Two of Us

Inside the Lennon/McCartney Connection, Part 1
Why two is the magic number. 
Sept. 14 2010 7:54 PM

Two of Us

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This article is part of a series on creative pairs. To read the introduction, click here.

"I thought, 'If I take him on, what will happen?' "—John Lennon

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How did John Lennon and Paul McCartney make magic together? On the surface, it seems simple—they covered for each other's deficits and created outlets for each other's strengths. Paul's melodic sunshine smoothed out John's bluesy growls, while John's soulful depth gave ballast to Paul and kept him from floating away.

These points are true so far as they go. John and Paul did balance and complement each other magnificently, and we can pile example on example. When they were writing "I Saw Her Standing There," Paul offered this opening verse:

"She was just seventeen
Never been a beauty queen."

"You're joking about that line," John shot back, "aren't you?" He offered this revision:

"She was just seventeen
You know what I mean"

There it is: Innocence meets sin—an inviting, simple image takes a lusty, poetic leap.

The Silver Beetles audition session: Stuart Sutcliffe, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Johnny Hutchinson, and George Harrison, May 1960.. Click image to expand.
The Silver Beetles audition session: Stuart Sutcliffe, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Johnny Hutchinson, and George Harrison, May 1960

Lennon and McCartney did, to use the precious phrase, complete each other. "Paul's presence did serve to keep John from drifting too far into obscurity and self-indulgence," said Pete Shotton, a Liverpool boy who stayed in the Beatles' circle, "just as John's influence held in check the more facile and sentimental aspects of Paul's songwriting."

But images of completion and balance miss an essential energy between Lennon and McCartney—the potential energy of creative partnerships that they, as much as any pair in history, exemplify and illustrate. We tend to think of them in terms of arithmetic: Two people added together yield magnificence. This is the idea of partnership as chocolate and peanut butter—tasty, obvious, easy.

But Lennon and McCartney were more like an oyster and a grain of sand. Their power together didn't derive simply from individual ingredients but from a dynamic of constant mutual influence. Indeed, even "influence" understates the case, as it suggests two distinct actors operating on each other. Lennon and McCartney did affect each other, change each other, goad, inspire, madden, and wound each other. But they also each contributed to something that went beyond either individual, a charged, mutual space of creation—those pearls your ear probably recognizes and leans toward as much as to your parents' voices.

On a warm, humid July day in 1957, 15-year-old Paul McCartney came around to see a local band called the Quarry Men   play in the fields behind St. Peter's Church in the suburbs of Liverpool, England.

John Lennon, who was 20 months older, fronted the six-piece band. He had his glasses off as usual—he was vain like that, though his vision was lousy. His hair was piled up and greased back in the style of post-Elvis "Teddy Boys." He played banjo chords on his guitar, ignoring the two bottom strings. For much of the set—part rock and part "skiffle" (a flavor of 1950s folk)—he passed over chord changes he didn't know and made up lyrics as he went along. When he did the Del-Vikings doo-wop "Come Go With Me," he threw in an image from the blues: "Come and go with me … down to the penitentiary." McCartney thought it was ingenious.

Creative Pairs: Lennon and McCartney

Afterward, in the church social hall, Paul picked up a guitar himself, flipped it over to play left-handed and showed off the songs he knew—Eddie Cochran, Carl Perkins, Little Richard. * He had the lyrics down (including the complete lines to Cochran's "Twenty Flight Rock," a song others had a hard time even deciphering) and knocked off the chords perfectly (including a quick and delicate shift from a G to an F chord that made jaws drop). Then he went over to the piano and pounded out some Jerry Lee Lewis. The boy had polish and heat. He wore a white jacket with silver threads—he looked like Elvis, John thought. "Right off, I could see John checking this kid out," said Shotton (who played the washboards for the Quarry Men). Another friend said that John and Paul "circled each other like cats."

