John Lennon and Paul McCartney: The Friendship Heard ‘Round the World

Websites, books, and even paintings have been dedicated to July 6th, 1957, “the day John met Paul”. Considered as one of the most important dates in music history, it marks when a mutual friend (Ivan Vaughan) introduced a 15-year-old boy named Paul McCartney to the lead singer of a “skiffle” group he had just seen perform at a church fair. Despite their age difference, the two hit it off quite well, with 15-year-old Paul impressing a 17-year-old John Lennon with his rendition of Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock”. John only had a rudimentary knowledge of how to play guitar and often didn’t know the exact lyrics of the rock ‘n’ roll covers he performed, but he had his hesitations about bringing the knowledgeable McCartney into the group. Years later, he would say about the experience, “I half thought to myself, He’s as good as me, I’d been kingpin up to then. Now, I thought, if I take him on, what will happen?”

However, the two had more in common than their music. Paul’s mother had died from cancer shortly before John’s mother died in a shocking traffic accident. The boys probably didn’t discuss their grief with each other often, but it is argued by experts that those experiences strengthened their bond.

Paul first performed with the Quarrymen three months later. Though he would become the most successful musician of all time, McCartney became so nervous on stage that he flubbed a crucial lead guitar solo. Feeling embarrassed, he showed John the lyrics to the first song he had ever written, “I Lost My Little Girl”. Liking what he saw, John showed him some of the songs he had written. Inspired by partnerships like Leiber and Stoller, he would later suggest that all of the songs they wrote would be credited to “Lennon-McCartney”, whether they had worked together on it or not. During the early days of the Beatles, Paul was in the habit of writing “Another Lennon-McCartney original” at the top of all their sheet music, perhaps inspired by the Tin Pan Alley and Broadway compositions he had seen.

However, nothing could prepare them for what was to come. In just a few short years, the Beatles went from performing in German strip clubs to breaking international sales records. “Beatlemania” forever stripped them from having private lives, but the strain of fame would bring the group’s members closer together. The group may have been busy giving interviews, recording, touring, and even filming movies, but one thing didn’t change — John and Paul still wrote the vast majority of the group’s songs. Speaking about “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, Lennon said, “Paul hits this chord, and I turn to him and say, That’s it! Do that again! In those days, we really used to write like that- both playing into each other’s noses.”

But as time went on, both John and Paul would find themselves writing songs with little to no input from each other. Unbeknownst to the general public, several of the “Lennon/McCartney” originals that became hits for other artists (Billy J. Kramer & The Dakota’s “I’ll Keep You Satisfied”, Mary Hopkin’s “Goodbye”, etc.) were solely written by Paul. In fact, he listed the writing credit on Peter & Gordon’s “Woman” under “Bernard Webb” to see if it made a difference in the song’s success. It still became a hit.

John once said about the difference between their writing styles, “Paul said, Come and see the show. I said, I read the news today, oh boy.” Music writers would later go on with the myth that Paul was the perfectionist maestro behind happy, optimistic tunes that celebrated the everyday (like “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “Penny Lane”) while John’s bitter wit laced self-revealing songs (like “I’m Only Sleeping” and “Nowhere Man”). That isn’t completely true, McCartney also knew how to describe personal heartbreak (“Yesterday”) and Lennon knew how to cheerfully describe normal life (“Good Morning, Good Morning”) as well. The two did have a friendly rivalry over which of their songs would be released as singles, though. More often than not, McCartney’s contributions would make the cut. Lennon was somewhat jealous over this, making statements like, “‘I Am the Walrus’ was the B side to ‘Hello, Goodbye’. Can you believe it?”

In the mid-’60s, however, John found another reason to envy Paul. While Paul was out dating various women and living a high-profile life, he said, “Cynthia wanted to settle John down, pipe and slippers. The minute she said that to me, I thought, Kiss of death. I know my mate, and that is not what he wants.” Paul would also come to resent John a little upon learning of John’s affair with artist Yoko Ono. He wrote “Hey Jude” as a way of saying, “Come on, man, your parents got divorced. I know you’re not happy, but you’ll be OK.” to John’s son, Julian. Julian would later grow up to say, “Paul and I used to hang out quite a bit- more than Dad and I did.”

Nevertheless, their friendship still remained. While John added the lyric “The walrus was Paul” in “Glass Onion” as a tribute, Paul aided John in an otherwise solo recording, “The Ballad of John and Yoko”. Ono once said, “Paul knew that people were being nasty to John, and he just wanted to make it well for him. Paul has a very brotherly side to him.”

