Live and Let Creativity Die
As it turns out, the nuts were right. Paul is dead.
Creatively, at least, the Cute Beatle met his maker in about, oh, December of 1970.
And, despite all the corporate pandering and hollow hoopla, Paul's latest effort, Flaming Pie, is just about what you'd expect from a rock star whose brain perished in 1970.
For those of you slower readers who missed the review, I summarize:
Flaming Pie is
(a) smaller than a breadbox
(b) not quite as interesting as duct tape
(c) as darn tasty as a dog-shit crepe
This, then, brings to an official close the portion of this article dedicated to Paul's posthumous work.
We may now move on to an aspect of his career that is still very much alive. I refer, of course, to the perpetual debate over who was best songwriter in the Beatles. And here, at last, I have some good news for the recently beknighted (and bejowled) Sir Paul.
That's right. Despite being dead, despite continuing to produce truly suck-ass albums from the grave, despite being married to the only known militant vegetarian in the United Kingdom, Paul McCartney was the Fab Four's number one tunesmith. I am aware that this announcement comes as a bit of a shock, even an affront, to John Lennon diehards. (Out of mercy, I am going to leave aside those of you who cast the dark-horse vote for George "My Sweet Bridgework" Harrison, as you were also the ones who predicted we'd all be speaking Esperanto by now.)
Please understand, the decision to anoint Paul once and for all -- and thereby end countless besotted, late-night squabbles -- was not made lightly. An international tribunal of music experts consisting of me and a bunch of people whose opinions I sort of respect was convened, and many minutes were spent trying to figure out who wrote what and staring thoughtfully into space before I made the call. I've also thrown a big fat caveat into the deal: McCartney and Lennon would never have amounted to a hill of legumes without the other, an assertion that need only reference their solo careers.
I don't want this to get ugly (and it certainly has that potential), so we're going to do this nice and neat, album by album. By the time I'm through, I feel confident in predicting that even the most ardent Lennon fans will agree that, despite being a snide little jerk-off, I am right.
Without further hairdo, let's go the vinyl.
First up, Introducing the Beatles: In an era of syrupy covers, the Beatles' raucous debut was immediately notable because a full eight of the tracks were penned by the artists themselves. The obvious standouts here are "Love Me Do" and "I Saw Her Standing There," both by Paul, and John's "Please Please Me," which was axed from the U.S. release because prudish Yank distributors believed the title referred to fellatio. In fact, it referred to sodomy. Edge to Paul.
Like much of the early work, Meet the Beatles was a highly collaborative effort. And why not? The moptops were happy campers. Aside from a little flap over their original cover art (the boys draped in slabs of bloody beef -- Meat the Beatles, get it?), they were rising stars yet to be crushed by fame. Two years Paul's senior, John was regarded during this period as the group's leader. While he contributed four songs to the album, none approached in popularity Paul's "All My Loving," which put the duo on equal footing. The album's biggest hit, "I Want to Hold Your Hand," was written ensemble. A tossup.
A Hard Day's Night is a testament to the growing rivalry between the Beatles' two primary songwriters. Ringo, of course, uttered the line after an exhausting day on the set of the Beatles' first film. When it was adopted a couple of weeks later as the title of the film, John rushed home to write a song of the same name, hoping to beat Paul to the punch. He did. His prodigious output on this 1964 release also includes "I Should Have Known Better," "Tell Me Why," and his first true ballad, "If I Fell." While Paul nailed a number one hit on both sides of the Atlantic with "Can't Buy Me Love," the album belonged to John.
The Beatles' dour fourth longplayer, Beatles for Sale, revealed a band in the midst of an extended downer. Firmly established as the biggest things ever to wear ankle boots, mired in a brutal schedule of international concerts and movie filming, the boys wrote tunes to match their mood ("Baby's in Black," "I'm a Loser," "No Reply"). Not destined for posterity, the disc nonetheless provided two smash singles, John's "I Feel Fine" and "Eight Days a Week," a Paul composition that benefitted from major studio retooling. Other notables include the swaggering "She's a Woman," (Paul) and John's simpering "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party." By virtue of "I Should Have Known Better" and the subsequent single "Ticket to Ride," John gets the edge here.
John continued his run through the early recording sessions of Help!, chalking up the frenetic title track and the plaintive "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." Paul rallied in time to crank out "I'm Down," "I've Just Seen a Face," and the Beatles' first indelible hit, "Yesterday." Having been covered approximately 49,716 times since, the song comes off as something of a cliche these days. These days can kiss my patoot. Advantage Paul.
Though commonly billed as The Beatles Get Baked, Rubber Soul actually marked the band's move away from an overindulgence in pot, as well as from goofy Elvis-like film high jinks. The boys from Liverpool, John especially, were now dabbling in acid, and it showed. "Norwegian Wood" and "Nowhere Man" are notoriously spacy compositions. ("Day Tripper," a team effort with lyrics by John, speaks for itself.) Paul's offerings, per usual, are less cerebral affairs, more concerned with melody than nuance: "We Can Work It Out," "Drive My Car," "I'm Looking Through You," and "You Won't See Me." Bonus points to Paul for wrapping his Liverpudlian tongue around some actual French words on "Michelle." A draw.
