No, McCartney Is Not Lennon’s Equal
Before we get started, let’s be clear here: you show me a song as great as “For No One” and I will show you George and Ira Gershwin’s “But Not for Me”. Paul McCartney is a genius; he is a titan of popular music, incomparable giant. I couldn’t hold him in higher esteem. But he isn’t John Lennon’s equal
I saw Peter Asher perform a coupla years go, and he spoke about how McCartney was his roomie in the midst of Beatlemania (Jane, Peter’s sister, was Paul’s girlfriend) and called Peter into the living room, where John and Paul played and sang a song on the families grand piano, for the first time ever, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”. I mention this to state the obvious, Lennon and McCartney wrote together. But then they wrote apart. And then they broke up. And then Lennon was murdered.
And then: McCartney spent the following 35 plus years setting the record straight. Feeding into his insecurity, McCartney wanted to make it abundantly clear that he was every inch Lennon’s equal and that wouldn’t be fine if he was Lennon’s equal; Lennon was forty years old when his life was stolen for him for God’s sake, he was always the Beatles leaders and when he wasn’t the Beatles leader, the Beatles collapsed. McCartney should have given the revisionism a rest.
Worse is, McCartney isn’t Lennon’s equal.
The difference between Lennon and McCartney, is Lennon’s espousal of a humanist pacifism and his ability to transform it into anthems of inclusion, is unique. And though there aren’t many, “All You Need Is Love” and “Across the Universe” with the Beatles, and “Imagine”, “Give Peace A Chance” , and “Instant Karma” with John/Plastic Ono. And of those five, only two “Imagine” and “Give Peace A Chance”, truly are in the realm of “Blowing In The Wind” and “If I Had A Hammer” –that is two more than the Stones, the Who, Bruce, and Elvis Presley combined. It is double Dylan.
“Imagine”, a song I am as sick of as “Let It Be”, is sung in nursery schools, it is a deeply inclusive pop art tributary of faithlessness and belief, an idealism beyond idealism, a world binding decency based on peace, love and understanding which stings but not so it is noticed: “nothing to live or die for” is not precisely optimism, but it feels like a sharing of hope of nothingness. Through a rejection of Western populism, national, spiritual, and traditional, Lennon managed to include everybody: the operative words were not “you may think I’m a dreamer’ but “I’m not the only one”. In “Instant Karma” he would turn his fame inside out: “Who in the hell d’you think you are? A superstar? Well, right you are…” As though Lennon could not help but include you, include the world, everyone invited.
This becomes clearer with “Give Peace A Chance”. Forget all the “thisism thatism” stuff, indeed even forget “Imagine”, Lennon narrowed the statement and widened the scope: “All we are saying is give peace a chance”, is magnificent. It couldn’t be bigger and it couldn’t be smaller at the same time, the smallest of hopes but for the widest amount of people. “We” isn’t just Lennon and Yoko, or Tommy Smothers, none of the folks at that bed-in, it is EVERYONE. Used as a peace anthem for ever more, it is memorable, as a mantra, though I may mean as a chant. It isn’t even naïve or idealistic, it is like a hope and a prayer but a hope of a smaller degree; the tiniest of request from the powers that beat us into submission. It is a joining together of the helpless and it is a celebration of our shared humanity, shared with Lennon and beyond: an exact evocation of the 1960s youth credo. A little later on, he would invert it with “Power To The People”, but, as a signpost of our best instincts, that one doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you hate both songs, it doesn’t matter if you hate the secular poetry of the Jewish poet Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” -what matters is it speaks to everyone, that everyone shares in it equally, that it touches us by uniting us, not with a silly love, but with the hope for our species. “Imagine” and “Give Peace A Chance” unites our best instincts, “Imagine” is sung by children because it is our shared hope that our children may be what we are not.
People of good faith can argue about McCartney Vs Lennon, but Lennon is greatest because he has done what no one else could do: he joined himself to a gentle plurality of innocence and he handed it to the world. McCartney doesn’t have those types of songs; most people don’t have those kinds of songs.