‘150 Glimpses of the Beatles,’ by Craig Brown: An Excerpt

Paul was baby-faced, meticulous, perky, diplomatic, energetic, tuneful, ingratiating, optimistic, outgoing, cheery, sentimental, solicito...


Paul was baby-faced, meticulous, perky, diplomatic, energetic, tuneful, ingratiating, optimistic, outgoing, cheery, sentimental, solicitous. John was angular, slapdash, maudlin, difficult, lazy, dissonant, edgy, sardonic, pessimistic, solipsistic, sulky, cool, brutal. Paul considered himself lovable; John believed himself unlovable.

Paul once tried to explain how the two of them had become what they were. ‘John, because of his upbringing and his unstable family life, had to be hard, witty, always ready for the cover-up, ready for the riposte, ready with the sharp little witticism. Whereas with my rather comfortable upbringing, a lot of family, a lot of people, very northern, “Cup of tea, love?”, my surface grew to be easy-going. Put people at their ease. Chat to people, be nice, it’s nice to be nice … Mentally, no one could say much to hurt me, whereas with John: his dad wasn’t home, so it was “Where’s yer dad, you bastard?” And his mother lived with somebody and that was called “living in sin” in those days, so there was another cheap shot against him. John had a lot to guard against, and it formed his personality; he was a very guarded person … He had massive hang-ups from his upbringing.’

The peculiar power of the Beatles’ music, its magic and its beauty, lies in the intermingling of these opposites. Other groups were raucous or reflective, progressive or traditional, solemn or upbeat, folksy or sexy or aggressive. But when you hear a Beatles album, you feel that all human life is there. As John saw it, when they were composing together, Paul ‘provided a lightness, an optimism, while I would always go for sadness, the discords, a certain bluesy edge’. It was this finely balanced push me/pull you tension that made their greatest music so expressive, capable of being both universal and particular at one and the same time.

Even as teenagers, they approached their songwriting with a sense of purpose. Paul would bunk off school, and John would join him in the McCartney house in Forthlin Road. Then Paul would open his school notebook, with its blue lines on white paper, and write, ‘Another Lennon-McCartney original’ on the next blank page, and the two of them would get straight down to composing their next song. Looking back, Paul struggled to recall a fruitless afternoon. ‘We never had a dry session … In all the years, we never walked away from a session saying, “Fuck it, we can’t write one.”’

Sometimes their contributions to the same song were so keenly differentiated that they seemed to be playing up to their caricatures. Paul comes up with ‘We can work it out’, and John immediately undercuts it: ‘Life is very short’. Paul sings ‘It’s getting better’ and John butts in with ‘Can’t get much worse’. In ‘A Day in the Life’ it is John, compulsive reader of newspapers, who just has to laugh at the man who’s blown his mind out in a car, while it is the happy-go-lucky Paul who wakes up, gets out of bed, drags a comb across his head.

Many of their songs have bright melodies but dark lyrics, or dark melodies but bright lyrics. The words of ‘Help!’, ‘Run for Your Life’, ‘Misery’ and ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ are all about depression and psychosis, but they are set to jaunty tunes. Deprived of this tug-of-war between the two competing partners, their solo songs often lack that dimension of otherness, with John falling back on self-pity and Paul giving in to whimsy.

As time went by, their collaboration dwindled, and they composed more and more of their songs separately. But they remained driven by a shared sense of competition; each sought the other’s approval. ‘It was an ideal match,’ wrote the critic Ian MacDonald. ‘They laughed at the same things, thought at the same speed, respected each other’s talent, and knew that their unspoken urge to best and surprise each other was crucial to the continuing vitality of their music.’

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Newsrust: ‘150 Glimpses of the Beatles,’ by Craig Brown: An Excerpt
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