It is now common parlance that the newspapers were not the only place former Beatles decided to vent out their frustrations on former bandmates. Instead they utilised what they knew, took this wrought white hot, iron emotion and channelled it into their music to great effect. George spit a lot of his venom out on his debut album All Things Must Pass with songs like ‘Wah Wah’ or ‘Run of the Mill’, right the way up to 1987 with ‘When We Were Fab’. Ringo also took a stab at something similar with his own ‘Back off Boogaloo’ and ‘Early 1970’, but we here today, no pun intended, are going to be discussing the most bitter back and forth of this period.
The back and forth between John Lennon and Paul McCartney has become the stuff of legend ever since the band broke up, a swirling vortex of hidden and not so hidden references to each other under the masquerade of creating commercial pop tunes. It was the most poetically perfect medium for the band to express themselves as music IS emotion. By 1970 the three main Beatles (sorry Richie) could write instrumentals more attuned with what they were accurately feeling than any off the cuff interview in Melody Maker ever could.
In this article I will be showing you everything Paul had ever said to John. To this day this tete-a-tete is still one of the juiciest and most interesting elements of their post-Beatles careers, especially when you consider how unprofessional, and immature the whole thing is. But what’s important for me, is that they were still having this dialogue – Paul especially couldn’t stop writing about John, he was always in his head. And I think Paul resented that somewhat, at least during the early 70’s. I think most people would agree that the breakup was much harder on Paul than on John who had wanted to leave the old band for possibly up to three years by this point, so to say that this riled Paul up, and had him bursting at the seams with things he wanted to say, was an understatement.
A truly baby-faced John and Paul in Hamburg during ‘the leather days’.
Now, on the other half of this correspondence we have the man himself, John Lennon. Unfortunately John was a little less frequent in his expressions, partly due to him taking a sabbatical from music in 1975 to raise his kids. Though it’s not hard to argue the case that the strongest and most inflammatory ‘letter’ was sent by John, and that was the song ‘How do you sleep at night?”. Yes, there were possible references in songs like ‘Jealous Guy’ and ‘I Found Out’, but ‘How Do You Sleep At Night’ went beyond any of that and was a direct attack on Macca. Go listen to it; it’s brutal.
As I’ve mentioned on the show before, The Beatles, like most artists, wrote best when they genuinely cared about the subject that they were writing about, rather than just trying to write another pop ditty. Though retrospectively it’s clear that despite whatever they may have said in interviews, the two giants of music still very much cared about each other. But it’s this negative passion, this drive that spawned some of the greatest songs in their careers, sometimes saving otherwise very tepid albums (I’m looking at you Tug of War).
Now whilst the former writing partners initial post-breakup releases were rather chock-a-block with these sorts of cryptic digs, and we’ve mentioned this on the podcast before, that the two had pretty much patched things up by around 1975, at least to the point where they had stopped mentioning each other in song. Granted, much of what we are about to discuss is very much real, but don’t be mistaken, there are many examples of this turmoil that is still as bitterly raw and as biting today as when it was written. However, some of it can seem very incidental and rather suspect in terms of its validity, for example ‘Dear Boy’ is famously NOT about John Lennon but is instead an apocryphal ode to Linda’s ex-husband. But that will not stop avid fans, hungry at the mouth to search for ever deeper, as of yet undiscovered meanings and double entendres, that allude to either Paul or John in the other’s respective work.
Aww. They were so cute when they were working together.
Another element of this story that has to be taken into account is that the Beatles knew how to manipulate the media. In Barry Mile’s book Many Years From Now, which he compiled after many years worth of interviews with Paul, there is this little nugget of a quote that makes you look at almost everything they have ever said to the public in a whole new light…
“We often used to say to journalists, ‘Look, I haven’t got time for the interview, just make it up’. You know, if it’s a good story it sticks. Or we may have felt like joking that day. It’s summer and you’re in the pub and there’s a guy with a little notebook and he’s going ‘yayayayayayayayaya’ so to alleviate that pressure we started to try and plant lies in the press.”
