IT’S A FACT: PAUL MCCARTNEY WAS A BETTER BEATLE THAN JOHN LENNON. And no, we’re not talking about the offstage words and deeds that reveal Lennon’s ugly side. We’re not talking about what either Lennon or McCartney did with their lives and careers after The Beatles. And we’re not talking about the interminable, irresolvable argument over whose songs were better.
There are, however, some relatively objective, thoroughly provable reasons why Paul McCartney was the one truly responsible for leading The Beatles to success, making him the superior Beatle…
He Was A Far More Accomplished Musician Than Lennon
One of the most quotable John Lennon exchanges has a reporter asking him, “Is Ringo the best drummer in the world?” to which Lennon replies, “He’s not even the best drummer in The Beatles.”
Of course, Lennon never actually said that (British comedian Jasper Carrott did, in 1983). But it remains one of the most widely misattributed lines in all of music history because it’s precisely Lennon’s brand of acerbic wit, and because many die-hard Beatles fans know the underlying sentiment to be true. Indeed, the best drummer in The Beatles was Paul McCartney.
When Beatles drummer Ringo Starr briefly quit the band during the recording sessions for “The White Album,” McCartney supplemented his bass and vocals duties by filling in on a number of standout tracks (including “Back In The U.S.S.R.” and “Dear Prudence”) with stellar performances on drums. And as soon as The Beatles broke up and Starr was no longer around, McCartney played every single drum track on his first solo album, then on a number of Wings albums and other solo albums thereafter.
When not sitting at the drums, McCartney was sitting at the piano, contributing integral parts on that instrument — in addition to the keyboard, mellotron, and synthesizer — to Beatles classics like “Hey Jude,” “Let It Be,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and many, many more.
And when not playing virtually any instrument with a keyboard, McCartney was turning in acclaimed performances on the guitar, Lennon’s own instrument. For example, the celebrated guitar solos on hits like “Drive My Car,” “Taxman,” and “Helter Skelter,” to name but a few, were all performed by McCartney.
All of this is to say nothing of McCartney’s main instrument, at least nominally: bass. Of McCartney’s widely-heralded bass playing, Lennon himself once said, in a Playboy interview published in 1981:
“Paul is one of the most innovative bass players … half the stuff that’s going on now is directly ripped off from his Beatles period … He’s an egomaniac about everything else, but his bass playing he’d always been a bit coy about.”
Furthermore, when moving beyond traditional rock instruments like bass, guitar, keyboard, and drums, McCartney was miles ahead of his bandmates — let alone any of his rock peers. Across The Beatles’ discography, McCartney has copious credits on plenty of non-traditional rock instruments you’ve heard of (trumpet, organ, wind chimes), plenty more you haven’t (flugelhorn, clavichord), and some that hardly even seem like instruments at all (“comb and tissue paper”).
Lennon’s list of credits isn’t nearly as long, varied, or interesting. And then there are the bold feats of musicianship that McCartney performed throughout his solo career, or the musicianship he facilitated yet didn’t personally execute (for example, arranging and conducting a 40-piece orchestra during the Sgt. Pepper’s sessions) as a Beatle.
But back to that comb and tissue paper…
He Was Actually The Artsy, Adventurous One
The story goes that Paul McCartney was “the cute one” and John Lennon was “the smart one.” And not just the smart one, but the artsy one, the avant-garde one.
After all, Lennon married a decidedly avant-garde artist with whom he made some rather outré musique concrète recordings that remain as startling now as they were 50 years ago. He got an eight-minute sound collage (“Revolution 9”) on a Beatles album. He immersed himself in the art world, painted, wrote poetry, wore glasses, practiced such extreme political activism that he got himself on an FBI watchlist, and starred in a 42-minute film consisting solely of his own penis going from flaccid to erect in slow motion.
And McCartney wrote “When I’m Sixty-Four.”
He trafficked in music hall confections, pop standards, and safe balladry. He stayed out of politics and virtually never got in trouble with the press. He had pinchable cheeks. He looked and sounded like the Beatle that your mother, and your grandmother, would like.
And because McCartney didn’t seem like the artsy one, and Lennon did, we all assume that the image was the truth — which, of course, it wasn’t.
Now, actually defining “artsy” in a way in which you can definitively compare one person to another is a fool’s errand. And in the realms of politics, image, fashion, and self-mythologizing, Lennon was easily more avant-garde than McCartney.
But when you set aside those things that were superficial or extraneous to the thing that most music fans truly care about most — the music — McCartney was actually The Beatles’ brilliant boundary-pusher.
Take, for example, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” often cited as the most innovative, forward-thinking recording in The Beatles’ entire oeuvre. Because Lennon sang it and wrote the indeed avant-garde lyrics, we all tend to think of it as his song.
But the revolutionary tape loops that dominate the arrangement and mark it as the truly bizarre recording that it is actually came from McCartney. In fact, McCartney had been toying with tape loops for some time before it became known as musique concrète in France.
Here with “Tomorrow Never Knows,” in perfect microcosm, we have the recurring trend in which Lennon seems like the one pushing boundaries when in fact it is, to an even greater extent, McCartney who is doing so.
Released the year after “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “A Day In The Life” is likewise widely cited as one of the two or three most innovative and experimental Beatles recordings — and Lennon is erroneously credited for making it so.
Again, the credit should go to McCartney. Inspired by avant-garde composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, McCartney (along with producer George Martin) crafted the two, massive, atonal, out-of-left-field, orchestral crescendos that mark the song’s middle and end, and push the song far outside the realm of what most of us might call pop music.
