Saturday, August 4, 2012

Lennon Versus McCartney


It’s one of the great rock and roll debates, who was the better songwriter for the Beatles John Lennon or Paul McCartney. Any fan of the Beatles probably has their favorite. So a debate over each one’s merits can be an endless discussion and probably lots of fun, but artistically there may be no true answer. But I decided to look at a small part of the argument mathematically.

So the first thing I decided was what I was going to look at and I decided focus on their singles and only count number 1 hits. If it was a number one hit in the UK or the US, I counted it. If it only got to number 2, I didn’t count it. I did this to keep it simple. We’re going for who’s got the bragging rights here, so if it didn’t reach number 1 then it wasn’t a true hit!

I didn’t factor in how long it was a number 1 hit. For my purposes it doesn’t matter.

                                                                              Written by     
                                                            Lennon            McCartney       Both      Harrison
27 number 1 hits in UK or US                 8                        14                 4              1   
19 number 1 hits in UK                           7                         9                  3               -
22 number 1 hits in US                            7                         11                3               1
14 number 1 hits in Both                         6                         6                  2              -

Okay, so lets look at that data. It shows that McCartney has 6 songs on Lennon overall. A staggering number when you consider that most people consider them nearly equally accomplished songwriters. 

But this didn’t tell me the whole story. When I started thinking about this I had the hypothesis that Lennon was the stronger writer when the Beatles first started and that McCartney ended up surpassing him at some point. So, I decided what I needed to do was to look at this year by year.


                                                          Lennon             McCartney                   Both
1 number 1 hits UK or US                    -                              1                             -                  
0 number 1 hits UK                              -                              -                              -
1 number 1 hits US                               -                               1                             -
0 number 1 hits in both                        -                               -                             -

Winner- McCartney has the single hit for this year, "Love Me Do" went #1 in America. I didn't realize the Beatles went #1 in America first. "Love Me Do" got to #4 in the UK.
                                                          Lennon             McCartney                   Both
3 number 1 hits UK or US                    -                                 -                         3
3 number 1 hits UK                              -                                 -                         3         
2 number 1 hits US                               -                                 -                         2
2 number 1 hits in both                        -                                 -                         2

Winner- None. This is the year of teamwork, with 3 #1 hits that were collaborative efforts. "She Loves You," and "I Want to Hold Your Hand" were #1 on both sides of the pond. And "From Me to You" was #1 in the UK, but only #41 in the US.
                                                          Lennon             McCartney                  Both
4 number 1 hits UK or US                    2                               1                         1                     
4 number 1 hits UK                              2                               1                          -
4 number 1 hits US                               2                               1                         1
3 number 1 hits in both                        2                               1                         -

Winner- Lennon wrote "Hard Day's Night" and "I Feel Fine," which were #1 in both countries. McCartney's contribution this year was "Can't Buy Me Love, which went to #1 in the UK and the US. Meanwhile, collaboratively written "Eight Days a Week" was only released as a single in the US, where it got to #1. 
                                                          Lennon             McCartney                Both
5 number 1 hits UK or US                      3                           2                          -
4 number 1 hits UK                                3                           1                          -
4 number 1 hits US                                 2                           2                          -          
3 number 1 hits in both                          2                           1                          -

Winner- Lennon wrote "Help" and "Ticket to Ride" both topped the charts on both sides of the pond. "Day Tripper" was #1 in the UK, but #5 in the US. Meanwhile, McCartney had a #1 in both countries with "We Can Work it Out," and "Yesterday" was #1 in the US, but topped at #8 in the UK. "Day Tripper" and "We Can Work it Out" were a double A-side single.
                                                          Lennon             McCartney                   Both
3 number 1 hits UK or US                    -                            3                             -    
3 number 1 hits UK                              -                            3                             -
1 number 1 hits US                               -                            1                              -
1 number 1 hits in both                        -                            1                              -

Winner- McCartney had a good year with "Paperback Writer" reaching #1 in the UK and the US. Double A-side "Eleanor Rigby" and "Yellow Submarine" both got to # 1 in the UK, but "Eleanor only got to #11 in the US and Yellow Submarine was almost there reaching #2. Lennon didn't write a #1 hit single this year.

