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The Power of Two

By Joshua Wolf Shenk, the author of "Powers of Two: Seeking the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pair"

This article was submitted by BBCer, Margot Winick

We've long been in thrall to the myth of the lone genius. But the unforgettable case of John Lennon and Paul McCartney demonstrates the brilliance of creative pairs.

In the fall of 1966, during a stretch of nine weeks away from the Beatles, John Lennon wrote a song. He was in rural Spain at the time, on the set of a movie called How I Won the War, but the lyrics cast back to an icon of his boyhood in Liverpool: the Strawberry Field children's home, whose sprawling grounds he'd often explored with his gang and visited with his Aunt Mimi. In late November, the Beatles began work on the song at EMI Studios, on Abbey Road in London. After four weeks and scores of session hours, the band had a final cut of "Strawberry Fields Forever." That was December 22.

On December 29, Paul McCartney brought in a song that took listeners back to another icon of Liverpool: Penny Lane, a traffic roundabout and popular meeting spot near his home. This sort of call-and-response was no anomaly. He and John, Paul said later, had a habit of "answering" each other's songs. "He'd write "˜Strawberry Fields,'"‰" Paul explained. "I'd go away and write "˜Penny Lane' … to compete with each other. But it was very friendly competition."

It's a famous anecdote. Paul, of course, was stressing the collaborative nature of his partnership with John (he went on to note that their competition made them "better and better all the time"). But in this vignette, as in so many from the Beatles years, it's easy to get distracted by the idea of John and Paul composing independently. The notion that the two need to be understood as individual creators, in fact, has become the contemporary "smart" take on them. "Although most of the songs on any given Beatles album are usually credited to the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team," Wikipedia declares, "that description is often misleading." Entries on the site about individual Beatles songs take care to assert their "true" author. Even the superb rock critic Greg Kot once succumbed to this folly. John and Paul "shared songwriting credits but little else," he wrote in 1990, "and their "˜partnership' was more of a competition than a collaboration."

Kot made that observation in a review of Beatlesongs, by William J. Dowlding—a high-water mark of absurdity in the analysis of Lennon-McCartney. Dowlding actually tried to quantify their distinct contributions, giving 84.55 credits to John—"the winner," he declared—and 73.65 to Paul. (His tally also included 22.15 credits for George Harrison, 2.7 for Ringo Starr, and 0.45 for Yoko Ono. For a few lines in the song "Julia," Dowlding gave 0.05 credits to the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran.)

For centuries, the myth of the lone genius has towered over us, its shadow obscuring the way creative work really gets done. The attempts to pick apart the Lennon-McCartney partnership reveal just how misleading that myth can be, because John and Paul were so obviously more creative as a pair than as individuals, even if at times they appeared to work in opposition to each other. The lone-genius myth prevents us from grappling with a series of paradoxes about creative pairs: that distance doesn't impede intimacy, and is often a crucial ingredient of it; that competition and collaboration are often entwined. Only when we explore this terrain can we grasp how such pairs as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy all managed to do such creative work. The essence of their achievements, it turns out, was relational. If that seems far-fetched, it's because our cultural obsession with the individual has obscured the power of the creative pair.

John and Paul epitomize this power. Geoff Emerick—who served as the principal engineer for EMI on Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, some of The White Album, and Abbey Road—recognized from the outset that the two formed a single creative being. "Even from the earliest days," he wrote in his memoir, Here, There and Everywhere, "I always felt that the artist was John Lennon and Paul McCartney, not the Beatles."

One reason it's so tempting to try to cleave John and Paul apart is that the distinctions between them were so stark. Observing the pair through the control-room glass at Abbey Road's Studio Two, Emerick was fascinated by their odd-couple quality:

Paul was meticulous and organized: he always carried a notebook around with him, in which he methodically wrote down lyrics and chord changes in his neat handwriting. In contrast, John seemed to live in chaos: he was constantly searching for scraps of paper that he'd hurriedly scribbled ideas on. Paul was a natural communicator; John couldn't articulate his ideas well. Paul was the diplomat; John was the agitator. Paul was soft-spoken and almost unfailingly polite; John could be a right loudmouth and quite rude. Paul was willing to put in long hours to get a part right; John was impatient, always ready to move on to the next thing. Paul usually knew exactly what he wanted and would often take offense at criticism; John was much more thick-skinned and was open to hearing what others had to say. In fact, unless he felt especially strongly about something, he was usually amenable to change.

The diplomat and the agitator. The neatnik and the whirling dervish. Spending time with Paul and John, one couldn't help but be struck by these sorts of differences. "John needed Paul's attention to detail and persistence," Cynthia Lennon, John's first wife, said. "Paul needed John's anarchic, lateral thinking."

