Lennon Or McCartney?

This used to be the question that was asked….”Who do you like better, Lennon or McCartney?”  I think it was meant to determine how cool you were.  Since Paul was considered the cute/commercial one, and John was thought of as the poet/cerebral one, the “John” answer was supposed to be cooler.  You might get even more points for answering “George” or “Ringo”.

That assessment has changed over the years.  We know they were both excellent musicians and vocalists, so let’s compare Lennon & McCartney as songwriters for The Beatles.

From the beginning of their fame (1963 in England, and 1964 in America), John and Paul were quickly recognized as a great songwriting team.  Often, they would sit across from each other with acoustic guitars and work out songs together.  McCartney said they never had a writing session that wasn’t successful.

As early as 1964, fans began to see that there were “Paul songs” and “John songs”.  Normally, the main songwriter would also sing the lead vocal.

So, which one…Lennon or McCartney…wrote the biggest hits and best known songs for The Beatles?  Here’s a list of their #1 hits in the U.S., showing the main songwriter(s).

  1. I Want To Hold Your Hand…both
  2. She Loves You…both
  3. Can’t Buy Me Love…Paul
  4. Love Me Do…both
  5. A Hard Day’s Night…John
  6. I Feel Fine…John
  7. Eight Days A Week…both
  8. Ticket To Ride…John
  9. Help…John
  10. Yesterday…Paul
  11. We Can Work It Out…both
  12. Paperback Writer…Paul
  13. Penny Lane…Paul
  14. All You Need Is Love…John
  15. Hello Goodbye…Paul
  16. Hey Jude…Paul
  17. Get Back…Paul
  18. Come Together…John
  19. Let It Be…Paul
  20. The Long And Winding Road…Paul

For those keeping score, that’s 9 for Paul, 6 for John, and 5 together.

It also shows the progression.  John was stronger in the early years.  John had 4 of the first ten #1’s, Paul had 2 and together they wrote 4.   By 1966, things changed.   Paul had 7 of the last ten #1’s, John had 2, and they had 1 together.

(Writing together in 1968.  Photo by Linda McCartney)

Of course, even though John & Paul admitted they were competitive, such as trying to get the A-sides of singles, they also readily helped each other with lyrics and song structures in order to make each recording the best possible version.

To compare their output, here are two lists of songs that can mostly be attributed to the individual Beatles as the main songwriter.

Beatles songs by John:

  1. You Can’t Do That
  2. This Boy
  3. A Hard Day’s Night
  4. If I Fell
  5. I Feel Fine
  6. Yes It Is
  7. Help!
  8. You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away
  9. Ticket To Ride
  10. Day Tripper
  11. Norwegian Wood
  12. Nowhere Man
  13. In My Life
  14. Rain
  15. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
  16. Strawberry Fields Forever
  17. A Day In The Life (John’s song, Paul’s “bridge”)
  18. I Am The Walrus
  19. All You Need Is Love
  20. Revolution
  21. Julia
  22. Don’t Let Me Down
  23. Across The Universe
  24. Come Together
  25. Because

Beatles songs by Paul:

  1. I Saw Her Standing There
  2. All My Loving
  3. Can’t Buy Me Love
  4. And I Love Her
  5. I’ll Follow The Sun
  6. Yesterday
  7. We Can Work It Out (Paul’s song, John’s “bridge”)
  8. Michelle
  9. Paperback Writer
  10. Eleanor Rigby
  11. For No One
  12. Here There And Everywhere
  13. Penny Lane
  14. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
  15. When I’m Sixty-Four
  16. The Fool On The Hill
  17. Lady Madonna
  18. Hey Jude
  19. Back In The U.S.S.R.
  20. Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da
  21. Blackbird
  22. I Will
  23. Get Back
  24. The Long And Winding Road
  25. Let It Be

If you spend a little time with the lists, you can determine which group of songs is stronger to you.  Of course Beatles fans like most of the songs from both lists.  I wouldn’t want to be without any of them.

It’s generally believed that John was the better lyricist, and Paul the better melody writer.  The above examples show just how strong they each were at both words & music.

Music critics tend to look to the lyrics of songs as they search for meanings upon which to write reviews.  John’s songs often had thought provoking lyrics and clever word play.  He was generally more popular with critics.

