Composing The Beatles Songbook: Lennon and McCartney

If you’re a Beatles fan, Amazon Prime offers a lot of ways to scratch that Fab Four itch. Over the weekend we watched an interesting two-part documentary called Composing The Beatles Songbook: Lennon and McCartney. The film, made in 2008, traces the greatest rock music songwriting partnership in history from the beginning to the end, using archival clips from shows and Beatles appearances mixed in with interviews with journalists, writers, musicians, and friends of Lennon and McCartney who talk about the development of the duo’s songwriting abilities and the significance of some of the musical innovations, chord structures, and lyrical devices in the songs themselves. The first part of the film takes us from 1957 to 1965, after the issuance of Rubber Soul and the Beatles’ decision to stop touring, and the second part goes from 1966 to the end in 1970.

Here’s the thing about the Beatles: you don’t need to be an expert in songwriting, or even know how to play an instrument or read music, to know that their songs are great. In effect, every Beatles fan is an expert in their own right, so when the people interviewed on the film start to critique a specific song or debate which Beatles album was the greatest–this group settles on Rubber Soul, by the way–the viewer is just as engaged as the participants in the debate. I may defer to the experts on the technical stuff about key changes and other musical arcana, but I’m perfectly capable of questioning their judgments about the worth of songs and albums, because the whole point of music is to appeal to the listener. I also can remember when the prevailing consensus was that the greatest Beatles album was Revolver . . . then Sgt. Pepper . . . then A Hard Day’s Night, and there are always people like me who think Abbey Road has to be right up there, too. The fact that people are still debating this question, decades later, just shows how extraordinary the Beatles output really was. And any documentary about the Lennon-McCartney songs inevitably is going to skip over incredibly great songs, as this one does with Ticket To Ride, Let It Be, I Feel Fine and many others.

Two observations made on the film stuck with me. One was the constant theme sounded by Klaus Voorman, who knew the Beatles well in the early Hamburg days. He pointed out that the Beatles always were different personalities, and it is perfectly natural that a time came when they wanted to pursue their own lives and go their own ways. Who can doubt the truth of that observation about the human condition–or question that the normal arc of development and change in people’s lives is only going to be exaggerated when you are at the absolute center of the cultural universe, as the Beatles were? It makes you understand that it isn’t surprising that the group ended, but that it’s wonderful that it stayed together for as long as it did.

The other observation was about the Beatles’ willingness to do countless takes of a difficult song–I think the particular song being discussed was Happiness Is A Warm Gun–and what that must have necessarily meant for the dynamics within the group. The point was that the group wouldn’t do more than 80 takes to get a song just right if they really couldn’t stand each other and were being pulled apart by internal dissension. That’s a compelling thought to keep in mind as you listen to the Beatles’ later songs, all the way up through Abbey Road, the last album that they recorded, which has some of the most memorable music of all, with Paul, for example, singing his heart out in the background vocals on Something and the great, tight rhythm section work on side two. Even at the end, the Beatles were pros who cared about each others’ songs and worked hard to produce the best music they could. That’s not a bad legacy.

Creative What-Ifs

The Atlantic recently carried a fascinating article on the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team.  It’s hard to imagine that anything new could be written about the Beatles, but the writer’s thesis is that it’s silly to try to figure out whether John Lennon or Paul McCartney wrote most or all of a particular song, because that ignores the impact of the partnership itself and the broader relationship between these two gigantic talents.  They wouldn’t have produced so much good music, the theory goes, if they hadn’t been pushing and challenging and trying to outdo one another.

Sometimes partnerships work, sometimes they can become poisonous.  Creativity comes in all forms:  solitary geniuses, brilliant but self-destructive alcoholics, a sudden burst of novelty that causes an entire artistic community to realize that old boundaries should fall and experimentation and new approaches should replace the calcified prior techniques.  I’m not sure that it’s possible to really draw broad conclusions from a songwriting partnership like Lennon and McCartney.

What most intrigued me about the article, however, was the last part of it, when the writer explains that, according to his producer, Lennon was actively planning on collaborating with McCartney after he finished Double Fantasy.  Of course, the murderous actions of Mark David Chapman prevented that from happening — but what if Chapman hadn’t killed John Lennon?  Could Lennon and McCartney have successfully teamed up again, or would the magic had been gone?

There are lots of similar artistic what-ifs that are tantalizing to consider.  What if Mozart hadn’t died at such an early age and had a composing career that was as long as Haydn’s?  What if Charlie Parker hadn’t become addicted to morphine and heroin and had carried the jazz torch rather than Miles Davis?  What if J.D. Salinger had been as prolific as, say, Stephen King?  What if Vincent Van Gogh hadn’t committed suicide?  We’ll never know.