This story was originally published April, 8, 1990.
01/31/2014 2:21 PM
02/04/2014 7:57 AM
1. The mating call of the Aeolian cadence
Nineteen hundred and sixty-five was a good year for the Shazam method of songwriting. A scruffy rocker who called himself Keith Richard woke in the night in a road-trip hotel room with an incredible riff in his head. He knew it was a hot guitar lick. What he didn't know was that it would become the superstructure of one of the greatest hit singles of the rock era. Shazam! Satisfaction.
That same year, Paul McCartney rolled out of bed one morning with a beautiful melody on the brain. It was like a found object, so perfectly realized he figured he must have heard it somewhere. He fumbled with it on the piano. It had a classic melodic arc: A short phrase of two notes, answered by a longer phrase that soars to a high note before meandering back down the keyboard to another short phrase and a little jump at the end, a satisfying roller-coaster loop. Never much with words he sang, "Scrambled egg . . . da da da da da da scrambled egg . . . "
McCartney was just 23 (and just Paul to most of the world) and his band, The Beatles, had conquered the world as surely as Alexander or Charlemagne. More than your average pop idols, they were angelic majesties, living gods, the acme of cool. They had achieved intensities of popularity that no one had known existed and probably weren't sanitary. With the King off in Hollywood in arrested animation, they were suddenly bigger even than Elvis. Legend has it that during the hour they first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 not a single crime in America was committed by a teenager.
The only asterisk by their name in 1965 was the taint of teenybopperdom. For adults The Beatles were still a guilty pleasure. This tune in Paul's head would change all that.
Yesterday, the descendant of Scrambled Egg, is the world's most popular song, recorded by more artists than any other in history, spun 5,000 times a week on DJ turntables in the United States even today. The critic Wilfrid Mellers tried to describe in technical terms why the song works so splendidly:
"The first bar, with its gentle sigh, seems separated, stranded, by the abrupt modulation; and although the troubles 'return to stay' with a descent to the tonic, the anticipated modulation sharpwards is counteracted when the B natural is flattened to make an irresolute plagal cadence."
Gibberish to Paul. His songwriting partner and best friend John Lennon likewise couldn't have made sense of such language. They were musical savages, holy barbarians, proof that that you can graduate summa cum laude from the University of Rock-n-Roll without being able to decipher sheet music. A tonic was something that went with gin. They took glee in the labored exegesis of their music by high brow types, like when William Mann, critic for The Times of London, swooned, "One gets the impression that they think simultaneously of harmony and melody, so firmly are the major tonic sevenths and ninths built into their tunes, and the flat submediant key switches, so natural in the Aeolian cadence at the end of Not A Second Time (the chord progression that ends Mahler's Song of the Earth)."
Aeolian cadences? Sounds like a type of bird, said John.
They were on a roll like none before. In early 1964, when movie producer Walter Shenson told John and Paul he needed four fast songs and two ballads for the upcoming film starring the band, the songs immediately appeared as if pulled from a back pocket. As filming neared completion, Shenson realized he needed another fast song to play during the opening credits, and that it should be called A Hard Day's Night, to fit the movie title. That night he asked John Lennon for the extra song. Shortly after 10 p.m. John felt the muse. The next morning at 8 a.m., Shenson was summoned to the dressing room. John and Paul were there with two guitars, and a pack of matches was propped up on the mirror with some tiny words written inside the cover. John sang the first 16 bars, Paul the middle 8. The song went to number one on the charts.
What was the secret? Who gave them that gift? These semi- educated street scufflers from Liverpool performed a strange alchemy that turned almost everything they touched into a gold record. They rose to stardom on a profusion of upbeat two-minute songs that stuck to pop music convention with their 8 bar strains, rigidly linked in an A-A-B-A-B-A construction. They were a standard four-instrument band, two guitars, a bass and drums.
If you diagram a Beatles song it looks just like the songs of all those other bands that haven't sold a billion discs and tapes and aren't in the Guiness Book of World Records. (Paul McCartney, specifically, is the most successful composer of all time, with 74 gold records with the Beatles and solo. He has hit the No. 1 spot on the singles charts 32 times in the U.S., his only competition being John Lennon, with 26.)
