Revelations In The Head – How Paul McCartney Learned To Talk About John Lennon

Music’s greatest songwriting duo, Lennon/McCartney penned and released an estimated 180 songs together between 1962 and 1970, including the likes of ‘A Day in the Life’, ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ and ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. The partnership came to an end with The Beatles’ split in 1970 and, owing to the subsequently prickly relationship between the two, would never be revisited in the years prior to Lennon’s untimely death in 1980.

The tragic nature of Lennon’s passing undoubtedly played a major role in McCartney’s unwillingness to talk about his songwriting partner in the short time after his murder. But that tactic has naturally softened to the point where, in the past five years, the 73-year-old has followed a policy of openness in interviews about the dynamic of his and Lennon’s relationship. Having most recently told Billboard that Lennon’s “whole life was a cry for help” (more on that shortly), we’ve rounded up the key interviews that McCartney has given on Lennon in the past five years in order to piece together his contemporary take on his old friend.

December 2010: McCartney reveals that he’s happy that the pair patched up their friendship before John’s death

Speaking on the US chat show Late Night, McCartney opened up to host Jimmy Fallon about the solace he took in the wake of Lennon’s murder in how they’d “got their friendship back together” after having “a lot of business problems.”

“We’d chat about how to make bread. Just ordinary stuff, you know. He’d had a baby by then [Sean Lennon], so we could talk babies and family and bread and stuff. So that made it a little bit easier, the fact that we were buddies.”

February 2012: The two had the same premonition about the Beatles’ success

In an interview he gave to The Big Issue at the time of his 70th birthday, McCartney disclosed about the time that he and Lennon had similarly-specific dreams about the Beatles’ success.

“I remember when John and I were first hanging out together, I had a dream about digging in the garden with my hands. I’d dreamt that before but I’d never found anything other than an old tin can. But in this dream I found a gold coin. I kept digging and I found another. And another.

“The next day I told John about this amazing dream I’d had and he said, ‘That’s funny, I had the same dream’. So both of us had this dream of finding this treasure. And I suppose you could say it came true. I remember years later talking about it – ‘Remember that dream we had?’; ‘Yeah, that was far out’. So the message of that dream was: keep digging lads.”

November 2012: Paul admits that he “slightly” regrets how John’s image changed

In a candid interview with The Independent, McCartney covered a range of Lennon-specific topics: from an endearing anecdote about the pre-Beatlemania days when John wouldn’t wear his glasses in case he encountered a girl (“he once walked home and told a startled McCartney the next day that he had passed a family playing cards, outdoors at midnight in the winter. McCartney walked the route himself the next night: it was a nativity scene”) to ruminating on the changes in his friend’s personality that occurred with The Beatles’ rise to worldwide fame.

“There is this period of John which is all pre-Beatles, pre-huge fame, pre-drugs – and it is another John completely – that was always there, right until the end. He got much sweeter, too, once he settled in New York. Once he was reunited with Yoko, and they had Sean, he became this sweet personality again, and then when he was more comfortable with himself. But the acerbic John is the one we know and love, you know, because he was clever with it, so it was very attractive. But, for me, I have more than a slight affection for the John that I knew then, when we were first writing songs, when we would try and do things the old songwriters had done. I slightly regret the way John’s image has formed, and because he died so tragically it has become set in concrete. The acerbic side was there but it was only part of him. He was also such a sweet, lovely man – a really sweet guy.”

October 2013: Paul says he still tries to connect with John when writing new songs

Speaking to Rolling Stone for a cover feature, he rather surprisingly announced that he’d been writing songs again with John.

“If I’m at a point where I go, ‘I’m not sure about this,’ I’ll throw it across the room to John,” McCartney told the rock magazine. “He’ll say, ‘You can’t go there, man.’ And I’ll say, ‘You’re quite right. How about this?’ ‘Yeah, that’s better.’ We’ll have a conversation. I don’t want to lose that.” Of course, McCartney was speaking of John’s presence figuratively, but it was still a rather sweet admission from the Liverpudlian.

He additionally spoke on his and Yoko Ono’s relationship, coming to the conclusion that: “I thought, ‘If John loved her, there’s got to be something. He’s not stupid.’” That’s nice, isn’t it?

December 2014: Discussing the aftermath of Lennon’s murder on national television

Appearing on Jonathan Ross’ ITV chat show – perched on the edge of a sofa containing Martin Freeman, Jeremy Clarkson, and, er, Miranda Hart – McCartney was pressed by the louche host on his memories of Lennon’s death.

“It was very difficult – it was very difficult for everyone. It was a really big shock in people’s lives, like Kennedy,” referring to the assassinated US President. “For me, it was just so sad that I wasn’t gonna see him again, and that we wouldn’t be able to hang out. And the biggest thing for me was that the guy who took his life [Mark Chapman], the phrase that kept coming to me was ‘Jerk of All Jerks’ [a phrase McCartney has used previously]. This is not a guy who’s even politically motivated, it’s just some totally random thing. [Chapman was a broken person], yeah.”

May 2015: McCartney compares songwriting with Kanye to working with Lennon

Presumably not asked about those ignorant members of the Twitter generation who congratulated Kanye for giving an “unknown artist” – that’s Paul McCartney, by the way – a leg-up by collaborating with him on ‘All Day’, ‘Only One’, and the Rihanna-fronted ‘FourFiveSeconds’, McCartney was instead quizzed by The Sun about what it was like writing with Yeezus. “When I wrote with John, he would sit down with a guitar,” he said. “I would sit down. We’d ping-pong till we had a song. It was like that.”

