”, Paul starts physically to appreciate it, but realizes it is not true, and even though the audience applauds, he nods his head… most likely implying: Genius, me? no, not me, we were not.
This is not merely a false modesty from him… he has expressed this opinion time and again.
The whole discussion about who was the genius in the band is flawed and completely blown out of proportions. It only became a point of discussion because some $#$# brought it up. The likes of Jann Wenner, Robert Hilburn and Philip Norman. These were not serious statements, regarding the art and the biography of the Beatles.
Just like you, Erin, suggest in your book I consider the discussion of who, what broke up The Beatles, and how did that really happen has historical relevance, even though it has no effect on their music. However, the often explored question ‘who is the genius of the band’ is historically utterly and completely irrelevant. Or am I missing something here?
Oh and by the way, Steven Tyler always makes me cry with his performance… he did again just now.
(1) Beckerman, Jim (2017). Ex-Beatle Paul McCartney gets his due in critical reassessment. On Northjersey.com, September 6th 2017. Retrieved September 2017:
Thanks for the insightful, well-considered comment. I have seen the Kennedy Center Honors for Paul video, but it is always enjoyable to watch; thanks for posting the link.
I think the “genius” debate is a flawed premise, rather than an “irrelevant” discussion. I don’t want to divert too much on to such unquantifiable issues: first ,defining “genius” and, second, attempting to attribute the title to “genius” to any one Beatle. For one thing, the term strikes me as far too subjective, and interwoven with so many other issues — politics, fads, personal opinion — that attempting to quantify it in a blog post would be frankly silly.
The reason I covered the “who is the one/greater genius” debate in TBATH is because you see it as a thread woven through their historiography; starting, particularly, in the midst of the breakup period. For another, the “sole/greater” genius debate is interwoven with the “Lennon vs. McCartney” debate which, unfortunately, infuses so much of authoritative and fan-based Beatles perception.
My evaluation has always been that such a “Lennon vs. McCartney” and “Who was the greater genius” debates are fundamentally flawed premises to start with. But there’s no denying that they are popular and pervasive.
Paul’s overall critical reassessment – both from established Beatles authorities, such as Coleman, and newcomers – is one of the most fascinating aspects, for me, in Beatles historiography. I would hazard a guess that we are also witnessing the emergence of a critical reassessment on George; although that is, obviously, impacted by his death. I don’t think anyone would now contest the perception that Paul’s reputation has dramatically improved since the 1980s; what fascinates me (as I hope I explored enough in the Coleman review) is examining why.
You are way much kinder than I am, probably you should, as an historian.
“The reason I covered the “who is the one/greater genius” debate in TBATH is because you see it as a thread woven through their historiography; starting, particularly, in the midst of the breakup period. For another, the “sole/greater” genius debate is interwoven with the “Lennon vs. McCartney” debate which, unfortunately, infuses so much of authoritative and fan-based Beatles perception.”
mmm, maybe indeed I underestimate the importance of the (“sole/greater” genius) debate, as you suggest it might have played into the breakup period and proces.
It would be very human from both sides. But then agin, i project decency and smartness on all four of the Beatles. My experience with artists, and famous people is that they are kinder and smarter than waht the audiences perceive, plus I can’t see a lot of proof for your assumption that it has played into the break-up proces. Maybe in the way Lennon operated emotionally, but if he really believed his ‘How Do You Sleep’ rants… I would be surprised. My guess is, he knew his to compartimentalize his artistic and political efforts from the business, my impression is that Paul was and is just as good at that. There is indeed one big difference between them. At the time John was more of an outgoing activist with his New Left political orientation and Paul as a Beatle never explicit about real political convictions, he wants and wanted to be the entertainer, making music. Now again I can’t see how that would play into a multi-million business deal – except for the rare blow-up from John, more likely caused by drugs than differences between him and Paul. I consider them both too smart for that. Accept there was this passive agression by Paul avoiding and stalling all processes.
I agree that the discussion is woven through the Beatles historiography. The problem I have with that is the following:
If a discussion or way of thinking occurs and becomes the topic of the day but is without merit, than what to do as an historian?
What if most authors you refer to in your book, are basically failing to see what is obvious, that they were falling for propaganda and one source only, which was a consequence of bad journalism, especially from Hilburn, Wenner, Norman and Coleman. What they did was almost anti-journalism (they follow one source, one opinion, and still do that without trying to dig deeper and find counter-replies. Melody-Maker did that with George Martin interviews. I don’t see who picked it up, to then check Martin’s story with others. These authors in the early seventies and eighties needed their narrative to make money. Bad journlism, ‘Trump would say: ‘bad hombres’.
