Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Dez Top Rock/Pop, #16: The Beatles
John vs. Macca
While all bands should be honored to appear on Dez’s list, regardless of their position, this is The Beatles, so #16 may appear a bit low. All I can say is that while I love and admire The Beatles a great deal, I have connected more directly with some other British Invasion bands, as you shall see.
So, let’s cut to the chase. Lennon or McCartney? I have a powerpoint that I use with my AP students in teaching them how to write a certain type of essay that they will encounter on the AP Exam. The scoring for this essay is done on a 0-9 scale, with 9 being the best. In my powerpoint, I divide the quality of essays that the readers get into five categories. On each slide, I explain what elements will give you a certain score. The 0-1 essay is on a slide that I call “The Pete Best Essay.” Best was the original drummer for the Beatles who was sacked in favor of Ringo. The 2-3 essay I call the “Ringo Starr Essay,” and 4-5 is the “George Harrison Essay.” I think you can see where I am going with all of this. Obviously I had to assign the 6-7 and 8-9 essays to Lennon and McCartney. I made my choice, and generally we get sidetracked from essay writing with a 5-10 minute class discussion on whether I should have given Lennon or McCartney the top essay. I always enjoy that discussion. It is much more fun than discussing AP scoring. Who do you think I chose?
Let’s look at the candidates.
Songwriting: While all Beatles compositions not written by Harrison or Starr are credited to “Lennon/McCartney,” on the vast majority of the songs it is clear which on of them was the primary writer. The easiest indicator is who is singing the lead vocal, although that is sometimes hard to tell on the early material where they used more harmony singing. Lennon and McCartney, during their Beatles years, were two of the most important and skilled rock songwriters in the history of the music. This is akin to arguing between Lincoln or Washington as our greatest president. It is hard to lose with either of them. But, we must choose. We must. I have to go with McCartney here. Lennon has the advantage in the lyric department, but in overall songwriting, Paul McCartney is the master of the craft. I turn to his contributions to Revolver as my strongest evidence. The melodies, structures, instrumentation choices on “Eleanor Rigby,” “Here, There and Everywhere,” “Good Day Sunshine,” “For No One” and “Got To Get You Into My Life” demonstrate the absolute peak of great pop music writing. Advantage: McCartney
Singing: Again, we are dealing with two of the most distinctive vocalists in rock, so both are at the top of the heap. I think McCartney shows more range and confidence (incredibly, Lennon was always self-conscious about his singing). But when Lennon goes full bore with his rock voice, especially, I don’t think there is a finer screamer in the music. That unique, nasally timbre just defines great rock singing. Advantage: Lennon
Musicianship: John Lennon was a good and expressive guitarist, but even within The Beatles he often deferred to Harrison to do the heavy lifting. Paul McCartney has to be one of the more influential bassists in rock history. He performs the duties of a bass player, but also bounces all over the bottom of the song, alternatively playful and innovative. While “Come Together” is considered a John Lennon classic, what is really distinctive about the song? It is McCartney’s bass line that makes it more than a standard blues. Add the fact that McCartney is a talented multi-instrumentalist (great guitarist, great pianist), and the answer is clear. Advantage: McCartney
Cultural Significance / Icon Status: The answer here is just as clear as above. Even without his martyrdom, John Lennon was a rock icon not only for music and culture and lifestyle, but also for political activism. While I think it is a bit overblown (and McCartney is a bit unfairly sidelined in this department), John Lennon is a rock icon only rivaled by Elvis and Dylan. Advantage: Lennon.
So it really depends on which of the aspects above are more important to you. As a fan, I generally look to musicianship and songwriting (and I often listen to the music before really focusing on the lyrics or vocals), so I gotta go with Macca. Most of my students, by the way, feel that I made the wrong choice and that I should have given Lennon the top essay.
What To Listen To:
This is really silly to do for The Beatles. Their entire discography is like the Koran and Bible to rock and roll orthodoxy. But I can pick out my three favorite records. I divide The Beatles music into roughly three periods, Early, Middle and Late. I feel that A Hard Day’s Night is the perfection of that early pop period. Revolver towers over the Middle transitional (and possibly best) period. The Beatles (White Album) is my favorite late period record, as it really shows their fracturing and demonstrates four distinct individual approaches. It is the most interesting listen for me, and full of some killer songs. Even the filler is interesting. The famous Red Album (1962-66) and Blue Album (1967-70) were important compilations/introductions to The Beatles for me (and millions of other listeners) before I dove into the actual albums.