Music Features

Lennon & McCartney: Songwriters for Hire

Truth be told, the articles and books dedicated to the Beatles' recording career are too numerous, enough to fill a small library and draw plans for a new wing. I'm angling for something different here, mainly to shine a light on songs written by Lennon and McCartney for other artists or given away as surplus demos. As the main songwriting motor of the Beatles, the duo's plate was full, but the boundaries of the group couldn't hold their prolific output. Notwithstanding the pressures of manager and publishers, endless tours, crazy fans, and a nosy press, they found time to write, either together or alone. Amid all this madness, they hit their stride as tunesmiths, their songs sought out by all kinds of acts, from the hip to the hopelessly square. Ever since, endless cover versions have clogged the airwaves. Far more precious, though, are the Lennon-McCartney originals sung by other artists, which reveal the learning curve of their development as songwriters. There are some clunkers among the gems and some tunes escaped the Beatles' comfort zone, but the instinct for song construction is always evident.

In the wake of the Beatles' success, manager Brian Epstein took on a considerable number of Liverpool acts, more than he and his staff could handle, but the market for beat groups was in an all-time high then. There was one drawback, though. With the exception of Gerry and The Pacemakers, they lacked songwriting skills. Epstein, however, was a shareholder at Northern Songs, the Beatles' publishing company. His direct access to the Lennon-McCartney catalogue was a godsend, as if having the whole Brill Building staff at your beck and call.

The main beneficiaries of this bounty were Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, who took "Bad To Me" to the top of the charts in 1963. Merseybeat aside, the song has a strong influence from Goffin & King, while other sides like "From A Window" and "I'll Be On My Way" recall Buddy Holly and The Crickets. These songs showed where Lennon and McCartney came from and what they could achieve at their best, yet other singles veered dangerously into formula. Take for instance the sides recorded by The Fourmost, who ruled the Liverpool scene before the Beatles but were at sea at the studio. Even ignoring its poor production, "Hello Little Girl" runs like a parody of the Mersey Sound and should have remained in Lennon's bottom drawer. "I'm In Love" fares better, but it lacks the verve of the Beatles. Just listen to Lennon's demo version, now available on You Tube, which packs the emotional punch missing in the recorded version. Another example of Mersey overkill is "Tip Of My Tongue", recorded by the hapless Tommy Quickly, which became an instant flop.

At this point, there was already a willingness to branch out that would come to fruition on Beatles albums like Help! Cilla Black did a good rendition of "Love Of The Loved", but more impressive were the songs tailor-made for her. "It's For You" got the full orchestra treatment, done in a Bacharach-David style, with jazzy time signatures and an unusual chord progression. Years later, around the time Black became a TV fixture, McCartney gave her "Step Inside Love", a hybrid of bossa nova and groovy psych that was kept breezy and on track through a deft handling of melody and rhythm.

Lennon and McCartney were also successful outside their turf. The story goes that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards got their songwriting confidence watching them dash off "I Wanna Be Your Man" in a few minutes. What deflates the momentous occasion is that the song isn't very good. The grit and sexuality found in blues-based songs were beyond the duo's grasp. Nevertheless, the Stones put some fire behind the tune and got a hit from it. The Beatles, unwisely, did their own version. It appears on With The Beatles, sung by Ringo, the only filler on that fine album.

Peter and Gordon were luckier than Chad and Jeremy: they had McCartney writing for them. They'd been around since 1962, but things started to pick up when Peter Asher's sister, Jane, began dating McCartney. He handed them "A World Without Love", which raced to the top of the charts in 1964. To be fair, the duo had hits without McCartney, though they certainly were the main outlet for his romantic creations. The Beatles had outgrown heart-on-your-sleeve tunes like "Nobody I Know" and "I Don't Want To See You Again", but in Peter and Gordon's hands they sparkle, endowed with a disarming romantic sincerity. Just to prove that he could get a hit without his famous name, McCartney used the pseudonym Bernard Webb for "Woman". There was hubris behind this move, even if McCartney was in a songwriting high after the release of "Yesterday". A winning melody, soaring vocals, and a Spector-style production were enough to sustain "Woman" and make it a memorable hit.

With Brian Epstein's death in 1967, the balance of power at Northern Songs went to the biggest shareholders. A push for control in 1969 eventually left Lennon and McCartney without their publishing rights. As these cards were dealt, Apple Corps Ltd, founded on hippie optimism, was on its way to become a financial quagmire. However, in addition to the Beatles' releases, there was a handful of promising artists that kept the company afloat for some time. Though the Beatles took a hands-on approach to artist development, it was McCartney who scored the hits. He produced Mary Hopkin's first album and wrote for her "Goodbye", the follow-up single to the ubiquitous "Those Were The Days". "Goodbye", a good-time tune designed for pub sing-alongs, kept Hopkin's career going until her early retirement. "Come And Get It", which he wrote and produced for Badfinger, tilted to his rocker side, paving the way for a string of self-penned hits that sounded like ground-zero for power pop.

The Beatles split amid a nasty legal dispute. Apple artists like James Taylor and Billy Preston eventually signed up with other labels. Thereafter, the four ex-Beatles would forego grand schemes to concentrate on their solo careers. Scaling down was a sound survival move suitable for the Me Decade, yet the spirit of the sixties still clung to them.

One could argue that the Beatles, specially Lennon and McCartney, were overtly ambitious and that they lacked the business savvy to protect their music and record label. Yet they never set out to become business tycoons. These songs reveal that they were moved by a different ethos. Sharing their songwriting gift meant a great deal more than royalty checks; there was personal pride behind it and a genuine desire to help fellow performers. Moreover, Lennon and McCartney were inspired by other artists as much as they were inspired by them. That was their nature. Though the attempt to build a community of musicians failed, they went farther than their peers, opening the door for the 1970s DIY ethic. Since then, artists like Simon Raymonde and Jack White have kept the dream alive.