On June 18th, Paul McCartney will turn 75 years old, a milestone in a remarkable life that has been chockfull of the things. It is perhaps even more daunting to realize that the lion’s share of his most significant cultural output had been completed by 1970, when he reached the ripe old age of 28.
When he celebrates his birthday next week, McCartney will have endured nearly half of his life in the shadow of John Lennon’s untimely death at the hands of an assassin in December 1980. For most thinkers about popular music, the Lennon-McCartney partnership lives at the heart of the group’s extraordinary critical and commercial success. Whether explicitly working together or having become separated by the rites of songwriterly competition, their relationship was the combustion engine that propelled the group ever forward.
It has become a critical and cultural commonplace to describe Lennon and McCartney as a creative union of opposites—John’s inner pessimism in relentless struggle with Paul’s unvarnished optimism. It’s a description that they not only came to believe themselves, but that they ultimately helped to perpetuate. In truth, it is a fool’s enterprise, a zero-sum game, to believe that two Liverpool lads—the novice rock-and-rollers who came together on July 6, 1957 in a Woolton churchyard—were so very different from one another when they shared virtually the same heritage, having been born and bred among a homogeneous North Country mindscape.
But rather than ascribing their success to a creative marriage of contradictory natures, we can understand the strength of their association by considering their inability as solo artists to equal their accomplishments with the Beatles. As Allan F. Moore points out: “It is no exaggeration to claim that, on the dissolution of the songwriting partnership, neither writer alone was able to reproduce the strength of interaction (as McCartney may presciently have observed in Abbey Road’s ‘Carry That Weight’).”
Even more significantly, we can comprehend the nature of their greatness by recognizing the comparatively subtle difference in their roles in the fabric of the Beatles—if not in the larger realm of popular music and culture. On the one hand, Lennon was a pop-music visionary, a songwriter with the innate musical talent to breathe reality into his artistic revelations. He had the breadth of mind to render far-reaching observations about the human condition, to realize the inherent complexities of our existence even as he dared us to live deeply and embrace one another in community. On the other hand, McCartney was a pop-music virtuoso, a timeless composer who concocted musical and lyrical images with exquisite ease. With the natural ability to play nearly any instrument—and often better than his contemporaries could ever dream—he was at home in virtually any musical style and gifted with the capacity for crafting rich, evocative melodies. John and Paul’s partnership wasn’t a marriage of opposites—it was a marriage made in heaven. And for the Beatles, it made all the difference.
In less than a month, we will celebrate the 60th anniversary of Lennon and McCartney’s fateful meeting at St. Peter’s Church. Their partnership would provide the fount of the Beatles’ luminosity—the central, driving intelligence of their music. The perceptive, discerning quality of the band—of Lennon and McCartney in particular—concerns a writerly attempt to get to the heart of the matter. In the provocative, self-critical master-texts of “Eleanor Rigby,” “A Day in the Life,” “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” the “Revolution” series, and the Abbey Road medley, Lennon and McCartney explore the inherent truth in Socrates’s famous dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
In all likelihood, McCartney’s life will ultimately be measured by his Beatles-era accomplishments—an embarrassment of artistic riches that includes Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, The White Album, and Abbey Road—as opposed to his later work with Wings and his numerous solo triumphs. But with the Beatles, McCartney fashioned an enduring legacy based upon interpreting our intrinsically human needs for hopefulness and reconciliation. “I’m really glad that most of the songs dealt with love, peace, and understanding,” McCartney later recalled. “There’s hardly any one of them that says: ‘Go on, kids, tell them all to sod off. Leave your parents.’ It’s all very ‘All You Need Is Love’ or John’s ‘Give Peace a Chance.’ There was a good spirit behind it all, which I’m very proud of.”
As we mark his birthday next week—and the birth of his partnership with Lennon only a few weeks later—McCartney’s insightful words will be well worth remembering indeed.
Ken Womack is an internationally renowned Beatles authority regarding the band’s enduring artistic influence. His latest book, Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin (The Early Years: 1926-1966), is forthcoming in 2017. His previous Beatles-related books include Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles and The Beatles Encyclopedia: Everything Fab Four. You can learn more about Ken’s work at kennethwomack.com.