But before I do I openly admit I am more of a Lennon fan than a McCartney fan. Once they started writing songs mostly separately (rather than”eyeball to eyeball” like they did early on) it’s the John Lennon songs on Beatles albums that I gravitate to. I’ll take “Across the Universe” over “Let It Be” any day. Or “Come Together” over “Yesterday.” Or “In My Life” over “Penny Lane.”
So, to Sir Paul’s uncoolness: I think the reason The Beatles are the greatest band ever IS the fact that they had this incredible ying and yang and push and pull. Lennon’s pessimistic edginess countered by McCartney’s saccharine pop sensibility. Lennon’s anger, like a tectonic plate grinding against McCartney’s happiness. It’s this Constant Friction that made The Beatles so amazing (and then throw in George Harrison who probably could have led a band on his own and you’ve got a pretty scary combination of talent and artistry).
John Lennon couldn’t tie Paul McCartney’s shoes when it came to writing a pop melody or even a catchy hook. McCartney’s gifts in that department are right there with some of the best and most prolific writers this world has ever known. But c’mon, he isn’t cool. I mean, of course he is way cooler than any of us. He is a rock star who’s has seen and done it all and traveled the world and played in front of millions . . . so he stands head and shoulders above any DJ in terms of coolness. But in terms of rock star legitimacy, he never was and still isn’t the coolest guy in the room (especially when it’s a room like last night with true Rock Gods in the building like Richards and Daltrey and Springsteen). I always felt Paul McCartney would have been happier writing show tunes or radio jingles.
I don’t mean this as an insult and again I think the true genius of The Beatles is that they had both influences – both sides of genius if you will.
Here are the two clearest examples I can give you: First, during the Sgt Peppers song “Getting Better” when McCartney is singing: “I’ve got to admit it’s getting better, a little better, all the time” and Lennon provides not only the the counter melody but the counter philosophy with his background “it can’t get no worse.” That, in my opinion, encapsulates the entire essence of these two men and their outlooks. Another example is the Christmas songs that each one penned separately. McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmas Time” while catchy and happy is a transparent pop throwaway. Kinda like 99% of our Holiday songs. They make you smile and sing along but God forbid they make you think. Lennon’s, on the other hand, while lacking a catchy melody or any holiday escapism, grabs you around the throat and asks “what have YOU done?” Remember he wrote “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” in the middle of his bed-ins for peace with Yoko. The two of them were so active against the US government and the Vietnam war that the Nixon administration commissioned an investigation to get them thrown out of the country. Meanwhile McCartney was with The Wings singing “My love does it good.” I don’t know about you but it’s easy for me to see which one of these is cooler.
And the truth is, as much of an optimist as I try to be in life, when it comes to rock stars, their negativity and anger are what makes them cool. Who wants a rock star who leaves their hotel room in pristine condition? Or who shows up on time and smiles for every question in a press conference? No, that’s a pop star. We want and expect our rock stars to be damaged (remember John Lennon had an absentee father and his mother was hit by a car and killed when he was a teenager, in case you wonder where that anger came from). We also want our rock stars to test the limits of drugs and alcohol and excess, mainly so we don’t have to. We want our rock stars to have attitudes and to write about misery or even just apathy. We want them to remind us of our lost teenage years when everything in the world seemed wrong and we were alone on an island, just us and whatever music was blasting through our bedroom speakers, keeping us tethered to earth because finally someone, somewhere understood our angst and loneliness (or was that just me?) We want our rock stars dirty and smelly and unkempt. NONE of these things are right up Paul McCartney’s alley. He seemed much more comfortable in the early years of The Beatles when Brian Epstein was forcing them to wear matching suits and smile and be “witty” in their interviews. Once Epstein passed away and the group had matured and were taking on their own personalities, McCartney always seemed a little awkward in their hippy phase. Plus, he didn’t experiment with hallucinogens so while Lennon and Harrison were off tripping and writing songs about “newspaper taxis” or weeping guitars he was still writing his four or five catchy pop songs per album. Sure, the themes of those pop songs matured through the years, from holding hands to “black birds singing in the dead of night”, but they were still the catchier and more accessible songs on any Beatles offering. And to me, the songs that initially catch your ear when you first listen to an album are rarely the best songs. There’s a reason pop songs come and go so quickly. They are the chewing gum of music. Sweet and satisfying at first, but they quickly become overplayed. The better songs usually take a while to grow on you before you “get them.” But when they hit, they usually knock your socks off. I remember running one day listening to Abbey Road and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” came on. I had to stop running (literally) as the passion in this song finally hit me (after years of skipping over it because I couldn’t wait to get to that awesome side two of the album.) “I Want You” isn’t a song that Top 40 stations would play and it’s certainly not something you’ll find yourself humming along to. But if you’ve ever had an unrequited love you might understand why Lennon is screaming and changing tempos and repeating himself over and over and over. “I Want You” stands in perfect contrast to McCartney’s “love song” from Abbey Road: “Oh! Darling.” Both are bluesy and filled with angst and a long way from “Love Me Do” but there’s something real about “I Want You” that I don’t hear in “Oh! Darling.” It’s like McCartney read a book about pain and has written a song about it while Lennon just wants to open his shirt and show you the scars.
My last point about McCartney’s uncoolness (especially when compared to Lennon’s) is a point I wish I didn’t have to make. Or couldn’t make. Indeed these benefit concerts make me so sad sometimes because I have always believed (starting with Live Aid back in 1985) that had Lennon lived, eventually The Beatles would have reunited. If not for a world tour then certainly for events like this. They were too worldly and charitable not to put their differences aside for the greater good. But unfortunately Mark David Chapman saw to that (may he rot in hell). And the sad truth is, if you’re a rock star and you want to lock in your coolness for all eternity, die young. We got to see just enough of the fat Elvis to offset all the years of his uber-coolness and forever change our perception of the first rock star. But for so many other rock stars, sad as it is, we will never have to bear witness to their 60 or even 70 year old selves up there on a stage trying to recreate some of that decades-old magic. Last night Paul McCartney was wearing mom jeans. We’ll never have to see John Lennon in mom jeans. We’ll always remember Jim Morrison in his leathers and Jimi Hendrix in his psychedelically patterned bell-bottoms . Kurt Cobain will always be cooler than Eddie Vedder.
But the simple truth is this: Paul McCartney, while wildly talented and incredibly prolific, never really was cool. And now he’s just an old crooner who doesn’t look or even sound the part. If that comes across as cruel I don’t mean it to. Believe me I’d trade for his life in a heartbeat (not that I want to be 70). The man has written more unforgettable and catchy songs than anybody who was on that stage last night (Billy Joel might give him a run for his money, it would be close). But cool? No Sir. Never was and he certainly hasn’t aged into it.