The other night the episode of The Simpsons Ringo Starr guest-starred in was shown on British television. Although I’ve seen it several times, I found myself watching it again, partly because I love Ringo Starr’s voice. This is easily explained; when I was growing up in the 1980s, Ringo was the narrator of the children’s TV series Thomas the Tank Engine. As my grandfather’s love of trains had already rubbed of me, I quickly became an avid fan of the show, and Ringo’s narration became a hallmark of my childhood.
At the same time, my father would often take me on photography jobs with him, or on other journeys in the car, and we would listen to his tapes of Paul McCartney’s early 80s solo albums, Tug of War and the soundtrack to the vanity film Give My Regards To Broad Street. I’m not sure when I worked out that the man with the strange accent and gruff voice I enjoyed listening to on TV was the same man that played drums on several of the songs I had begun to enjoy listening to on the Capri’s tape cassette player. It was almost certainly after I’d recognised his voice reciting a line of dialogue immediately before ‘Yesterday’ commenced.
It would later transpire that Thomas the Tank Engine’s biographer and the man that sang silly love songs had been in a band together, a hundred years previously. This piece of information didn’t take on any real significance until 1995 when the Beatles’ Anthology project was released. I couldn’t afford the tapes/CDs, but I watched the five-part TV series out of curiosity as I knew Paul McCartney, who had by then become my musical hero, had been a member.
(The reason for my ignorance of the Beatles is a little hard to explain; I was aware of Macca’s career, and the songs on …Broad Street that were covers of his own Beatles compositions, but I had never heard a single Beatles LP. My father simply didn’t have any, at least not on tape. He did have a book of sheet music though, full of the most wondrous illustrations.)
Watching the programme though, the scales of ignorance fell from my eyes, and my ears, and I saw (and heard) just how many of the classic songs I had grown up listening to had been written by one of those four young men from Liverpool. I soon began a quest to buy as many of the band’s albums on CDs (no small feat when you were an unemployed teenager and not entirely blessed with money) and read almost every book written about them. They were soon installed as my favourite band, a position that has only seriously, though regularly, been challenged by the Manic Street Preachers. I love listening to their music. Well, most of them. You see, there’s something of a problem.
John Lennon’s music does almost nothing for me.
This is generally the point at which most people seem to take it upon themselves to make some obscene remark about Paul McCartney, after of course they’ve stopped spluttering in disbelief. How can I not enjoy the music of the greatest human/poet/visionary this world have ever known, they ask?
The simpler answer is that due to the vagaries of musical taste and sensibilities, John Lennon’s compositions do not win my favour. As subjective as that. I couldn’t form an objective explanation until I read Ian MacDonald’s masterful dissertation on the Beatles’ work, Revolution in the Head. In the introduction to the book, he defines Lennon and McCartney’s differing styles thus;
While the tunes of both are marked by an unusual incidence of non-chordal notes, McCartney’s method is, in terms of intervals, ‘vertical’ (melodic, consonant), and Lennon’s ‘horizontal’ (harmonic, dissonant).
This doesn’t so much explain why I prefer McCartney’s songs as note there is a marked difference between his compositions and Lennon’s. Evidently I am inclined to enjoy melodic songs rather than harmonic. There are other reasons however; as I’ve battled over the last 12 years to teach myself guitar, bass and piano with limited success, I’ve come to admire McCartney’s formidable musicianship. By his mid-20s, he was already a fluent guitarist and pianist and was already on his way to becoming an iconic bass player. His voice, both in terms of range and power, was the best in the band (objective), and had the nicest timbre (subjective).
I came to appreciate Harrison and Starr as I grew and matured; the former’s quietly virtuosic guitar playing and bitter-sweet song-writing, and the latter’s off-beat drumming and deadpan singing. But as I write this, on the eve of the 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s murder, I still don’t feel any particular connection to the man or his music. That’s not to say there are no songs by his hand I enjoy listening to; ‘Nobody Told Me’, and ‘I’m So Tired’ in particular. There are others, but while I enjoy the tunes, I more often than not find myself coveting the musicianship of his three band mates. For example…
Help! – McCartney’s bass and harmony vocal
Rain – McCartney’s bass and Starr’s drums
A Day in the Life – Starr’s drums
Strawberry Fields Forever – Harrison’s guitar
You could argue that this is simply the sign of a gifted ensemble, but I would counter that it doesn’t happen nearly as much when listening to McCartney or Harrison songs. There’s also the case of ‘In My Life’, one of Lennon’s best known songs. He claims he wrote most of it, McCartney says he did. MacDonald seems to side with the latter in this case, noting the song shows “…more of his touch than Lennon’s, despite fitting the latter’s voice snugly”.
So many people will tell me, flat out, that I’m wrong for thinking that Paul McCartney was the most talented musician in the Beatles. There’s no room for debate, for the discussion of two opposing viewpoints. I’m just wrong, and I perhaps have a mental illness of some type. Perhaps they’re right? 50,000,000 Lennon Fans Can’t Be Wrong after all. Obviously John Lennon was a hero and an icon to many, and I’m paraphrasing Chuck D here, he never meant nothing to me. Perhaps I am wrong, but I’ll bear that in mind when I listen to the McCartney and Lennon and Starr songs that give me so much visceral joy and pleasure. I know I’m right.
(Incidentally, the Simpsons episode I referred to earlier featured a snatch of Ringo’s solo single ‘It Don’t Come Easy’. Apparently co-written by George, if you haven’t heard it, I advocate you give it a spin. It’s great fun.