In February, I will be giving a small, 45 minute presentation at one of Wichita’s history museums: The Museum of World Treasures, for their Coffee with the Curator series. This is the second time they’ve asked me to do a presentation on the Beatles. The last time I gave an overview of the band’s history and historiography: basically, I provided a rough outline of my book. This time, I want to discuss something more in-depth: The Lennon vs. McCartney schism which has had such a fundamental impact on the band’s historiography.
My stance on viewing the band’s story through a Lennon vs. McCartney, zero-sum lens is pretty evident to anyone who has read my book or is familiar with this blog. At best, I find it a tired, exhausted narrative that, at its peak period, stifled more nuanced and balanced interpretations and employed confirmation bias. More, that interpretation’s longevity (it was the predominant lens through which these men and their partnership was viewed from approximately 1970 until at least 1995)also reinforces the necessity for an interpretive change: Pitting John vs. Paul has been done so exhaustively, and for so long, that we have presumably extracted all the value out of it and it has little more to reveal to us.
At its worst, and most damaging, viewing the band’s story and their music this way has resulted in some of their historiography’s most partisan and inaccurate sources. More than simply being obscuring, major works such as Shout!, Ray Coleman’s Lennon, and Jann Wenner’s efforts, among others, proved toxic: with the Lennon vs. McCartney lens motivating authors to provide readers and Beatles fans with imbalanced, methodologically flawed, yet highly influential works that concretized imbalanced, partisan and highly inaccurate narratives which dominated the band’s historiography for decades. Simply put: because certain authors, and fans, chose to view the 20th century’s most important songwriting partnership as a zero sum game, in which praising one somehow diminished the other, we received a more inaccurate version of the band’s story than we otherwise would have.
But those are my conclusions, and I’m curious to hear the thoughts and conclusions of others, including those who have been involved in Beatles fandom, and reading/interacting with Beatles historiography, for far longer than I have. For any interested readers and posters, I’d like to hear your thoughts regarding any or all of these questions:
When do you believe or remember the Lennon vs. McCartney lens began? (I’m not talking about people having a favorite Beatle/preferring John or Paul, but rather when did praising one (either musically or otherwise) begin to seemingly require diminishing/criticizing the other?)
What advantages, or insights, if any, do you think Beatles historiography has gained by employing this Lennon vs. McCartney lens? How much validity does the interpretation have?
Is there a generational aspect to this? Are younger fans less prone to viewing the band’s story this way, or not? For older fans, what sources or events strongly influenced you to view Beatles historiography in this way? Which sources prompted you to move away from that lens?
Is there a gender aspect to this? Various authors (including Schafner and Norman) have argued that during the Beatles period male fans tended to prefer John, and female fans tended to prefer Paul. Did that harden from preference to partisanship, largely broken along gender lines, after the breakup?
How prevalent do you perceive this Lennon vs. McCartney zero-sum interpretation to still be? Do most or many fans still employ it? Are most fans you have encountered willing to take in new evidence that might change their POV on that interpretation, or are they locked into it?
What authors/Beatles authorities do you think still use this interpretation, either in its obscuring or toxic form?
What authors do you think have done the most significant job of combatting it, and what are their primary arguments against it?
I swear the point of this is not to use all of you to do my own research. I want to get some fresh eyes on the subject before I launch into working in depth on the presentation.
As always, comments are welcomed.
54 thoughts on “Lennon vs. McCartney: A Flawed Lens”
Great questions, as always.
I remember this starting when Revolver was released. It was the beginning of the psychedelic/drug-soaked/hippy era and Tomorrow Never Knows–with its strange tape loops (courtesy of Paul, but who knew that at the time) and unusual Lennon vocals seem to cast John as more “hip” than Paul. “Got To Get You Into My Life” was a great tune, but not in the same league (to hippies, at least) as TNK. By 1967 and Sgt Pepper, it seemed as though John was getting all the credit for the edgy, progressive music that was really the result of group collaboration and, specifically, Paul’s influence.
This is a great question, Erin. It seems to me that the Lennon vs McCartney comparisons have, in the very least, resulted in McCartney getting his due. Prior to this, it was simply assumed that John was more creative, more cutting edge, more musically creative than Paul. The comparisons required a more in-depth examination of Beatle authorship and, once the creative rock was turned over, Paul’s contributions were apparent.
Yes, Yes, and Yes. I think we talked before on the blog about how boys wanted to be the Beatles, while girls wanted to marry them. This is clearly a gender-driven phenomena; the path to male-dominated, male-ego identified professions was fairly limited to girls until the mid-70’s. I wonder to what extent this partisanship was shaped by the restrictions placed on female artists to be accepted by the male-dominated rock culture.
Depends where you look. If you read comments on youtube it would curl your hair. There is so much misinformation out there that I would definitely say that the Lennon/McCartney schism is alive and well. (Yoko had done her job well, perpetuating the JohnandYoko narrative.) I think that many fans are locked into the narrative because their information source (YouTube, the internet, questionable chat groups) are, well, pitiful.
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“think that many fans are locked into the narrative because their information source (YouTube, the internet, questionable chat groups) are, well, pitiful.”
Absolutely. I agree Karen. I wonder though, if these people are huge fans of the group or more casual fans. I just don’t understand how they can be fans of anyone or anything and not want to read as much information as they can get their hands on and from the right sources, instead of surfing the web for their information. Also, speaking of YouTube watching YouTube videos is one of the things that really taught me about the band. Most videos go against the Lennon vs McCartney narrative, so it really makes me wonder what these people are seeing.
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That’s an interesting designation to make, Linda, regarding casual vs. huge fans. I taught a Beatles class last year and asked the students, at the beginning, to fill out a questionnaire and to name their favorite Beatles song, and at least a few of them named “Imagine.” And these were people who were interested enough in the band to pay for and take a class on the Beatles.
I generally don’t read comments on youtube, because it undermines my faith in humanity. But your claim that most of the videos push back against pitting John vs. Paul is a particularly interesting one: I wonder why that is.
As to what people are seeing … My knowledge of the Beatles was pretty basic until I dove in headfirst approximately 10 years ago, but I recall my general impressions, basically gleaned from pop culture as a member of late Gen X/Early Gen Y:
The Beatles were the greatest band on earth; everyone was super upset when they broke up, and their breakup was treated as some generational tragedy for baby boomers, Sgt. Pepper was the greatest album ever, Wings was mediocre, Ringo was the guy on Shining Times Station and had a big nose, all the living ones did a Simpsons episode, John wrote Imagine, had some vague association with peace, hooked up with Yoko and became pretentious, got murdered, was a rotten father and abandoned Julian. Ringo was a punchline, the lucky one getting carried by the others guy’s talents: Paul was a goofy vegetarian and performed “Jet,” which I hate: Yoko was the crazy reason the band broke up, and George barely existed, although he did get a number one with “Set on You.” That was my very vague knowledge of the band before I actually started studying them. Those are my impressions, and someone else of my generation may have very different ones.
I was unaware of a Lennon vs. McCartney schism until I actually delved into the band’s literature, and was both surprised and disappointed to realize it existed. At the same time, nowhere in my general impressions did they really talk about the importance of the Lennon/McCartney songwriting partnership. The first time I remember that being stressed was in Time magazine, in their series they did about the most important events/individuals of the 20th century, when they declared that John and Pau’s first meeting was among the most important of the century, up there with Churchill and Roosevelt.
Wailing baby: will try and finish later.
“at least a few of them named “Imagine.” And these were people who were interested enough in the band to pay for and take a class on the Beatles.”
Is it possible they knew it was a solo song but they were just lumping solo and Beatles stuff together under the category of Beatles? You would have to know next to nothing about the band, to think Imagine was a Beatles song. Then again maybe they did know nothing but preferred to pay for a class instead of accidentally tapping the wrong sources? I’m curious now. What did you find out once the class was underway? Speaking of college courses on the Beatles, I don’t know what sources you employed but I once saw a course offered that used Shout as the main source for the class. So these students were required to buy that book plus pay for a class that obviously used highly questionable source information.