                                                          Lennon             McCartney                   Both
3 number 1 hits UK or US                     1                             2                            -
2 number 1 hits UK                               1                             1                            -
3 number 1 hits US                                1                             2                            -
2 number 1 hits in both                         1                             1                            -

Winner- McCartney has a #1 hit in The UK and the US with "Hello Goodbye." He also reaches #1 in the US with "Penny Lane" in the UK it only gets to #2. Penny Lane was a double A-side with Lennon's "Strawberry Fields," which also reaches #2 in the UK, but only #8 in the US. Lennon's #1 hit in the UK and the US this year was "All You Need is Love".
                                                          Lennon             McCartney                   Both
2 number 1 hits UK or US                      -                            2                           - 
2 number 1 hits UK                                -                            2                           -
1 number 1 hits US                                 -                            1                           -
1 number 1 hits in both                          -                            1                           -

Winner- McCartney goes #1 on both sides of the pond with "Hey Jude" and "Lady Madonna" reaches #1 in the UK, but only #4 in the US. Lennon does not have a #1 hit single this year.
                                                          Lennon             McCartney       Both      Harrison
6 number 1 hits UK or US                      2                            3                -             1           
2 number 1 hits UK                                1                            1                -             -
6 number 1 hits US                                 2                            3                -             1
2 number 1 hits in both                          1                            1                -             -

Winner- McCartney "Get Back" goes # 1 in the UK and the US. "Let it Be" is #1 in the US, but only gets to #2 in the UK and the Long and Winding Road is only released as a single in the US where it reaches #1. Lennon's "Ballad of John and Yoko" is a #1 hit the UK and the US and "Come Together" is a #1 in the US, but only #4 in the UK. And George Harrison gets his first #1 hit single Something gets to # 1 in the US, but only #4 in the UK. "Come Together" and "Something" were a double A-side single.
Overall Winner-McCartney. As we saw from the first chart McCartney had nearly double the number of #1 singles, so It's no surprise he is the overall winner with 5 years vs. Lennon winning 2. But it definitely seems like my hypothesis might be right, Lennon did seem to be more dominate in the Beatle's earlier period winning 1964 and 1965.

Conclusions- I don't really know how much this data tells us. I mean I didn't factor in a large number of EPs that went #1 in the UK. Plus, I didn't look at the Beatles albums and see what the breakdown of songs was there. Plus all I did was crunch some numbers based on sales. I mean talking about what I think of their songs would be a totally different discussion. The fact that Penny Lane is on the list, but Strawberry Fields isn't because it only got to #2 in the UK and #8 in the US was almost enough for me to scrap the whole project, because in my mind there is no comparison Strawberry Fields is a much better song. But I guess that just means I'll have to write some more of these in the future.



  1. How do you think their post Beatles careers compare?

  2. That's definitely one of the next questions. I think Lennon had more success than McCartney in the 70's. But maybe it is just because of his untimely death, that he seems larger than life.

  3. check your facts mate..mccartney had more success than the other 3 beatles put together in the '1970's'[infact solo mccartney/wings in terms of records sold was the biggest act on the US chart aside from elton john!]which is the only FAIR period you can genuinley compare their solo careers like for like because of the tragic circumstances of dec 1980.

  4. great work by the way..interesting article

  5. Thanks for your interest Mark. I really should take a closer look at their solo sales in the 70's. I hope you also found my article on John Lennon's Jukebox. I think you'd enjoy it.

  6. This is pretty good. But, Help, Ticket to Ride, Day Tripper, We Can Work it Out, Eleanor Rigby, Penny Lane, and The Ballad of John and Yoko were all "both" and that would change your numbers quite a bit. The reason Penny Lane was the bigger hit vice Strawberry Fields was the melody. Some say Penny Lane is their best song.

  7. I went with who is supposed to primarily have written the song. But you're right if I acknowledged the collaborative nature of their relationship more it would have changed things a lot. I guess I went with the competitive nature. Thinking that even if Paul helped John with The Ballad of John and Yoko. They would still think of it as John's song.

  8. Paul would still come out ahead. His output from 1964 to 1971 is unmatched by anyone during any period including Lennon, Dylan, Porter, Carmichael, Rodgers, Simon, Bacharach, Berlin, etc. and these were all very strong songwriters. The irony of Lennon and the Beatles is that he did not have a hand in either Beatles song that will be remembered the most throughout the ages: Something and Yesterday. I've been a Beatles fan since the 60's and the magic in their genius was always Lennon and McCartney not Lennon versus McCartney. The Lennon versus McCartney only started when John was ticked at Paul in 1970 and tried very hard to destroy "Lennon and McCartney" during interviews. Much of what he said in those interviews were not true even by his own admission.