Tomorrow marks the 20 anniversary of Paul's announcement that The Beatles had broken up, yet the music thrives, not only in terms of sales and daily Beatle Breaks on the radio but also as the subject of Beatleology. At least 40 major books have looked at the band, each one trying to tweeze the material into finer pieces. There are serious books, tattletale books, books that recycle other books, ex-wife books, ex-girlfriend books, ex-friend books, fired drummer books, even a book by a guy who had the chance to sign the Beatles to a contract and blew it. For sheer obsessive detail the blue ribbon goes to a book that provides documentary notes of the band's recording sessions, describing how many takes each song required.
Every couple of years there is supposedly a new band on the scene that will recapture the glory of The Beatles. There was much hope in the 1970s for the British group Squeeze, with their sweet McCartneyish vocals. Then came The Bangles in the 1980s. The closest thing to white-hot Beatlemania has been the ascent of Michael Jackson, but he's more in the tradition of Elvis, an entertainer with good stage moves who sings music written by others. The proper heirs of The Beatles have been Billy Joel, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, The Police, The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and Talking Heads, songwriters and bands with vast commercial and critical appeal, but none of these have put a scare into The Beatles' sales records.
What is it that people heard that made them so love The Beatles?
Was there genius in the mix? What was it? Who did it?
Was it Paul? Was it John?
Are the songs really that superior or is it just a marketing coup? How much of it is nostalgia, the backround radiation from the Beatlemania explosion?
What's genius, anyway? What's artistry? What's talent?
And finally, this: Out of all the millions of kids who grew up wanting to be Beatles, who wanted to ascend to the toppermost of the poppermost, why hasn't any succeeded? Why doesn't anyone write Hey Jude anymore? Why does even Paul McCartney seem like a pale imitation of Beatle Paul?
Obvious questions. Now for the tricky answers.
2. The Genius Factor
Genius is basically a myth. At the least it's terribly overrated. For instance, Mozart. He's the prototypical genius in everyone's mind. Music came to him like an injection in the brain.
"When I feel well and in a good humor, or when I am taking a drive or walking after a good meal, or in the night when I cannot sleep, thoughts crowd into my mind as easily as you could wish. Whence and how do they come? I do not know and I have nothing to do with it. Those that please me, I keep in my head and hum them, " he wrote a friend.
In other words, the Shazam method.
Clearly he was gifted. It's well known that he was composing music at the age of five. What is less widely known is that it wasn't any good. Young Amadeus was precocious but you wouldn't want to buy his records. He didn't write a great work until he was 16 and had been playing music his whole life. He was a prodigy because he had a prodding parent, just like Brooke Shields did. His father totally devoted himself to the boy's musical education, took him around Europe to hear all the great composers, and demanded musical compositions from the little bugger.
This is the pattern of geniuses: Obsessive, pushy parents. John Stuart Mill's father started him on a rigorous course of instruction when he was two years old. Michelangelo was also prepped for the job of genius. That doesn't mean the kids aren't naturally gifted. It means that where genius is found it usually doesn't spring from fallow ground. John R. Hayes of Carnegie- Mellon University has shown that artists almost never produce their masterpieces until they've toiled for at least ten years. In Paul McCartney's case, he started playing music at 13 and wrote Yesterday at 23.
What makes The Beatles impressive is that they weren't pampered rich kids. Only Paul came from a musical family. His father moonlighted as a jazz pianist. Paul was a natural at guitar. That's why John hesitated to let Paul join the Quarry Men back in 1957: Paul was too good. John had the ambition for greatness, Paul the talent. Had John not made the professional decision to let Paul into the band, says biographer Philip Norman, Paul "probably would have been a very pleasant grammar school teacher organizing the end-of-term pantomime. The mothers would have thought he was dishy."
For all their inspiration, The Beatles needed a lot of perspiration, too. The education of the band came in the sweaty clubs of Liverpool and Hamburg. They played a thousand gigs before anyone had ever heard of them. In Hamburg they played 8 hours straight and then staggered at dawn to their beds behind a movie screen, roused at noon by the matinee. Geniuses? They were just a working-class band with a powerful dream. To resort to genius would almost have been cheating.
When they finally played four songs for producer George Martin at Parlophone in 1962, Martin thought they were perfectly dreadful. They were hardly prodigies.
"I felt that I was going to have to find suitable material for them, and was quite certain that their songwriting ability had no saleable future, " Martin wrote in his memoir, All You Need Is Ears.