The most underrated LP in the Beatles' catalogue, Revolver, pretty much established McCartney's creative ascendance. Busy reducing his brain to acid mush, John managed to pen three aces, the unjustly ignored "She Said She Said," its somber companion piece "Rain," and that ambitious bog known as "Tomorrow Never Knows." Excepting George's cheeky "Taxman," the rest is a Paul showcase: "Got to Get You into My Life," "Paperback Writer" (released as a single), "Yellow Submarine," "Good Day Sunshine," "Here, There and Everywhere," and "For No One." Add to these the dark elegance of "Eleanor Rigby" and you've got a walkover.
For reasons that still elude me, Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is often touted as the Beatles finest hour. It's a pretty punky album, really, one that suffers from Paul's nasty yen for high camp mishegoss. (How they got John into that dorky costume is beyond me. He was probably too stoned to notice.) Anyhoo, the album does mark a return to form for Lennon. "A Day in the Life" is plainly John's baby -- Paul's jaunty interlude notwithstanding -- marrying as it does his unorthodox melodic impulses and wry lyricism. "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" is the most delightful of John's lysergic spells, and "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" ... well, like I said, "Day in the Life" is a helluva song. Paul's output includes the title track, "Lovely Rita," "Fixing a Hole," "When I'm 64," and the lion's share of "With a Little Help from My Friends." Factor in John's superlative single "Strawberry Fields," which was teamed with Paul's pennywhistlish "Penny Lane." You make the call.
We've arrived at the Magical Mystery Tour, haven't we? Egads. Let's move quickly over this most unfortunate concept album (my personal congrats, by the by, to anyone out there who's figured out the concept) and the subsequent "Yellow Submarine." It breaks down like this:
Paul: "Magical Mystery Tour," "All Together Now," "Fool on the Hill," "Your Mother Should Know," "Hello Goodbye," and "Lady Madonna."
John: "Baby, You're a Rich Man," "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)," "All You Need Is Love," and "I Am the Walrus." ("Hey Bulldog" was based on a John riff but banged out in the studio.)
George: "Bluejay Way." Ouch.
Ringo: Let's not forget the Ugly Beatle's first solo composition, "Don't Pass Me By." Or actually, okay, forget it.
As should be clear, the material squeezed from the lads' increasingly fuzzy frontal lobes during this era is hardly the stuff of legend. I lean toward Ringo.
Ah, the White Album. At last, a return to form for the haggard and now heavily bearded boys. Newly inspired by his relationship with performance artist/pretentious windbag Yoko Ono, John arrived at Abbey Road with a fat satchel of songs: "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," "Dear Prudence," "Julia," "Sexy Sadie," "Glass Onion," "Cry Baby Cry," and, of course, "Revolution."
Nor was Paul mucking around. Among his gems are "Back in the USSR," "Why Don't We Do It in the Road," "Martha My Dear," "Birthday," "Honey Pie," and "Helter Skelter" (the only Beatles song ever credited with inspiring a mass murderer!).
Go ahead and shag Paul toss-offs like "Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da." But only if you're prepared to hold John fully accountable for the eight minutes of hell known as "Revolution #9." We'll call the boys even when it comes to spoofy songs about men who like to shoot guns ("Rocky Raccoon" versus "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill"). But let's see now. I could swear I'm forgetting something. Oh yeah: "Blackbird." Oh, and "Hey Jude" (also originally released as a single). Lennonheads surrender. The round is over. And you lose.
Let It Be, the Beatles ill-fated effort to record a live album in the studio, managed only to exacerbate already strained relations. John, still latched on to Yoko's droopy ass, invited his love muffin to Abbey Road, where she spent her time yodeling into a microphone suspended over her bed (her bed?) and filching George's chocolate cookies. Ringo was busy dreaming of a career in the movies. George was, well, George. Leaving Paul as the only one who gave a shit about the band. It showed. Four of his five originals, "Get Back," "I've Got a Feeling," "Let It Be," and "The Long and Winding Road," were hits. John answered with "Dig a Pony," "I Want You," and "Don't Let Me Down." I'll second that.
The best way to assess the John/Paul question vis-a-vis Abbey Road is to take a look at two of the cuts that help make up the Side B medley (a medley, it should be noted, that McCartney conceived.) Ask yourself which is the more memorable: "Polythene Pam" or "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window"? "Polythene Pam"? Get real. Score another for Paul. Now, add to his pile "You Never Give Me Your Money," "Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight," "Oh Darling," and (mea culpa mea culpa) "Maxwell's Silver Hammer." Chalk up "Come Together," "Sun King/Mean Mr. Mustard," and "Because" to John.
The Beatles final album may be too close to call, but the overall tally isn't. While the band's melody-happy poster boy lacked his partner's edgy brilliance, he wrote the majority of the Beatles enduring hits. (I'd put the figure at three-quarters.) It's that simple.
My personal theory is that Paul, younger than John and always an intellectual step behind, felt constant pressure to impress. John, meanwhile, got diverted by drugs and politics and Yoko and left the business of writing brilliant pop songs to his eager-beaver kid brother. This may help explain why Paul's solo work has been such dreck since the Beatles broke up. (Flaming Pie, ibid.) Or it may be that Paul simply exhausted himself creatively, as happened with Dylan, the Stones, and the rest of the rock fossils still rolling around.
This is not the point. The point is that Paul wins. John loses.
Next week: Donovan versus Dion -- who rocked harder?
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