Lennon/McCartney: Creativity, Competition and Collaboration

Successful collaborations are so rare that exploring their mechanics is always worthwhile. The dazzling 3-part […]

David Zahl / 9.20.10

Successful collaborations are so rare that exploring their mechanics is always worthwhile. The dazzling 3-part series Two of Us by Joshua Wolf Shenk over at Slate does so brilliantly, dissecting the Lennon/McCartney songwriting partnership and touching on a number of our favorite themes: the fruit of giving up control, the inherently selfless spirit of creativity (evidenced in their willingness to share credit), the way people serve as “walking judgments” to one another, the thirst for glory, both artistic and financial, and the poisonous effect that has on creativity – it’s all there. Emphasis on the material itself, rather than the response to it, on the process rather than the result, seems to be a key ingredient in these partnerships.

Although there’s certainly an element of their relationship starting out as pure Gospel – a collaboration fueled by love and respect almost to the point of mutual imputation – and only souring into Law after their success, unfortunately it can’t be reduced to those categories alone; clearly they functioned as both to one another throughout. So Mick Jagger is right to point out that it couldn’t last. The push-and-pull power dynamic was just too exhausting. Competition kills, after all, especially in the long run. And who wants to be considered only in relation/comparison to someone else? Talk about Judgment…

That said, the post-break-up installment is probably the most interesting, both in terms of the way they continued to measure themselves against one another, and the how clearly the self-justification impulse asserted itself in their tug of war over songwriting credits.

I find the author’s insights about their collaboration persisting far after their eyeball-to-eyeball phase ended to be particularly convincing. That is, John and Paul occupied such considerable headspace in each other’s minds that their work could legitimately be attributed to”Lennon/McCartney” even if it wasn’t incorporating both of their musical and lyrical ideas directly. Excerpts after the jump (ht JS):

What Paul represented to John—for good and for ill, for excitement and for fear—was a loss of control. All through his relationship with McCartney, the power between them would be fluid—a charged, creative exchange that fueled them and frustrated them, leading to creative peaks and valleys of recrimination and estrangement. And it can all be traced to their first encounter. “The decision was made to make the group stronger,” Lennon told Wenner. Had he decided to keep the power all to himself, he probably would have forsaken his power entirely.

In a 1995 interview, Mick Jagger was asked how he and Keith Richards lasted so long as songwriting partners, when Lennon and McCartney split. His answer was simple: A team needs a leader. (He didn’t go so far as to explicitly identify himself as that leader, but he made it perfectly clear.) By contrast, John and Paul, Jagger said, “seemed to be very competitive over leadership of the band. … If there are 10 things, they both wanted to be in charge of nine of them. You’re not gonna make a relationship like that work, are you?”

But successful creative pairs suggest that power roles are often murky. The domineering and dynamic Gertrude Stein seemed to run over her mousy, housekeeping partner Alice B. Toklas. Stein literally appropriated her partner’s identity—wrote in her name—to create a self-serving portrait of herself. But close observers often saw Toklas take Stein by the lapel, directing her as deftly and surely as an actor onstage. In many ways, Stein’s creative life began when Toklas recognized her—when, in Stein’s words, Toklas said “yes” to her work.

Just as shorter people are more aware of height, Paul seems to have noticed the power dynamic more acutely. In a 1967 conversation about the band’s Hamburg days, Lennon said that Paul had just recently told him about fights they had over who led the band. “I can’t remember them,” Lennon said. “It had stopped mattering by then. I wasn’t so determined to be the leader at all costs.” This is crucial. He had decided he didn’t need to be the leader at all costs—itself a leadership claim.


Take, for example, the relentless focus on “John” songs versus “Paul” songs—or sections of songs, or single lines—as though that’s the skeleton key to the Beatles’ inner workings. Actually, this tradition has an impeccable source: John and Paul themselves. The irony is that the way they came to tell their own story, after their split, may speak less to the way they separated and more to the way that they remained connected.

We typically look back on a broken partnership and assume it suffered from distance and alienation. But as Arthur and Elaine Aron have shown, relationships can suffer just as much from too much closeness and the consequent loss of control or identity. [ed. note: Is that really true?]. People describing these kinds of relationships use words like suffocating, smothering, overwhelming. They’ve lost too much of their individual distinction into a shared whole. There’s good reason to believe this happened with John and Paul.

It was as though the partners had deposited every asset of reputation and identity into a joint bank account. After their split, they stood in line, day after day, to take the maximum withdrawal. Of course, there were literal bank accounts—immense financial and practical complications of their divorce. But what’s interesting here is their self-conception—their desperate need to individuate.

The opposite of intimacy isn’t conflict. It’s indifference. The relationship between Paul and John had always been a tug of war—and that hardly stopped when they ceased to collaborate directly. Asked what he thought Paul would make of his first solo album, Lennon said, “I think it’ll probably scare him into doing something decent, and then he’ll scare me into doing something decent, like that.”