This must be juxtaposed with the fact that in their subsequent accomplishments The Beatles precisely fit the definition of genius: "(1) the rare but radical disruption of preceding manners, attitudes, customs, or congnitive habits; and (2) the performance of complex tasks in manners and styles rarely observed, " in the words of Robert S. Albert, editor of Genius and Eminence. What this definition doesn't say is that the genius must be smart.
In fact, Paul isn't terribly brilliant on most scores. He was a good student in high school but if you've ever read an interview with him he sure doesn't sound like a genius. John has a more solid claim to genius status because of his multitude of talents, like writing and drawing in addition to composing, and John claimed to be a genius. But where do you draw the line between an ordinary creative person (say, Barry Manilow) and a genius?
The answer is, nowhere. Genius isn't special. The psychological community no longer views creative genius as some mystical purging of the unconscious. It is now seen as an extension of normal problem-solving, no different from figuring out how to make dinner with whatever you can find in the cubbard. Being brilliant is something you learn to do, like dribbling a basketball behind your back.
The people we think are geniuses are essentially examples of the cliche that practice makes perfect. A band that plays 8 hours a night for three years will develop talents that others think are the mark of some explosive, god-given inspiration. "If the rest of us were to invest comparable amounts of energy in artistic pursuits, we might perform similar feats as well, " Harvard professor Howard Gardner has written.
Gardner has argued that human beings have seven different types of intelligence: the ability to deal with words, numbers, spatial information, bodily sensations and activities, musical tones, and information about other persons and oneself. Thus Joe Montana might be a genius of spatial information, Toni Morrison of words and Paul McCartney of musical tones, but they might also be dummies in other categories.
What cannot be underestimated -- and this becomes critical to understanding the Beatle phenomenon -- is the importance of the audience.
"Creativity is not the property of a person, " Gardner says. "You can't just say a person is creative or non-creative per se. When you refer to creativity it always refers to a dialectic between a person and what I call the field, basically, knowledgeable individuals who judge whether something is good or not."
There were more teenagers alive in 1964 than ever before in history. Cheap transistor radios from Asia had flooded the market. Rock-and-roll's great idea -- a pounding backbeat that made you want to shake and shout -- had been so corporatized and whited-up that the radio was starved for something other than Frankie Avalon. The scene craved a new sound. So many millions of kids were turned on to rock-and-roll by Elvis that the odds dictated that Something New would happen. The Beatles fulfilled a numbers prophecy in the same way that in a large and most-dead universe some planet around some star will teem with life.
They were also fiendishly ambitious. John, the leader, had the fire in the belly.
"Big bastards, that's what the Beatles were. You have to be a bastard to make it, that's a fact, and the Beatles are the biggest bastards on earth, " Lennon told Jann Wenner in a famous 1970 interview in Rolling Stone magazine, just after the breakup.
He said the band kept the publicity machine rolling by giving the press free drinks and free whores and other spillage from Beatlemania. The Beatles were an institution that no one could afford to see wither, neither the reporters assigned to cover them (because after all that would reduce the play of the stories) nor the profiteers at the office. "We were the Caesars; who was going to knock us, when there were a million pounds to be made?" said John.
In rock music, the stars come up out of the audience; the guitar heroes are all former rock-and-roll fans. There is a connection and communication between stage and crowd. The Beatles were tapped into their fanatical following. They were totally mod: The first thing you noticed was the hair. What hair! Boys with long, soft, girlish hair. They all looked identical. Just telling who was who seemed a major accomplishment. In class-conscious Britain, even the crusty snots were enraptured by these sly barbarians from Liverpool.
Call The Beatles geniuses if you want to, or just call them hard-working, talented musicians with great timing. There's not much difference.
Wrote Wilfrid Mellers, the critic, "The Beatles, in common with other geniuses such as Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, knew the right time and place to be born."
3. Solving the equation
Beyond the hair was the sound: Negroid rhythms, exuberant harmonic singing, lyrics that for all their love-story simplicity had a way with the vernacular: "She was just seventeen, if you know what I mean" -- refreshing after the overwrought mock-serious love paeans of the early '60s. The Beatles reduced sexual joy to its most primitive glandular expression: She loves you yeah yeah yeah!
"They were simply and sensuously affirmative; babes newborn, rejecting the past, yet singing for dear life, " writes Mellers.
