Conflict and Creativity

We at TVWriter™ love the idea of being Lone Wolf Geniuses, but guess what? Sometimes it takes to two to tangle. Take Lennon and McCartney, for example:

lennon-mccartneyby Joshua Wolf Shenk

In the fall of 1966, during a stretch of nine weeks away from the Beatles, John Lennon wrote a song. He was in rural Spain at the time, on the set of a movie called How I Won the War, but the lyrics cast back to an icon of his boyhood in Liverpool: the Strawberry Field children’s home, whose sprawling grounds he’d often explored with his gang and visited with his Aunt Mimi. In late November, the Beatles began work on the song at EMI Studios, on Abbey Road in London. After four weeks and scores of session hours, the band had a final cut of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” That was December 22.

On December 29, Paul McCartney brought in a song that took listeners back to another icon of Liverpool: Penny Lane, a traffic roundabout and popular meeting spot near his home. This sort of call-and-response was no anomaly. He and John, Paul said later, had a habit of “answering” each other’s songs. “He’d write ‘Strawberry Fields,’?” Paul explained. “I’d go away and write ‘Penny Lane’ … to compete with each other. But it was very friendly competition.”

It’s a famous anecdote. Paul, of course, was stressing the collaborative nature of his partnership with John (he went on to note that their competition made them “better and better all the time”). But in this vignette, as in so many from the Beatles years, it’s easy to get distracted by the idea of John and Paul composing independently. The notion that the two need to be understood as individual creators, in fact, has become the contemporary “smart” take on them. “Although most of the songs on any given Beatles album are usually credited to the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team,” Wikipedia declares, “that description is often misleading.” Entries on the site about individual Beatles songs take care to assert their “true” author. Even the superb rock critic Greg Kot once succumbed to this folly. John and Paul “shared songwriting credits but little else,” he wrote in 1990, “and their ‘partnership’ was more of a competition than a collaboration.”

Kot made that observation in a review of Beatlesongs, by William J. Dowlding—a high-water mark of absurdity in the analysis of Lennon-McCartney. Dowlding actually tried to quantify their distinct contributions, giving 84.55 credits to John—“the winner,” he declared—and 73.65 to Paul. (His tally also included 22.15 credits for George Harrison, 2.7 for Ringo Starr, and 0.45 for Yoko Ono. For a few lines in the song “Julia,” Dowlding gave 0.05 credits to the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran.)

For centuries, the myth of the lone genius has towered over us, its shadow obscuring the way creative work really gets done. The attempts to pick apart the Lennon-McCartney partnership reveal just how misleading that myth can be, because John and Paul were so obviously more creative as a pair than as individuals, even if at times they appeared to work in opposition to each other. The lone-genius myth prevents us from grappling with a series of paradoxes about creative pairs: that distance doesn’t impede intimacy, and is often a crucial ingredient of it; that competition and collaboration are often entwined. Only when we explore this terrain can we grasp how such pairs as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy all managed to do such creative work. The essence of their achievements, it turns out, was relational. If that seems far-fetched, it’s because our cultural obsession with the individual has obscured the power of the creative pair.