The Lennon-McCartney Songwriting Partnership
Created | Updated Nov 1, 2014
John Lennon and Paul McCartney are considered by some to be the greatest songwriting team ever. Lead singers of the legendary band, The Beatles, and close friends, they wrote many hit songs together and helped create popular music as it is today.
John and Paul met in 1956, when John's relatively unknown Liverpool skiffle band, The Quarrymen, were playing at a church fete. Afterwards, Paul, who had been impressed by the group, was introduced to John and in turn impressed him by playing 'Twenty Flight Rock' on John's right-handed guitar, which the left-handed Paul held upside down. Soon afterwards, John somewhat reluctantly asked the talented Paul to join his group. They struck up a friendship, helped by the fact that they'd both experienced the death of their mothers at a young age.
They began writing songs together in 1957, although they'd been trying to write on their own for about five years. They would sometimes skip school and go to Paul's house while his father was at work, where they would write down lyrics to tunes they made up on the piano. Some of the songs that emerged from such sessions were 'I Saw Her Standing There' and 'When I'm 64'. It's not known for sure how many songs they wrote during this period, and although most of them remained unused, their claim of 'hundreds' is possibly exaggerated.
It was during this time that they struck an agreement, that any songs they wrote would be credited to both of them, giving them equal royalties. Originally, they decided that whoever wrote the majority of a song would have their name first, but they did not stick to this rule rigidly. 'Love Me Do', mainly written by Paul, was credited to Lennon-McCartney, while 'Please, Please Me', almost entirely by John, was credited to McCartney-Lennon. Their first album, also titled Please, Please Me read 'McCartney-Lennon' on all their songs. To make it more convenient, in 1963 they eventually settled on having Lennon-McCartney on all their songs, since the letter L comes before M in the alphabet. In the late 1990s Paul requested that some of the Beatles' songs were changed over to McCartney-Lennon, especially 'Yesterday', which John had no input into whatsoever, however this idea was rejected by the owner of John's estate, his widow, Yoko Ono.
Many of the songs they wrote between the time they met and when Beatlemania began to take off in 1963, were co-written equally; as Paul said, 'eyeball to eyeball'. Compositions from this period include 'She loves You', 'There's A Place', 'From Me To You', 'Thank You Girl', 'I'll Get You', 'I Wanna Be Your Man', 'Little Child' and 'I Want to Hold Your Hand'. According to John, in 1963;
All the better songs that we have written - the ones that anybody wants to hear - those were co-written. Sometimes half the words are written by me and he'll finish them off. We go along a word each, practically.
Most of the songs they wrote during this time were mainly started or conceived by one of the pair, with the other adding in a line or verse, completing the song, or helping out when inspiration was lost. Songs like this include 'Misery', 'Do You Want to Know a Secret', 'It Won't Be Long', 'Please Please Me' (all mainly by John), and 'All My Loving', 'Hold Me Tight', 'Love Me Do' (mainly by Paul).
In 1964, the sixth single by the Beatles, 'Can't Buy me Love' was released. This was the first time a song that was written solely by one of the partnership (in this case McCartney) was released as a single. This began a friendly rivalry between the two writers for the A-Side of the next single, and perhaps even to gain control of the group and not be second in command to the other. Even though they wrote separately, as Paul said;
Sometimes maybe he will write a whole song himself, or I will, but we always say that we've both written it.
The competitiveness also affected the band's lead guitarist, George Harrison, and he began writing, gradually getting better and better. Although he also was at times an exceptional songwriter, he was almost entirely left in the shadow of John and Paul's huge success, and many of his songs up until the fantastic hit single 'Something' in 1969 weren't taken seriously by the other Beatles, producer George Martin or anyone else.
The competition between Lennon and McCartney led to a creative outpouring of songs from both of them, and they both wrote more than they ever had before, to make sure they featured predominantly on the next album, or 'got' the next single. After 'Can't Buy me Love', Lennon had more songs on the next album, A Hard Day's Night, and scored the next four A-Sides, 'A Hard Day's Night', 'I Feel Fine', 'Ticket to Ride' and 'Help!'. It wasn't till December 1965, perhaps the pinnacle of their success, that McCartney once again became an equal partner to Lennon, when the next single, 'We Can Work it Out' was released much to John's objection, mainly written by Paul though John contributed the middle eight. Paul made a much bigger contribution, about equal to John's, to the albums Rubber Soul and Help!, which included perhaps his best known song 'Yesterday'. Both albums were released in 1965. The continuing rivalry between the partnership gave John and Paul an incentive to write even better songs, in an effort to outdo each other's and their own previous attempts.
Though they were writing songs separately, they were still also writing together, although a lot of their co-compositions before 1966 were just album-filler. Songs that were written collaboratively included 'If I Fell', 'I'm Happy Just to Dance with You', 'Eight Days a Week', 'Baby's in Black' and 'What Goes On', which was credited to Lennon-McCartney-Starkey (John, Paul and drummer Ringo Starr), though the latter said he only contributed 'about five lines'. Although they weren't writing so much as a team any more, even the compositions that were mainly a 'Paul song' or a 'John song' had some contribution from the other half of the partnership.
In 1966, it was largely the same, the only album of that year, Revolver, featured almost no 50-50 songs, though they still worked together. This really was the album where Paul shone; it features some of his better known songs including 'Eleanor Rigby' and 'Yellow Submarine'.
