Even now, just past his 80th birthday (twice as old as John Lennon was when he was murdered at the age of 40), Sir Paul McCartney is still incessantly suffering comparison with his fellow band member. A tall, heavy shadow still hovers over Lennon, who will forever remain young and will never know the touch of a Botox injection in his forehead.
The intense competition and covert rivalry that existed between the two, which created the most tumultuous and fruitful derby in the merry 1960s, went nowhere and has remained untouched to this day.
Luckily, both rooted for the same team, which gave credence to the statement attributed to their team’s legendary manager, Bill Shankly, who claimed that “we had the best two teams on Merseyside – Liverpool and Liverpool Reserves.” The question still remains: In the competition between Lennon and McCartney, which one was Liverpool, and which one was the reserves? This question will forever remain unanswered.
Statistically speaking, the chance that two of the world’s most talented songwriters would grow up in the same neighborhood at exactly the same time as the other is next to zero. What’s more, what is the probability that each one would be able to let go of their ego long enough to figure out how to join forces and cooperate with each other in the same band?
On the one hand, there was Lennon, the precise songwriter who could capture such pure and powerful emotions better than any other artist until this day. And then there was McCartney, the supreme composer who could conjure up the most extraordinary melodies, the likes of which we haven’t heard since Mozart.
Lennon loved humanity so much more than he loved people, which is clearly evident from the anthems he wrote, as opposed to the personal songs he wrote, each one of which was like an artistic rendition of reaching the top of Mount Everest.
McCartney was the polar opposite of Lennon: He did not pretend to lead a revolution, climb over the barricades, preach morality or shout out radical proclamations. He stated in one of his hit songs with his band, Wings, that he was proud of writing silly love songs his whole life, and he even mocked Lennon’s “peace and love songs,” calling them “piece of cake” in a song he composed after the breakup of the Beatles.
FIFTY YEARS after this unforgivable zinger, which infuriated Lennon and jettisoned him on a brutal campaign of revenge, the fiercest battle took place between the living McCartney and the dead Lennon on this exact point. So even if the dispute over whether Lennon was a better songwriter, lyricist and vocalist than McCartney has been settled, it is still a fact that the latter is considered one of the greatest musicians of all time.
More recently, a new and surprising question has arisen:
Which one of them was the true revolutionary, and which one the more conservative?
At the time, and certainly after he was assassinated, it seemed that Lennon gave the final knock-out punch to McCartney.
Admittedly, the angry Lennon, with his round glasses, was identified with the anti-establishment movement and was the ultimate symbol of non-conformism. On the other hand, McCartney, with his babyface, was known as the square conformist who insisted on singing light-hearted pop songs while civil unrest broke out in Paris in 1968, with young people across the world fighting for social and political change.
Yet, if you take into consideration the milieu of the art and music industries in the UK and around the world at the time, most of the artists and singers would be considered non-conformists with radical opinions.
After further consideration, it could even be purported that Lennon was the conformist. His behavior and attitude fell completely in line with those voices that were so fashionable at the time among the elitists, who were often found to be hypocritical and fake, and whose public personas did not always reflect how they actually lived in their private lives.
In contrast, McCartney followed his own path and went against the tide, repeatedly releasing melodic, catchy songs that were sweet and sentimental. At times, this turned him into a punching bag for critics and key opinion leaders. Yet in the end, it appears that McCartney really did choose the “long and winding road.”
Only when he finally reached the ripe old age of 80 did we realize that this might have been the winning path. Or maybe it’s actually the historic victory of pop over rock-n-roll, and music over politics. ■
Translated by Hannah Hochner.