So what I was surprised about in your book is that you take up the content of the debate and use that as the distinction between the four narratives, and only give a little attention to how that could have happen. I think historically it is far more interesting and relevant to ask questions about how they operated:
Why Wenner and Norman (they are both alove) kept on walking that journalistic tightrope – and kept on going with verifiable nonsense? Rolling Stone does it still in their latest piece about Paul, their ‘Paul McCartney’s 40 Greatest Solo Songs’ (1).
Or why they change their opinion. I think Norman’s defence is invalid, because if he wants his argument to be taken seriously, we can dismiss him as a journalist, all what remians of him is a man with an opinion writing stylistically a lot better than me.
You refer to the role of Ian MacDonald’s book ‘Revolution in the Head’, but I am not sure about that, he was not without critique, e.g. check his review for ‘If I fell’, in which he fails to see, that simplicity and youthfull naivity in love relationships is not something for adolescents only, when you are in your twenties or thirtie this can happen too.Even though I love the book and pick it up quite often, there is a lot of opinionated irrelevant stuff in there.
I think ‘Pollack’s Notes’ were earlier (some of them as early as 1991) and better. From the beginning they were more objective, without judgements on personalities or contributions, but focussing on the music.
Maybe we ned to reconsider, maybe the historiography of the Beatlss biography was not lead by most of the books we know, which you discussed in your book, but also or maybe even more by folks on the internet. There are some residus of the early nineties thru 2000 left on the internet. (2)
Just as important as ‘usenet’ was in the nineties, is the internet today, plus the Beatle-fests, conferences, and folks touring the country as speakers with information and analysis on the Beatles. Stuff we Beatle fans love to hear, for the historiography it should not be ignored – it should be explored. I think today there are more relevant than Philip Norman’s latest book on Paul. This people on the internet provide us with the opportunity to question, explore and verify their opinions and facts.
That was from the top of my head. Hope it makes sense when I read it back tomorrow. Erin you writing is inspiring, and challenging. I luv it.
Dolan, Jon; Vozick-Levinson, Simon; Hermes, Will; Sheffield, Rob (2017). Paul McCartney’s 40 Greatest Solo Songs. In Rolling Stone September 13th, 2017. Retrieved September 2017: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/paul-mccartneys-40-greatest-solo-songs-w493547
(2) http://recmusicbeatles.com. Sadly most links are dead, but the contributions of ‘Saki’ and Pollack are still alive, those from Pollack are preserved in various databases around the world. Even though it is not always easy to find the original dates/places of the conversations, they are worthwhile because they are rarely driven by the books.
I don’t want to go too in-depth into how/why the “genius” issue played a role in the breakup. While I think there’s valuable information in considering how of why John’s concept of “genius” (as well as “art) may have impacted his breakup era decisions, that, to my mind, offers a rabbit hole that is simply too subjective and hypothetical for this post, which is primarily supposed to be about historiography. If I indicated that’s the direction I wanted to go in my previous post, let me backtrack now; that wasn’t my intention. I did not mean to divert onto the issue of “genius” in the breakup, and what role it may have played. What I wanted to do with my last post was explain why and how I spent time in TBATH covering and discussing the “Genius” debate, and the reason for that was simple; it, along with the “who was to blame for the breakup” question, is one of the most popular pervasive debates in their historiography. If you were to write a book on the historiography of Abraham Lincoln, you would need to discuss the very real schism among historians regarding their views of Mary Todd Lincoln, which basically boils down to side A. incredibly loyal love of his life vs. side b. shrill controlling harpy who only dragged him down, emotionally and politically. It’s one of the great debates within Lincoln historiography, so it needs to be acknowledged … the same way the “genius” debate, as waged by others, is one of the great debates in Beatles historiography.
“So what I was surprised about in your book is that you take up the content of the debate and use that as the distinction between the four narratives, and only give a little attention to how that could have happen. I think historically it is far more interesting and relevant to ask questions about how they operated: Why Wenner and Norman (they are both alove) kept on walking that journalistic tightrope – and kept on going with verifiable nonsense?”