Clearly, these two boys had chemistry—that ineffable quality of attraction that feels like a primal, physical force and that often descends like a lightning strike. As with the passion of love, or the nature of creativity itself, science has struggled to account for chemistry. Humans may, or may not, have pheromones that affect connection (though smell does demonstrably play a role in sexual attraction). Mirror neurons may, or may not, play a role in empathy and rapport. In their new book, Click, Ori and Rom Brafman offer many powerful stories of what chemistry looks like, but when it comes to analyzing it, their first adjective is "magical." Hardly the stuff of white coats and laboratories.

Of course, we celebrate, even venerate, these "chemical" connections—and for good reason. They give us a big kick. MRIs show the brain region responsible for dopamine absorption lights up in couples that say they are in love, comparable to the influence of narcotics. By contrast, social disconnection provokes activity in the region responsible for physical pain.

But intense connection also brings a peculiar discomfort. People "madly" in love show symptoms directly comparable to mania, depression, anorexia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Serotonin levels actually fall in passionate love (which, not incidentally, has a short lifespan, as opposed to the mellower, longer lasting "companionate love").

The behavior in passion also carries profound psychological risk. Arthur and Elaine Aron's experiments on what they call self-expansion show that people literally lose a sense of distinction between themselves and a close other. And as the psychologist Sandra Murray has shown, love wouldn't work at all without "cognitive restructuring," or helpful illusions that dispel the inherent fear of rejection and pain.

John Lennon saw the two sides of his attraction to Paul McCartney quickly and clearly. "I dug him," he said, and he wanted him in the band.

But he had his concerns. "I half thought to myself, 'He's as good as me,'" he told the journalist Hunter Davies in 1967. "I'd been kingpin up to then. Now, I thought, 'If I take him on, what will happen?' " (In one sense, Lennon obviously meant: "If I invite him to join the group." But the double meaning of "take him on" is worth noticing.) In a 1970 interview with Jann Wenner, Lennon described his dilemma even more plainly: "I had a group. I was the singer and the leader; then I met Paul, and I had to make a decision: Was it better to have a guy who was better than the guy I had in? To make the group stronger, or to let me be stronger?"

With hindsight, it's clear that it wasn't an either/or. Bringing Paul aboard made the group much stronger and it made John much stronger. It gave him part ownership of a priceless enterprise. That math adds up to infinite value.

But we're missing the point if we look at Lennon's thinking as a mistake. Actually, he put his finger right on the core emotional dynamic. What Paul represented to John—for good and for ill, for excitement and for fear—was a loss of control. All through his relationship with McCartney, the power between them would be fluid—a charged, creative exchange that fueled them and frustrated them, leading to creative peaks and valleys of recrimination and estrangement.

And it can all be traced to their first encounter. "The decision was made to make the group stronger," Lennon told Wenner. Had he decided to keep the power all to himself, he probably would have forsaken his power entirely.

In a 1995 interview, Mick Jagger was asked how he and Keith Richards lasted so long as songwriting partners, when Lennon and McCartney split. His answer was simple: A team needs a leader. (He didn't go so far as to explicitly identify himself as that leader, but he made it perfectly clear.)

By contrast, John and Paul, Jagger said, "seemed to be very competitive over leadership of the band. … If there are 10 things, they both wanted to be in charge of nine of them. You're not gonna make a relationship like that work, are you?"

His point sounds like an M.B.A. case study—fitting, maybe, from a rock and roller who studied at the London School of Economics.

But successful creative pairs suggest that power roles are often murky. The domineering and dynamic Gertrude Stein seemed to run over her mousy, housekeeping partner Alice B. Toklas. Stein literally appropriated her partner's identity—wrote in her name—to create a self-serving portrait of herself. But close observers often saw Toklas take Stein by the lapel, directing her as deftly and surely as an actor onstage. In many ways, Stein's creative life began when Toklas recognized her—when, in Stein's words, Toklas said "yes" to her work.

Sometimes, apparently rigid power roles actually facilitate something more open. Quayle Hodek and Kris Lotlikar, co-founders of a leading renewable energy firm, decided at the start that one of them would be CEO and have the final say. This, Hodek told me, allows them to operate without fear of paralyzing conflict. The irony, he says, is that his ostensible deputy calls many more shots day-to-day.

