John Lennon, Paul McCartney and the Brilliance of Creative Pairs

Joshua Wolf Shenk:

The diplomat and the agitator. The neatnik and the whirling dervish. Spending time with Paul and John, one couldn’t help but be struck by these sorts of differences. “John needed Paul’s attention to detail and persistence,” Cynthia Lennon, John’s first wife, said. “Paul needed John’s anarchic, lateral thinking.”
Paul and John seemed to be almost archetypal embodiments of order and disorder. The ancient Greeks gave form to these two sides of human nature in Apollo, who stood for the rational and the self-disciplined, and Dionysus, who represented the spontaneous and the emotional. Friedrich Nietzsche proposed that the interaction of the Apollonian and the Dionysian was the foundation of creative work, and modern creativity research has confirmed this insight, revealing the key relationship between breaking and making, challenging and refining, disrupting and organizing.
John was the iconoclast. In early live shows, he would fall into the background, let Paul charm the audience, and then twist up his face, adopt a hunchback pose, and play dissonant chords. Sometimes, he deliberately kept his guitar slightly out of tune, which contributed to what the composer Richard Danielpour calls “that raw, raunchy sound.” He was difficult with the press, at times even impossible. In the studio, he clamored constantly to do things differently. He wanted to be hung from the ceiling and swung around the mic. He wanted to be recorded from behind.
While John broke form, Paul looked to make it. He was the band’s de facto musical director in the studio and, outside, its relentless champion. “Anything you promote, there’s a game that you either play or you don’t play,” he said. “I decided very early on that I was very ambitious and I wanted to play.” Among the Beatles, he said, he was the one who would “sit the press down and say, ‘Hello, how are you? Do you want a drink?,’ and make them comfortable.”
Distinctions are a good way to introduce ourselves to a creative pair. But what matters is how the parts come together. So it’s not right to focus on how John insulted reporters while Paul charmed them. John was able to insult reporters because Paul charmed them. Their music emerged in a similar way, with single strands twisting into a mutually strengthening double helix.

I’m skeptical of any theory that is able to use something/someone as legendary as The Beatles as proof, because more went into creating the music of The Beatles than Lennon, McCartney, or their partnership. Time travel them into the current musical landscape and I don’t think they would have nearly the same impact. That being said—this is still a pretty interesting look into the writing process and as a Beatles fan, it feels reassuring in a way to just think of their music as an overall collaboration rather than have to choose to be on Team Paul or Team John.