Behind the Early Songwriting Partnership of John Lennon and Paul McCartney

In the wise words of Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock, It takes two to make a thing go right / It takes two to make it outta sight. Two is an important number in music. A song becomes more well-rounded when a duet partner is introduced; a lead guitarist may have all the fancy tricks, but would be nothing without a rhythm guitarist; and sometimes a songwriter needs a right-hand man. Genius is no solitary endeavor and no musical duo understood that better than John Lennon and Paul McCartney. For the life of The Beatles, it was their songwriting partnership that became the backbone of the genre-shaping rock quartet.

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Over nearly a decade together, the pair crafted a bulk of The Beatles’ catalog with well over 100 songs jointly credited to Lennon and McCartney. They built upon each others’ strengths—Lennon’s straightforward flair and McCartney’s penchant for the sentimental—and covered each other’s weaknesses to create some of music’s most timeless tunes.

The Early Years

Lennon and McCartney met as teens in the late 1950s in Liverpool, England at a time when Lennon had already formed a band, the Quarrymen. After hearing a young McCartney play the guitar, Lennon asked him to join the group. In those early days pre-Beatles, the two wrote songs together in their respective childhood homes.

Their first song the twosome penned together was called “Just Fun,” McCartney recalled during a two-part special celebrating Lennon on what would have been his 80th birthday.

“There were a few songs that weren’t very good … you know, clearly young songwriters who don’t know how to do it,” he said of the early days. “Eventually, we started to write slightly better songs and then enjoyed the process of learning together so much that it really took off.”

Listen to McCartney play a snippet of the long-lost tune, “Just Fun,” below.

“I look back on it now like a fan, how lucky was I to meet this strange teddy boy off the bus, who played music like I did and we get together and boy, we complemented each other,” he added.

And complement each other, they certainly did. By the time The Beatles came to be in 1960, Lennon-McCartney was a full-fledged songwriting pair—crafting arrangement and lyrics—with an agreement that whatever they wrote would be credited to both of them.

Their partnership gave life to one of rock’s great songbooks that included classics like “Let It Be,” “Yesterday,” and “In My Life.”

Drifting Apart

However, the pair, and all four Beatles in general, began to drift apart before the close of the 1960s.

Lennon once told Playboy, that he and McCartney would write songs “eyeball to eyeball.” “We wrote a lot of stuff together, one on one, eyeball to eyeball,” he said. “Like in ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand,’ I remember when we got the chord that made the song. We were in Jane Asher’s house, downstairs in the cellar playing on the piano at the same time. And we had, ‘Oh you-u-u/ got that something…’”

Those “eyeball to eyeball” days became few and far between. Well before the band called it quits, Lennon and McCartney had begun to write songs separately. Certain songs like “Hey Jude,” “Come Together,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and several more began as solo efforts. But their writing separately was not done out of malice, rather necessity. It was no longer simple to be a Beatle and fame changed the way the band worked.

“It was just a question of location really,” McCartney said in a conversation on Fresh Air. “If I was on holiday and I wanted to write a song, John wouldn’t be there. So I would just write the song and I wouldn’t think, ‘Oh, I’ve got to wait until I see him’.

“The same happened with him,” he added. “I would just be somewhere feeling the song and it was often just that, proximity. If we weren’t able to just meet up that day, but you still had an idea for a song.”

Ultimately, the partnership ended when the band did in 1970, but the Lennon-McCartney songbook holds a legacy that time could never touch. Their music shaped not only genre but culture. And their partnership shaped each other.

“It was always great to work with John, from the very first thing where he said, ‘Yeah, I write songs too’,” McCartney said of his late partner in 2021. “We just developed a way of working with each other and trusting each other that grew and grew.

“We both grew up together, he added. “[Life] was like walking up a staircase, and we both went side by side up that staircase.”

Photo by Don Paulsen/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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