Who was the foremost member of the foremost group of all time? Was Paul McCartney or John Lennon the real driving force behind the Beatles? That question has ignited debates for decades. Rolling Stone's new special issue, The Beatles' 100 Greatest Songs, doesn't answer the question (nothing ever will), but it sheds some light on it.
Of the 100 songs, which were ranked by the editors of Rolling Stone, 40 were written by Lennon, 35 by McCartney, 17 by the two men working together and eight by George Harrison, who came into his own as a songwriter on the Beatles' final albums.
So it's fairly close, but Lennon was the key Beatle? Not so fast. In the high-rent district, McCartney leads. McCartney has three songs in the top 10 ("Yesterday" at #4, "Hey Jude" at #7 and "Let It Be" at #8), to just two for Lennon ("Strawberry Fields Forever" at #3 and "Come Together" at #9). Three songs in the top 10 are Lennon/McCartney collaborations: "A Day In The Life" at #1, "I Want To Hold Your Hand" at #2 and "In My Life" at #5. Harrison wrote the two remaining songs in the top 10 ("Something" at #6 and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" at #10).
And Lennon's five-song lead over McCartney would have evaporated if the voters had found room on the list for these famous McCartney songs: "The Fool On The Hill," "Magical Mystery Tour," "Michelle," "When I'm Sixty-Four" and "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da." Here are a few more notable McCartney songs they left off: "Birthday," "Fixing A Hole," and "I'm Looking Through You."
By contrast, the only Lennon songs that really surprised me by their omission were "This Boy" and "Good Night." Other Lennon songs that they left off include "I Should Have Known Better," "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!" and "I'll Cry Instead."
Here's another indication that the voters favored Lennon. In three cases, they flipped a Beatles single over and ranked a B side written by Lennon over an A side written by McCartney. The voters ranked "Strawberry Fields Forever" (#3) over "Penny Lane" (#32); "If I Fell" (#26) over "And I Love Her" (#65); and "I Am The Walrus" (#33) over "Hello Goodbye" (#100). The voters also placed Lennon's "Please Please Me" (#20) ahead of its A side, the Lennon/McCartney collabo "From Me To You" (#72).
Why do critics tend to favor Lennon? There are two main reasons. Lennon was edgier and more envelope-pushing, and rock critics tend to favor those qualities over McCartney's more tradition-bound, pop-minded virtues. Also, Lennon died at 40, shot to death outside of his apartment. McCartney is 68. He has lived to receive all the awards and honors a man could ever want. To cite just one example, both Lennon and McCartney were voted Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Recording Academy, but only McCartney lived to receive it.
It's just human nature that critics will tend to favor the one whose life was cut short so senselessly.
I imagine that McCartney occasionally chafes when critics habitually favor Lennon, but I assume he understands the reasons for it.
And while part of me would have liked to see a tie between Lennon and McCartney for most songs on the list (reflecting their equal contributions to the Beatles legacy), it would have looked a little suspect; as if the panelists had contrived to get that result.
The special issue strives for parity between the two songwriters. It features a list of five of Lennon's favorite Beatles songs, including two that were written by McCartney, "Hey Jude" and "Why Don't We Do It In The Road."
It also features a list of six of McCartney's favorite Beatles songs, including two that were written by Lennon, "Nowhere Man" and "I Am The Walrus."
An editor's note in the issue explains, "Lennon and McCartney, by mutual agreement, let all of their songs be co-credited ‘Lennon/McCartney' on their records. We have named the ‘main writer' wherever possible."
There is some subjectivity in assigning credit for songs. There were songs, especially early on, that were true collaborations. And there were songs that one man or the other wrote entirely alone. But there were a lot of songs where one man took the lead in writing the song, but the other added a little something that made all the difference. That, of course, was the magic of the Beatles.
As you read the essays about each song, the main thing you come away with is the sense that it was the combination of the two men-each with his own distinctive strengths, perfectly complementing the other-that made the Beatles the greatest group of all time.
The Beatles had 20 #1 hits on Billboard magazine's Hot 100, which is, to this day, the record for any artist in the rock era. All 20 of these songs made the list. The three that rank the highest are "I Want To Hold Your Hand" (#2), "Yesterday" (#4) and "Hey Jude" (#7). The three that rank the lowest are "Love Me Do" (#87), "The Long And Winding Road" (#90) and "Hello Goodbye" (#100).
Of the Beatles' 34 hits that made the top 10 on the Hot 100, all but five made the list. The group's cover version of the Isley Brothers' hit "Twist And Shout" wasn't eligible because the Beatles didn't write it. The group's four top 10 hits that were eligible but didn't make the list are "Do You Want To Know A Secret?," "P.S. I Love You," "She's A Woman" and "Free As A Bird," the group's 1996 "reunion" hit.
The voters also found room for 58 album tracks that were never released as singles. Several factors explain this: the richness of the Beatles catalog; the fact that in the Beatles' heyday, often only one or two (or even no!) songs were released as singles from each album; and the tendency of critics to like to show off a little by putting more obscure songs ahead of the expected, obvious choices.
Here are the five non-singles that ranked the highest on the list: "A Day In The Life" (#1), "In My Life" (#5), "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (#10), "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" (#12) and "Tomorrow Never Knows" (#18).
The Beatles' strongest double-sided hit, in the estimation of these voters, was "Come Together"/"Something." Both sides of the 1969 smash made the top 10 on the Rolling Stone list.
The list includes four of the five Beatles songs that received Grammy nominations for Song of the Year, but it omits the only Beatles song ever to win that award: "Michelle," which was voted Song of the Year for 1966. (The ballad won because it had strong adult contemporary appeal. The Grammys were still coming to terms with rock at the time.)
The issue documents Harrison's emergence as a songwriter. After being overshadowed by Lennon/McCartney through most of the Beatles' run, Harrison came into his own as a writer with "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," from 1968's The Beatles (which is better known as The White Album). His 1969 ballad "Something" became one of the Beatles' most covered songs ever, topped only by McCartney's "Yesterday."
Frank Sinatra recorded "Something" in 1972. As the issue points out, Sinatra often sang the song in concert, introducing it as one of the best love songs ever written. Yet, in doing so, Sinatra often mistakenly credited it to Lennon/McCartney. That's an indication of how strong the Lennon/McCartney "brand" was. (I hope Harrison had a sense of humor about that.)
Two musicians contributed pieces to the issue. Elvis Costello, who collaborated with McCartney on a dozen songs in the late ‘80s, wrote the introduction. Max Weinberg, the drummer for Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, wrote a piece about Ringo Starr's greatest drumming performances.
The back page is devoted to statistics. The album with the most songs on the list is The Beatles, with 13. (Of course, as a double album, it had an advantage.) Runners-up are Revolver, with 11 songs on the list; and A Hard Day's Night and Rubber Soul, with eight each.
The issue demonstrates that the Beatles sustained their creativity throughout their short career. The list includes at least a dozen songs from each of their six prime years, 1964 through 1969. The years with the greatest representation are 1965 and 1966, with 17 songs from each year.
The John vs. Paul debate will, no doubt, continue. The debate over which was the greatest group of all time is just about closed.