Thursday, July 14, 2011
The Beatles were self-sufficient. But neither John Lennon nor Paul McCartney was particularly self-sufficient in the 60s. They needed each other. Why does rock music lend itself to collaboration in a way that, say, poetry usually doesn’t? Rock music is the product of group contexts that include not only musicians but producers, engineers, etc. The mysteries of the recording studio necessitate this. But how rock partnerships (especially songwriting partnerships) function is fascinating, in and of itself. The Beatles’ group dynamics are, for many rock people, the ultimate in fascination. You can come at this from two angles— accepting the pronouncements of the Beatles and George Martin on one hand, or trying to pierce beneath the surface of these pronouncements to find deeper, more interesting realities (while, hopefully, maintaining the modesty of one who wasn’t there). The first question is rather obvious— who was the leader more of the time, John or Paul? The Beatles’ master narrative always encourages belief that there was a simple hand-off in ’66— by Sgt. Pepper, John had ceded control of the band to Paul. But the complexities of the Beatles’ dynamics make it difficult to believe that it could’ve been that simple or easy.
One wonders if, even during and after Pepper, Lennon could choose to nix anything McCartney had done— as in, could choose to reclaim his leadership position any time he wanted. Could John Lennon ever be consistently compliant with anyone? To move the inquiry backwards— even in the early sixties (say, ’63 or ’64), could Lennon nix a musical nuance that McCartney wanted to pursue, in either one of his or Lennon’s songs? McCartney seems to have been the Beatles’ de facto musical leader for their entire recording career. Yet this was at odd angles to the Beatles’ own social condition— the sense that in public settings (and from the time they were kids), Lennon would always appear to be the leader. One of the Beatles’ big myths is Lennon’s general social ineptitude— that he seemed uncomfortable with public attention. Lennon was middle-class; he was poised; he had (sharp tongue aside) more posh manners and more articulateness than the other Beatles. He had to be preeminent. It seems that any real leadership of the Beatles had to be compartmentalized— Lennon leads over here, McCartney leads over here. To the extent that Lennon absconds in ’66, McCartney steps up to lead the Beatles on all levels. Lennon’s restless, but along for the ride. George Harrison emerges as more of a pivot point than before; always tending to side with Lennon, restless like him and dissatisfied with the Beatles in general. Harrison ups the ante with, and against, McCartney.
McCartney-Harrison is one of the least auspicious conjunctions in the Beatles’ nexus— McCartney was often goaded by his own ambitions to roll over Harrison in the recording studio. McCartney played bass in the band, but he was also a better lead guitarist than Harrison was. Lennon let this happen, knowing this was good for the band’s music, but was happy to be doubled by Harrison on other levels, against Paul. Looking at the totality of the Beatles’ endeavors, Lennon emerges as, more often than not, the essential fulcrum. But he could only be the essential fulcrum to the extent that he let himself be influenced (especially musically) by McCartney. His leadership could only be total by being partial. Lennon-McCartney is a convoluted enough dynamic that every conclusion leads to an ancillary (and often contradictory) conclusion. Nothing can ever completely settle. McCartney and class are strange, too—a native to the working class, unlike Lennon, McCartney did a good amount of work in Swinging London to acquire class, change class affiliations. He even went so far, as Lennon did not, to meet Bertrand Russell. He married rich and acquired a hauteur. But group dynamics are strange; if they are set in place at a young age, they are difficult to change. By the end, it is probable that all the Beatles couldn’t stand the way they made each other regress. It was a matrix that needed to be broken by force. Even at the end, it’s difficult to tell who’s doing what. Lennon breaks up the band in private; McCartney breaks up the band publicly. Did Lennon’s guts fail him? Public breakage takes a degree of honesty consonance that’s middle-class, at least. But once the spell was off and the dream was over, it (sort of) remained that way. The fascination of what it was remains.