He goes on:
"In Beatle music the musical facts are not, compared with those in Beethoven's music, very complicated, through they may be of some subtlety, partly because they are not entirely literate." Mellers, deconstructing everything in his path, declares that John songs tend to use sharp keys such as A, F sharp minor and E major, while Paul goes for flat keys such as B flat, E flat and A flat. (Now it's all clear! The Beatles just used better notes than other bands!)
On paper there's nothing special about a Beatle song. The equation of their success has never been figured out.
"If they could draw an equation, they could sell it and bottle it and everybody could write good melodies, " says Tim Riley, author of Tell Me Why, an analysis of Beatle songs. "It's like trying to describe a jewel. Why does this jewel sparkle and not this other one?"
Nonetheless Riley has tried to explain some of the unique qualities of a Beatles song. A track like I Want To Hold Your Hand seems, today, little more than a cheery upbeat pop song whose main purpose is to produce nostalgia, but when it was written in 1963 it had a ground breaking sound, not just in the tight harmonies and the driving rhythm known in Liverpool as the Mersey Beat (after the Mersey river), but also in the way it changed textures. In the middle section the electric guitar disappears and is replaced by an acoustic guitar, softening the feel of the song momentarily (" . . . and when I touch you I feel happy inside . . . ") and thereby the heightening the intensity of the rhythm when the song goes electric again (" . . . I can't hide, I can't hide, I can't hiiiiiiide!").
The mega-hit She Loves You was the same way. At one point the snare drum gives way to tom-toms, producing a totally different feel. It seems technical, but these shifting textures are found in almost every Beatle song. Whose idea was it to alternate the drumming on She Loves You? Riley thinks it was the drummer's idea. Yes -- the secret genius of the Beatles was Ringo.
As for George Martin, he was probably more a technical help than a creative one, even if it was his idea to put a string quartet behind Paul's guitar on Yesterday. Martin writes in his memoir, "I have often been asked if I could have written any of the Beatles' tunes, and the answer is definitely no: for one basic reason. I didn't have their simple approach to music. I think that if Paul, for instance, had learned music 'properly' -- not just the piano, but correct notation for writing and reading music, all the harmony and counterpoint that I had to go through, and the techniques of orchestration -- it might have well inhibited him...Once you start being taught things, your mind is channeled ina particular way. Paul didn't have that channeling, so he had freedom, and could think of things that I would have considered outrageous."
Like one time Paul went to a performance of Bach's Brandenburg Concert, and later told Martin, "There's a guy in them playing this fantastic high trumpet."
"Yes, the piccolo trumpet, the Bach trumpet. Why?"
"It's a great sound. Why can't we use it?"
And so that's the trumpet that propels the tune of Penny Lane.
Writing music was easy for Paul. Once he told Dustin Hoffman, "It's the same as you and acting; when the man says, "Action!", you just pull it out of the bag, don't you? You don't know where it comes from, you just do it!"
Philip Norman, who wrote Shout!, the best account of the band, says of Paul's gift, "Tunes just fell off the end of his arm."
Paul had a reason to excel: John was watching.
"McCartney had one eye over his shoulder, wondering what Lennon would think, " says Philip Norman, the biographer.
The truth is that the secret of the Beatles was not the cooperation of John and Paul but their intense mutual jealousy.
John said in an affidavit after Paul sued him and the other Beatles in 1970, "From our earliest days in Liverpool, George and I on the one hand and Paul on the other had different musical tastes. Paul preferred 'pop type' music and we preferred what is now called 'underground.' This may have led to arguments, particularly between paul and George, but the contrasts in our tastes, I am sure, did more good than harm, musically speaking, and contributed to our success."
So they both were important.
But who was better?
4. Taking Sides
There are two kinds of people in the world, John fans and Paul fans. There is no middle ground. A John fan appreciates meaning in lyrics, avant-garde sounds, artistic daring. A Paul fan likes a nice tune. Who you like defines what kind of person you are. Sometimes Paul fans won't admit their identity and skulk around in the guise of John fans, because it's more fashionable. Far from being illusory, this rivalry was solidly founded by John and Paul themselves as they carried on first a secret competition and then a public feud of pathetic, tragic dimensions. We were trying to outscore each other/ in the tug of war, sang Paul after John died.
