The Beatles and artistic collaboration
One of my favorite things about working in theatre is collaboration. Theatre doesn’t work unless writers, actors, visual artists, designers, musicians, dancers and singers collaborate. I have the great luck to be working with some of the finest collaborators in the world right now. The Springer is bursting with a dynamic creative spirit and our productions are getting progressively stronger and more complex because of it.
When we think of artistic collaboration, we generally imagine a creative process of working together with mutual respect. That wasn’t really the case with John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the songwriting engine behind the Beatles’ astonishing success. The majority of Lennon-McCartney compositions were a battle between two polar opposite personalities. Paul was optimistic and cheerful. John had an edge. He expected to be disappointed in people.
Early on, the two working-class kids from Merseyside wrote eyeball to eyeball. Later, though, one or the other would come up with an idea for a song and introduce it to the other. If John thought Paul’s song was too happy, he’d insert an edgy “middle eight” to counteract Paul’s cheery musical idea. If Paul thought John’s song was too dark and pessimistic, he’d insert a middle eight that added an optimistic vibe. Ultimately this fierce battle resulted in some of the greatest rock songs of all time.
Here are a couple of examples. Take the early Beatles tune, “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party.” The spirit of this song is all John Lennon.
I don’t want to spoil the party so I’ll go.
I would hate my disappointment to show.
There’s nothing for me here
So I will disappear.
If she turns up while I’m gone please let me know
I’ve had a drink or two so I don’t care.
There’s no fun in what I do if she’s not there.
You get the idea. Bleak.
You can almost see Paul listening to this gloomy tune and rolling his eyes. So McCartney adds a middle eight bridge:
Though tonight’s she’s made me sad,
I do love her!
If I find her I’ll be glad
I still love her!
Now consider Paul’s optimistic love plea, “We Can Work it Out.”
Here comes McCartney will these lyrics:
Try to see it my way.
Do I have to keep on talking till I can’t go on?
While you see it your way,
Run the risk of knowing that our love may soon be gone.
We can work it out!
We can work it out!
Imagine Paul playing his new song for John as Lennon bites his lip. He knows exactly how to fix McCartney’s tune – with a salty middle eight bridge:
Life is very short and there’s no time!
For fussing and fighting, my friend.
I have always thought that it’s a crime!
So I will ask you once again!
They were very competitive and almost never complimented each other’s writing. One thing they had in common was that they both insisted that each song had to be unique. They were both inspired by other songwriters but they didn’t want anything they wrote to sound like somebody else’s composition. Even more important, they didn’t want one of their songs to sound like something that they had written. Occasionally, one of them would play a new composition and the other would dismiss it, saying, “Bollocks. We’ve already written that one!”
When Paul released his self-titled, “McCartney” album in 1970, that was the death knell for the Beatles. They already had several bitter business disputes from the ill-fated Apple Corps and Paul tossing out a solo album showed the world where the whole Beatles thing was headed. (John Lennon’s solo, Plastic Ono Band, was released a few months later.) Even though McCartney sold a million copies the first week and landed in the #1 spot on the US Billboard Top LP chart, “McCartney” was roundly panned by rock critics because all of the songs were so bloody wholesome. John wasn’t around anymore to insert a tablespoon of cynicism and it took Paul a while to reinvent himself as a songwriter.
The next time you hear a Lennon-McCartney song, listen to it and see if you can guess which one brought the original idea and which one added the “middle eight.”
Paul R. Pierce