That is a crucial question, and one which I agree needs a great deal more attention. I didn’t go too in depth into it for several reasons; first, I wrote TBATH as a primer on historical methodology: Source A says this, Source B says this, here are the standards (ABC) historians use to determine which one is more credible and accurate. The issue of why was less relevant to the textbook purpose of the book, at least for those college history students I was writing for. Second, I didn’t have that many sources regarding the “why” issue; much of it would have been speculation. Third, I was running out of words. I wound up cutting a significant amount of material to make my publisher’s agreed upon word count; I couldn’t have fit the “why” in if I wanted to. However, answering questions like that is one of the reasons I did this blog.
“You refer to the role of Ian MacDonald’s book ‘Revolution in the Head’, but I am not sure about that, he was not without critique,”
I agree: MacDonald is not without critique; that’s why I did critique him in the above Coleman review, esp. regarding MacDonald’s tendency to speculate.
Great review, Erin.
I find this to be the most compelling. As with Norman, I wonder if Coleman fell prey to something called cultural cognition: the tendency to develop opinions which closely align with the perceived beliefs of their peer group, regardless of the independent facts which may or may not support those opinions. (Here’s an interesting article on the subject regarding cultural cognition and scientific consensus.) In essence, this would mean that Coleman and Norman believed that McCartney was an artistic lightweight because that was the consensus of their peer group, and they sought/interpreted information to support that hypothesis. Decades later, the peer group with which they identify changed that narrative, so Coleman and Norman altered their beliefs accordingly. They didn’t drive the narrative change; they followed it–and in Coleman’s case, without explaining the about-face.
I can offer only a short comment now, Karen; hopefully later, in another response, I could incorporate more information from the article you linked to, which was fascinating.
Regarding the issue of the “peer group” consensus, in the 1980s press, that Paul was a superficial lightweight, I think it’s telling that we have reinforcement for that. According to Joan Goodman, who did the essential “Playboy” interviews with Paul in the early/mid 80s, her peers in the press (none of who had actually met Paul) not only perceived him as shallow, they also warned her against liking him, and gave the impression that admitting to liking Paul and/or his music was the equivalent of declaring yourself a drooling airhead. Now Goodman doesn’t specify who these fellow journalists were, but that certainly indicates, to me, that a certain amount of people in positions to shape narratives (i.e. journalists) were locked into perceiving Paul and the Beatles in one particular way, and that to go against the grain was a very risky thing to do.
I look forward to your additional, expanded thoughts, Erin.
I remember a thread not long ago about the rock and roll archetype of the 70’s, and how McCartney–a stable family man who didn’t abuse hard drugs, sing songs about his tortured soul, etc–was antithetical to that, in the minds of the music press. Was that here, or on Hey Dullblog? Anyway, that discussion may have relevance to this topic in terms of pinpointing the origins of Paul’s fall from grace as a rock icon, and his subsequent excoriation by biographers for the next few decades.
There was so much good information in that article, I wanted to take the time and do it some justice. Certainly this quote — “When considering information from any source, people selectively credit or discredit in accordance with their cultural predispositions, becoming more polarized as they learn more. Ideally, people would evaluate all sorts of new information and update their beliefs appropriately.” – has ramifications well beyond discussions of Beatles historiography, given today’s current political and news climate. But I’ll try and keep On Topic.
That element of what is, essentially, confirmation bias – discrediting evidence/authorities that don’t support your pre-determined preferences, regardless of the source’s legitimacy – is one that’s prevalent across Beatles historiography. (You see this in Brown, Coleman, Norman, etc, esp. regarding their use of George Martin: They will praise him to the skies as a great producer and legitimate, invaluable source, but then dismiss and/or ignore his perspective when he offers evidence that differs from what they want to hear.) We see this, again and again, from many of the usual suspects. Unfortunately, it’s practiced by certain fans, as well as various authors. This is exacerbated by Beatles historiography’s Lennon vs. McCartney schism; confirmation bias by both fans and authors feeds the obscuring John vs. Paul debate that infuses so much of and ultimately obscures the band’s historiography. This is a confirmation bias motivated, in some instances, by politics, by personal preferences, by access, by musical preferences, personal feelings of betrayal, etc. Whatever its motivations, it’s resulted in some stunningly biased but heavily influential works and hypocritical pivots from writers across the spectrum. More objective works, such as The Beatles Bibliography, acknowledge this confirmation bias, especially regarding new interpretations that conflict with previously commonly accepted wisdom offered in the “Lennon Remembers” and Shout! narratives.