John gets points for being the official leader of the band in the early days, but then Paul gets points for composing the first hit, Love Me Do, a triumph quickly outstripped when John came up with the first Number One in Britain, Please Please Me. John expands his lead during most of Beatlemania, singing the bulk of the hits, publishing two books of acclaimed stories and generally setting the tone for the band. Paul keeps from falling too far behind by writing the great rock songs I Saw Her Standing There, Can't Buy Me Love, She's a Woman.
Then, just when John's championship belt seems most secure, as he sings Ticket To Ride and Help!, Paul wakes up with Yesterday and starts his charge. Paul gradually eclipses John with a series of monster hits like Penny Lane and Paperback Writer and Eleanor Rigby and Hey Jude and Let It Be and Get Back and The Long and Winding Road, as well as conceiving the structure of two of the band's best albums, Sergeant Pepper's and Abbey Road. When the band finally breaks up, John edges back to parity with Imagine while Paul aggressively scores negative points with nauseating hit singles sung to such lyrics as wo wo wo wo my love does it good.
The balance of power irreversibly shifts in John's favor finally in 1980 when he brilliantly outfoxes Paul by getting murdered by a Nightmare Fan.
Paul now goes around trying to convince people that he, too, was in the band.
His selling job is all the harder because the intelligentsia and the rock press have always been John-biased. John was the smart one. He gave awesome interviews and ridiculed authority, unlike nice-guy Paul. John labelled Paul "conservative" when that was like calling someone a Nazi. The Beatles had a bubble gum aspect that made it hard for many people to admit they liked the band, so they just said they liked Lennon's work, not McCartney's. To this day, half-wit Beatle fans insist give John credit for a lot of Paul's songs, like Why Don't We Do It In The Road.
Among people who know better -- who know that Paul wrote a plurality of the Beatle classics -- the only way to remain Lennon-biased is to invent distinctions between talent and genius, technique and artistry.
"Where McCartney had great talent, Lennon was a genius, " Ray Coleman wrote in the hagiography Lennon. John was "the founder, the powerhouse, the engine room of the Beatles . . . without him, they would have had no cutting edge, conscience or originality."
This is essentially true, even if "genius" is a bit vague. Philip Norman, who wrote the best Beatle book, Shout! The Beatles In Their Generation, claims that Lennon was three- fourths of the band even though Paul was the superior wordsmith. How does that figure? Norman told Tropic, "Everything that the beatles were in the beginning, funny, dry, charming, a little bit dangerous, offbeat, bohemian...was Lennon."
The person who is probably in the position to judge the John-vs.-Paul match most easily is Martin, their producer, though John fans might argue he is a Paul groupie, known to spend more time on Paul songs and admittedly not that interested in lyrics. Martin has said, "It's quite likely that, in terms of success, Paul's songs will last longer than John's because they get more to the average man, to the heart strings, than John's did. That's being really commercial about it. But I couldn't put a cigarette paper between them."
Martin does seem, on the whole, in the Paul camp. And Norman Smith, one of the engineers working for Martin, said, "There is not doubt at all that Paul was the main musical force . . . most of the ideas came from Paul."
So why do people despise Paul?
On the most superficial level he has the handicap of being the cute Beatle. The idea that good-looking people are deeply talented is hard to stomach. Look at him: A working-class kid who had the run of the planet in his 20s, made half a billion dollars singing love songs and dance tunes, got to wear neat clothes, then settled down to a stable 20 year marriage with four kids and several homes including a sheep ranch in Scotland. He's despicable!
On a slightly deeper, if still unfair, level, Paul has a political problem. As the Beatles grew shaggier in the 1960s they lost any resemblance to the mop-tops of only a few years earlier, except Paul, who maintained his cuddly appearance. His lyrics were, indeed, goofy and irrelevant. "Paul was viewed as a traitor to the counterculture, " Nicholas Schaffner writes in The Beatles Forever. A nut group called the Rock Liberation Front staged demonstrations outside the Park Avenue home of Paul's in-laws. Even for sober-headed adults, to own a Paul solo album in the mid-1970s was social death. A slightly more sympathetic view was offered by necrobiographer Albert Goldman in a Lennon postmortem: "In a business where freakishness and degeneracy are virtually the rule, Paul has spent his whole life without ever losing control."
The third and most troubling handicap for Paul is that, in stark contrast to John, he doesn't seem to have much of a soul. No one expects him to be Aretha Franklin but with all his talent and resources you'd think he wouldn't need to leaven his music with so much enriched flour.
