A couple of days ago I spent an invigorating couple of hours listening to the music of The Beatles, shuffling from album to album. Immersing myself in this music is always a life-affirming and uplifting experience, but a few things occurred to me, mostly concerning the nature of the songs written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon.
The songs were credited to "Lennon-McCartney", but many of them were primarily individual efforts, written in full by one songwriter or the other. Some opinion-formers have tended to pigeon-hole the two men, asserting that John Lennon wrote the edgy and perceptive stuff while categorizing McCartney's songs as more shallow and superficial. I never subscribed to this assessment, and closer inspection of the Beatles canon supports my view.
It was around 1964 that the songs started to become more "mature" and profound, but it was not always the frequently cited "contemporary" influences which had a direct affect on the subject matter in the songs. One interesting thread is what I call Paul McCartney's "kitchen sink" songs, such as "Eleanor Rigby", "She's Leaving Home" and "Lady Madonna". In those tracks everyday concerns are explored, but these are ones which the English in particular find awkward to discuss openly. Middle-aged loneliness, rather than youthful heartache. The generation gap between parents and offspring. The struggles of single mothers.
McCartney was often accused of being excessively sentimental in his post-Beatles career. In the Fab Four, however, balancing factors were at work, and they helped imbue some of his songs with real authenticity, realism and focus. Of course, these balancing factors worked both ways, and this mechanism and its consequences were part of the magic of the group. One musician's presence or influence placed a check on the perceived "excesses" or flights of fancy of the other. And of course when there was genuine collaboration, the results were often spectacular, as witnessed on "We Can Work It Out" and "A Day In The Life", for instance.
The personal and creative dynamics operating within the Beatles contributed significantly to a highly developed and acute feel for quality control, as if they possessed some kind of sixth sense which helped them to determine what worked, and what didn't work. Considering the volume of material which they released in a relatively short period of time, and how experimental and innovative they were, there were very few lapses in taste. People have offered quasi-mystical explanations for this sensitivity and chemistry, but I prefer to believe that it was just a happy combination of circumstances, personnel and psychology. These elements help to explain why The Beatles always appeared "relevant", seeming to be in tune with their audience, and with the times, without having to try too hard.
Incidences of this "sixth sense" can be found in the sentiments expressed by McCartney in songs such as "Yesterday", which is more often acclaimed purely for its melodic and musical strengths. "For No One", from Revolver, is in the same vein. And of course "Hey Jude" exhibited that habit of harnessing and articulating universal feelings practically, simply and memorably without appearing mawkish.
Was John Lennon's approach more intuitive, instinctive and mercurial? A lot, but not all, of his stuff was introspective, existential or abstract, perhaps reflecting his innate personality and his background or upbringing, just as McCartney's temperament may go some way to explaining the character and backdrop of his own songs.
I find myself having these reflective moments whenever I go back to listening to Beatles records intensively. This is another thing which makes them so special and unique, setting them apart from those bands which, while possessing abundant technical and virtuoso proficiency, could never match The Beatles for humanistic depth and that ability to touch the soul.