Paul and John seemed to be almost archetypal embodiments of order and disorder. The ancient Greeks gave form to these two sides of human nature in Apollo, who stood for the rational and the self-disciplined, and Dionysus, who represented the spontaneous and the emotional. Friedrich Nietzsche proposed that the interaction of the Apollonian and the Dionysian was the foundation of creative work, and modern creativity research has confirmed this insight, revealing the key relationship between breaking and making, challenging and refining, disrupting and organizing.

John was the iconoclast. In early live shows, he would fall into the background, let Paul charm the audience, and then twist up his face, adopt a hunchback pose, and play dissonant chords. Sometimes, he deliberately kept his guitar slightly out of tune, which contributed to what the composer Richard Danielpour calls "that raw, raunchy sound." He was difficult with the press, at times even impossible. In the studio, he clamored constantly to do things differently. He wanted to be hung from the ceiling and swung around the mic. He wanted to be recorded from behind.

While John broke form, Paul looked to make it. He was the band's de facto musical director in the studio and, outside, its relentless champion. "Anything you promote, there's a game that you either play or you don't play," he said. "I decided very early on that I was very ambitious and I wanted to play." Among the Beatles, he said, he was the one who would "sit the press down and say, "˜Hello, how are you? Do you want a drink?,' and make them comfortable."

Distinctions are a good way to introduce ourselves to a creative pair. But what matters is how the parts come together. So it's not right to focus on how John insulted reporters while Paul charmed them. John was able to insult reporters because Paul charmed them. Their music emerged in a similar way, with single strands twisting into a mutually strengthening double helix.

The work John initiated tended to be sour and weary, whereas Paul's tended to the bright and naive. The magic came from interaction. Consider the home demo for "Help!"—an emotionally raw, aggressively confessional song John wrote while in the throes of the sort of depression that he said made him want "to jump out the window, you know." The original had a slow, plain piano tune, and feels like the moan of the blues. When Paul heard it, he suggested a countermelody, a lighthearted harmony to be sung behind the principal lyric—and this fundamentally changed its nature. It's not incidental that in the lyrics John pleaded for "somebody … not just anybody." He knew he was at risk of floating away, and Paul helped put his feet back on the ground.

And John knocked Paul off his, snorting at his bromides (as with Paul's original "She was just seventeen / Never been a beauty queen") and batting against his sweet, optimistic lyrics, as in the song "Getting Better." "I was sitting there doing "˜Getting better all the time,'"‰" Paul remembered, "and John just said, in his laconic way, "˜It couldn't get no worse.' And I thought, Oh, brilliant! This is exactly why I love writing with John."

John lived most of his youth in his Aunt Mimi's house, a prim, stuffy place, protected—or so Mimi thought—from the wreckage of his charming but dissolute parents. Even as a boy, John was a mischief-maker, a gang leader. When he discovered music, he wanted to get his gang onstage. He insisted that his best friend, Pete Shotton, join his band, the Quarry Men, even though Pete protested that he could hardly play. John didn't mind. He could hardly play himself.

Paul, by contrast, came from a warm, close-knit family. Music occupied a central place in the McCartney home, in the form of the upright piano that dominated the tiny living room. Music for Paul was family sing-alongs and brass-band concerts with his dad. When he began to write songs, Paul wasn't thinking about rock and roll. He wanted to write for Sinatra.

John's rebellious impulse took him in dangerous directions. By the time he met Paul, his boyhood pranks had progressed to shoplifting. He said later that had he not wound up in a truly outstanding band—which is to say, had he not met Paul—he probably would have ended up like his father, a likable ne'er"‘do"‘well jostling between odd jobs and petty crime.

Paul, for his part, might have ended up teaching, or doing some other job for which he could rely on his smarts and still live inside his own mind. He was studied and careful. Even his moments of abandon (his imitations of Little Richard, say) were conducted more or less by the book. John was 20 months older—a world apart for a teenager. He was the badass older brother Paul never had. For John, Paul was a studious and charming sidekick who could do something rare: keep up with him.

Alongside their many differences, John and Paul shared uncannily similar musical tastes and drives to perform. The chemistry between them was immediate. A member of John's band who watched them on the day they met later recalled that they "circled each other like cats."

