There’s No Such Thing as Paul McCartney

10 Oct

That’s not literally true, obviously.  Even though newspapers seem incapable of omitting the ‘Sir’ he got awarded long long after the stuff he did that was worth rewarding.

But it’s kind of true in a way that relates to the debate still commonplace amongst musicians and Beatles fans.  The debate being, of course, “Who was the better musician?”

There are three conventional answers.  I’m going to sum them up very briefly, and therefore inadequately and by caricature:

  1.  Paul, because he could sing better and was dead good on the bass, whereas John wasn’t that hot even as a guitarist.
  2. John, because he wrote more meaningful and harder-edged songs.
  3. Neither was ‘better’ than the other, because each had very different strengths.  Those strengths, in combination, formed the power of the Beatles.

The last answer, if I had to choose, would be the one I’d go for, and is similar to the case made by Conrad Brunstrom yesterday that started me off on this whole train of thought.  But there’s a fourth answer – nearly compatible with it – that I’ve never yet seen written as such, despite it being implicit in the legal name of their songwriting partnership.

This is simply that neither Paul McCartney nor John Lennon existed in a meaningful way as separate musicians from their first meeting at Woolton village fete until the Beatles ceased to exist.  The personal struggles that led to the death of the Beatles as a band were their process of being born as musical individuals.

In political philosophy it’s not particularly unusual to stick together schools of thought, or even individuals, to indicate their closeness or inseparability.  This can be done with good reason, and often even with accuracy. Fukuyama referred to Hegel-Kojeve as a ‘systemic philosopher’.  Both left and right (for better and worse and every shade of thing inbetween) spent much of the twentieth century talking about Marxism-Leninism.  Anarchists and communists have stuck together, and divided, their beliefs by reference to anarcho-communitarianism; anarcho-syndicalism and a host of variations of equal obscurity.    Feminists (and anti-feminists looking for a handy insult) have hyphenated their beliefs with pretty much everything else.

So why should accepting the joint process of creation implied in the term “Lennon-McCartney” create such difficulties?

I think it’s because we have grown up in a world where the myth of individual genius is paramount, and accepting artistic production as a communal and cooperative exercise is difficult.

Even when that cooperative exercise produced what for many is still the defining musical art of the last century – and, for some, of all the centuries.

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