“But your claim that most of the videos push back against pitting John vs. Paul is a particularly interesting one: I wonder why that is”
What I meant was, if you watch the videos of interviews, press conferences, anything…. There is no evidence that John and Paul, or any of them, were against each other. There is no evidence in their demeanors that suggest there was anything but great friendship and closeness between them. There is no odd man out, like the one suggested in the Lennon Remembers Narrative. It simply is not there. Yet, interestingly enough the commenters under some of the videos see it anyway. They see behaviors that are not there because they are obviously entrenched in the Lennon Remembers Narrative. At this point they are seeing anything that will confirm their confirmation bias, whether it is actually suggested or not. I think this attitude transcends generations.
Ah–I see what you mean. Absolutely. And that seems to be the impression most new fans have when they watch those old interviews. There was a respect, affection, and camaraderie that contradicts the animus you always read about in Shout! and other bios.
The class was an interesting mix, of some more knowledgeable fans — the ones who might have read 2 or 3 books, and read casual articles, maybe watched Anthology — and a few who simply liked Beatles music and wanted to learn more. There weren’t any heavy Beatles scholars in the class.
I remember seeing a college course that used Shout! in its curriculum. IIRC, it was the first Beatles college class, and had been taught since the early to mid 80s. The reality is that, in that period, if you were going to teach a class on the band, that was really the only biography (beyond Davies) that was available to you, and Davies didn’t cover the breakup, so that’s leaving out a crucial element to their story. Let me put it this way: given the scarcity of choices, the availability of other works, the cost of textbooks (which is something good professors try and account for) and the critical praise given to Shout!, I probably would have chosen the same textbook in that situation/time period, although I would also have assigned Davies for a compare/contrast element.
Now, if that particular professor is still using Shout! as primary textbook today, and does so without acknowledging all of its shortcomings/balancing it out with other works, that is a pretty serious error. Of course, some professors tend to fail to, well, update their syllabi as often as they should. Oops. (I have certainly been guilty of that.)
Another great article (and i share your viewpoint)… I have been a lurker on your blog for a couple of months and always really enjoy your articles (and the many responses). I’ve been a big Beatles fan most of my life, but I was only in first grade when they broke up so my appreciation for them really began after they were no longer together (for what it’s worth my wife is more of a John fan and I’m more of a Paul fan)… Anyway, keep up the great work!
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“(for what it’s worth my wife is more of a John fan and I’m more of a Paul fan)…”
So you and your wife contradict the gender breakdown of Beatles preferences! My husband doesn’t care at all about the Beatles, or popular music, so he’s doesn’t count as favoring anyone.
Welcome, Keith. Thanks for commenting. One of the things I like about this blog — your comment about being in first grade when they broke up — is how we get some generational diversity. Discovering them, as you did, once they’d already broken up is a very different introduction than watching the story unfold in real time and living through it. I knew the Beatles had broken up pretty much the instant after I knew they’d ever existed, so I had no emotional attachment to that realization. They existed, they ended. Obladi-Obladah, Life goes on. I wonder if people who entered fandom post-breakup — second generation fans, as it were — viewed their music differently than first generation fans, having different expectations.
This reminds me of the day my wife and I were watching television and Paul Simon appeared. “Was he in the Beatles?” my wife asked me.
For the briefest of moments I was tempted to make a wisecrack like “Yes, the Beatles’ lineup was John, Paul, George and Garfunkle.”
But I didn’t joke, because she has her own musical tastes and expertise, and I have mine. I couldn’t name the members of the Fugees, for example.
Thirty years successfully married, because we appreciate what we have in common, and accept what we don’t.
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That’s hilarious! 🙂
Congratulations on 30 years! My husband and I are not quite halfway to that — we’re at 13, and going strong.
I find my husband’s disinterest in popular music somewhat odd, because he, unlike me, can actually read music and sings very well. (He can also do mental math and is willing to smash big spiders, so I think I’ll keep him). Not to turn this into a treatise on marriage, but I’ve found that having those other interests can actually be helpful. For example: my husband loves college basketball, which I’m rather indifferent to. I am, however, a passionate KC Chiefs football fan (its been a good season so far. Very good.). If we were both interested in the same sports/teams, nothing would ever get done during those sporting events, but with differing interests, we can run interference on the kids while the other is busy with their respective sports team. It works well.
And I was always a John fan, so your wife and I are simpatico on that one. 😉
“Is there a generational aspect to this? Are younger fans less prone to viewing the band’s story this way, or not? (…)
How prevalent do you perceive this Lennon vs. McCartney zero-sum interpretation to still be? Do most or many fans still employ it? Are most fans you have encountered willing to take in new evidence that might change their POV on that interpretation, or are they locked into it?”
From my vantage point, it seems these things are linked together. I do think there’s a strong generational aspect to it. I was born in 1973, first discovered the Beatles in the early 80’s, so not only after the Beatles, but also after John Lennon’s death and Wings’ biggest hits. To a lot of people of my generation, Paul McCartney was the guy who had huge but critically panned hits with Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and animated frogs. Meanwhile, John Lennon’s death means his legacy was set in stone, while U2 were referencing Goldman in one of their songs. So we were aware of the John vs. Paul divide, aware that to a lot of people John was looking a lot better in that contest, but without having as much of a horse in that race as did people who had been around when the Beatles still existed.
From what I can tell, the zero-sum interpretation is on the decline, but not because people who hold it are changing their minds about it. Rather, the people who hold that view still cling to it, but their number gets diluted through the influx of younger fans who come without that baggage. The youngest generation of Beatles fans – aged, say, 16-30 – is not merely uninterested in that view; they don’t even seem to be aware that it was ever a thing. (As an aside; my best friend has a second-hand vinyl shop where I help him out twice a week, and I just love seeing how many young music fans are really into the Beatles.)
It also seems to me that in addition to a generational and a gender aspect, there’s also a geographical aspect. My (admittedly anecdotal) impression is that the zero-sum view has always taken a stronger hold in the UK and USA than it did elsewhere in the world.
I also wonder whether the partisan view of Lennon vs. McCartney fits into a larger narrative about the rock press of the 70’s as a whole. I am reminded of the punk movement, which was said to have “killed all dinosaurs”, i.e. repudiated everything that came before it. I once talked about this with an acquaintance of mine who is a few years also than me, and he said, “I was 16 in 1977, and I was into ELO and Todd Rundgren, as well as the Sex Pistols and the Clash, and nobody I knew thought anything strange about that”. So, my guess is that the rock press in general was invested in pitting X vs. Y narratives that weren’t as keenly felt by the music fans they were writing for. And then in the early 90’s, with the advent of grunge, they did it all over again.
(Another aside: I thought it was very interesting to hear Karen tell about the divide starting with the release of Revolver. This made me realize I’d always reflexively assumed it had been borne out of a desire to assign blame for the break-up. But apparently, I never had any factual basis for that assumption.)
That’s interesting, Robbert. Those of us born a few decades earlier had the advantage of “living” the band’s history rather than having to rely on biographers to tell us about it–and we know that many of them were less than objective or accurate.
Mine is just an observation, actually; I don’t have any hardcore facts to back it up. It’s something I remember as a youngster.
“Paul McCartney was the guy who had huge but critically panned hits with Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and animated frogs.”
I was four when “The Frog chorus” out, and I thought it was absolute brilliance. It almost made me forgive Paul for “BroadStreet” and “Band on the Run.” (I think I’ve discussed the irrational reasons for my intense decades-long dislike of that album elsewhere).
“So we were aware of the John vs. Paul divide, aware that to a lot of people John was looking a lot better in that contest, but without having as much of a horse in that race as did people who had been around when the Beatles still existed.”
That dilution of intensity over time is a very interesting theory. That the die-hards in the John vs. Pau debate would have been the original generation, with each successive wave softening on the debate to the point of even being unaware of it fits right into that idea of historical distance and the lessening of strong emotion allowing for more impartial observation.
“From what I can tell, the zero-sum interpretation is on the decline, but not because people who hold it are changing their minds about it. Rather, the people who hold that view still cling to it, but their number gets diluted through the influx of younger fans who come without that baggage.”
I think that almost any evidence on this would have to be fairly anecdotal, unless you did a poll/analysis at a Beatlesfest. I have had a few readers from earlier generations e-mail me and discuss that they originally adopted this interpretation, but then changed when later evidence emerged. However, I don’t think any of them were first generation fans. That also makes me curious about authors who have pivoted on the issue (Coleman, Norman): do they really reject the premise, or are they trying to save their own reputations, now that that interpretation no longer dominates the historiography?
