Ask anyone born after 1980 to name any member of The Beatles, and I’ll bet at least more than 50 percent of them say John Lennon’s name first. Shop for t-shirts, and you’ll find plenty featuring Lennon’s bespectacled, Imagine-era face, but relatively few featuring only the other three musicians that made up the Fab Four. Lennon was an object of public fascination in the ‘60s and '70s, but his tragic death in 1980 elevated him to pop-culture icon status that he might never have attained had he lived long enough to die of natural causes. For many fans, Beatlemaniacs or not, Lennon is a pop culture saint, the Avatar of Peace and Love, the poster boy for a progressive world. His former bandmate, Paul McCartney, understands this, and for a long time he wasn’t very happy about it.
In a new, very far-reaching interview with Esquire UK, McCartney talked about the evolution of how the public viewed each of the four Beatles after the band broke up in 1970. McCartney formed Wings and went on to more commercial success, Ringo Starr and George Harrison released their own successful solo efforts, and Lennon and wife Yoko Ono embarked on further campaigns for peace and released music that ranged from irresistibly catchy pop to experimental cacophony.
For McCartney, this made them all equal. They were all former Beatles, they all had a shot at solo glory, and they all got attention for it. Then, Lennon’s death at the hands of assassin Mark David Chapman came, and in McCartney’s eyes, the world started to view The Beatles — possibly the biggest musical juggernaut the world has ever known — as three guys and John Lennon. For McCartney, as he tells it, that was hard to take.
“When John got shot, aside from the pure horror of it, the lingering thing was, OK, well now John’s a martyr. A JFK. So what happened was, I started to get frustrated because people started to say, 'Well, he was The Beatles.’ And me, George and Ringo would go, 'Er, hang on. It’s only a year ago we were all equal-ish.’ Yeah, John was the witty one, sure. John did a lot of great work, yeah. And post-Beatles he did more great work, but he also did a lot of not-great work. Now the fact that he’s now martyred has elevated him to a James Dean, and beyond. So whilst I didn’t mind that — I agreed with it — I understood that now there was going to be revisionism. It was going to be: John was the one.”
Now, that might sound like jealousy to some, or nitpicking to others, but history has more-or-less proved McCartney right about that. Sure, he’s still touring and enjoying success, but Lennon is the spiritual avatar of The Beatles to many fans. He’s a looming presence even though he’s been dead for nearly 35 years, and elsewhere in the interview, McCartney reflected on that looming presence while discussing the difficulty of trying to change Beatles song credits to better reflect who did the most work. Lennon and McCartney were an unstoppable songwriting duo, but for McCartney, the way the credits were arranged often left him at the back of the line.
“They said, 'OK, what we’ll do is we’ll alternate it: Lennon and McCartney, McCartney and Lennon.’ Well, that didn’t happen. And I didn’t mind. It’s a good logo, like Rogers and Hammerstein. Hammerstein and Rogers doesn’t work. So I thought, 'OK’. But what happened was the Anthology came out [in 1996, with (Beatles manager Brian Epstein) and Lennon now long dead]. And I said, 'OK, what they’re now saying is, ‘Song by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.’’ I said, if you’re doing that, it’s not Lennon and McCartney, it’s not the logo any more. So, in particular cases like 'Yesterday’, which John actually had nothing to do with, none of the other Beatles had anything to do with — I wrote it on my own, sang it on my own, they’re not on the record, nobody is even involved with it, and they didn’t mind that and I didn’t mind, nobody minded, but that’s very much mine — so I said, 'Could we have ‘By Paul McCartney and John Lennon’, wouldn’t that be a good idea? And then on ‘Strawberry Fields’ we’ll have, ‘By John Lennon and Paul McCartney’. ‘Nowhere Man’, ‘John Lennon and Paul McCartney’. ‘Penny Lane’, ‘Paul McCartney and John Lennon’. Seeing as we’re breaking it up, can we do that?’ And at first Yoko said yeah. And then she rang back a few days later…and she said she’d decided it wasn’t a good idea and no, no, no, no. And it became a bit of an issue for me. Particularly on that particular song, because the original artwork had 'Yesterday’ by John Lennon and Paul McCartney and a photo of John above it. And I went, 'Argh! Come on, lads!’ Anyway they wouldn’t do it.”
McCartney said later in the interview that he’s made peace with the idea of changing song credits around, and lest anyone think that he’s really full of some kind of John Lennon hate, just listen to “Here Today.” You’ll cry, and then you’ll cry some more, and you’ll understand how much these two men really loved each other.
To hear McCartney’s thoughts on many other things, including why he thinks no one could ever be bigger than The Beatles, read the full interview.
Watch Here to Learn More About John Lennon’s Playboy Interview