For the public, melodies come first, and the meanings of songs come later as the lyrics become familiar.   Paul was generally more popular with the public, because of his memorable melodies.  Even John joked about that.  He said he never expected to be walking down the street and hear someone whistling “I Am The Walrus”.

(During 1969 Abbey Road cover shoot.  Photo by Linda McCartney)

As for their solo success from 1970 through 1980, Paul was the best-selling singles artist of the 1970’s.  He edged out Elton John.  He also had five #1 albums (7 platinum) during those years.  John Lennon wasn’t nearly as active (he took about 4 years off when his son, Sean, was born), but had three #1 (platinum) albums, and what may be his best song did come from his solo career…”Imagine”.  Of course some might prefer “A Day In The Life”, “Strawberry Fields Forever” or “In My Life”.  Paul’s best song came from his time with The Beatles, but is it “Yesterday”, “Eleanor Rigby”, “Hey Jude”, “Blackbird” or “Let It Be”?  Recently, he’s mentioned “Here There And Everywhere” as his personal favorite.

The most important reason The Beatles were far and away the most popular group ever, is because John Lennon and Paul McCartney were in it together.

Lennon or McCartney?  The coolest answer is…both.

Update:  Here’s a quote about Paul McCartney made by John Lennon on the day he died.  John’s comment reflects well on both Paul & John.  When asked about his relationship with Paul, John said the rift had been “overblown” and that Paul was “like a brother.  I love him.  Families – we certainly have our ups and downs and our quarrels.  But at the end of the day, when it’s all said and done, I would do anything for him, and I think he would do anything for me.”  (This is from Kenneth Womack’s book John Lennon, 1980: The Last Days in the Life.)

Update 2:  I only recently became aware of very interesting comments Bob Dylan made about both Paul & John (in an interview with Rolling Stone in 2007).  Dylan said:  “I’m in awe of McCartney.  He’s about the only one I am in awe of.  He can do it all, and he’s never let up.  He’s just so damn effortless.  He’s got the gift for melody, he’s got the rhythm.  He can play any instrument.  He can scream and shout as good as anybody, and he can sing the ballad as good as anybody.  His melodies are, you know, effortless.  I mean I just wish he’d quit, you know. (laughs) Everything and anything that comes out of his mouth is just framed in a melody.”  In conclusion Dylan said:  “They were fantastic singers.  To this day, it’s hard to find a better singer than Lennon was, or that McCartney was and still is.”


23 Replies to “Lennon Or McCartney?”

  1. McCartney’s best lyrics, ironically, are head and shoulders above Lennon’s best lyrics. He just didn’t always seem compelled to try that hard post-Beatles. Lennon’s best melodies don’t even approach McCartney’s weakest melodies. McCartney is clearly the better songwriter. Lennon is just popular with critics for being “cool.”

    1. (In reply to Nanda Green) You’re delusional. John’s lyrics are untouchable by Macca, and he has melodies every bit as great as McCartney’s

    2. (In reply to Nanda Green) Paul has never written anything as complex as Strawberry Fields Forever, I Am The Walrus or A Day in The Life just to name a few. Mccartney has the melodies but thats just half of the whole pie.

    3. You should start that comment with ”in my opinion….”
      You’re not qualified to judge.
      They are/were both excellent musicians and lyricists. Is one better than the other? I’d say it depends on the song and the listener. For us mere mortals to say which is better at what is ludicrous.

      1. I personally think McCartney is the greatest of all time. Only because he wanted it more. Lennon took breaks and lost focus some times. Together with George Martin they were better than they were alone

  2. I think that if you listen carefully to the songs you have to conclude that John Lennon was better, as his lyrics were a bit deeper and more sensitive. Paul was very melodic but his songs were happier and a bit less serious. The best tracks have inputs from both of them. For example, consider the Lennon song “Real Love”, it is more touching than most by Paul McCartney. Both composers, however, were exceptional. However, I am thinking of songs such as “Because” by Lennon which were pioneering and experimental and classical in some sense. It is hard to pick a winner.

    1. The beatles were an unforgettable innovation an extended celebration and a tragedy, a long drawn out vine that produced the best fruit till the parts died along the way leaving just a memory.

      Editor: Excellent memories, and a whole lot of still significant music!