Now whilst this quote is specifically about the Beatles’ machine and its singular interaction with the press, it shows what foundation’s Paul would have had to facilitate any number of falsehoods, rumours and conspiracies into the public mind. Paul knows how to put on a show both live and on his albums, so it makes sense that he would expand the reality of that out into the meta narrative. If clickbait had existed during this period this exchange would have been prime material for it. It invites the inquisitive and the inquisitorial nature in us all, the part of us that asks ‘what if?’ and spends hours watching ‘Paul is dead’ conspiracy videos on YouTube.
There is not an impossible chance that any, all, or none of John, Paul, George and Ringo weren’t secretly colluding behind the scenes to help each other boost their own respective album sales. It’s not like it wouldn’t work: drama sells (and that’s what the post Beatles era was, constant drama). Will they, won’t they? Ross and Rachel. That being said, there’s also a possibility the ex-fab four themselves were being manipulated by their own people as they in turn knew the fans would rush out to buy the records to find the latest digs at one another (I’m looking at you, Phil Spector).
Either the Beatles took LSD earlier than we’re told, or John has just shit himself.
Now that the scene is set, let us take the time to explore what Paul was trying to say to the man he built his empire with. What follows now is a transcript of all the musical correspondence that Paul sent John Lennon from 1970 to 1981…
- DEAR JOHN…17th April 1970. ‘Man We Was Lonely’.
In this early era of semi-communication through song it is less direct and less specific. McCartney 1 was primarily written before the breakup of the fab four and this song is a diary entry of the McCartney’s troubled times during that period. Whilst not directly aimed at Lennon what it does do is paint McCartney as reaching out and expressing his side of events that Lennon is inexorably entangled in. It’s more akin to one of those annoying Facebook statuses where someone is being purposefully vague and passive aggressive. The prime goal is to showcase that Paul sees himself as being cut off and isolated. He is portrayed as the innocent party in everything, which means its is heightened somewhat by the fact this song came out first. And in terms of his writing progression, this song was a true taster of things of things to come as Paul began expressing his personal feelings in song, you know before he RAM-ped it up.
- DEAR JOHN…17th May, 1971. ‘Too Many People’.
On RAM, Paul’s ability to be able to contact Lennon directly through the media and the medium of song has already been pretty much perfected. This album is blunt and it is scathing. Starting with the declaration of piss off hidden within the phrase ‘piece of cake’ Paul kicks off the rivalry with a resounding and bitter roar. This song is a systematic, not so subtle list of everything Paul finds wrong with certain people in the world, and if he may happen to have been writing a lot of nasty things about a certain someone at that point then it’s purely coincidental. He admonishes Lennon for throwing away the Beatles idea, and for running off with other certain people. He even references their money woes from around this time, referencing people reaching for more than their fair slice of cake, which is a clear nod to Allen Klein to new Beatles manager-to-be, whom Lennon supported. It’s safe to say that this song is Paul at his most defiantly independent, and resentfully spiteful.
Paul and John recording Yellow Submarine’s ‘Hey Bulldog’, some say the last official Beatles collaborative effort.
- 17th May, 1971. ‘Three Legs’, from Paul –
As a whole, ‘Three Legs’ one is definitely more of an attack on the band than a single Lennon sniping event. However, when you break the lyrics down separately from the rest of the song you see the obvious Lennon diversions that seem to cloud Paul’s negative feelings towards the band. I mean read this…
“Well, when I thought, well, I thought
When I thought you was my friend
But you let me down,
Put my heart around the bend”.
