Wednesday 20 November 2019

It was 60 years ago today... the birth of a musical legend

The world's greatest songwriting partnership, Lennon & McCartney, began six decades ago this week

With A Little Help From My Friends: Paul McCartney and John Lennon
With A Little Help From My Friends: Paul McCartney and John Lennon
Yoko Ono was widely blamed for Beatles splitting
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel

Jonathan deBurca Butler

Some years ago, a letter addressed to Paul McCartney and his wife Linda surfaced at an online auction in Boston. It had been typed and though its contents were disjointed, the message was clear...and angry.

"Do you really think most of today's art came about because of The Beatles?" wrote John Lennon. "I don't believe you're that insane - Paul - do you believe that?"

Lennon was responding to correspondence he had received from McCartney's wife, Linda, in which she had criticised Lennon for failing to openly announce his departure from The Beatles in 1970.

"...about not telling anyone that I left The Beatles," he continued, "PAUL and [then Beatles manager Allen] Klein both spent the day persuading me it was better not to say anything - asking me not to say anything because it would 'hurt The Beatles' - and 'let's just let it petre [sic] out' - remember? So get that into your petty little perversion of a mind, Mrs McCartney - the c**** asked me to keep quiet about it."

Yoko Ono was widely blamed for Beatles splitting
Yoko Ono was widely blamed for Beatles splitting

Lennon had a right to be a little cross with McCartney. A year earlier, McCartney's statement regarding the end of his collaboration with the other three Beatles, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr came in a press release that included copies of his debut solo album, McCartney, which was released the following week.

In the release McCartney spoke about the future of the Fab Four and explained his reasons for going solo, citing "business and musical differences" as the major factors. On the surface, at issue was who should manage the group. Linda's father and brother, Lee and John Eastman, or the former Rolling Stones's manager, Allen Klein, but the root causes ran far deeper than that.

"Paul had tried everything he could to keep them together," says Mick Lynch, co-author of The Beatles and Ireland, "and then when it became apparent that it was over, he had to make the announcement so he could sort of officially move on and do his own thing."

The dream was over and though the next decade was full of rumour and speculation that it would, at some stage, be lived again, Lennon's tragic death ended all hope of a reunion.

It had all started so innocently. This Thursday marks the 60th anniversary of the day John Lennon and Paul McCartney first met at a church fete in the affluent Liverpool village of Woolton.

That day, John was playing a concert with his skiffle band The Quarrymen. Decked out in a checked shirt and jeans, he wore his hair with an Elvis-like quiff and held his guitar as he always did - as if it were some kind of machine gun ready to shoot the audience with rock'n'roll. He was just 16 years old and yet he commanded the stage. A friend and sometime band mate, Ivan Vaughan, had told Lennon about a school friend who could play the guitar and suggested he bring him to the gig. When The Quarrymen had finished their set, the group sat down in the village hall and talked.

"It was in the evening time after the fete that they actually met," says Pete Brennan, founder of The Beatles Fan Club Ireland. "John was a little patronising towards Paul and looked down on him a little. So Lennon basically said to him 'what have you got?' and because Paul was left-handed he had to turn the guitar upside down and they were laughing at him but McCartney played Twenty Flight Rock and John said 'I'll be in touch'."

"We spent about 20 minutes talking," recalled one of the original Quarrymen Pete Shotton. "John liked to suss people out like that. He never made the first move. People had to come to him. Anyway, a few days later we were walking home together and John asked me what I thought, should we get him in? And I said 'yeah'." Luckily for McCartney he bumped into Shotton a few weeks later and luckily for the history of music he accepted his invitation.

It was years before the final line-up of John, Paul, George and Ringo was settled upon. Indeed, the years leading up to their first big break, Love Me Do, Pete Best was the drummer and slogged it out with the band in dingy nightclubs and bars of Hamburg, where fuelled by the stimulant Preludin the group honed their craft with five-hour sets and cultivated the friendships and humour that would sustain them through Beatlemania.

When he was asked once by a reporter what it was like growing up in Liverpool, John Lennon replied: "I didn't grow up in Liverpool, I grew up in Hamburg."

By the time they had reached the German port city, Lennon and McCartney had already begun to write songs together. Nobody is quite sure when the deal that saw them splitting the songwriting credits was set in stone, but the 1960 recording of You'll be Mine is credited as being the first. Dozens of songs followed and most of them are part of the global subconscious songbook.

Speaking about I Want to Hold Your Hand, Lennon once said: "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."

"There's a million ways to write," said McCartney in a BBC interview given earlier this year. "but... with John... it would be across from each other, either in a hotel bedroom on the twin beds, with an acoustic guitar and we're just looking at each other. He'd make up something, I'd make up something and we'd just spin off each other. The nice thing for me is seeing John there, him being right-handed, me being left-handed, it felt to me like I was looking in a mirror. Obviously, it was very successful. So that was a way I had learned to write and it was the way I liked to write… I know I can never have a better collaborator than John. That is just a fact."

"They grew to know and respect each other and I think you see it quite significantly in the writing relationship," say Pete Brennan. "From early on they were Lennon-McCartney but even in those early days Paul wrote his songs and John wrote his songs but they'd often just give each other ideas and certainly later on there was less face-to-face collaboration but there was input and they'd drive each other on. Say for instance in Hey Jude the line: 'the movement you need is on your shoulder'. McCartney was going to change that but Lennon made him keep it."