Even Mick Jagger and Keith Richards at times operated more fluidly than Jagger claimed. The masterpiece Exile on Main Street was recorded in Richards' house in the south of France, and on the terms he preferred (a loose arrangement, edging into chaos, built on jams and endless takes). Many consider this album the team's masterpiece.

But no pair illustrates the fluidity of power—and the power of fluidity—better than John and Paul. At its worst, theirs was an alienating, enervating struggle. But at its best, the dynamic was playful and organic. Jagger is probably right that it led to their split. But who said you measure the strength of a collaboration by its longevity?

The tension between Lennon and McCartney was rooted in their distinct styles and personalities. As a boy, the precocious and creative John Lennon always needed, he said, "a little gang of guys who would play various roles in my life, supportive and, you know, subservient." "I wanted everybody to do what I told them to do," he said, "to laugh at my jokes and let me be the boss." He needed both to connect and to dominate. "Though I have yet to encounter a personality as strong and individual as John's," said his friend Pete Shotton, "he always had to have a partner." (John so entwined himself with Pete that he called them "Shennon and Lotton.")

When John put a band together, he brought his mates in—often simply because they were his mates—but left no doubt about his status. Shotton, for example, didn't have a particular talent for music and didn't like it much. When he told Lennon he needed out of the band, John broke Pete's washboard over his head. It's not likely we could find a clearer display of power with primates on the savannah.

For some time after Paul joined, John stayed out front. Among the band's many early names were "Johnny and the Moondogs" and "Long John and the Silver Beetles." When "The Beatles" went to Hamburg, Germany, the contract named John as the payee. In the late 1950s, Paul pitched a journalist on the band; he began his description of the boys with John, "who leads the group … " But the letter itself—a piece of Paul's relentless promotion—speaks to his own power style. He was more social, more affable, more outwardly and consistently energetic. Where John oscillated between intense shyness and raw aggression (he beat his girlfriend, for example), Paul had a knack for working people that was savvy as it was sweet.

From the start, Paul looked up to John—"posing and strutting with his hair slicked back," remembered Cynthia Lennon, "to prove that he was cool." But he also took the microphone and worked the crowd. In Hamburg, "most people among the fans looked upon [Paul] as the leader," said Astrid Kirchherr, a German student who befriended the band. "John of course was the leader," Astrid continued. "He was far and away the strongest."

What's interesting, though, isn't the question of who ran the show, but the subtlety of strength itself, the many ways power can be exercised between partners.

Consider the moment Paul's brother Michael cited as an illustration of his "innate sense of diplomacy." It was in Paris in 1963. The Beatles' producer George Martin had arranged for them to record "She Loves You" in German. When the band missed their studio appointment, Martin came around to their suite at the George V hotel. They played slapstick and dived under the tables to avoid him.

"Are you coming to do it or not?" Martin said.

"No," Lennon said. George and Ringo echoed him. Paul said nothing, and they went back to eating.

"Then a bit later," Michael said, "Paul suddenly turned to John and said, 'Heh, you know that so and so line, what if we did it this way? John listened to what Paul said, thought a bit, and said, 'Yeah, that's it.' And they headed to the studio."

How would we chart the lines of authority for this decision? You could say Lennon made the call to refuse the recording session, then reversed himself—the band following him both times. But it was actually Paul who shaped the course the band took. His move to avoid a direct confrontation—to let John stay nominally in control—only underscores his operational strength.

Just as shorter people are more aware of height, Paul seems to have noticed the power dynamic more acutely. In a 1967 conversation about the band's Hamburg days, Lennon said that Paul had just recently told him about fights they had over who led the band. "I can't remember them," Lennon said. "It had stopped mattering by then. I wasn't so determined to be the leader at all costs." This is crucial. He had decided he didn't need to be the leader at all costs—itself a leadership claim. As the band rocketed to success, Lennon would increasingly acquiesce to Paul's ideas, much as a king in tumultuous times will defer to his counsel. But he never gave up the idea that he could, when he wanted, return straight to his throne.

Correction, Sept. 15, 2010: This sentence originally misidentified Carl Perkins as Chet Perkins. (Return.)

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