It’s clear that McCartney is directly reaching out to John here. They had known each other since 1957, so after thirteen years he clearly felt understandably betrayed and crippled by the whole affair, but more importantly he bloody well wanted him to know it. Roughly translated it says, ‘You have fucking hurt me John and I’m going to use that pain against you by making the best album ever’. Again, this is a borderline libellous claims in terms of the court of songwriting; Paul is getting us all on his side. The Macca-ganda* dictates John is the baddy and Paul will write and re-write the history books to make it so.
* Macca-ganda = McCartney propaganda.
- 17th May, 1971. ‘Smile Away’, from Paul –
For me the direct reference to ‘a friend of mine’ easily puts this in the category of songs. Whilst the lyrics are spare, what is clear is that this is a song that exemplifies the values of the last two songs. Not giving a shit about what people think, and say about you, you ignore it and Smile Away. The songs aggressive tone and raucous tone is seen across this album, and it just exudes the raw, heated, anger that he was able to channel into his music. That musical shift alone would have been a bold statement to John who famously derided Paul for his granny muzzak. This song is a middle finger showing John he can be happy without him and rock hard without him. The fact that Paul really doesn’t play any of this songs, and really never did, in his live shows, indicates his probably change of heart about these issues.
The fact remains that RAM as an album was essentially fuelled by many of the post Beatles range-angst emotions that he was feeling at this time and without it to draw upon once more has meant no other McCartney album has resonated with me with quite the same passion. In terms of Lennon specifically you can argue that he may or may not be present in any/all/or none of these songs, perhaps merely lurking around in the background.
I’m sure I could find a poignant statement about the literal distance between the two, but it’s probably just them sitting a little bit further apart than normal.
- 7th December, 1971. ‘Dear Friend’ from Paul –
McCartney’s next movement in this dance with John was to be one of its most emotionally stirring and haunting. Dear Friend is easily a top contender for the standout song of Wing’s first album Wild Life. This was the dawn of a new era for Paul, he truly now had gone public with how over John he was and replied to the Plastic Ono Band with Wings. I mean this song can’t be more skewed for the context of this article if it tried, it literally starts with ‘Dear friend’, this is a letter to a very specific person, and despite the fact it will theoretically be going out to millions of listeners, there was only ever one intended audience.
‘Dear Friend’ is a song about reconciliation. Whilst John may have fired the first shots in breaking up the band, Paul here is the first to make an attempt to patch things up. In this song he is calling out John, questioning him as to how things ever got this bad in the first place, and whether it is too late to change the course of history. McCartney clearly does want that change, as he misses his dear friend, hell it’s not even about getting the Beatles back together at this point, it’s just about opening the door (though it has to be noted the public at this time thought Paul broke up the band, so maybe that factored into Paul thinking).The interesting thing about ‘Dear Friend’ is how much it appears to be a very respectful and restrained response to the aforementioned ‘How Do You Sleep At Night?’, however the twist at the end of the third act is that this song was actually written during the bountiful RAM recording sessions. So why not include it on the album? Well, by the time it was written most of RAM, i.e. the anti-Lennon songs, was already mixed and ready to be shipped off, and this song would have broken any sense of narrative or cohesion on the album. What it shows is that Paul had pretty much burnt himself out in terms of spitting bile at Lennon, and after the initial hurt and heat that was the break up of the fab four, all that remains is the unending loneliness and the desire to put that silly time behind.So instead he chooses to put it as the final track on his new band’s first album, Wild Life. Whats the significance of that I hear you mutter? Well the answer is simple, closure. This new band is Paul showing the world (aka John) that he too has moved on, and being the song that literally “closes” the album it demands a greater amount of attention from the listener. After an album of little ditties, ballads and even a cover, what Paul is showing us is that he, like John before him, has found an official post-Beatles gig, and that he desperately wants him and John to patch things up before he says goodbye for good. It’s less about getting Lennon’s approval as it is wishing to wipe the slate clean now that their professional ties are now officially severed.