  9. As for the post-Beatles, Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison were all pretty even from 1970 to 1973 but, after that, Paul was clearly the leader for the remainder of the decade, by a mile. The 80's doesn't really matter with John being dead. But Paul's output was very good up through Flaming Pie. Since then, it's more a matter of preference because his singing voice isn't what it used to be though the songs are still good. George had 3 or 4 excellent albums post-Beatles and then some so-so ones. John tried to go underground and, while the music was good, people are looking back at it through rose-colored glasses. He was more on par with George than with Paul.

  10. I don't know. I think John and Paul were competitive when they were in the Beatles, but in a friendly way.

    And as for the solo songs. I think John gives Paul a run for his money. John might have had less output but his songs are powerful. I've been listening to Ono Plastic Band album and Double Fantasy this week and just been blown away.

    I think Imagine is in the same category as Something and Yesterday.

    But when I have time. I'll have to look at the sales data so I'm not just looking through rose-colored glasses.

  11. It's still revisionism because I was around back then. The hippies, the straights, the teeny boppers, etc. all loved Ram. No one was that into Plastic Ono. Ram was just a better album with better tunes. John's was good but now it's more of a "well, now that cousin Larry is dead, he was a pretty good guy after all." Once John died, all of the sudden, his early 70s stuff was great. His early 70s stuff is a lot like Paul's current stuff. He struggled with matching lyrics to rhythms. That's what Paul seems to be doing now. With his 70s songs, John seemed like he was writing the lyrics free form and then trying hard to come up with a melody to accommodate them. It just didn't work that well much like Paul's music today. He had some moments like Imagine (the album) was very strong and parts of Mind Games and a little bit Walls and Bridges. On the other hand, even Paul's weakest album in the 70s, Wild Life, had some very strong tunes on it. When Paul released an album, it was an event. When John released one, it was more of a hmmmm. They were both great, the two greatest. Their Beatles output was virtually 50/50 and Lennon-McCartney was more prevalent than people understand. John was ticked at Paul in 70/71 and tried to destroy "Lennon-McCartney." The Beatles strongest component was their songwriting partnership. After the split, Paul showed that his creativity was a huge part of it. John continued to show his immense talent but it was not up to Paul's level in the 70s.

    As a tip, read John's interviews. You'll get 2 sets of answers: one when Yoko is beside him and one when Yoko is not. When Yoko is in the room, his answers are snippy and derogatory. The ones when she is not involved are friendly and complimentary. You'll get the true Beatles picture from John's perspective from these interviews.

  12. Listen guys, you can't tell if someone is a better musician than the other by Number 1 hits, number 1 hits are like best seller books, best seller books can be "Think and grow rich by Napoleon Hill" but then you have "humiliated and insulted by Dostoevsky" This is a classic that no one cares about in the mainstream but is one great freaking novel!!

    Lennon had the ability of making number one hits also was his choice not to pursue that anymore, so he made personal deep intense music and political, he was an activist for peace. Macca in the other hand was always a pop star, one of the greatest pop stars but never bigger than The Beatles.

    This is my feeling:

    Lennon is closer to musicians like: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Lou Reed, Frank Zappa, Bob Marley, Jim Morrison, David Bowie, Tom Waits, Frank Black, Harrison.

    Mccartney is closer to musicians like: Billy Joel, Phil Collins, Brian Adams, Madonna, Elton John, Sting, Celine Dion, Michael Jackson, Adele.

    It's your taste and choice who you like better but they are very different! Maybe the combination made The Beatles great. But let's not forget the contributions from Harrison and Ringo. Harrison is great and after The Beatles split "My sweet Lord" is the most sold single kicking Lennon-Mccartney's butts altogether.

    I am a Lennon fan and to me he was the driving force, the heart and soul of The Beatles, his influence over the others was crucial. Also believe he got the best out of Mccartney, Harrison and Ringo.

  13. This is interesting, 550 artists are asked this same question over a 10 year period, see the answers: