Saturday 3 December 2016

Lennon's legacy and the Macca mauling

Published 04/12/2010 | 05:00

The tale is universally known to fans of pop music but, just like the other story that does the rounds during this season, it bears repeating each year.

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On December 8, 1980 -- 30 years ago this coming Wednesday -- John Lennon was busy promoting the Double Fantasy album with his wife, Yoko Ono. The album had not been met well by expectant critics after the six-year wait that preceded it, but that didn't impact on Lennon's massive global fame.

After a photoshoot with renowned rock photographer Annie Liebovitz and a radio interview, the couple spent some hours working on one of Ono's tracks in a New York studio. Shortly before 11pm, they returned to the Dakota Building, where they lived.

It was here that he was hit by four bullets fired by Mark David Chapman, a mentally ill fan who was convinced Lennon had become a 'phoney'.

Lennon was dead on arrival at hospital; Chapman was detained without a struggle. And throughout the night, the media began informing the world: pop culture had changed forever.

In the time since then, Lennon's status has taken the predictable posthumous route. From Jim Morrison to Jeff Buckley, from Elliott Smith even to Elvis himself, early death has propelled musicians at all levels to heights they could only have dreamed of while alive. Of course, none of them -- with the exception of Presley -- were anywhere close to Lennon's level to start with.

Chapman's bullets had turned an icon into a near-mythical figure, and history began to rewrite itself accordingly. Every story needs a baddie, though. And while Chapman served as the short-term whipping boy, the real villain would turn out to be Lennon's own best friend; the man with whom he shared the most famous songwriting credit-line of the 20th Century.

Paul McCartney did himself no favours when asked for a reaction to Lennon's death the following day. Exiting a recording studio in London, he simply mumbled: "It's a drag."

Paul's role as The Baddie Beatle was set, his reaction interpreted as callous, indifferent and -- most ludicrously of all -- triumphant. It didn't matter that his minimalistic words were borne out of pressure or shock; the split that began during the band's heyday, when teenage girls would argue over which member they'd rather go out with, had come to its widest point at the saddest juncture.

The view of this split has always been unhealthily exaggerated, and seldom has McCartney come out the better. Normally he'll be branded as the lightweight with an ear for a melody, while Lennon will be seen as the forward-thinking genius with a tremendous lyrical skill.

In reality, it was the pair's ability to complement and oppose one another that forged them into the perfect songwriting team. But if John Lennon were still alive today, it would be interesting to see whether he'd still be revered as the band's leading light.

Though Lennon did not found The Beatles, he did found their precursor -- The Quarrymen -- and that gave him an inherent air of premiership in the band's early days.

Over the full course of Beatles history, though, there was only one leader. As the years went on, Paul drove the band's creative agenda mercilessly -- often making himself unpopular in the process -- and wrote most of the hits that turned them from fresh-faced popstars into enduring music legends. Meanwhile, Lennon's contribution diminished from providing foil to McCartney's saccharine excesses, to merely sneering at them.

On the album Let It Be, Lennon introduces the title track by announcing "Now we'd like to do 'Hark The Angels Come'." The shallow jibe at the song's ambiguously holy nature -- Mother Mary actually refers to Paul's own mum -- came from a man whose contribution to the band began to sink after Revolver, came up for a last breath on the so-called White Album and had drowned completely by the time Abbey Road was recorded.

The band's split allowed both members to work in their respective directions and unleash some of the extremes they'd been holding back. Paul, without John, recorded a range of material that varied from panned but popular throwaway material ('We All Stand Together', 'Mull of Kintyre') to era-defining pop brilliance ('Maybe I'm Amazed' and Band on the Run).

John, without Paul, struggled a bit more. His crowning moment was 'Imagine', an undoubtedly beautiful piece which seems almost McCartney-esque in style, while his albums were high on filler. Contemporary reviews rated the output of McCartney, and indeed Harrison (who was emerging from the shadows with glee), much more highly. That's often overlooked now. And, following Lennon's death, the aforementioned Double Fantasy went from dud to diamond.

Lennon was no pretender, of course, and most of the adulation felt towards him is entirely deserved. He shook up the world in a way McCartney never would have done on his own.

Even three decades on, however, it feels as if his untimely death has elevated him unfairly above his bandmate.

McCartney continues to tour, record and command massive levels of respect, more so than he did a decade ago. However, he may have to wait until he himself is six feet under -- and hopefully that won't be for quite some time -- until he's finally recognised as the man who made The Beatles.

acoughlan@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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