Arguably the most prolific pop songwriting duo of the 20th century, John Lennon and Paul McCartney crafted some of the best known and most beloved tracks of all time as the major powerhouses behind the Beatles. Although each would go onto have successful solo careers — McCartney with Wings in the ‘70s and largely by himself thereafter and Lennon, along with wife Yoko Ono, helming politically charged outfits during his tragically short post-Beatles career — many insist they were never as good apart as they were together.
When boiled down to the basic status of “co-writers,” however, Lennon and McCartney aren’t so different from you and your writing partners. They dealt with many similar issues that, hopefully, won’t crop up too often in your own career, including copyright disputes, claims over who wrote what, and the public deifying one half over the other. It’s indisputable, however, that their combined power created a musical benchmark few other have risen to.
Although there are many, many lessons to learn from Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting partnership, here are three key takeaways that will get you and your present and future co-writers on the right track to crafting musical masterpieces.
1. Learn when to lead and when to follow
If you’ve ever operated in a co-writing setting, you know that it’s sometimes challenging to perfectly merge two people’s styles and still end up with a song that sounds cohesive and tuneful. Just because Lennon and McCartney were practically prodigious doesn’t mean they didn’t have their fair share of struggles and compromises.
If you’re even remotely familiar with the Beatles, you’ll recognize the terms “John song” and “Paul song,” and you probably already have a few examples coming to mind. Besides who’s singing lead on the recording, the meat of the song is most telling; Lennon’s compositions can be anything from satirical to macabre, witty to agonizing. On the flipside, McCartney’s material is more whimsical, jazz and big band-influenced, heartfelt, and optimistic. Sure, these are long-running Beatles stereotypes… but they’re not wrong.
In your own songwriting partnerships, yield to your co-writer if it seems a tune is taking on his or her own distinct voice and style. There will probably be a spot for you to let your colors fly, even if it seems a bit out of place. John Lennon once addressed this unorthodox method: “Paul hits this chord, and I turn to him and say, ‘That’s it! Do that again!’ In those days, we really used to write like that – both playing into each other’s noses.”
Sometimes, if there’s a line, bridge, or verse that seems completely out of place in a Beatles song that’s otherwise clearly Lennon or McCartney, it’s the other writer popping his head in. On tunes like “We Can Work It Out,” where McCartney’s buoyant words are balanced by Lennon’s dark turn in the two middle-eight sections beginning with, “Life is very short, and there’s no time for fussing and fighting my friend.” Very different than the hopeful, repetitive “we can work it out,” right? If Lennon and McCartney can reconcile the two, you and your co-writer can, too.
2. Start from a place of friendship and admiration
At different times in their lives, both Lennon and McCartney tried to portray their relationship as strictly professional (mostly because of residual bitterness and resentment left over from the Beatles’ dissolution), but the truth is that they started out as pals with massive respect for the other’s musical gifts.
In 1957, Lennon’s first band, the Quarrymen, performed at a church fête. After the gig, Quarrymen bassist Ivan Vaughan introduced Lennon to his school chum, Paul McCartney, who’d watched the band onstage. Initially put off by this brazen kid, McCartney earned Lennon’s respect by knowing all the chords to Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock.” Lennon asked him to join the band the next day, and the rest, as they say, is history.
As their musical relationship grew, so did their personal one. They soon realized that they had much in common. “That became a very big bond between John and me,” McCartney said. “Because he lost his mum early on, too. We both had this emotional turmoil which we had to deal with and, being teenagers, we had to deal with it very quickly.”
It didn’t take long for their bond to turn into songwriting sessions. ”We were kids growing up together, in the same environment with the same influences,” McCartney told Rolling Stone. “He knows the records I know, I know the records he knows. You’re writing your first little innocent songs together.”
When co-writing with one or more of your friends or bandmates, remember to nurture the friendship carrying the partnership. Is it possible to be strictly professional and still write amazing music? Sure, but if you want to take it to another level and dig deeper, and possibly even have staying power over the ensuing five decades, dig deeper. Discover those elements that bind you, and give credence to each other’s individual experiences and strengths. The more you know about each other, the more you’ll be able to complement one another. And a shared musical taste never hurts, either.
3. Find someone you can work with, not just create with
If this seems a little like the flipside of number two above, it illustrates the intricate dichotomy of Lennon and McCartney’s partnership. The reason being is that, sooner or later, like any relationship, the initial spark will die out. The excitement over your first batch of co-composed songs will wane, and when that happens, you don’t want someone who’s frustrated by the process or stifled by pressure. You need someone who recognizes a job has to be done and who rises to meet the challenges.
“The creativity of songwriting had left Paul and me….by the mid-Sixties it had become a craft,” John Lennon said. “A different kind of thing comes in. It’s like a love affair. When you first meet, you can have the hots for 24 hours a day for each other. But after 15 or 20 years, a different kind of sexual and intellectual relationship develops, right? It’s still love, but it’s different. So there’s that kind of difference in creativity, too. As in a love affair, two creative people can destroy themselves trying to recapture that youthful spirit at 21 or 24 of creating without even being aware of how it’s happening.”
Even though Lennon cites the mid-Sixties as the cut-off of the duo’s manic creative period, think about what followed. Revolver. Sgt. Pepper. The White Album. Abbey Road. When thinking of those works in the context of a bit of burnout but an even more intense dedication, it’s easy to recognize the turn from earlier efforts. The Beatles’ later albums show a greater individuality among all four members and set the stage for their individual solo careers as the 1960s came to a close.
The bottom line is that you want someone in your corner who, even when the formula changes or stagnation sets in, he or she is still right there with you, willing to roll with the punches.
Remember that even though scholars through the ages have spent and will spend their entire lives rhapsodizing and dissecting every last particle of the Lennon/McCartney partnership, as its basic level, it consisted of two like-minded creatives with similar visions and a willingness to work together. If you can start your own songwriting journey from a similar place, you’re already halfway there.
Allison Johnelle Boron is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Goldmine magazine, Paste, and more. She is the founder of REBEAT, a “blogazine” focused on mid-century music, culture, and lifestyle.