By Philip Norman

As part of the Beatles, arguably the most iconic rock band of all time, John Lennon and Paul McCartney shared a relationship that comprised over the decades of love, hate and everything in between

When I first started working on Shout! A lot of people came up to me and told me I was working on the story of a band that everyone already knew. But I was sure I had a different lowdown on them, a different story to tell. While I was hesitant in telling the truth, I was working on presenting the cherished image of the Beatles from that time. In the 1970s, Punk music had come along and the Beatles were thought to have seen their day, but they still embodied free will, they embodied the culture of that time. While I was working on my story, I went to Liverpool, I met people who had known Beatles back in the day when they were struggling for fame. There were still some people around like Brian Epstein’s brother and mother, the DJ from the Tavern, the Beatles’ first manager - Alan Williams; these people had never really “talked” to any journalist about their association with the band before and so I found my tale - the twisted friendship between John and Paul.

And then gradually as I went on and more, I spent time as a journalist in the Apple House. They had a house in Mansewood. When Paul had gone to live in Scotland, John lived there with Yoko. Ringo used to come in at George’s and their publicist, Derek Taylor, gave me a great entrée. So I did have elements that I knew were new. While I was intrigued with the journey of the Beatles in its entirety, their internal relations, ideas as a band, their socio-cultural influence, it was the friendship between John and Paul that really had me hooked. The story of the Beatles really begins from the story of John and Paul.

Brothers of Melody

John belonged to the middle-class and he didn’t like it. He called himself a working class hero. He lived in a suburb that was very respectable, in a house that had mock Tudor decor, there were even servant bells in the kitchen, servants all over the house! But he wanted to belong to the working class. John’s father, his patriarchal heritage, was the typical idea of the British white middle-class but his mother was a nurse and there was a kind of an unspoken convention - nurses were honorary middle-class. Paul’s mother, similarly, lived in an estate where she was the resident midwife and nurse but was deemed with a higher social status. Thus, John and Paul grew up thinking they were brothers. However, John grew up wanting to move down the ladder from his middle-class status, while Paul wanted to climb the higher rungs of the ladder. They managed to meet somewhere in the middle. When the band got together- Paul, John, Ringo and George, what really brought them together was the music. That was the bond they really shared beyond any other commonality. In those days, what really brought them together was music. Music was like this underground movement of sorts; the adults all hated it.

Thanks to this mutual love for music, Paul and John were colleagues to the point where even when they started to really resent each other, when John recorded ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’, and of course, Paul was horrified by what was happening with Yoko, the only person John went to record the ballad was still Paul! With completely different and complex temperaments to differences as simple as one being left-handed and the other being right-handed, Paul and John were able to balance each other out and exchange creative spirits, and they did it between the two of them, just as two Beatles.

A Day in the Life

One of the most intriguing accounts of their bond that I came across was the recording of the song - A Day in the Life. That recording, the footage from it revealed a lot about the internal dynamics of the band. Lennon was being... well, Lennon, and McCartney came in with his high-pitching and incredible ability to play every second instrument. A Day in the Life would not be the song it is without that little Paul-pitch in the middle. You see those kind of transcending moments made the band in its own way. Most of their songs reflected the depth of John’s boredom and frustration and discontentment. A Day in the Life was a de profundis (a heartfelt cry of appeal expressing deep feelings of sorrow or anguish) on John’s part. And right in the middle of the song it felt like this little bit of housewives choice programme in Britain, a sort of middle of the road request you know. But the recording of the song is only of the many examples of John’s vagueness and weirdness. By temperament, he was very romantic and sensitive even though he appeared to be a real hard case. John’s music and lyrics were influenced by his very vagueness. He knew what he wanted but did not care about the means to reach that end. When I was working on Shout! another anecdote that I discovered about the song’s recording was that John told the other three men that he wanted the song to start with a nothing and end on a note like it was the end of the world. For the song’s two instrumental breaks, Lennon, with characteristic vagueness, asked Martin to provide “a sound building up from nothing to the end of the world”. To achieve this, Martin hired a 41-piece symphony orchestra who performed in full evening dress embellished by clowns’ red noses and fake gorilla-paws handed out by the Beatles. There was no written score: Martin simply gave the musicians a top and bottom note and told them: “Gentlemen, in between, it’s every man for himself.” But there again, Paul was very different from John. He managed every single part of the recording. John wanted something along the lines of the Revolver Album or Tomorrow Never Knows. John wanted something that sounded like a 100 monks chanting on a distant mountainside, which the Beatles ultimately got. To do so, they played tape loops, which was quite an avant-garde idea.

The Beatles Today

What makes Beatles relevant even in today’s age is their capacity to still create joy whenever their music is played. Strangely enough, if I was to take a look at the bands today and the terrible fights they have, the Beatles in that sense never really had a fight. John and Paul never really had a row. They exchanged harsh words afterwards; they traded insults on their solo albums. What John didn’t realise was that Paul had written a song called Dear Friend. It was on an early Wings album. The song spoke very sweetly of John. To the contrary, John just assumed that all Wings albums were rubbish. But that didn’t stop Paul from being a good songwriter. I think the Wings albums brought up a very commercial kind of Pop Music.

It’s the yearning for the era of the 1960s, which the Beatles so much embody, that makes people go back to their songs again and again. Their songs remind people about the time when young people had such a wonderful life in Europe, and in Britain in particular.


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