Tuesday, May 4, 2010

You Stay High, and I'll Stay Low

"Oh, yes, John Lennon was the one who always wrote bitter, negative songs for The Beatles, and Paul McCartney always wrote the sweet, happy, love songs," said the Casual Observer, clearly unaware of the absurdity of what he was saying.

It's a seemingly prevalent view, though, and it exists for a reason, even if it is slightly misguided and easily dismantled by a look at the facts.

John and Paul.  Yin and Yang.  Pessimist and Optimist.  Dark and Light.  Only, it's not quite that simple, is it?

Granted, John certainly seemed to come across as a bit of an ornery cuss at times; he would occasionally adopt a rather sneering tone in his early interviews, and his own lyrics confess, "I've got a chip on my shoulder that's bigger than my feet."  And on the flip side, Paul always seemed to be ready with a wink, a smile, and a thumbs-up.  Cheery Paul, Dismal John.  Or perhaps not.

The songs themselves tell a slightly different story.  This is what I discovered after an album-by-album review, purposefully looking for examples of "positive songs" by John, and "negative songs" by Paul.  A quick review of the more notable entries, then:

John: Ask Me Why; All I've Got to Do; It Won't Be Long; A Hard Day's Night; I Feel Fine; She Loves You; In My Life; All You Need is Love; Dear Prudence; Good Night; Julia; Across the Universe.

Paul: All My Loving; I'll Follow the Sun; Another Girl; Yesterday; I'm Down; I'm Looking Through You; You Won't See Me; Eleanor Rigby; For No One; The Long and Winding Road.

When the two of them got together and produced more-or-less 50/50 collaborations, they could just as easily write a hand-wringer like "Baby's in Black" as they could a heart-tugger like "Eight Days a Week."  

Even in their solo careers, Macca was just as capable of writing stingers like "Too Many People" and "Dear Boy" as John was of writing "softies" like "Beautiful Boy" and "Woman".

Here's my theory: both songwriters could explore the light side and the dark side, and both of them did, neither one more or less than the other.  But where John seemed to treat his music as an art form, Paul seemed to treat it more like a commercial trade.  When John was feeling down, he let it all hang out and bared his artist's soul with a naked yelp; when Paul wrote something with a bit of bite to it, he still packaged it up with an eye to easy consumption - "yeah, I want to say what I need to say, but I still want you to buy it, luv!", I can almost hear him saying.  Two of his most instantly-recognizable tunes, "Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby", are decidedly depressing songs; but they're also highly polished and crafted for maximum marketability.

I think what I'm trying to say is this: John could write a downer of a song, and as an artist, he can reach right out and pull me down with him - and that takes talent.  Paul, for his part, could write a set of lyrics like, "I have had enough, so act your age," but because he sets it to a catchy tune with a disarming "ooo-la-la" background vocal, I end up feeling mostly good about this sad song.  I'm leaving my love behind, I'm going to miss her, but the bouncy bass line goes happily walking along, dum-dum-dum-dum, and "wooooo, all my lovin' I will send to you!", so who cares?  Life is good!

Maybe not.  Maybe it's just me.  But even if I'm wrong, I'm right.

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