I loved your observation that you think pitting John vs. Paul was more of a UK/US thing: the domination of those two countries in their control of Beatles historiography is, I think, a very underexplored aspect of that historiography. If we have other non-Americans/Brits reading, (including Karen) I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether you believe the Lennon/McCartney lens was less prominent in your respective countries than it was in the U.S./U.K., where political issues infused our interpretations.
My father was a teenager when Revolver came out, and today he argues that, when it was released, he knew the band was destined to breakup because there was no way that one band could contain two geniuses like Lennon and McCartney: they’d want to dominate their own space. I love getting “as it happened” impressions such as that.
erin, so much to say, but first, any talk of a lennon v. mccartney schism begins, of necessity, on a note of profound sadness. to this day, almost 38 years on, i always have a sense that beatle people just don’t want to talk about it. i get it. i’m there too. it’s just too painful & sad. so, i’m sorry. but, john would have been the first to say this is all nonsense, and needs to be seen in perspective. (steel & glass? oh, i’m talking about myself again, not paul. right.) i often think of paul’s 20/20 interview during the flowers in the dirt tour when he said, in so many words, “i was lucky. john & i had managed to get our relationship back on track & were having good conversations. but george didn’t. i think they were arguing right up until the very end. and, i’m sure, that’s a source of great sadness for george.” and me too. and all of us, right? having said that, when i have time, i’d love to follow up soon with a more zeroed-in response to your questions with a post, for starters, specifically about john & yoko when they were co-hosts all week on the mike douglas show after imagine was released and i was 6 years old. i remember it as if it were yesterday. thanks, erin. i appreciate this beatle work you do.
“but, john would have been the first to say this is all nonsense, and needs to be seen in perspective.”
That’s a great point, Tom, and one that I think can’t really get repeated enough, especially since so much of the primary source material for this Lennon vs. McCartney lens comes from John’s bitter breakup era statements. There are plenty of people who knew John — May Pang, Ray Connolly, Pete Shotton — who will attest to John’s habit of spouting off, particularly when angry, and then wanting to ignore both that he’d ever said anything and the consequences of his statements/actions. (As Karen so concisely put it, his rejection of responsibility immediately upon admitting culpability.) Indeed, part of John’s post-1971 comments demonstrate a strain of exasperation with those who had taken his breakup era comments unquestioningly, and believed them.
I do think Paul’s version of his and John’s final state of friendship has become more positive over the decades. In the early 80s, he was much more questioning of where they left things, both in his interviews and in his rant to Davies. Over the decades, I think his natural optimism, P.R. style and greater understanding of John’s psychological issues have tilted him towards a more positive slant.
Thanks for the comment!
Correction: Oops. It was “48 Hours” not “20/20”.
Speaking as a 25 year old Beatles fan (who got into the band when I was about 17 or 18), I suspect that generational issues have a lot to do with it. Of course, Baby Boomer fans who went through their teenage or childhood years while the band was still active would have an entirely different emotional reaction to the breakup, as they were more or less “witnesses” (as least in a publicity sense).
For me, who has never even been alive at the same time as John Lennon, the breakup feels more like an incidental historical fact than the shattering of a childhood dream. Which is how I imagine it felt to many Beatles fans at the time. Also, growing up in the internet age meant that I already knew certain things about John (like that he sometimes hit his wives/girlfriends) going into my experience with the music.
Also, I think that the Lennon vs McCartney issue took on a more charged meaning within the context of the emergent rock press of the ’70s, in ways that have almost nothing to do with the reality of the two men or the band they led together.
Basically, Lennon became a convenient figurehead or symbol for the kind of gritty, authentic, soul baring musicality that was perceived as important to rock by some key music writers (never mind that John’s revered honesty was itself often performative and he also indulged in some blatant lying). As his seeming foil (and enemy during the breakup), Paul had to be shoved into an equally restrictive box, as a symbol of the mainstream, or “square” society that rock was ostensibly supposed to be pushing back against. This reading holds up only on the surface level. It’s true that many of the band’s biggest hits were penned by McCartney, and they were sometimes more straightforward or poppy than album cuts like I Am the Walrus or Tomorrow Never Knows. However, Paul’s significant contributions to the production and arrangement of nearly all Beatles tracks (especially during the studio era) alone refute the notion that he was some kind of lightweight. Of course, a lot of this info wasn’t available at the time.
Thus, the Lennon vs McCartney issue is recast as a microcosm of issues pertinent to Baby Boomers at the time. It’s not just one guy in a rock band vs his band mate, it’s counterculture vs the straights, or rock vs pop, and so on.
To me, none of this debate means anything. My generation simply does not have a dog in this fight. The counterculture, in its Sixties incarnation, is long over. In the era of Spotify, Youtube, streaming playlists, etc the bounds of genre are beginning to mean less and less. Kids these days don’t have a problem liking both Kanye West and the Velvet Underground and seeing value in both. There’s an ongoing strain of poptimism within the music press that has called into question a lot of assumptions that the music press of the ’70s was taking for granted.
To my mind, this is a good thing. It feels like music writers have only become more willing to engage with different viewpoints and acknowledge that music can be experienced and appreciated in different ways. Another thing to keep in mind is demographic shifts, and who or what kind of person tended to dominate music discourse during the late ’60s and ’70s.
Basically, John Lennon as a persona is really, really appealing to a certain type of man (or boy) who gravitates toward experimental rock. My sense of it is, not only do these men tend to enjoy John’s music more, they tend to identify with him in an intense way that feels a bit like wish fulfillment. To this kind of person, John Lennon is a paragon for the kind of person they wish they could be: a tough-talking, brutally honest iconoclast who verbally cut down fakes and straights with ease, a rock philosopher and tireless activist looking to right all the world’s ills.
If this sounds like your average 16 year old’s fantasy of what a rock star or generally cool guy should be, it’s not a coincidence. Of course, how much this caricature overlaps with John Lennon as a real person is an interesting question.
To me, it speaks to a kind of emotional immaturity on the part of the fan or writer who cannot appreciate both of these towering talents at the same time. It seems like the real answer, that Lennon and McCartney were both great, but they only reached their peaks with the help of the other, is unsatisfying on some level to the mind that craves a black-and-white, hero vs villain narrative.
All in all, I think Beatles historiography is in dire need of a reevaluation of all these issues, because the old tired narrative of Lennon vs McCartney is not allowing people to examine the Beatles and their creative process in any kind of accurate or insightful way.
Sorry for the rambling!
“Sorry for the rambling!”
Ken, your comment was not rambling in the least. I couldn’t agree more with every word of it. Well said!
Far from rambling, I found your comment insightful and thought provoking, and found myself nodding along while reading it because, as someone slightly older — 37 — a lot of your experience sounded very similar to mine.
Quick question: Have you had a chance to read either compilation “Reading the Beatles” or “The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles?” Both contain marvelous essays on many of the subjects you discuss: the straights vs. counterculture, the way so many 70s rock critics ignored studio production in favor of lyric analysis, etc. Michael Frontani’s, in particular, is one I can’t recommend highly enough. I think I quoted it dozens of times in my own book, because Frontani conveyed my thoughts far more accurately and concisely.
(A short aside: I once harshly criticized “Reading the Beatles” on this blog: that was a typo. The book I meant to criticize was “Read the Beatles,” which is a compilation of various published works on the Beatles, from Chapters of Shout! to editorials on picking a favorite Beatle. Some of them are decent, but the lack of source analysis that went into it (it was published in 2006, and still unquestioningly parroted a lot of sources that promoted the Lennon Remembers and Shout! narratives) was highly disappointing.) “Reading the Beatles” is excellent. “Read the Beatles” is unbalanced and unnecessary.
“the breakup feels more like an incidental historical fact than the shattering of a childhood dream.”
Precisely. And, in way, John’s death fits into this category as well. John died three months before I was born. Other people have gut-wrenching memories of where they were when they first heard the news. I simply don’t. I can recognize it as a tragedy, but don’t have an emotional memory attached to it.