Love is All You Need
In 1967, The Beatles were heavily into the hippy scene. They'd developed an attitude that peace and love were the answer, and in a way, this was reflected by what John and Paul were writing. And as Paul put it;
We'd now got turned on to pot and thought of ourselves as artists rather than just performers.For one thing, they were writing a lot more together. From the 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, they wrote 'With A Little Help From my Friends', 'Getting Better' and one of their best 50-50 co-compositions, 'A Day in the Life'. In the song, it's easy to see how John and Paul could work as a team when they wrote; whilst John came up with the original idea for a meditation on newspaper stories and the verses, Paul came up with the famous line 'I'd love to turn you on', the orchestra transition and the middle eight section. The song works as though it were written by one voice, despite actually being a combination of two songs. Without each other, Paul's middle eight and John's verses would sound bland and out of place. They complemented each other perfectly, creating a great song.
Even though most of the songs of the period were written mainly by John or Paul, they helped each other, and they respected each other's work for what it was instead of trying to beat it. It was a time when the partnership was working in a similar way to when it first formed, creating songs purely for their own sake rather than to outdo each others' writing.
In the End
By 1968, however, the love had gone. On the double album released that year, titled The Beatles yet more commonly known as The White Album, John and Paul wrote only one song together, the album-filler 'Birthday'. John was getting bored, as only John could, with the Beatles. Yoko Ono was now replacing Paul in John's mind as his collaborator and equal. John said he wrote 'Looking Through a Glass Onion' for Paul, to say;
Here, have this crumb, this illusion, this stroke, because I'm leaving.Yoko was attending Beatles recording sessions, and even wrote Lennon-McCartney songs like 'Julia' with John. After the death of the group's manager, Brian Epstein, Paul was trying to take over the group, as was John to a lesser degree, and this only forced the two writers further and further apart. Both John and Paul were writing fantastic songs at the time, some of their best, and in a way, this created a jealousy that kept them from writing together.
It was The White Album that featured the Lennon-McCartney song that Paul absolutely despised. 'Revolution 9' was a sound collage created by John and Yoko, almost impossible to listen to. Meanwhile, John was greatly upset when Paul wrote and even recorded 'Why Don't We Do it on the Road' completely by himself. The fight for the next single was as competitive as ever, eventually, Paul's 'Hey Jude' won against John's 'Revolution'.
Things didn't improve in 1969. The Beatles had really already broken up beneath the surface, and John could hardly bear to be in the same room as Paul. They didn't write together at all, neither did they really care for The Beatles any more as they were both concentrating on their own work and projects. On the Let it Be album, recorded in 1969 but not released till 1970, John didn't really have his heart in writing for the Beatles, and Paul's songs were once again purely McCartney tracks.
Abbey Road was a bit better, John came up with 'Come Together'. For a while, John and Paul talked excitedly about the famous medley on Side Two, though John quickly bored of it, and left McCartney to write most of it. Some of the songwriting on Abbey Road was as good as anything they'd ever done, yet it suffered as whole because the band's two main composers couldn't work together as well they had done in the past.
Writing For Others
From the beginning of John and Paul's success, they began writing for others. Throughout most of the 1960s, any record with the words 'Lennon-McCartney' on it almost guaranteed a hit single, maybe even if it had been an out of tune 'Mary had a Little Lamb', accompanied by an orchestra of nine year olds playing the recorder. They 'gave' The Rolling Stones their first Top 20 hit, 'I Wanna be Your Man'. They wrote many hit songs for Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, including 'Do You Want to Know a Secret', 'Bad to Me' and 'I Call Your Name'. They wrote songs for The Fourmost ('I'm in Love'), Peter and Gordon ('Nobody I Know'), 'I Don't Want to See You Again') and Cilla Black ('Step Inside Love').
In most Lennon-McCartney songs, it's easy to see which parts were written by Lennon, and which by McCartney. Although there were exceptions, John's songs were normally pessimistic, while Paul's were optimistic. Examples of this can be seen especially in The Beatles' 'We Can Work it Out', where Paul's optimistic chorus and verses complement the middle-eight section, with John's lyrics 'life is very short/and there's no time for fussing and fighting my friend'.
John always said that the main difference between Lennon and McCartney was that while he preferred to write about 'real' things, that actually happened to him, Paul would write what John described as 'soppy' pop songs. In 1980, John commented;
You hear lots of McCartney-influenced songs on the radio now. These stories about boring people doing boring things - being postmen and secretaries and writing home. I'm not interested in writing third-party songs. I like to write about me, 'cuz I know me.
Some have also said that while John, who often described himself as a 'poet', wrote songs that were more lyric-driven, Paul's songs were more noted for their actual melodies. Even John admitted that;
...there was a period where I thought I didn't write melodies, that Paul wrote those and I just wrote straight, shouting rock n' roll.
John and Paul's separate styles perfectly complemented each other, as can be proven by the fact that a lot of Lennon's stuff is crying out for someone with a bit of a pop sensibility to work on it, and some of McCartney's desperately needs a bit of 'edge' to take it away from the over-poppy or over-schmaltzy end of things.
Some people will actually question the quality of the Lennon-McCartney material. Whilst some songs did have very simple lyrics ('I Want to Hold your Hand') and some have few fans ('Good Morning', 'Revolution 9', 'Hello Goodbye'), it is fair to say that the songwriting team of John Lennon and Paul McCartney was one of the most influential and wrote some of the most popular music in rock and roll history.