Of course, “A Day In The Life” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” are just the two most high-profile examples of Lennon getting too much credit for being avant-garde and McCartney not getting nearly enough. The Beatles’ discography is riddled with others, particularly in their middle and later years…
He’s The One Responsible For Almost Everything You Love About The Mature Beatles
Reflecting on The Beatles’ early days to Playboy in 1984, McCartney said, “We all looked up to John. He was older and he was very much the leader; he was the quickest wit and the smartest and all that kind of thing.”
Reflecting on The Beatles’ post-1967 career in a particularly bitter interview with Rolling Stone in 1970, Lennon said, “After Brian [Epstein, the band’s manager] died … Paul took over and supposedly led us you know.”
Indeed, by 1967, with Epstein dead and The Beatles no longer performing live, the group’s enthusiasm was at its nadir — except for McCartney, who, by all accounts, stepped in to fill the leadership role left by Epstein and pushed the band to stay creative over their final five albums, now often celebrated as some of their best.
If not for McCartney, we either wouldn’t have Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour, “The White Album,” Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road, and Let It Be — or they would look very, very different.
Starting with Sgt. Pepper, it was McCartney who charted the group’s trajectory and provided the creative framework again and again. On that album, it was McCartney who dreamt up the idea of a fictitious band that would serve as The Beatles’ alter ego across an interconnected concept album.
For Magical Mystery Tour, it was McCartney who devised the accompanying feature-length film around which the album was organized, a revolutionary concept at the time.
On “The White Album,” it was McCartney who composed the greatest share of the songs, who stepped in to play drums when Ringo briefly quit, and who even recorded entire compositions on his own when the band members were arguing so much that they couldn’t even be in the same room.
In an attempt to bring the band back to its roots in terms of musical aesthetic and emphasis on live performance, McCartney conceived both the album and film Let It Be.
And on Abbey Road (released before Let It Be but recorded after it), it was McCartney who pulled the very splintered group back together and negotiated a deal to get George Martin back in the producer’s chair (which Martin had grown tired of, due to the group’s infighting). And with help from Martin, McCartney devised the suite approach that defines much of the album.
But, moreover, that album — and a lot more — literally wouldn’t have happened at all if not for McCartney…
He Kept The Beatles Going When Lennon Wanted To Blow It All Up
It’s not just that McCartney kept the band thriving in their later years, it’s that he literally kept them going.
In 1966, fed up with the grind and with fans who couldn’t even hear the group’s music over the sounds of their own screams, The Beatles stopped playing music live.
For most any band, losing such an essential component of their very reason for being would surely spell the group’s end. And even The Beatles’ inner circle and members (especially Lennon) felt that way — except McCartney.
Reflecting back on the time just after the group stopped touring, Lennon once said:
“I was thinking, ‘Well, this is the end, really. There’s no more touring. That means there’s going to be a blank space in the future…’ That’s when I really started considering life without the Beatles – what would it be? And that’s when the seed was planted that I had to somehow get out of [the Beatles] without being thrown out by the others. But I could never step out of the palace because it was too frightening.”
And if the end of touring knocked out one of The Beatles’ legs, the August 1967 death of Brian Epstein knocked out the other. After Epstein’s death, Lennon remembered thinking that was it — “We’ve fuckin’ had it.”
But just five days after Epstein’s death, McCartney took the reins and pushed his bandmates to move forward with the new Magical Mystery Tour project he’d devised. But Lennon was still on his way out: The following year, Lennon began making music outside The Beatles (with Yoko Ono) and even stormed out of sessions for “The White Album.”
That dynamic — Lennon one foot out the door, McCartney keeping everyone together — held steady for the next two years. Even when The Beatles actually did come together for an enormous success like “Hey Jude,” Lennon saw little but the group’s end. Lennon later said of that song’s lyrics, “The words ‘go out and get her’ – subconsciously – [Paul] was saying, ‘Go ahead, leave me.'”
The next year, 1969, McCartney dragged his bandmates — particularly Lennon, who was disinterested and had virtually given over his agency within the group to Ono — through the Let It Be project. In the words of Rolling Stone, McCartney “tried to keep the others on track, but it was a thankless task.”
During those sessions, Lennon’s hostility and dependence on Ono even caused George Harrison to quit the band — twice. On one of those occasions, Lennon actually mocked Harrison with a sarcastic song as the latter walked out of the studio.
And it wasn’t just in the studio that McCartney had to almost singlehandedly had to keep the band afloat. The group’s new business venture, Apple Corps (a record label, film studio, and too many other things) was bleeding money, and only McCartney kept things together.
In the words of Rolling Stone:
“Like all the Beatles, McCartney was an Apple director, but in the company’s crucial first year, he was the only one who took a daily interest in the business…In those first months, McCartney tried to curb the company’s outlay, but he was met with the other Beatles’ resistance; they had no real conception of economic realities, since they simply spent what they needed or desired, and had Apple pick up the bills.”
Although that financial situation only grew worse over the summer of 1969, it was McCartney who reconvened the band to record their final album, Abbey Road (which Lennon would later disparage in interviews). The week after the album was released, McCartney gathered everyone to try to convince them to go out on tour again. It was at that meeting that Lennon told the other members of his plans to quit the group.
They convinced him to delay the announcement (partly in hopes that he wasn’t actually serious), but over the next few months, he played with new groups, released a solo single, and made it perfectly clear that he was ending The Beatles.
Of course, in the end, it was actually McCartney who first made the news of the group’s disbandment public, when he announced his departure from the group on April 17, 1970. With that, thanks to McCartney, despite his years of leadership, The Beatles were officially no more. Without McCartney, the end would likely have come far sooner.
Next, watch The Beatles’ historic 1964 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Then, see what The Beatles looked like all the way back in 1957 in this rare photograph.