“Thus, the Lennon vs McCartney issue is recast as a microcosm of issues pertinent to Baby Boomers at the time.”
And as younger generations increase, the apathy and backlash against Baby Boomer culture increases. As you said, thanks to my generation, I don’t have a dog in this fight. Its something I’m interested in observing, but not worth getting involved in.
“Basically, John Lennon as a persona is really, really appealing to a certain type of man (or boy) who gravitates toward experimental rock. My sense of it is, not only do these men tend to enjoy John’s music more, they tend to identify with him in an intense way that feels a bit like wish fulfillment.”
Have you seen the “Composing the Lennon/McCartney Catalog” documentaries? Robert Christgau is one of the talking heads, and in his first five minutes basically argues that George and Ringo didn’t matter, and then self-identifies with John. ‘John had gone to art school; I was in art school. We had so much in common!’
“It seems like the real answer, that Lennon and McCartney were both great, but they only reached their peaks with the help of the other, is unsatisfying on some level to the mind that craves a black-and-white, hero vs villain narrative.”
I may frame this.
Thanks for the kind words. Like I mentioned to Karen, I realize there’s another person who frequents this site who goes by Ken, but I wanted to clarify that I’m not him (just to make sure I’m not inadvertently putting my words into his mouth).
“Quick question: Have you had a chance to read either compilation “Reading the Beatles” or “The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles?” Both contain marvelous essays on many of the subjects you discuss: the straights vs. counterculture, the way so many 70s rock critics ignored studio production in favor of lyric analysis, etc. Michael Frontani’s, in particular, is one I can’t recommend highly enough. I think I quoted it dozens of times in my own book, because Frontani conveyed my thoughts far more accurately and concisely.”
I haven’t read any of those texts before, but I would love to. The only Beatles-related books I’ve managed to get my hands on so far are Tune In and Love Me Do (as well as Phillip Norman’s Lennon biography, but ehh…you know the problem with that). Academic analysis of the Beatles is something I have a lot of interest in, so I’ll be sure to add those to my reading list 🙂
“And as younger generations increase, the apathy and backlash against Baby Boomer culture increases. As you said, thanks to my generation, I don’t have a dog in this fight. Its something I’m interested in observing, but not worth getting involved in.”
My experience echoes yours; since I grew up knowing that the Beatles had been broken up for decades and John Lennon had passed many years ago, that’s always informed my experience of the Beatles and their music. At this point, all of those happenings are built into the mythology of the band itself. There’s a sense of inevitable tragedy that gets baked into the story. The messy breakup years have been absorb and spun into just another part of the romance, exemplified by this bit from a Pitchfork review of Please Please Me:
“Whether or not you think the Beatles are the best rock band of all time, it’s hard to deny they’re the best rock story. Their narrative arc– of craft, tragedy, and stardom; of genius emerging and fragmenting– is irresistible.”
I mentioned this a bit in another comment, but I have seen significant push back from younger music fans regarding a lot of the entrenched opinions or myths or whatnot attributed to the Baby Boomer generation (specifically when it comes to music, we’re talking about the kind of music journalism that came about in the ’70s and continued to the turn of the millennium). I think this is very closely intertwined with the emergence of poptimism in the 2000s and the general reevaluation and re-calibration of the standards that we use to judge music.
As the sixties generation aged, they became the establishment, the gatekeepers. Suddenly, challenging the idea that confessional rock music is somehow automatically greater, more worthy of critical attention becomes the more exciting stance. Why is it that so much praise was heaped onto such a specific sliver of the music scene of the ’60s and ’70s, when those decades were so alive with variety and innovation in so many different genres?
This goes back to my point about demographic shifts. I’m certainly not an expert, but I would venture to guess that the vast majority of music writers of the ’70s and ’80s were male (also, probably white and from the UK or North America).
What I’ve noticed is that many of the biggest music sites have a much more even split between male and female writers since at least the turn of this decade. Pitchfork is by far the most influential music site, and I see female names next to their articles all the time.
So, in this new zeitgeist, when pure pop music is getting an unprecedented kind of critical attention, when female writers are more heard than ever, when traditional rock music is at its lowest level of cultural relevance ever, which Beatle do you think is best suited to enjoy widespread popularity?
John Lennon codified many of the tropes that would come to be at the very heart of rockist musical discourse. His lyrics were confessional and sometimes tortured, he often hewed to a more traditional rock sound, and he had a public persona that appealed deeply to the sensibilities of a generation of young, male rock enthusiasts. In some ways, you could say that it’s the John Lennon shtick that is old hat, cliche.
These may not be my personal feelings on the matter, I’m just expanding on some thoughts I’ve had regarding the shifts in critical tastes that I’ve noticed throughout the years 🙂 I may very well be wrong. But I think there is something to be said about the changes in music discourse that have been going on for the last decade, and the impact this may have on how the Beatles are discussed.
“Have you seen the “Composing the Lennon/McCartney Catalog” documentaries? Robert Christgau is one of the talking heads, and in his first five minutes basically argues that George and Ringo didn’t matter, and then self-identifies with John. ‘John had gone to art school; I was in art school. We had so much in common!’”
Considered me profoundly unsurprised. You know the kind of fannish adoration Paul seemed to attract from a legion of besotted young girls? John has exactly that, only with young boys 🙂
Hi Ken; if I haven’t said so already, welcome aboard.
And yet I’m still reading the same tired tropes in social media, written by younger fans, pitting Lennon against McCartney and (in particular) promulgating the mythos of Lennon via JohnandYoko narrative. The debate, at least on in the social media forums I’ve seen, are unfortunately alive and well.
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Thank you, Karen.
In reading through this blog, I’ve realized there’s another person who goes by Ken who posts here. Just to clarify, this is my first time commenting on this blog. From now on, I’ll try to distinguish myself by last name. Should’ve picked another username 🙂
I think there might be a divide between casual listeners and dedicated Beatles fans on this issue. Anywhere there’s thoughtful conversation to be had on the Beatles, most people seem to be on the same page in regard to the principals and the disconnect between their “real selves” (as far as any such thing can be known) and their P.R. versions.
None of the Beatles fans I’ve personally talked to are under any illusions about the weird, dysfunctional nature of the John/Yoko relationship, or about their drug use, or about the fact that John said things to the press in the early ’70s that were either half-truths or blatant lies. John’s abuse of Cynthia is almost a running joke within the fandom at this point; “John beat his wife” is just another well-known factoid, albeit one that is sometimes repeated with a certain gleefulness. For some, it’s kind of a thrill to knock such a figure off his pedestal.
On the other hand, you’re absolutely correct. Scroll through the comments of the Imagine video on Youtube, and you’ll read scores of comments left by people who clearly buy into (and regurgitate) the JohnandYoko myth, and everything that entails about the Beatles history. Now, whether or not all these comments are written by actual young people (by which I mean, teenagers and twenty-somethings) is another question.
I just don’t think people my age and younger (aka millenials) care that much about the Beatles or John Lennon. In fact, go on any forum dedicated to the artists that young people care do actually about en masse (aka hip hop, indie and pop forums), and you’ll see a decided resistance to the Beatles, both regarding their musical merit and their heretofore unassailable place in popular culture.
Young folks who are super into the musical artists of the past are the outliers, not the majority. Sure, the Beatles probably have a way bigger fanbase across all ages than any other band of any past musical era. But being told all their lives that the Beatles are the pinnacle of popular music (with the implication that everything else can’t hope to measure up) has made many young music fans feel the need to push back against that.
There’s a need for young people to resist the values and idols of their parents, and by now the Beatles aren’t dad rock; they’re grandpa rock. There’s also the internet to consider in this conversation; now all kinds of information about the Beatles is available to everyone and anyone. So now whenever anyone makes a claim about the band like “John was 3/4 of the Beatles”, someone can easily counter that by citing any number of sources that are made readily available via the internet.
Sorry, this went off on a whole other tangent. Anyway, I think you raise a salient point.
I just think that with each passing year, this whole debate loses relevance, and the undercurrents that imbued it with additional meaning to multiple generations of fans (the whole straights vs counterculture thing) lose their volatility as well.
I think this is a good thing because that means that maybe the younger people who will be carrying on Beatles scholarship will be able to approach these issues with a more impartial eye. Suffice to say, the Beatles writers who have done work so far have been perhaps too close to the Beatles to write in any truly scholarly fashion.