And there was such magic. Whether it was McCartney's childlike mellotron introduction to Lennon's Strawberry Fields Forever or Lennon's counter-lyric 'it can't get much worse' in McCartney's Getting Better, the pair fed off each other incessantly.

So what was it that made them tick? Around the time the pair met, they both suffered the pain of losing their mothers. Paul's mother, Mary, the Mother Mary in Let it Be, had died from cancer in October 1956. John's mother, Julia, with whom he had something of a complicated relationship, was knocked down by a car in July 1958. Of course we will never know if this brought the pair together but perhaps they found solace in each other's musical and creative talents. They were an escape for each other.

In Hamburg, they got drunk, got into fights and got to know each other. As The Beatles exploded first around the UK and then the United States, they would spend hours in hotel rooms writing and waiting to perform.

But as the first wave of Beatlemania began to diminish, John and Paul began to explore pursuits separately.

There had always been a certain sense that Paul was a little different from the other three. Even during Beatlemania, McCartney was more sober. He was less prone to making wisecracks, less giddy. He was the first one to sing a song solo, Yesterday, and there can be little doubt that although all of The Beatles were creative, Paul was the most musically talented of the Fab Four. His gift for melody both in how he sang and in his unique bass lines were second to none.

McCartney was also seen out and about dating the likes of Jane Asher while Lennon was (officially at least) settled with Cynthia who he had married in a register office in Liverpool in 1962. That marriage was, of course, torn asunder in late 1966 when John met Yoko Ono. For years the accepted narrative was that she broke up The Beatles too, and although there can be little doubt that her unannounced presence at some recording sessions caused some tension among the band, the reasons for the group's gradual disintegration are far more complex.

"It had started to break up long before April 1970," says Damian Smyth, co-author of The Beatles and Ireland. "Really, you can look at it as something that had just gone full circle. Gradually they found the whole business of being a Beatle claustrophobic and when Epstein, their manager, died in 1967 they were a band without a rudder."

This was something that was not lost on John Lennon. "I knew that we were in trouble then," he said about their manager's death in an interview some years later. "I didn't really have any misconceptions about our ability to do anything other than play music. I was scared. I thought we've had it now."

Epstein's death prompted McCartney into action and for the last few years of its life he effectively ran the band; the much-slated Magical Mystery Tour movie was his idea; the disastrous 'documentary film' of the recording of Let it Be in which Paul and George are famously seen arguing in a cold and empty warehouse in Twickenham was his idea; and while the others were doing other things he tried to keep it together.

"Paul wanted the band more than anything else," says Mick Lynch. "But really it was him against the other three at that stage and I suppose in ways you could see John as being the leader of that other group. George and Ringo certainly looked up to him and might have even been a bit afraid of him, he had that kind of authority figure about him."

When it ended, it ended badly. In a 1970 Rolling Stone interview, Lennon said the other Beatles had "got fed up with being sidemen for Paul". He told them that Paul's first solo album was "rubbish" and went on to say that McCartney's Ram album was full of insults directed at him. John took his revenge by writing How Do You Sleep? which contained the infamous lyric 'the only thing you done was yesterday'.

There was back and forth, claim and counter-claim and much of it was played out in public. Eventually however, the pair managed to put their differences aside and by the mid-1970s were even playing music together again.

In 1974, they recorded a somewhat confused, cocaine-fuelled session with Stevie Wonder and Harry Nilsson among others, which would become bootlegged as A Toot and a Snore in '74. There was even a story that while watching the television show Saturday Night Live together in New York, the pair contemplated showing up in the studio after an offer of cash had been made by the show live on air. It didn't happen. Nonetheless the pair kept in touch and although the media likes to dwell on the animosity between the pair it is clear that although there had been arguments over publishing and accreditation with Yoko Ono, Lennon and McCartney were in a good place when the former was gunned down.

Last year, in an interview with Jonathan Ross, McCartney spoke of their reconciliation.

"The story about the break-up, it's true but it's not the main bit, the main bit was the affection," he recalled. "I'm so glad because it would have been the worst thing in the world to have this great relationship that then soured and he gets killed, so there was some solace in the fact that we got back together. We were good friends."


Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel

SN simon_and_g.jpg
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel

Though responsible for some of the most beautiful harmonies of the late 1960s, Simon and Garfunkel’s relationship was far from harmonious.

Like The Beatles, the American pair found other pursuits and by 1970, Paul Simon “wanted out”.

Strangely, they still appear on stage together at times but it is well-known that they arrive and leave in separate cars.

Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon — Blur

Damon and Graham had been best friends at art college.

But 12 years of success, drugs and alcoholism began to take its toll, particularly on Coxon who, come the band's seventh album, was feeling “ganged up on”.

He started missing sessions and was subsequently asked to leave.

For six years swipes were taken quite publicly but all was eventually forgiven and the band returned with a great album and a glorious set at Glastonbury in 2015.

The Everly Brothers

When Don showed up drunk to a show in 1973 and couldn’t remember the lyrics, his brother Phil smashed a guitar over his head and stormed out.

They spoke only once over the next decade and that was at their father’s funeral.

Eventually, the brothers patched things up and in 1983 embarked on a lucrative comeback tour.

Tensions remained, however, and they haven’t performed together since a brief European tour in 2005.

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