“Early Paul, late John”

The Circle was finally released in the UK today, coming straight to Netflix.

The film is struggling to reach the heights of acclaim that David Eggers’ novel hit. I’m afraid I still haven’t got round to reading The Circle, so I don’t know whether this is something Eggers did or his fellow scriptwriter, director James Ponsoldt, but either way, it’s pretty egregious.

Early in the film, Emma Watson’s character, Mae, has a job interview at The Circle, a proxy for Google and Facebook. Her interviewer throws a series of quick questions of her.

“John or Paul?”

“Early Paul, late John.”

This is the worst possible answer.

Preferring late John is perfectly valid – I do too! But it makes no sense that someone would prefer early Paul to early John – particularly if they then prefer late John.

What does “early” mean?

There are several possible definitions of “early Paul”. We can rule out “early in Paul’s solo career” because John was dead before the second stage of that began. We could define “early” as “in the Beatles” and “late” as “after the Beatles”. This is most charitable to Eggers but isn’t how those terms would normally be used – you’d surely specify “Beatle Paul, solo John”. This is a completely reasonable opinion. Nothing in Paul’s solo career, not even Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, comes close to John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. 

Realistically, when people specify that they prefer an early or late Beatle, they usually mean their work within the Beatles. The Beatles’ “early period” is usually defined as their first five albums, from Please Please Me to Help! 

The Early Beatles

In this period, John and Paul were close collaborators. This is where the Lennon-McCartney name was earned. While the writer with “majority credit” would usually end up singing, in practice there was little difference between a “John song” and a “Paul song”.

Still, there’s no doubt that John was the senior partner. This was particularly apparent on the Beatles’ best early album, A Hard Day’s Night. Their first album to feature only original content contains nine songs sung by John, three by Paul, and one joint composition sung by George Harrison. On their next album, Beatles For Sale, Lennon’s personality and style bloomed: he was poetic and cynical. Gone was the cocksure young man behind “Please Please Me”. Instead, Lennon was wracked with doubt on “I’m A Loser”, bitter and jaded on “No Reply”, and hopeless on “Baby’s In Black”.

McCartney truly arrived an album later, on their fifth and final “early” album, Help!, containing McCartney classics like “I’ve Just Seen A Face” and, most importantly, “Yesterday”. He’d written some very good songs for the Beatles’ first four albums, chief among them “All My Loving” and “I Saw Her Standing There”, but it wasn’t until Help! that he hinted at the same songwriting talent as Lennon.

The Late Beatles

There’s a clear step-up in quality between the Beatles’ two 1965 albums, Help! and Rubber Soul. This coincides with a genuine differentiation between Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting styles, as well as their ambition and technical quality.

Lennon continued to grow as a songwriter. In the second half of the Beatles’ career, he wrote some of the greatest songs of all time – “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “I Am The Walrus”, “A Day In The Life”, “Tomorrow Never Knows”, “In My Life” – but he no longer towered over McCartney.

On Rubber Soul and 1966’s Revolver, two of the greatest songwriters of all time made roughly equal contributions. After that, McCartney’s stature only improved. John might still be writing the best songs on the albums, but Paul was writing the singles, and more than his fair share of the album tracks. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road are both largely McCartney projects, with 15 McCartney compositions to 9 Lennon songs (plus a handful of songs from Harrison and Ringo Starr and genuine Lennon-McCartney collaborations). Of course, Paul has his own long list of great songs: “Hey Jude”, “For No One”, “Let It Be”, “Blackbird”, and the closing Abbey Road medley chief among them.

Whether late John was better than late Paul is largely a matter of personal taste. They were both great and distinct. But early John towers over early Paul. The enduring power of the Beatles’ early work is largely down to John Lennon and Sir George Martin. Paul’s contribution shouldn’t be ignored, but is secondary.

The Circle is a work of dystopian fiction, in which corporations do not respect our privacy and people don’t appreciate “A Hard Day’s Night”.

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