I was always interested with the line “I’m in love with a friend of mine” as it really seems to come out of nowhere in terms of where I felt the song was going. What it does is place the dissolution of his relationship with john on the same plateau of that of a lover. The only way McCartney can convey his enormous affection for John, is by comparing him to someone like Linda, which also highlights the pain he must be feeling being apart from him. Or perhaps McCartney is trying to throw us off of Johns scent who knows?
Aside from being the song that truly legitimised Wild Life, Dear Friend forever remains one of McCartney’s most unique and openly personal songs that he has ever released. He really does lay it all out on the table for us to bear witness, and thats why its still so affecting, as we were all there on the sidelines cheering them on. All that was left was for John to make the next move.
The last ever photograph of John and Paul together. Note, only one ex-Beatle avoided countless fashion disasters.
- 5th December, 1973. ‘Let Me Roll It’ from Paul –
At first this song seems to have very little to do with Lennon and McCartney’s relationship, but however unlikely it may seem, it really is. It’s no secret that, after a chance encounter with Dylan, that the Beatles loved smoking grass, and that is a tradition that Paul has allegedly kept up with ever since. Marijuana was referenced many times throughout the Beatles catalogue so it only makes sense that McCartney would bring it up in his solo one. He already did the most blatant, in your face interpretation of this with Hi Hi Hi, so it makes sense that the next time would be a little more obscured.Now the idea behind this one, and again this is only an idea that I would know about having done the research on the song rather than anything directly present, is that Paul is simply offering to roll a joint for John and give it to him. The intimacy of this gesture is both powerful, yet understated. The art of passing the joint helps develop a sense of community within the smoking circle, and by god how social must these two have been smoking their pounds of grass in the toilets of Abbey Road studies. It’s nice that Paul isn’t offering some grand gesture, he just wants to hang out with his old buddy and smoke a joint. Theres a quaint simplicity to this one and its charm is a welcome change to the biting comments of just two years prior.
In the mid-seventies John was living in America, whilst Paul was busy conquering it all over again with his ‘Wings Over The World’ tour. It was during this time that Paul started to, once again, make regular contact with John again. At first they played coy like school children with crushes, but eventually they did meet up, and were seemingly best friends again like no time had passed at all.
Paul definitely trademarked the Dreamworks/The Rock’s ‘raised eyebrow thing.
- 26th March, 1976. ‘Silly Love Songs’ from Paul –
During this aforementioned brief window whereby the duo had semi-patched up their relationship there was a phone conversation, and during this phone conversation, so the story goes, John brought up the fact that he thought Paul just didn’t write enough songs with substance. That he wrote too many Silly Love Songs.Now this wasn’t the first time Lennon had mentioned this either. During their tenure in some band called The Beatles (sounds like a Wings rip off to me)Whilst Paul was no stranger to bitter songs directed towards Lennon, this song is a different beast all together. He isn’t saying he is better than John or visa versa, he is simply stating that this is what he does, and he enjoys doing it, and in the words of the song “whats wrong with that?”Rather than trying to knock John down through song Paul has instead chosen to take the high road and not devolve himself into petty squabbling. In this song, Paul takes some of his trademark cheek and chooses to turn Johns tough love into something a little more productive. The song will be forever a defiantly sweet jibe back at his former bandmate.
By 1980 Paul had released McCartney II, his second solo album, and the hit single ‘Coming Up’ had actually inspired John (or gave him a kick up the arse) to start writing songs again. Unfortunately by this point the relationship never truly repaired itself past the occasional phone call and christmas/birthday cards. Now we will never know what the last thing these two titans said to each other, but two weeks after John had released his underrated come-back album Double Fantasy, he had been shot dead.
- 26th April, 1981. ‘Here Today’ from Paul –
I won’t mince words, ‘Here today’ is the other song that really inspired me to begin writing this piece. The show has not yet reached Tug of War, and although I had been podcasting about Paul for well over six months, I had never come across this undeniably classic and tragic McCartney number.