To be blunt, none of these authors, then or now, research and write in a vacuum. As the Goodman information makes clear, there were prevailing sentiments among journalists in the early 80s regarding John and Paul, and those perceptions dominated in the press to the point that Goodman not only noted them in her interview, but felt compelled to justify why she didn’t perceive Paul according to the “shallow” image that was widely accepted. Authors and biographers, especially in a subject such as The Beatles, read one another’s work, contribute to one another’s books, offer blurbs and proofreading. They network and go to conventions and socialize there. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s human nature. But it also implicitly involves a certain amount of inadvertent peer pressure to believe in the larger group’s ethos – what you and the article described as “cultural cognition.” If everyone in your particular field of study adheres to a particular perception of an event, to counteract that may result in expulsion or, at least, unpopularity and/or distance from the group. This would only feed an already existing confirmation bias.
That’s one of the reasons that I regard MacDonald’s work as so crucial. It’s not without its flaws, heaven knows – esp. its musical evaluation of George – but it’s informed while, at the same time, speculative. MacDonald was a peer of many of those same rock journalists who had been covering The Beatles for decades, and had hewed, for whatever reasons, to the LR and Shout! versions of the band’ story for twenty-five years. And he was – with the exception of Hertsgaard – the first major authority to denounce those versions. For the first time outside of George Martin’s memoirs or Paul McCartney’s defensive interviews or Salewicz’s lesser-known bio of Paul, you had a major, qualified, peer within the world of Rock and Roll journalism seriously pushing back against the group consensus. That’s not a coincidence.
Let me close with one final thought: Beatles historiography needs – desperately – to move beyond this obscuring and toxic Lennon vs. McCartney debate. In my mind, it’s a flawed premise to approach the band’s music, story, and historiography from. It feeds from and contributes to the most methodologically flawed works in the band’s story; it immediately sets up an antagonistic, zero-sum partnership/relationship between them which some fans and authors then contribute to with confirmation bias. It’s exhausting and unnecessary and needs to stop for our understanding of the band and their music to progress.
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It seems almost sophomoric for music critics and Beatle biographers to uncritically adhere to the accepted orthodoxy of their peer group, but Goodman’s experience shows how hard it is–and potentially career damaging it might be–to resist.
A thousand times this. It’s like debating which leg is more necessary to walk–the right or the left. Lennon needed McCartney, and McCartney needed Lennon. Neither, in my opinion, were able to replicate alone what they were able to produce together. Such is the blessing and curse of a great partnership.
“It’s like debating which leg is more necessary to walk–the right or the left.”
And we have significant evidence to shift the debate from Lennon vs. McCartney to Lennon and McCartney. John put it best in 1969: “I wouldn’t write the way I do now if it weren’t for Paul, and he wouldn’t write how he does if it weren’t for me.” Their fundamental creative processes were inextricably intertwined with the other, so that even what we regard as purely solo works aren’t, because that editorial other voice was still there.
And that’s just in the creative process. The level of competition infused their songwriting and drove them in their solo years. We have witnesses arguing that John kept playing the melody of Imagine again and again, and asking if the melody was as good as “yesterday.” And, of course, using “scrambled Eggs” as filler for the lyrics — the same lyrics Paul had used for “Yesterday.’ You could make the argument that, without “Yesterday” to push him, John doesn’t come up with “Imagine.”
I didn’t know that. That’s really interesting.
As an aside, I remember the Lennon v McCartney debate when it was part of the “which Beatle do you like better” fan chat which was ubiquitious back in the day. In those days, it was based on whose voice/personality/appearance you favoured (or, more specifically, who you had a crush on.) The order of favourites, at least as I remember it, was first Paul, then John, then George, and finally, Ringo. Most fans were clearly Paul or John fans. As the fan base matured and the music press began to take the Beatles’ music seriously, I wonder if this contributed to the contemporary debate we see now about “genius”.
I believe the report about “Imagine” and “Scrambled Eggs” comes from reporter Robert Hilburn, although I wouldn’t swear to it. I’ve seen transcripts of the interview on amoralto’s tumblr, with the journalist mentioning retrospectively how John continuously kept asking, while working on the song, about “Imagine”‘s melody: “But is it as good as ‘Yesterday?'” The reporter assured they were both great melodies, and John would reply, as if to himself, “It is. It’s as good as ‘Yesterday.'” The same reporter also describes John using “scrambled eggs” as place filler for the lyrics.
I think fan favoritism, which was already well-established prior to the breakup, absolutely played a role in the breakup. But it’s time to run outside, get wet, and talk about the American Civil War.