Thank you for your thoughts 🙂
Not a tangent at all, Ken. Write away. 🙂
It strikes me that the fans I’m referring to don’t engage in the Lennon/McCartney debate as much as simply ignore McCartney completely. I think their fandom is based less on music and more on the Lennon archetype. I think you’re correct in stating that young, informed, engaged fans–vs ones in the former category–haven’t fallen into the Lennon/vs McCartney trap and are more interested in the music itself. And thank goodness for that.
Actually, John did not beat his wife. According to Cynthia, he hit her once, and only once, as a teenager, in a fit of jealousy. According to Yoko, John never hit her either. While young John clearly had issues with anger, young fans (or fans new to Beatles’ fandom) have been led astray about Lennon in this regard, probably due to shoddy biography and tabloid fodder. I’ve read stories about Lennon beating children, too–which never happened, according to both his wives and anyone who was ever around John and his children.
This is the other side of the misinformation coin.
While it is true that John, according to Cynthia, only ever hit her once, that’s not how it’s usually phrased in casual conversations about the subject. You’re right; there’s kind of a game of telephone at play here in regard to how information about the Beatles is transmitted. It can be kind of dangerous because these statements can snowball into full-on inaccuracy, repeated uncritically.
It would be more accurate to say that John, especially when inebriated, had violent tendencies, and these tendencies sometimes manifested in his dealings with women like Thelma Pickles, May Pang and of course Cynthia. Additionally, he sometimes dealt violently with men as well, which I’m sure everyone here is aware of.
“John Lennon beat his wife” is a massive oversimplification, but it’s also just a pithier way of phrasing it. And it is something that people love to say because they enjoy knocking John off of his post-1980 pedestal. The flip side to the canonization he received after his untimely passing is that when someone discovers that he was a (massively complex, emotionally damaged) human being after all, they maybe feel lied to.
I really think Paul’s ability to stick around, keep touring and keep giving interviews and appearances has gone a long, long way in keeping him in the popular conscience. I think by the time he passes (hopefully not for many, many years), I think there will be a huge audience of people who will give him the props he deserves. To me, it’s so heartening to see him continue to collaborate with new artists and participate in things like his Carpool Karaoke episode. He’s keeping the Beatles alive in a way, as cheesy as that sounds 🙂
To me, he’s the only side of Lennon/McCartney I’ll ever be able to watch in real time and that’s probably why he’s my favorite. I don’t know, in every Beatles forum I’ve ever participated in, Paul is the consistent fan favorite, although that may owe to the whole casual vs dedicated fan thing.
John may be “Saint Lennon”, but he’s not around to explain himself, contextualize his actions or give his old age reflections on the parts of his life that were less than savory. He’s not around to meet new artists or collaborate with pop stars half his age or present himself to a new, young audience. So I think while John posthumously benefits from his fixed image, there’s also something tragically final about it, too.
“The flip side to the canonization he received after his untimely passing is that when someone discovers that he was a (massively complex, emotionally damaged) human being after all, they maybe feel lied to.”
For those of us who grew up during the major push to sanctify John as rock’s patron saint of peace — “For John so loved the world he gave us ‘Imagine'” — that element of feeling lied to is pretty crucial. For first generation fans, they would have grown up with a more nuanced John: There’s the somewhat unflattering portrayal of all the Beatles in “Love Me Do,” Bob Wooler’s beating, “Run for your Life,” The Authorized Bio, etc. But later generations were sold the image of whitewashed John before being exposed to nuanced John, which means that once you learn the reality — the physical violence, the mocking the handicapped, the treatment of Julian — it does feel like a betrayal of the image of John we had been initially sold. John acknowledged his flaws and errors, but the writers (and Yoko) who promote St. John rob him of that complexity and depth by either ignoring or making excuses for John’s less admirable behavior. Rather than noting with and dealing with John as a whole, they foist blame on others or excuse it. For example, Coleman’s bio basically says that, yeah, John occasionally hit people, and said very cruel things, but when John hurt you you became famous for a time, so its all good. Norman implies that John’s lack of interest in Julian was in part prompted because, unlike Sean, Julian was a ‘charmless child,” so of course John would have less interest in him. Neither actually address the emotional damage suffered/inflicted by John. They pass the buck.
Also, I think John suffers from being judged anachronistically by those later generations who are sold the St. John of Peace image of him and then feel betrayed by some of his actions/behaviors, many of which are now regarded as toxic in the current era. John’s hitting Cynthia would be an example: In a Time story on Aretha Franklin in 1968, there was an implication of domestic abuse, that was pretty much shrugged off. Domestic abuse wasn’t as toxic then as it is now, (although obviously it was just as reprehensible) the same way we had the debate over the “N” word. What was provocative or controversial in the late 60s hasn’t aged well and has become toxic or taboo to younger generations. So its not just that John is shown to be flawed after having been built up as an icon of peace: it’s that he’s shown to be flawed in ways that are particularly appalling to younger generations.
In particular, John’s treatment of Julian has not aged well at all. The reality is that, looking at the 70s and 80s sources, there’s really no criticism of John’s negligent parenting of his oldest son. And perhaps (speculation ahead) part of that may be because, for the older generation, they could identify with John: individuals stuck in a loveless marriage who, due to wanting to start a new life/being busy, perhaps didn’t make the effort with their kids from their original marriage that they should have. But if the parents identify with John, I’d imagine that the younger generations identify with Julian. And there’s simply no way John comes out of that looking good. At best, he comes across as indifferent/negligent: at worst, abusive.
That’s disgusting. I hope that statement is on the list of Norman’s regrets.
I don’t have the same view of John’s parenting, such as it was. While he certainly couldn’t win Dad of the year, I think that, at worst, he was an absent, somewhat disinterested parent. (And as a former psych professional whose has seen my share of abusive parents, I wouldn’t be inclined to categorize John’s parenting in that way.)
Conversely, there are many stories by Pete Shotten and others who talked about John’s pride in Julian and in fatherhood (much to their surprise, since they didn’t reckon John to be the prideful father type.) In the Mayles Brothers’ Beatles in America clip, there’s a scene where John was phoning Mimi and asking about how Julian was, and whether the child missed his parents. I don’t bring this up as examples of stellar parenting, but just to balance the narrative.
The other misconception, in my view, is John’s presumed abandonment of Julian once he left Cynthia. John didn’t just up and leave, ignore Julian for four years, then re-appear once May Pang got involved. The actual story was more nuanced than that, and had to do with, in part, John and Cynthia’s disagreement about parenting contact and John’s inability to leave the U.S. During this time, John kept in touch with Julian via letter, postcards and gifts. He also supported Julian financially. Again, not father of the year, but certainly not the evil dad he’s been portrayed to be.
“And as a former psych professional whose has seen my share of abusive parents, I wouldn’t be inclined to categorize John’s parenting in that way.)”
Oh, Karen, what stories you must have. My mother did counseling for a while, and one of her worst was a 3 a.m. call from an unstable mother: “I’m going to kill myself and my baby.” My Mom talked her down, but it was a job that gave her an immense amount of stress.
When I described it as, at worst, abusive, I should have clarified that I meant verbal abuse. (I would imagine that John’s “I hate your fucking laugh,” directed at teenaged Julian, would qualify, right?)
“Again, not father of the year, but certainly not the evil dad he’s been portrayed to be.”
Of course, the Beatle John is compared to (and whom he compared himself with) in terms of fatherhood is Paul, which is unfair from the get-go, because Paul had (Sullivan’s psychoanalysis notwithstanding) healthy, stable examples of parenting as a child whereas John … didn’t. I don’t know how John’s fathering holds up against other rock stars, (Brian Wilson, for example, admits being pretty negligent in the 70s, mainly because of his own mental struggles) but of course John would judge his abilities against Paul, who had an inherent advantage in having enjoyed a healthy, loving, stable childhood.
Some of the stories still haunt. ( I remember one family we had. High risk, lost of neglect and abuse. At some point Mom attempted to murder Dad by shooting him in the head. Dad didn’t die, so Mom figured she’d wait it out and let him bleed to death. Meanwhile, the kids–aged 6 and under–found Dad and tried to care for him. Finally Mom gave up and phoned an ambulance. Dad ended up long term care with a closed head injury, Mom went to prison, and kids went into foster care. Child Services referred the kids to our agency for therapy. These are the families that make you run home and kiss your kids, let me tell you.)