The myth is that John and Paul were enmeshed creatively in the early 1960s but that they separated after they stopped touring, in 1966. It's true that there was a new distance between them—in time spent apart, in influences, and in actual geography. Paul took up residence in London, and John moved with his wife to the tony suburbs. John plunged into LSD (he reckoned he "must have had a thousand trips"), but Paul said he "wasn't that keen on getting that weird," and dosed just a handful of times (his trip was making himself the boy king of swinging London, hobnobbing with everyone from the artist Andy Warhol to the filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni).

But distance doesn't necessarily hinder creativity; often, it drives a pair forward. We flourish with an ongoing stream of new influences, new ideas. It's also true that we're affected by not just what people explicitly say to us, or their overt contributions to our work, but also the way they get in our heads. One sure way this happens is through competition—or what's known in business as "co-opetition," whereby two entities at once oppose and support each other. George Martin, the Beatles' longtime producer, noticed this element in John and Paul's relationship. "Imagine two people pulling on a rope, smiling at each other and pulling all the time with all their might," he said. "The tension between the two of them made for the bond."

That tension took on varying forms during the course of the Lennon-McCartney partnership. The two spun time and again through the same cycle. As the alpha, John would establish his dominance, and then Paul, like a canny prime minister under a tempestuous king, would gradually assert himself and take charge—until John, often suddenly, struck back.

This dynamic helped give birth to the two albums that represent the best of John and Paul's work together: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and The White Album. In popular lore, Sgt. Pepper represents the zenith of the partnership ("It was a peak," John said), while The White Album represents its nadir ("the tension album," Paul called it). But the truth is that the two albums were born of the same cycle, just at different points in it.

In the Sgt. Pepper days, John largely let Paul run the show, during exacting and exhaustive studio sessions that stretched over many hundreds of hours, and during copious writing sessions, when John and Paul together shaped every song on the album. After seeing a drawing made by his son Julian, John initiated "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds." He showed the picture to Paul, and the two of them saw an opportunity to flesh out the song together by playing around with Alice in Wonderland–style imagery. "I offered cellophane flowers and newspaper taxis," Paul said, "and John replied with kaleidoscope eyes … We traded words off each other, as we always did." Perhaps most famously, the two brought "A Day in the Life" into being by fusing songs they had initiated separately.

But if John was largely compliant during Sgt. Pepper, he soon reasserted his dominance. In the spring of 1968—after a visit to the ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, in India, during which John and Paul whiled away many hours with their acoustic guitars and wrote dozens of songs—the Beatles were back in the studio, recording The White Album. Gone was the dreamy John. He was now aggressive, even hostile. He called Sgt. Pepper "the biggest load of shit we've ever done." Watching him in action during The White Album's first session, Geoff Emerick was astonished. By the end of the session, he wrote, John was "almost psychotic."

John described the change differently. "I was again becoming as creative and dominating as I had been in the early days," he said, "after lying fallow for a couple of years."

The stock Beatles narrative attributes this change in John to the arrival in his life—and in the recording studio—of Yoko Ono. Yoko is is also often blamed for breaking up the band, of course. But the crucial point is how John used Yoko to reassert his power. It was an alpha move—his way of reminding the others that he could summarily add a member to the band, just as he had decided to ask Paul to join the Quarry Men 11 years earlier. Once Yoko was on the scene, she naturally began to exert her own influence, and over time she did become a wedge between John and Paul. But at the start, despite feeling wounded by the change in John, Paul tried determinedly to make things work, by resorting to his signature style: a blend of accommodation and assertion. He saw that John was going too far, but understood that this was John's way. This had happened before; he hoped that the moment would pass, that they could get back to work.

Despite the tension—because of the tension—the work was magnificent. Though the White Album recording sessions were often tense and unpleasant (Emerick disliked them so much that he flat-out quit), they yielded an album that is among the best in music history. The album is notable for a number of role-raiding songs, with John doing the sort of ballads associated with Paul ("Julia" and "Goodnight"), and Paul drenching himself in the noise and aggression usually associated with John ("Helter Skelter," "Why Don't We Do It in the Road"). No matter how thick the tension got, it kept serving a creative purpose. At one point, maddened by endless takes of a swooning "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," John left the studio in a huff—only to return later that night, sit down at the piano, and bang out a much faster version of the song, which would become the recorded version. John and Paul also continued to answer each other's songs. On June 4, 1968, for example, John arrived at a working version of "Revolution 1," his anthem about the political struggles of the 1960s, and a week later Paul brought "Blackbird" to the studio—his statement, he said, about the civil-rights struggles in the American South. John and Paul answered each other in their romantic lives, too. Just after John brought Yoko into the studio, Paul brought in a girlfriend. And only eight days after Paul married Linda Eastman, in March 1969, John married Yoko.

Instability within a creative duo can be immensely productive, but only if sufficient support exists around it. For years John and Paul had that support, but in the late 1960s it began to fall apart. In 1967, Brian Epstein, the band's manager, died of a drug overdose, and the group failed to replace him. George Harrison, for his part, began to buck the junior role he had long been forced to play.

Still, when John and Paul devoted themselves to their music, all seemed well. At their last live performance, the iconic concert on the rooftop of the Apple Corps building, in January 1969, they assumed the positions they'd taken for 12 years: John stage left, Paul stage right, both looking out into the crowd—or, in this case, the surrounding rooftops-—but able to turn in an instant to see each other. George stood to their left, facing both of them. During "Don't Let Me Down," John forgot the words to the third verse and went into a nonsense refrain, pure gibberish, but then, literally without missing a beat, he and Paul turned to each other and picked up with the correct lyrics as though nothing had happened. John beamed. Paul bobbed his head up and down in primal affirmation.

It's hard to find a better illustration of what the marriage expert John Gottman calls "repair"—a return to the strength of a partnership that tempers the effects of its weaknesses. There were other examples as the months of high tension wore on. In April 1969, John and Paul recorded the vocals for "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)," a fantastically weird B side that Paul has said is probably his favorite Beatles track "just because it's so insane." The same month, John rushed to Paul's doorstep with a song he'd written, "The Ballad of John and Yoko." George and Ringo were unavailable, so John and Paul cut the song themselves in one long day, with John on guitar and lead vocal, and Paul on bass, drums, piano, maracas, and harmony vocals.

What ultimately brought their work together to a halt was not creative disagreements but business ones. During his power grab, John was sweet-talked by a canny, dubious manager named Allen Klein, with whom he promptly signed. George and Ringo followed—pure primate politics there. But Paul would not.

And so legend has it that the Beatles broke irrevocably apart.

Except that they never really did.

It's tempting to think that a partnership ends like some scene in an opera, where two people come to dramatic conflict, sing emotionally in each other's faces, and decide to separate, weeping. But more often a split happens like it does in one of those country songs about a person leaving home and never coming back, in which no one—not the one who left, not the one who was left, not the listener—really knows why.

On April 10, 1970, a headline filled two-thirds of the front page of Britain's Daily Mirror. "PAUL IS QUITTING THE BEATLES" it read, with smaller type above: "Lennon-McCartney song team splits up." The story cited an interview that Paul had just distributed to the press, to accompany the release of his first solo album. The interview included the following exchanges:

Q: Are you planning a new album or single with the Beatles?

A: No. …

Q: Do you foresee a time when Lennon-McCartney becomes an active songwriting partnership again?

A: No.

With those two terse answers, April 10 became fixed in the popular imagination as the day the Beatles—and John and Paul—officially split. Just a few days later, however, Paul insisted the whole business was a "misunderstanding." After he saw headlines announcing the Beatles breakup, he told a journalist, "I thought, Christ, what have I done now? … I never intended the statement to mean "˜Paul McCartney quits Beatles.'"‰"

Indeed, he had already said as much in the same interview:

Q. Is this album a rest away from the Beatles or the start of a solo career?

A: Time will tell. Being a solo album means it's "the start of a solo career … " and not being done with the Beatles means it's just a rest. So it's both.

The previous year, in September, John, too, had suggested a split: he told his bandmates he wanted a "divorce." But five months later, like Paul, he backpedaled, telling the BBC that this divorce might lead to a "rebirth." He would rough Paul up something awful in the years that followed (in his solo song "How Do You Sleep," he described Paul's songwriting as "Muzak to my ears"), but he quickly spun through his fury and returned to calling Paul his "best friend." At what turned out to be his last major public performance, on November 28, 1974, John made clear that he felt pulled in Paul's direction. That night he appeared onstage at an Elton John show at Madison Square Garden. He was so nervous beforehand that he threw up in a toilet backstage.

The crowd went wild when John appeared—so wild, according to one account, that the sprung floors of the Garden began to bounce. He and Elton played two songs together, and then John introduced "I Saw Her Standing There," the third and final song the two would play that evening. "We thought we'd do a number," he told the crowd, "of an old, estranged fiancé of mine called Paul."

As long as John and Paul were both alive, the possibility remained that they might remarry. According to Linda McCartney, during the 1970s Paul was "desperate to work with John again." John retreated from music in the second half of the decade, but in 1980 he and Yoko released Double Fantasy. He was murdered on December 8, 1980. Had he lived, who knows what might have happened? Jack Douglas, who produced Double Fantasy, said that John was actively planning to team up with Paul the following year.

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