Who’s the Better Beatle: John or Paul? There’s no Comparison.

Lennon-McCartney

No, really, there’s not. So stop fighting about it.

This afternoon I saw an inane article giving 20 reasons why Paul is better than John. I won’t even give it the dignity of linking it here, but suffice it to say the reasons ranged from Paul knowing more chords than John in the beginning, to the fact that Paul recruited George into the group while John only recruited Yoko (I guess it didn’t matter that John first recruited Paul and Yoko never joined the band??).

We all have a favorite Beatle, whether we’re talking group or solo output. And everyone’s reasons are different—musical styles, personality, looks, politics, etc. But personal preferences aside, the Beatles’ genius was the result of a close partnership between two polar opposites who had a remarkable ability to collaborate while simultaneously competing with each other. The partnership made them the songwriters they became, and was responsible for allowing each to realize the fullness of his potential.

As individuals, both had insane talent, incredible ambition, and extreme self confidence. And while they connected immediately as friends, it was their differences that made them such a winning pair. Where John was the troublemaker, Paul was the peacemaker; where John was hard-edged, Paul was sentimental; where John spoke his mind without a filter, Paul was the diplomat. Alone, their styles and personalities likely would have been too one-dimensional to attract notice beyond Liverpool, but their ability to balance each another out artistically and personally gave them the “x-factor” that made such a mark on the world. They had no fear of one another, and could check the other’s excesses both publicly and privately in ways that others couldn’t.

There was no doubt that they looked at their collaboration as a partnership of equals from the beginning. As young songwriters, they would write “ANOTHER LENNON-MCCARTNEY ORIGINAL” at the top of each new piece they wrote. This convention stood no matter who wrote the majority of the song, as the influence of one was always present in the writing of the other. Even from their earliest songwriting days, the desire to impress and compete with each other was a prime motivator. Mark Lewisohn notes in his book Tune In:

“John had complete admiration for Paul’s facility with harmony and melody, his musicianship and invention; Paul respected John’s musical talent and envied his original repartee. Yet while combining their skills as a team, they remained competitive as individuals, each trying to outdo the other. It became a vital artistic spur: John would call it ‘a sibling rivalry…a creative rivalry,’ Paul spoke of ‘competitiveness in that we were ricocheting our ideas.’ Each tried to impress the other out of sheer fear of what he might say in return. Both were rarely less than candid, and the thought that a new song would be branded ‘crap’ was usually more than enough to continually raise standards.” (pg. 13).

John and Paul respected each other, learned from each other, and grew musically and personally as a result. And though the stereotypes associated with each certainly have roots in truth, there are countless examples of both Beatles expanding their styles as a result of exposure to his partner. Would John have ever written the gorgeous “In My Life” without being influenced by Paul’s sincere love of melody and schmaltz? And would Paul have attempted harder songs like “Why Don’t We Do it In the Road?” or “Helter Skelter” without a desire to equal or top John’s hard-rock edge?

As the band evolved in the mid- to late-60’s, it became increasingly obvious that many Lennon-McCartney songs could have been attributed to only one songwriter. Yet there was never a doubt that the marriage-of-opposites partnership was still there. If Paul’s piece was overly optimistic (e.g., “It’s getting better all the time,” John offered an interjection that would give the song just the right amount of bite (“it couldn’t get much worse”). Paul may have written the song, but John’s contribution made it brilliant. If John came in with a snippet of an unfinished song, Paul could give it just the touch that would make it perfect (see the mellotron intro to “Strawberry Fields Forever” or the middle section of “A Day in the Life”). Even when looking at full albums, the melding of individual styles into a coherent piece is a hallmark of a Beatles album. Just look at the way the White Album tracks flow into one another in a weird, disjointed, and ultimately Beatle-esque way. Despite growing personal tension, it’s a testament to how the partnership continued to produce the eclectic-yet-cohesive work that’s a hallmark of the Beatles’ output.

Bottom line: while you may prefer one Beatle’s style to the other, neither is better than the other. Because John and Paul’s collaboration was what made the Beatles what they were.

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