No Paul song in 30 years reveals what's inside him other than silly love notions. Poignant ballads like Yesterday and Eleanor Rigby have a stagey sorrow to them. Even his voice, though astonishing in its range and lovely to listen to, never carried the bluesy character of John's. Listen to John sing Don't Let Me Down and there's infinitely more pain and emotion than can be heard in anything by mockingbird Paul. Paul does his Elvis voice, his Little Richard voice, his sweet Mother Nature's Son voice, and it's all technique.
Paul isn't what you'd call a method singer. He's Laurence Olivier, not Marlon Brando. When he wanted to sound weary and agonized for Oh! Darling he made repeated trips to the studio over the course of five days until his vocal chords were raw and he got the sound he wanted. It's a great song but it's hard to take it seriously the way you could the John's contemporaneous Don't Let Me Down.
Maybe the reason that Hey Jude has such a terrific sound is that Paul had just broken up with girlfriend Jane Asher and, for once, felt pained enough to sing a song as though he really meant it.
5. Turning On
"It is in the outcast, disinherited, vagabond, criminal, defective, insane and generally abnormal elements of humankind that genius germinates, " wrote Arthur C. Jacobson in Genius: Some Revaluations all the way back in 1926.
Jacobson argued that alcohol abuse or the "toxins of tuberculosis" were the common element of creative minds. "The release of creative secondary personalities would seem to depend upon some sort of intoxication, with resulting paralysis of inhibitions."
This is an unfashionable way of looking at creativity but it has impressive anecdotal support. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote the poem Kubla Khan while semi-conscious on opium. The four great American writers of this century, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Weingarten, were constantly drunk.
The Beatles were not the Just Say No types. John once said, "The only way to survive in Hamburg, to play 8 hours a night, was to take pills. I've always needed a drug to survive."
Paul ignored John's ridicule and held off from trying the "heaven and hell" drug LSD. When he finally took it, to keep a bad-tripping Lennon company during the Sgt. Pepper sessions, they stared into each others eyes for hours saying "I know, man."
Drugs like marijuana and LSD heighten one's sensitivity to, among other things, sound. Acid-gobbling guitarist Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead told Rolling Stone, "Being high, each note, you know, is like a whole universe. And each silence. And the quality of the sound and the degreee of emotional . . . when you're playing and you're high on acid in these scenes it is like the most important thing in the world. It's truly, phew, cosmic..."
Drugs fueled their creativity in the short run -- but stamped it out over time. Their greatest creative work, Sergeant Pepper, is an LSD album. Simultaneously, John was eating so much acid he was destroying his ego. His music became less melodic. He hooked up with avant-garde artist Yoko Ono and craved an existence independent from the Beatle family. Paul had to take over the band.
"Paul, like Yoko, was born to dominate. Behind his Robin Goodfellow mask of charm and insouciance beat the iron heart of the power tripper, " necrobiographer Albert Goldman writes in his Lennon biography. "Is it any wonder that Paul got a little bossy, betraying his impatience with Ringo (who had gotten worse over the years) or with an uptight, crib-book guitarist like George, or a sullen, apathetic drug addict like John?"
Paul saw himself as the Main Beatle. In 1969 he tried to get his band back on the road like a real rock group: "I think we should get rid of all this big pressure and play little clubs and get back to our roots. I think we'll find ourselves again that way, " he said.
John: "I think you're daft. In fact . . . I've quit the group."
Paul was crushed. He convinced John not to announce the split publicly, and hoped for reconciliation. But his penchant for money-grubbing got him in trouble.
John and Paul didn't own their own songs. Instead, they owned shares in Northern Songs, a publicly-traded company that owned the Beatles catalog. When the majority shareholder, Dick James, threatened to sell the company to Lord Lew Grade, John and Paul and their advisers decided to thwart the move by buying up more shares in the company. But when they got together and looked at who owned what, John discovered that Paul had secretly been buying more stock already. Paul owned 107,000 more shares of the Lennon-McCartney ouevre than John. John blew up and the Beatles were soon over.