Ah, gotcha. I see what you’re referring to. Didn’t this comment occur during some kind of incident in which something had gone wrong and John was irritated? I seem to remember that. In any event, I’m always a little wary of concluding anything about accounts like this because they depend on the testimony of only one of the participants who typically is in an emotionally charged state. The brain has a funny way of reframing the reality to fit the feeling it generates, which makes it hard to determine what really happened or what was really said. For example, statements like “I hate it when you laugh at me” can be re-interpreted as “I hate your laugh”, “your laugh is ugly”, etc. I think we’ve all had the experience of someone telling us we said something we didn’t, because what we said was interpreted by the other person through an emotional filter. It doesn’t invalidate their feelings (as it doesn’t Julian’s), but it does place a more nuanced interpretation on the event and any judgements about our behaviour in that regard.
Oh, absolutely. I think John was jealous and simultaneously admiring of Paul’s ease and facility with children. I imagine it must of grated on John in the 70’s–his marriage to Yoko tanked, he hardly knew his son, and there was Paul–happily married with a great family and obviously succeeding as a parent.
“I don’t bring this up as examples of stellar parenting, but just to balance the narrative.”
Thank you Karen. These examples do need to be brought up. It definitely balances the narrative.
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I agree totally, Erin.
I think you’re correct in noting that there’s a difference between how John tended to present himself (as in, he often was very blunt about his own shortcomings) and the way his image has been handled and perpetuated by both Yoko and the rock press at large. The source of this dissonance then, seems to owe more to the marketing of his persona than anything.
Only one small tidbit to add: I think it’s worth noting that John Lennon and his treatment of Cynthia and women in general was a common point of reference in the debate about domestic violence that cropped up in the music world earlier this year.
A rapper, XXXTentacion, who was recently killed, was accused of some truly heinous actions against his ex-girlfriend. He was especially popular with the teenage/preteen crowd, and his growing popularity in light of the domestic violence accusations became a topic of contention for pretty much the entire hip hop and music community. The situation ignited debate around the art vs the artist, and the moral responsibility of music listeners to be informed about which artists they give their time and money to.
John’s actions were clearly much, much less extreme than that, but nevertheless, he was one of the artists pointed to as evidence that the music community had embraced violent men before with little problem.
So, in conclusion, I think you’re onto something when you say that certain contentious issues may become even more contentious over time, or may be particularly volatile to certain generations of music fans.
I don’t want to go off onto a crazy tangent, but I think the Me Too movement and the general push toward holding famous men culpable for their actions against women may have something to do with it as well. Very timely, I would say.
True, that–which is why it’s so important for people to be accurate when discussing those who are no longer here to defend themselves. Mark Lewisohn briefly speaks to this, particularly in regard to John, in a podcast we posted on the blog a month or so ago.
It really is nice that Paul is getting the props he deserves after his years of excoriation in the music press. It’s about time.
“But being told all their lives that the Beatles are the pinnacle of popular music (with the implication that everything else can’t hope to measure up) has made many young music fans feel the need to push back against that.”
I think that might be one of the areas where your experience and mine sharply diverge, Ken. I was in high school when the TV Anthology came out, and it got a lot of buzz: everyone in my grade and beyond would talk about watching the episodes the night before, what information they had learned, how effortlessly cool the Beatles were. It led to some boys in particular getting very interested in the band (one of my casual friends, unfortunately, read Shout! and became entrenched in the Lennon vs. McCartney lens) and led others to reading Lennon Remembers and regarding it as gospel. (I don’t think there’s any one that LR would appeal to more than a 15 year old boy). But it solidified the Beatles, among members of my generation, as cool, and they were still viewed that way when I was in college: almost everyone I knew knew some Beatles stuff, and thought they were cool.
Having said that, there’s an obvious appeal in pushing back against a band that’s essentially shoved down your throat as the greatest ever, having been crowned that designation by your grandparents, and by the crushing weight of baby boomer culture.
To clarify and add some nuance, though, I think it also depends on which young music fans you’re talking about.
My experience is that young indie and indie rock fans tend to be much more favorable toward the Beatles, even if they too like to push back against the idea that the Beatles were the best artists of the ’60s. A lot of them do like the Beatles, but also like artists like the Velvet Underground, King Crimson and Van Morrison more. It’s not taken for granted that the Beatles had the best album of 1967, for example.
It’s when you get into communities dedicated to other genres, like pop and hip hop, where you see the most resistance to the Beatles. A lot of these fans have learned via cultural osmosis that the Beatles are considered great, they just don’t get why. The Beatles don’t appeal to their personal sensibilities, so the implication that the Beatles are better than any artist they’re interested in is a little galling.
Just my two cents, this is all anecdotal after all. You also have to consider the general decline of the popularity of rock as a genre.
Ken, I think the current discourse on cultural appropriation, which sometimes carries a lack of nuance, should be factored in. Some younger people familiar with this framework see white men in the mid-twentieth century playing rock music and put them down as having stolen rock music from black American musicians. It’s an important discussion that can be tied to Elvis, Pat Boone, the Rolling Stones, etc. but I think (or would like to think, maybe) the context is different with the Beatles, who certainly credited and admired and worked with black musicians moreso than, I’d say, Boone (I get the impression the Stones did as well). There’s a discussion to be had as well about what constitutes cultural appropriation and what constitutes tribute and flattery, although for some none of it is excusable.
As for the bigger picture, I think that 50 years later, the Beatles pioneered so many things we now take for granted and/or don’t consider or know the origins of that their influence is so great it’s almost invisible.
“The debate, at least on in the social media forums I’ve seen, are unfortunately alive and well.”
Interesting. My social media presence is minimal: I have a Facebook account, which I check once a day, and that’s it. (There are a variety of reasons for this, the primary one being that I don’t want to hypocritically restrict my children’s screen time while spending an inordinate of my own time staring at a screen). So I’m pretty ignorant about the depiction of the Beatles or the Lennon/McCartney issue on Social media.
I will say, as someone who teaches the younger generation (that makes me sound ancient) that I would guess that most of them would not go beyond the internet for information unless they were passionately interested. (I make a certain number of non-internet sources a requirement for their papers, and some still don’t even bother to find traditional sources). And there’s such an abundance of sources for you on the internet; so many forums and blogs and videos that you could spend years combing through them all. Some of it is inaccurate, some of it is skewed, and some requires a deeper knowledge of the band in order to properly contextualize it.
Fussy baby: will hopefully come back to this later.
First off, Erin, I want to thank you for igniting another passion of mine. Our discussion on a previous post about filmmaker revived in me my latent interest in the films of Oliver Stone, prompting me to get the (fabulous) book The Oliver Stone Experience by Matt Zoller Seitz, which started me down a deep – yet enjoyable – rabbit hole. It has been terrific to revisit the films of his which I loved as a teenager and see how my feelings have change – but most of all to start delving in to primary sources. I’m a research rat anyway, but never having studied his life before it’s been a revelation delving into contemporary coverage and sources about an artist so controversial. (There’s not only a library’s worth of analysis about his work, but the man loves to to give interviews.) Especially being a child of the 90’s, it’s really caused me to examine what media perceptions I grew up believing and why. It all started with you, Erin – when I write “The Historiography of Oliver Stone” you’ll get a shout out! 🙂
“When do you believe or remember the Lennon vs. McCartney lens began? (I’m not talking about people having a favorite Beatle/preferring John or Paul, but rather when did praising one (either musically or otherwise) begin to seemingly require diminishing/criticizing the other?)”
I’m 37 so whatever generation that is (X, Y, Z?) I became a fan around the time of Live at the BBC, right before the Anthology. The books I read – Coleman’s Lennon, The Love You Make – were (in my memory anyway) pro-John. I think one of the reasons I gradually became a bigger Paul fan is my contrarian nature – he was such a target and such the underdog that I think I started to think, “Hey, wait a minute…” The older male baby boomer fans especially seemed to look down on Paul. It wasn’t until I found the Steve Hoffman forums that I saw a group of male Paul fans.