The main thrust of the song is Paul proposing hypothetical questions to John, with Paul himself having to answer them himself, based on how well he knew John. This element of the song is particularly tender because it shows us John not as he was, but how remembers him. in this song John is no saint towards Paul, he is sarcastic, he is mocking, and yet Paul sings his praises anyway. Paul paints us a modest warts and all portrayal of John and in this honesty we can see that there is no PR, and no spin. These are Paul’s true feelings, and for a man who usually plays his cards pretty close to the chest, it is both powerful and surprisingly refreshing.Paul counters John’s wry and biting personality by contrasting it against those few tender moments where Lennon may have truly opened up to him, singing about ‘the time [they] met’ and ‘the night [they] cried’. These are memories that only they can share, and Paul opens them up to the public, and by doing so allows us to join in on the pain of Johns loss, however minute by comparison.
Then we return to the notion of love between the two as Paul inserts the word “love” once more into the lyrics. Now Paul is no stranger to using (and overusing) this word in his songs but the fact that it would come up twice with John is interesting. Perhaps this was something Paul struggled to say before, maybe he never said to Johns face. Either way he knows that he will never have another chance to say it, so he seizes the moment. Though the tragic feel of the song hints that Paul may not have said it for quite some time.
Here Today is a song about not saying the things you should have when you had the chance, and through the song it is clear that whilst it has undeniable beauty, it is again intended for only one audience. In contrast to how seemingly open Paul is being this last letter to John seems so private that it almost seems too sensitive to read at all.
Remembered how they were, or how we wanted them to be?
No matter how many biographies we read we will never truly know how these two really felt or how their feelings evolved and changed over time. These are two human being that are far too complex to boil down to a simple celebrity feud. All we can do is interpret the evidence we are left with. And what does the final jury verdict say?
Well, it’s that John was almost incomparably important to Paul. By looking at what issues Paul sings about in these songs we can take a glimpse behind the PR and the bullshit and see the man beneath. The fact that he put these feelings out there into the public realm shows just how important they were to him. When all other forms of communication had broken down Paul was willing to put himself, his credibility and his art at risk all solely in the name of making sure that John, the man he cared most about in the world, knew how he felt.
The fact that John only wrote one real response in return to Paul may be somewhat indicative of him as a person. John showing seemingly less interest in spending time expressing his feeling about Paul said more than a song ever could. And whilst Wings was meant to be the final declaration that Paul was over the breakup, he clearly never got over it and would return to it for inspiration again and again and again. In some ways it could be seen as a way of just keeping alive any back and forth that the two may have once had, as Paul seemingly was much less able to so concisely deal with his issues with John, or push him out of his mind. Aside from Linda, no single human ever incited so many songs from Paul.
What is important is that in these songs this is what Paul wanted us to know. At one point he wanted us to know he is pissed off, he then wanted to let us know he was sorry and over it, then he wanted us to know he was reaching out to John, then that he was happy being different from John, and then finally he wanted us all to know just how much he truly loved him.
On this special edition of ‘Paul or Nothing’ Sam is joined by Wings veteran and lead guitarist Laurence Juber. Yes folks, it happened, we actually got a member of the band. Join us for this exciting episode where we cover everything from the recording and reception of Back to the Egg, Paul’s drug bust in Tokyo, the break up of the band, as well as Laurence’s life before and after the band that put him on the map.
To find all things Laurence Juber visit his website at http://www.laurencejuber.com
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Join us once more as Sam works his way through interviewing everyone on his book shelf. Today we discuss ‘Lennon and McCartney: Together Alone’ which is a book pretty much made for this podcast, as well as ‘Beatles For Sale: How Everything They Touched Turned To Gold’ which catalogues the endless list of hucksters, shysters and thieves trying to capitalize of the success of the Fab Four.
John Blaney has no website, which is a crime really, and we discuss that in the show but please check out all of his work which you can find online and in all good book shops.
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