The event that would cause the most animosity between them was the dissolution of the Beatles. Several different factors led to their break-up, most notably the death of manager Brian Epstein and the hiring of a replacement. Lennon had convinced the rest of the group that accountant Allen Klein was their best bet, while McCartney preferred his new father-in-law, Lee Eastman. Meanwhile, Paul found himself trying to piece together four individuals who were growing tired of performing as one in the studio. While he wanted to make plans for a return to touring, none of the others wanted to make any plans. Though Ringo had temporarily left the group in 1967 and George temporarily quit during the filming of Let It Be, Lennon left a September 1969 meeting by saying, “I wasn’t going to tell you, but I’m breaking the group up. It feels good. It feels like a divorce.”
Things weren’t really over, however, until Paul phoned John with the news that he had started work on a solo album. The rest of the group urged Paul to push back his upcoming album and not say anything about the break-up. However, he wrote in an interview sheet packaged with advanced copies of McCartney, “Q: Are you planning a new album or single with the Beatles? A: No.” John and Paul publicly bickered about the resulting fallout from this for years. Lennon later said, “I was a fool not to do it, not to do what Paul did, which was use it to sell a record.” Paul declared in his official biography, “I think it was just straightforward jealousy, Ringo left first, then George, then John. I was the last to leave! It wasn’t me!”

In Lennon’s 1970 Rolling Stone interview, he said things like, “we got fed up with being sidemen for Paul” and “I thought Paul’s (debut album) was rubbish.” While he believed that Paul and Linda McCartney’s Ram album was full of insults directed at him, Paul argued that he only inspired the lyrics “Too many people preaching practices” and “You took your lucky break and broke in two” in “Too Many People”. John struck back with “How Do You Sleep?” which contained many bitter statements about Paul, but he later claimed that parts of the song were actually about himself.

Friends often argue with each other only to act as if nothing had happened later on, and Lennon and McCartney were no exception to this rule. For example, the two recorded together along with other artists in an extended recording session that would become bootlegged as A Toot and a Snore in ’74. A year later, John almost joined Paul McCartney & Wings in studio for what was to be the Venus and Mars album. On night, while the two were at John’s apartment, they watched an episode of Saturday Night Live that offered the Beatles $3,000 to reunite. They briefly considered showing up at the studio before they decided they were too tired. Paul’s touring and recording schedule, combined with John’s immigration troubles, kept them from getting together more often, but they frequently spoke to each other on the telephone.

The press mostly chose to focus on all of the bitterness instead, causing some Beatles fans to take sides. Some Lennon fans paint Paul as jealous of John’s talent and insensitive towards his death, while Lennon receives a bad reputation among some McCartney fans, who blame him for the break-up of the Beatles and like to point out how Paul’s solo recordings have eclipsed John’s in sales. After Paul had switched the Lennon/McCartney listing on some of his live albums, many fans complained, despite the fact that John also did the same once. This animosity continues today, with speculation that Paul’s re-release of Band on the Run was designed to take attention away from what would have been Lennon’s 70th birthday.

Some fans became so disenfranchised with McCartney that they grew to believe the far-fetched theory that Paul died in a 1967 car accident and was replaced by a look-alike. The details vary, but a key factor in all of those stories seems to be John and Paul’s relationship. The main story is that John was so full of grief over Paul’s death that he inserted hidden messages in photos, album covers, and music as either a tribute or a way to get the truth out. One story says that “I Am the Walrus” came from John screaming the phrase to a policeman who insensitively remarked that Paul’s decapitated head looked like a walrus. PID or PIR believers also often argue that Lennon’s murder was organized as a way to keep him quiet. Today, some people who weren’t even Beatles fans to begin with merely look for “clues” as a fun pastime, but there are others who believe in it so deeply that they post disturbing messages against “Faul” (fake or false Paul) on the internet.

Rumors about John and Paul being romantically involved with each other have also spread throughout the years. Most recently, author Philip Norman alleged in Lennon: The Life that Lennon unsuccessfully pursued McCartney, in an attempt to further a try-anything lifestyle. Experts might agree that such rumors persist for many different famous friends, perhaps indicating a misunderstanding of the human bond of friendship. Alternatively, some fans speculatively discuss these ideas as only a form of what-if amusement. Not surprisingly, John and Paul are a popular topic in “slash fiction” with such stories about George and Ringo being less common.

However, the saddest part of any thorough look at John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s friendship is the fact that we will never have a true end to the story. John was shot and killed in 1980, at the mere age of 40. He isn’t here to tell us how his opinions may have changed over the years. It’s possible the two may have never recorded or performed together again, that they just continued to call each other every now and then. Then again, they might have gotten angrier at each other more than ever before, but I doubt it. In friendships, hurtful things are often said that are soon forgotten, but the press still loves to act as if famous people are radically different from the rest of us. Harry Nilsson once said that a fan asked John why he was wearing an “I Love Paul” button. John replied, “Because I love Paul.” Perhaps Paul explained it best in his tribute to John, “Here Today”: And if I say, I really loved you and was glad you came along. Then you were here today, for you were in my song.” He still performs it in concert to this very day.