“What advantages, or insights, if any, do you think Beatles historiography has gained by employing this Lennon vs. McCartney lens? How much validity does the interpretation have?”
It’s a disservice. They were a partnership and any analysis that doesn’t start with that and instead treats them as lifelong antagonists is just counter to reality.
“Is there a generational aspect to this? Are younger fans less prone to viewing the band’s story this way, or not? For older fans, what sources or events strongly influenced you to view Beatles historiography in this way? Which sources prompted you to move away from that lens?”
I think that amongst the younger generations Paul is more popular due to a variety of factors. One is John Lennon simply not being alive for most of our lifetimes, while Paul is still active and a known legend. Another is the way so many baby boomers – like Jann Wenner – pushed the myth of St. John in the media for so long. There’s a natural rebellion against that, so you get the people on Reddit and elsewhere who will talk about how John was an asshole wife-beater and all that – it’s a gleeful take down of a baby boomer icon. Then there’s Paul’s solo music being increasingly relevant: Ram still sounding fresh and being a pioneer in indie pop, McCartney II being considered a pioneer in electronica, etc. In contrast, John’s solo work is very married to the time period and his favorite producer’s (Phil Spector) work is very dated to modern ears.
“It all started with you, Erin – when I write “The Historiography of Oliver Stone” you’ll get a shout out!”
Ooh, rabbit holes can be very tempting. I’m glad at least that my error (which makes me cringe every time I see it) at least did a little bit of good. I look forward to the shout out in your Historiography of Oliver Stone, which I will definitely buy!
If you’re 37 than you are gen Y — barely. Or you’re what is now sometimes referred to as a Xennial, the last microgeneration to spend childhoods without ubiquitous computers/cell phones in their pockets. (I know this because I’m 37, too).
“The books I read – Coleman’s Lennon, The Love You Make – were (in my memory anyway) pro-John. I think one of the reasons I gradually became a bigger Paul fan is my contrarian nature – he was such a target and such the underdog that I think I started to think, “Hey, wait a minute…” The older male baby boomer fans especially seemed to look down on Paul.”
Your memory is spot on, at least in regards to Coleman: Saying his Lennon bio is pro-John is probably understating it: significant aspects of that book are little more than sheer hagiography.
I think that contrarian nature is pretty important, obviously individually and generationally. Revisionism is inherently attractive to younger generations, particularly when the orthodoxy has been completely controlled by a different (in this case white, older, male) demographic.
“a gleeful take down of a baby boomer icon.”
I love this phrase. I may steal it for future Beatles writing, if that’s okay with you.
In The Beatles Bibliography intro, as well as in the story People magazine did following Goldman’s John bio, they discuss how John has become so symbolic of the 60s that criticizing John has become equivalent to criticizing the decades ideals and significance. The phrase in People was something akin to: “If John was a fraud, than what does that mean for the 60s ideals he was supposed to embody?” How much of the backlash by younger generations against John isn’t just the feeling of betrayal at the St. John image — or the reflexive preference for revisionism — but deliberately provoking older generations by tearing down the symbol of their most beloved decade?
(I apologize if this is a repost, I didn’t get the confirm page when I submitted before.)
“Ooh, rabbit holes can be very tempting. I’m glad at least that my error (which makes me cringe every time I see it) at least did a little bit of good. I look forward to the shout out in your Historiography of Oliver Stone, which I will definitely buy!”
Ha, well until I win the lottery you’ll have to settle for my blog (plug plug) back-and-totheleft.tumblr.com where I have been collecting some stuff. I’m still largely sorting through a bunch of stuff around Platoon (his 1986 breakthrough as a director) which has taught me many things I was unaware of about the Vietnam War. The way Platoon changed the public conversation about the war is very interesting – there’s an article I have (and haven’t posted yet) where Gene Siskel brought a group of vets to see the movie accompanied by their counselor (treating them for then-newly defined “post stress syndrome”) which is….whew. Very raw and tough reading. Then there’s the flipside and things like the journalist who writes about “goading” Stone and has the attitude of “it’s been 20 years, get over it!” If makes me wonder how Vietnam would be seen if films like Apocalypse Now, Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Platoon etc. had not made such an impact. There were really no comparable films for the Iraq War, for example, and I feel like that war is being quickly forgotten, despite only fifteen or so years passing since its start.
Anyway, back to the topic..
“I think that contrarian nature is pretty important, obviously individually and generationally. Revisionism is inherently attractive to younger generations, particularly when the orthodoxy has been completely controlled by a different (in this case white, older, male) demographic.”
Well, I loved John as a teen (and still do, but for different reasons). His rebellion and being Against the Man and all that appealed to my teenage heart. Paul was kind of dorky and lame, because it was the early 1990s which was not his best period (was it for anyone?)
“I love this phrase. I may steal it for future Beatles writing, if that’s okay with you.”
Have at it! I probably heard it somewhere myself. 🙂
I think it’s interesting to note, as at least one writer has, that the Beatles aren’t weren’t baby boomers. They were war babies and had different experiences, despite being boomer icons.
“In The Beatles Bibliography intro, as well as in the story People magazine did following Goldman’s John bio, they discuss how John has become so symbolic of the 60s that criticizing John has become equivalent to criticizing the decades ideals and significance. The phrase in People was something akin to: “If John was a fraud, than what does that mean for the 60s ideals he was supposed to embody?” How much of the backlash by younger generations against John isn’t just the feeling of betrayal at the St. John image — or the reflexive preference for revisionism — but deliberately provoking older generations by tearing down the symbol of their most beloved decade?”
Yes, partly. We also live in a culture of “wokeness” which I think is admirable in its goals, but sometimes goes too far in trying to over-correct the other way and erasing the complexities in people’s lives. As you know as an historian, presentism can be an issue (when we judge historical figures by modern standards). We can acknowledge that some things perhaps have clear moral lines while also recognizing that yesterday’s progressives can be see as regressive as standards change. People also are complex – they can try admirably and also fail, because no one is perfect. But often social media doesn’t allow for those shades.
I also wonder if some of what I see as John “lessened” in the Beatles story now is due to his biggest songs – I Am the Walrus, Strawberry Fields Forever, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, etc. – sounding dated and too “Sixties” for younger fans (though not to me, I love those songs still!), while Paul’s standards tend to be more timeless. And for all the image of John as being the confessional lyricist, note how many of his iconic songs have nonsense/fantastical lyrics…which is very much not the trend anymore and may make them harder to connect with younger fans.
Well, Erin/Karen, clearly I was wrong. Nowadays, clearly, any discussion of Lennon/McCartney does not, in fact, need to begin on a note of profound sadness. As time goes by, I guess this will only solidify. That’s unfortunate. Oh, well. So it goes. But, I thank you for all this. Because, please correct me if I’m wrong but, I would never have thought that Beatle people, some two decades or so younger than myself, would consider, compartmentalize, and/or somehow shrug off the utterly senseless and violent murder of John Lennon as just some sort of a freak historical footnote. Is this truly where it has been trending? Thank you for this clarity, and I mean it. Going forward, whenever I’m around younger people and the murder of John Lennon comes up in conversation, I’m just gonna keep my mouth shut.
I apologize if my previous post sounded a bit harsh. If so, it’s only because I worry that as decades go by, and the horror of what happened to John Lennon loses its emotional immediacy, that what may get dismissed or overlooked is how consequential an event it actually was. Historically, I often think of it as a “canary in a coal mine” moment. But, aside from this, I am indeed very happy to see younger generations embrace the Beatles. It’s a testament to how good their music is, that it still sounds fresh and relevant. So far, my son has accompanied me to two McCartney concerts, and one or two Beatles tribute shows, and it warms my heart to see so many younger fans at these events. Again, I apologize. I’m gonna channel Sapphire here from Almost Famous, but, I just love this band so much…
I’m sorry, Tom: my late reply had nothing to do with the tone of your post, (which I was fine with), and everything to do with the busy holiday week last week. No apologies necessary.
I don’t want to give the impression that all younger generations shrug off John’s murder; First, I can’t speak for millennials (and certainly not even for all Gen-Yers): I can only give you my impression as a member of those younger generations. And my impression is that, while my and other, later generations can acknowledge that it was a crime and a tragedy, we don’t have the emotional memory of the event that older generations do. And you’re right: that does mean that something is lost. For example, I once had a Poli Sci professor who, when I was a student, wept as he told my class about watching the JFK assassination and the immediate aftermath as it unfolded. Intellectually, I can appreciate the tragedy, and its many ramifications for American and World history, but I have never been moved to tears when recounting it to my students. I think that’s the difference between older and younger generations regarding John’s murder.
“Historically, I often think of it as a “canary in a coal mine” moment.”
Could you offer some more of your thoughts on this? I’d be interested to hear your perspective.
“I worry that as decades go by, and the horror of what happened to John Lennon loses its emotional immediacy, that what may get dismissed or overlooked is how consequential an event it actually was. “
Absolutely, Tom. It seems that as more of these horrific crimes occur, society gets kind of immune. It’s scary, and tragic.
Specifically, I was referring to the stalking murder of the 21-year-old actress Rebecca Schaeffer. In my memory’s chronology it settled in around 1984-85. So, I was a bit surprised after looking it up before replying that it actually was 1989. John Lennon’s murder, 8+ years earlier, was such a tectonic paradigm shift so far off the map that for years I don’t think anyone knew how to even begin to make sense of it. But, I seem to recall it wasn’t until after Rebecca Schaeffer’s murder that “celebrity stalking” became part of our everyday vocabulary.
“But, I seem to recall it wasn’t until after Rebecca Schaeffer’s murder that “celebrity stalking” became part of our everyday vocabulary.”
I recall it the same way, Tom.
Very interesting points and comments you’ve made on this subject on your blog and podcast interviews I’ve listened to.
Recently i came across this series.
Despite odd music and video edits it does have some interesting interview clips., especially jack Douglas in the epilogue
I am really fascinated by this topic, so I would like to chime in from my own anecdotal perspective.
“Is there a generational aspect to this? Are younger fans less prone to viewing the band’s story this way, or not? For older fans, what sources or events strongly influenced you to view Beatles historiography in this way? Which sources prompted you to move away from that lens?”
As others have commented above, I definitely see a difference in how generations of fans view the Lennon and McCartney partnership as well as the band themselves. I’m a Millennial (I’m 30 years old) and I was raised by Baby Boomer parents. My parents were Beatles neutral though, so I was not raised with them shoved in my face, nor was I encouraged to seek them out. To make a really long story short, my parents were the odd Boomers who didn’t worship the Beatles. They were huge Eric Clapton fans though, so the closest I got to the Beatles in my childhood was being raised to believe that George Harrison was the brilliant, overshadowed one that had never been given his proper due. When George died it was big deal in my household, but my parents didn’t own any Beatles cds, so it just prompted ‘history lessons’ from my parents about how and why George was awesome. I knew the names and could match the faces of the other three, but my parents probably talked more about Ringo when I was growing up than either John or Paul.
I had friends whose parents were Beatles fans though, so I did get information filtered in that way, especially after I finally caught the Beatles fever I guess. The thing is though, my best friend in high school, her parents were very conservative and despised John Lennon, so between that and me wondering if my parents had oversold George to me, I ultimately latched on to John as a my favorite Beatle. With exception of my disinterested parents, the other adults in my life seemed to very much accept the John vs Paul narrative. I remember my best friend’s dad lecturing me on why Paul was superior to John and that I was just too young to see it yet. The Beatles were fairly popular amongst music fans in my high school, and sure we all had our favorite Beatle, but I never once remember anyone in my age group talk about John vs Paul or even imply that. Most of them were casual fans, so honestly I don’t know if they even realized the song credits were Lennon/McCartney. I think the rule of thumb for the casual listeners I knew in high school was that if a Beatle sang it, he probably wrote it.
As for me, when I caught the Beatles fever so to speak, I begged my parents for the Anthology dvds for my 15th birthday. That is probably the foundation for how I see the band and their dynamic. I think “Shout!” by Norman was the first Beatles book I read after this though and I hated it so much I couldn’t finish it. I was a John Lennon fangirl, but I wasn’t an idiot. I think because I had such a strong fan connection to John for many different reasons, the idea that he hated Paul seemed to foreign to me. I can remember reading excerpts from his various interviews in the 70s and instead of coming away thinking “wow he sounds bitter because he hates him”, I was of the impression that “wow, he sounds bitter because he’s having a bad friend breakup and the patriarchy makes it hard for two men to have a deep, loving friendship even in the best of times….also, John was probably high on drugs.”
My niece and nephew are teenagers now, and my niece is very much into the current pop genre and has no interest in The Beatles (my sister was as equally disinterested as my parents, having her own tastes elsewhere), my nephew is into a wide range of music and seems to respect and appreciate them, but he’s definitely not deeply interested in them. I can’t say this is entirely a generational thing, but perhaps more an environmental thing. My parents didn’t seem to care that much about them, neither did my sister. I’m not the only 30 year old that loves The Beatles, I’m just the only one in my family who does.
It’s getting late for me, but I want to try to ponder/tackle some of your other questions about this because I think gender is a big factor in how the Lennon vs McCartney lens is seen and I do have thoughts about the evolving stance of fandom on this issue. I’ll have to collect my thoughts before posting more.
This brought a smile to my face. John was really a wonderful sort of flypaper for kids to attach to who celebrated someone who was perceived as nonconformist.
That was my exact reaction, Crissy. I read it when it first was published and put it down the same day. The bias was so apparent, it was hard to imagine any serious Beatle fan would believe it.
Maybe all of you might be interested in a historiography of Paul McCartney post Beatles, which explains a lot about the dynamics in the media, and how these media had a dominant influence on the views of many readers. Basically because the journalists became the stars, and their view was sometimes honored with more respect and acceptance than the views of the stars.
Here is the link publication and associated link:
Nicholes, Andrew and Brocken, Michael (2011). Can A Beatle Have Wings? – A historiographical analysis of Paul McCartney’s other band and his struggle for acceptance after the demise of the Beatles. Found at: https://lhu.academia.edu/AndyNicholes. Assessed December 2018: https://www.academia.edu/13997788/Can_A_Beatle_Have_Wings_A_Historiographical_Analysis_Of_Paul_McCartneys_other_band_and_his_struggle_for_acceptance_after_the_demise_of_the_Beatles.. Online.
For that matter, a historiography of rock-music would really give an insight how the John vs Paul evolved.
To look at The Beatles through the lens of the Lennon vs Paul, is something that is a long time gone, I would say.
Thanks very much for that link and recommendation: I will absolutely check it out. I assume that’s the same Michael Brocken who, along with Melissa Davis, compiled The Beatles Bibliography, which is a work that I enjoyed. I certainly did notice in The Beatles Bibliography that Brocken, to put it mildly, didn’t exactly agree with the Lennon Remembers and Shout! narratives.
“a historiography of rock-music would really give an insight how the John vs Paul evolved.”
Ken Womack told me I should write just that – a historiography of rock music — at the Pepper conference. I think I laughed and told him that if I didn’t have two young kids (now three) I’d think about it. If someone else wants to grab that ball and run with it, be my guest.
Forgive my posting a link here, but this is a very good article in Paul’s defense:
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Thanks so much for linking to that article: I hadn’t seen it before, and I thought it was well written and well argued.
Parts of it are things that Karen and others here have discussed before: how Paul’s creative process tended to present the larger concept of the song, particularly post 1966, as a whole, whereas John and George went by a more step-by-step trial and error approach, and how this contributed to tensions when working on Paul’s songs. The argument that the author makes about melody — that being Paul’s strength, but rock and music critics, as writers, finding it easier to praise lyrics than melody and therefore inherently diminishing Paul’s melodic genius — is also a powerful one, and one I believe a few other authors have made. Frontani, in one of his essays, argues that the Playboy interview is guilty of this, because when John is apportioning credit, the emphasis on lyrics sidelines melody and production, both areas that were Paul’s strengths.
I found the argument that Paul is the greatest melodist of the latter half of the 20th century an interesting one although, again, given my own lack of musical knowledge, I’m unaware of how you would “prove” that. (I do believe that MacDonald describes him as rock’s best melodist, by far, in RITH). Is that a conclusion that’s gaining ground?