July 2015: McCartney changes tack; vents in lengthy Esquire interview

In the most revelatory interview that’s he’s given on Lennon in the past five years, McCartney said that Lennon became “a martyr” after his death, much to the bemusement of the bassist and his bandmates:

“I started to get frustrated because people started to say, ‘Well, he was The Beatles.’ And me, George and Ringo would go, ‘Er, hang on. It’s only a year ago we were all equal-ish.’ Yeah, John was the witty one, sure. John did a lot of great work, yeah. And post-Beatles he did more great work, but he also did a lot of not-great work. Now the fact that he’s now martyred has elevated him to a James Dean, and beyond. So whilst I didn’t mind that I understood that now there was going to be revisionism. It was going to be: John was the one. That was basically the thing. But then strange things would happen. Like Yoko would appear in the press saying [adopting a comedy Yoko accent], ‘Paul did nothing! All he did was book the studio…’ Like, ‘Fuck you, darling! Hang on! All I did was book the fucking studio?’ Well, OK, now people know that’s not true. But that was just part of it. I mean, if you just pull out all his great stuff and then stack it up against my not-so-great stuff, it’s an easy case to make.”

He was then asked about the controversial issue of songwriting credits, a subject that has irked McCartney – with Lennon taking the lead in every co-songwriting credit, McCartney was firstly vetoed by George Harrison and Ringo Starr when he tried to change the credit in 1995 for the Beatles ‘Anthology’ project, and then fell out with Yoko in 2002 when he released his live album, ‘Back In The U.S.’, and altered the original songwriting credit on 19 Lennon/McCartney songs to put his name first.

“We had a meeting with Brian Epstein, John and me,” McCartney recounted about the origin of the dispute. “I arrived late. John and Brian had been talking. ‘We were thinking we ought to call the songs, Lennon and McCartney.’ I said, ‘That’s OK, but what about McCartney and Lennon? If I write it, what about that? It sounds good, too.’ They said, ‘OK, what we’ll do is we’ll alternate it: Lennon and McCartney, McCartney and Lennon.’ Well, that didn’t happen.

“But what happened was the ‘Anthology’ came out and I said, ‘OK, what they’re now saying is, “Song by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.”’ I said, if you’re doing that, it’s not Lennon and McCartney, it’s not the logo any more. So, in particular cases like ‘Yesterday’, which John actually had nothing to do with, none of the other Beatles had anything to do with, I said, ‘Could we have “By Paul McCartney and John Lennon”, wouldn’t that be a good idea? And then on ‘Strawberry Fields’ we’ll have, “By John Lennon and Paul McCartney”. ‘Penny Lane’, “Paul McCartney and John Lennon”. Seeing as we’re breaking it up, can we do that?’ And at first Yoko said yeah. And then she rang back a few days later and she’d decided it wasn’t a good idea. And it became a bit of an issue for me. Particularly on ‘Yesterday’, because the original artwork had ‘Yesterday’ by John Lennon and Paul McCartney and a photo of John above it. And I went, ‘Argh! Come on, lads!’

“Well, what happened [next] was there was a backlash from people who didn’t see where I was coming from. ‘Dancing on a dead man’s grave’ was one of the phrases that came up. But it was nothing to do with bigheadedness. It’s just to do with identifying who wrote what. John did a really good Playboy interview where he did that: ‘This is mine, this is Paul’s.’ So I thought, ‘Just use that! John said it!’ I thought that was perfectly reasonable and… I tell you what, if John was here he would definitely say that’s OK. Because he didn’t give a damn. But I’ve given up on it.”

August 2015: Paul says he feared for his own life after John’s murder

Talking to Uncut in the summer, McCartney admitted that Lennon’s murder in New York City in 1980 sent him into a whirlwind of paranoia about attempts on his life.

“It was weird because in the days that followed it, I was sitting in the house [in rural southern England]. I’m aware of security threats, so I’m on high alert and I look out and I see someone with a fucking gun, like a machine gun, an assault rifle – ‘Wha?!’ He’s in full military gear, and then I see there’s a whole patrol of them. I’m going, ‘Holy shit, what’s going on?’ I don’t know what I did. I think I rang the police. It turned out to be army manoeuvres. [They said] ‘Oh, sorry. Are these your woods?’ I’d put two and two together and made a thousand. God, I don’t know how I lived through it.”

November 2015: Paul McCartney says John Lennon’s life was a “cry for help”

And so to the latest Beatles revelation: McCartney was asked by Billboard about Lennon’s claim shortly before his death that “the whole Beatles thing was just beyond comprehension. I was subconsciously crying out for help. I was fat and depressed, and I was crying out for help.”

“He [Lennon] didn’t say, ‘I’m now fat and I’m feeling miserable,’” clarified McCartney. “He said, ‘When I was younger, so much younger than today.’ In other words, he blustered his way through. We all felt the same way. Looking back on it, John was always looking for help. He had [a paranoia] that people died when he was around. His father left home when John was three, the uncle he lived with died later, then his mother died. I think John’s whole life was a cry for help.”