(Lord Lew Grade did indeed buy the company and later sold it, to Paul's horror, to Michael Jackson, which is why Beatle songs now can be heard on TV commercials for Nike. Paul still gets a quarter share of the royalties, though a complex 1978 copywrite law designed to protect widows and children may erode his royalties and vastly increase those of -- gad -- Yoko Ono. Which is why Paul, ever petulant, complains that Yoko is going to own more of Yesterday than he will.)
Paul eventually woke up to the reality of the band's disintegration and recorded his own solo album, a simple work on which he played all the instruments. Paul rather connivingly announced the end of the Beatles on April 9, 1970, as a publicity plug for his solo album.
He was secretly devastated by the breakup. As he told CBS News this year, "That was the worst moment other than my mother dying when I was 14...I didn't get up for a long time. I didn't shave for a ong time. I drank a little."
Paul not only suffered John's rejection but then was pummelled by rock critics who deemed the solo album a lame collection. The question is whether Paul was depressed because he missed the Beatles or because suddenly he wasn't Prince Charming.
"Paul likes to be liked, " wife Linda told CBS this year.
When the Beatles went solo the edgy, urgent, political music of John suddenly found its polar opposite in Paul's infectious, sleepy nursery rhymes. Paul's first solo album had one great song, "Maybe I'm Amazed, " and a lot of filler. His next one, Ram, was deemed by critic Jon Landau "the nadir in the decomposition of Sixties rock thus far" and "monumentally irrelevant."
Paul could do no right. When he put out Give Ireland Back to the Irish it was seen as a cynical grab for political correctitude like John's. Then, as if to top Ram, he released a single with the unbelievable title of "Mary Had a Little Lamb." He had gone wiggy in the head.
Still, he had more hit singles in the 1970s than anyone in the world, more even than Elton John. In the process he lost his critical acclaim and alienated much of his old audience. It was as though, by singing Silly Love Songs, et. al, he was regressing into a false innocence, discarding the adult fans that had grown up with The Beatles and replacing them with 13- year-old kids in St. Louis. As John put it, Paul had become like Engelbert Humperdinck, selling songs to the "great midwest where hits are made."
Paul formed the band Wings in 1971 and released the abysmal Wild Life, unprofessionally recorded in three days and featuring one song with the lyrics "bip bop bip bom bop bip bop bip bom bam" repeated as if to incite nausea. Other solo songs had choo-choo-choos and da-da-das and wo-wo-wos. John would never have let Paul sing the excruciatingly ungrammatical line in Live and Let Die, " . . . and in this ever changing world in which we live in . . . "
John, meanwhile, produced the classic John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album, his primal scream, the songs so intensely personal and the instrumentation so spare and nervy that it was more like a monologue to a psychiatrist than a musical performance. His next album, Imagine, jacked up the melodic end of the equation, but was tainted with an unseemly, vicious attack on Paul.
Paul had actually started the public feud with a seething self-interview released with his first solo album. Paul then put a couple of jabs on Ram. Too many people going underground, he sang in obvious reference to John and Yoko's political shenanigans. Then it got worse: You took your lucky break and broke it in two/ Now what can be done for you?
So John hit back with How Do You Sleep and even less subtle invectives:
"You live with straights who tell you you was king/ Jump when your mama tell you anything . . . The only thing you done was Yesterday . . . A pretty face may last a year or two/ But pretty soon they'll see what you can do/ The sound you make is Muzak to my ears/ You must have learned something all those years."
Paul told the magazine Melody Maker: "John and Yoko are not cool in what they're doing."
John responded in an open letter to Paul in the same publication: "If WE'RE not cool, WHAT DOES THAT MAKE YOU?"
Lennon's solo career then went into the toilet with a batch of naive protest chants on the album Some Time In New York City.
The great critic Lester Bangs wrote of the wreckage of the world's greatest pop band: "McCartney makes lovely boutique tapes, resolute upon beng as inconsequential as the Carpenters . . . Lennon will do anything, reach for any cheap trick, jump on any bandwagon, to make himself look like a Significant Artist . . . Harrison belongs in a day care center for counterculture casualties . . . Ringo is beneath contempt."
Paul had serious plans to make an animated TV movie about the adventures of Bruce McMouse, a rodent living underneath the stage of the Wings band. The children mice were Soily, Swooney and Swat. Other ideas he had included a UFO epic and a "Casablanca of the seventies." He couldn't find any collaborators and settled finally on writing his own movie. He gradually accreted what he felt was a decent script. He showed it to Richard Lester, the director of A Hard Day's Night and Help! Lester said, "Don't do it!"
He did it. Nine million drained on a disaster called Give My Regards to Broad Street, Paul's Vegassy nature coming through right on the title. It was a grown-up version of A Hard Day's Night, which is to say that it showed an aging corporate rock star's day-in-the-life. Perfectly, the plot centered on an evil banker trying to rip off the profits from Paul's music.
Salewicz, Paul's biographer, writes, "Those who have worked with Paul McCartney since the Beatles mention a major flaw in his abilities: so prolific is his songwriting that he is unable to separate the mediocre from the truly great -- a task that had been John Lennon's." He's surrounded by yes men. "Who around him was going to tell an ex-Beatle that what he'd just written was a heap of s--t?"
6. Paul Is Dead
Musical ability, like mathematical ability, often shows itself at an early age. Mathematicians do their best work by the age of 25. If they haven't made a breakthrough by 40 it's hopeless. Less obvious is what happens to the musically gifted when they age. Researchers say there's no evidence that older people can't compose great works. Witness Beethoven. But then again, Beethoven was a plodding worker, never the type to create with the Shazam method -- like Paul McCartney. If you look at Paul's work the lightning clearly isn't striking as often. He has slipped a few notches even when discounts are made for the contributions of John during the Beatle phase.
"An enormous talent has just steadily declined over 20 years, " says Philip Norman. "It's really quite tragic. He started off like Picasso. And he ended up like Norman Rockwell."
In fact, all the greats of the Sixties have slipped. Bob Dylan has done some fine work of late but it doesn't compare to what he did in 1965. The Rolling Stones get by on skill more than inspiration. Bands like The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane are museum pieces. The fresh, different, interesting music comes from a younger generation -- as it always has.
What's hard to know is whether this is merely a change in audience taste or an actual brain cell burnout.
Howard Gardner, the Harvard creativity researcher, says, "One thing that happens to people is that they lose nerve at some point, they've been quite successful and they don't want to take risks anymore."
In the 1970s Paul regularly flouted marijuana laws, was busted several times and forced to pay fines, and finally got himself jailed for 10 days for taking a suitcase of pot into Japan. No one doubted that the huge stash was for personal use. In 1984 he and Linda were busted in the Barbados, fined, and flew home to England, where they were instantly busted again at Heathrow airport.
Chet Flippo's biography Yesterday quotes one unnamed insider as saying that Paul's musical judgment has been eroded by chronic pot use. Another biography, by Chris Salewicz, quotes one-time McCartney backup guitarist Nick Lowe: "He did seem to smoke it pretty much all the time." McCartney himself told Rolling Stone last year, "I've smoked a bit of pot, " but suggested it wasn't as unhealthy a substance as whiskey.
"I'm actually doing all right compared to other people I know, " he said.
He's 47 now. In any other industry he'd be in the prime of his career. In pop music he's a ghost from the past.
Even if he wrote another Yesterday no one would care anymore. It'd be a smallish hit on the Easy Listening stations. Paul didn't change as much as the rest of us did. In the 1960s pop stars were taken seriously as spokesmen for their generation. People searched the grooves of a Beatles song for the coded messages, the secret instructions, the unspeakable insights. Paul had the idea of putting a sound on the final note of A Day in the Life that only a dog could hear. People found out because their dogs howled when it came on. If he did the same thing now, no one would notice.
There will never be another Beatles because rock will never be that young again. The great voyages of discovery have been completed. Never again will we be so innocent and so ready to be bad.
The larger culture may yet indulge Paul a little longer. His latest album Flowers In the Dirt has received excellent reviews if unspectacular sales. His 1982 album Tug of War was hailed by Rolling Stone as a masterpiece. That was just after John died. Paul sang a tribute, Here Today, as the final track.
What about the night we cried
because there wasn't any reason left to keep it all inside?
George Martin had reappeared to produce the record and he arranged strings in the background just as he did for Yesterday. Paul never sounded better. In fact it had a Beatle air to it -- melodious, filled with shifting textures, maybe even an Aeolian cadence if we can ever figure out what one is. It was as though the spirit of John had come back for a final collaboration, as Paul suggested in his final verse:
I really loved you and was glad you came along/
And you were here today/
For you were in my song...
For a moment it all came together and sounded like . . . genius.
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