  3. How often we forget the third person of what I call the “Beatles triumvirate ” of songwriting (and, no, I’m not speaking of George – who was a credible composer himself).
    I am speaking of George Martin. He molded Lennon & McCartney, kept them focused, and added his expertise both technically and artistically to everything from Rubber Soul onward. His use of the string octet for “Eleanor Rigby ” is just a single example of his brilliance.

    1. Well said, Mike. As brilliant as John and Paul were (both extraordinary, although I’m partial to Paul), without George Martin I don’t think the Beatles would have been half as successful. John and Paul didn’t just write songs – they produced and recorded them – and George Martin was a major contributor in that.

  4. My wife, our daughters, son in law and I are all fans of the Fab Four. We attend each of Paul’s concerts when they are within a reasonable proximity to our city. He is a very accomplished performer. If you think Sir Paul is only a Bass Guitar & piano player, you should watch his concerts. Paul is a master of the 6-string and plays Jimmy Hendrix up and down the “neck” if the instrument. Sir Paul also plays the piano and I believe he plays the trumpet also.

  5. I am a Lennon guy. To me Macca is father goose, Really good nursery rhymes for adults. Lennon was more deeper. And really if you really get down to it Harrison is all over each one of john’s ,,paul’s
    materal. So I think it should of been Lennon,McCartney and Harrison on song rights.Look at And I love Her, without George’s rift that song doesn’t stand up.

  6. The underdog or the Angst ridden musician always seems to get more credit. McCartney all the way and not Lennon…

  7. John Lennon was a more versatile genius. Lyrically he is considered better but I don’t see it! Lennon was depressed ,(clinically), and average people associate brilliance with wit,moodiness,volatility and wit.

    McCartney’s genius for melody was far beyond Lennon’s. It isn’t something he learned yet when I read the primary text one would think he learned it in a high school music class!

    If one wants to conclude this discussion; here is the answer. Lennon and McCartney did compliment one another and helped one another as any person would help a close friend. It is virtually impossible to conclude one was better than the other! Only genius recognizes and understands genius! For most of us, we are stating our preference!

    The person who can give us the answer is another musical genius, George Martin! He said there was virtually no difference! Martin, with his production made a major difference!

    By the way, A Day in the Life, was co-written!

    George Harrison, in my humble opinion was, and one ONLY needs to follow his career, very talented,as a song writer but was not a musical genius, at least at the Lennon McCartney level!

    Harrison’s career practically “fell off a cliff “ after his 3 album effort, which by the way, was almost all that was” left in the tank”, just follow the rest of his career!

    Editor: There was a nice resurgence when he put together The Traveling Wilburys.

  8. They are both Shakespeare-Mozarts. Supreme, inexplicable talents. That’s why I like the tone of the article. The coolest answer IS both.
    That said, they brought different strengths. To me, the strengths that Paul brought made up the lion’s share of what we think of as the Beatles’ sound. Take away his basslines, vocal harmonies, and all those wacky-wonderful (very British) orchestrations, and you no longer have the Beatles. Note I said nothing about taking away Paul’s songs or his magnificent playing: just take away those three things and the Beatles immediately take an inch toward ordinary.
    John’s rebelliousness, lyrical genius, and his own songwriting are every bit as essential in etching the Beatles’ sound. Of course they are. As are George’s contributions. Remember, he was a great guitarist and added loads of texture on the whole oeuvre, not just his own fab songs. I’ll even throw in Ringo. Not just for his easy attitude, which likely brought out better music from the others. But for his iconic drumming. It isnt insanely complicated but it is iconic. I know a Beatles song before I hear a word all because of that Ringo pop on the drums.
    They were all essential. But I feel Paul gets less credit than is his due.

  9. How about this. taste is subjective.
    The only way to judge is to stop the world in 1980. Since then (and especially after 2001) only Paul has been around to tell the “history”.
    The longer he lives the more he skews his stories towards his stuff and their is no one to contradict him. (Ringo is simply too nice and has never wanted to get into the weeds with the ego twins, or now Paul.)
    As for who sold the most records in the 70’s The guy who put out the most records. What a surprise! George kicked their butts in the early to mid 70’s before becoming a film producer.

  10. What a gift both were given and blessed with. Never before or after will we see the like. How two mere mortals, with the help of George Martin have been able to bring so much pleasure and happiness to the world is beyond belief.

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