Battle of the Fans: Who Wrote the Best Beatles Songs?
Two years ago, Mojo magazine asked singer-songwriter Paul Simon to name the artists he considered to be in the “top pantheon” of popular songwriters. Simon paused for a moment, and then replied: “I’d put Gershwin, Berlin, and Hank Williams. I’d probably put Paul McCartney in there too. Then I’d have Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Then, in the second tier, Lennon is there. Dylan is there, Bob Marley and Stephen Sondheim are there, and maybe I’m there, too. It’s about whose songs last.”
A year later, speaking to New Musical Express, Liam Gallagher weighed in on a similar topic. “John Lennon means everything to me,” he said. “I wouldn’t say he’s a better songwriter than McCartney—I’d say they’re both different but great. I like Lennon’s stuff more because it’s a bit more beautiful, and it’s more mad.”
Putting aside the fact that Lennon almost certainly would never have claimed his songs are “more beautiful” than McCartney’s, the assessments of Simon and Gallagher illustrate how opinions vary regarding who was the better songwriter—Lennon, or McCartney. Many have asserted that Lennon was the “word” man and McCartney was the “melody” man, but that generalization is far too simplistic to stand on its own. Lennon songs such as “Nowhere Man” and “Across the Universe,” for instance, sport soaring melodies. Likewise, songs such as “Hey Jude” and “Lady Madonna” prove McCartney was no slouch with lyrics, whenever he put his mind to the task.
In a 1980 interview with Playboy, conducted three months before his death, Lennon addressed the topic head-on. “You could say [Paul] provided lightness, optimism, while I would always go for the sadness, the discords, a certain bluesy edge,” he said. “There was a period when I thought I didn't write melodies, that Paul wrote those and I just wrote straight, shouting rock 'n roll. But, of course, when I think of some of my own songs ... ‘In My Life’ or some of the early stuff... ‘This Boy,’ I was writing melody with the best of them.”
Lennon added: “I always had an easier time with lyrics, though Paul is quite a capable lyricist who doesn't think he is. So he doesn't go for it. Rather than face the problem, he would avoid it. ‘Hey Jude’ is a damn good set of lyrics. I made no contribution to the lyrics there. And a couple of lines he has come up with show indications of a good lyricist. But he just hasn't taken it anywhere.”
In his 1988 book, Tell Me Why--a thoroughly researched tome that explores The Beatles’ catalog album-by-album, song-by song—author Tim Riley tried to get at the heart of the Lennon-McCartney magic. Voicing no opinion regarding who was the better songwriter, Riley instead alludes to the synchronicity that propelled the songs of both men to heights neither man could have achieved on his own. “McCartney prefers dramatic settings, complete with characters: ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘She’s Leaving Home’ are like pop-song short stories,” he wrote. “Lennon is more interested in projecting moral visions with mythical figures like ‘Nowhere Man’ or ‘I Am the Walrus,’ unless he addresses his audience more directly.”
Riley continued: “As musicians, their personalities complement each other, enlarging the scope of what would otherwise be individual statements. If they didn’t always work together when writing---they composed more and more separately as the years passed—they were almost always generous toward each other in performance.”
Journalist Neil McCormick further elaborated on Riley’s assessments in a thoughtful essay published in London’s The Telegraph in 1998. Skirting perilously close to the “John was the wordsmith and Paul was the melodist” trap, McCormick submits, in the end, that “fraternal rivalry” inspired both men to reach beyond themselves. “John, intuitive and impatient, valued verbal ideas and stressed expression and inspiration over melodic variety and formal technique,” writes McCormick. “Paul, extrovert and optimistic with a boundless enthusiasm for music in itself, brought a free-flowing fluency and wide melodic range to his material, often combining his sentimentality and musicality to powerful emotional effect.”
And yet, McCormick goes on to say this: “Lennon proved himself capable of lovely melody and sentiment (“In My Life”) and even ventured into pastiche (‘Goodnight,’ a Cole Porter-style ballad sung by Ringo, frequently attributed to Paul). And McCartney could be a wild rocker (‘Helter Skelter,’ ‘Why Don't We Do It in the Road’) and a powerful lyricist (‘For No One’ is a strikingly acute and perceptive encapsulation of the end of a relationship).”
Like many things in life, assessing which man contributed the greatest songs to The Beatles catalog comes down to personal preference. It’s worth noting, however, that Lennon described their longstanding collaboration as a love affair with a competitive edge, a view shared by McCartney. Moreover, none of this analysis addresses Lennon’s and McCartney’s post-Beatles’ work--or even their early writing sessions, during which they composed songs “eyeball to eyeball.” Those are topics for another day.
Meanwhile, Sir George Martin offers probably the finest and most accurate perspective regarding the extraordinary nature of the Lennon-McCartney partnership. “Asking who was more important to the group is like asking what is the more important ingredient in a sauce vinaigrette, the oil or the vinegar,” says Martin. “Both were fundamentally important. One without the other would have been unthinkable in terms of The Beatles’ success."
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