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Why were Lennon and McCartney more innovative together than apart?

Innovation needs resistance. Without it, lesser ideas survive unchecked.


by Eli Gottlieb


Let’s get something out of the way right now: You can’t not like the Beatles. What exactly don’t you like? Ballads? Rock ‘n’ Roll? Show tunes? Psychedelia? Folk? Hard Rock? Lullabies? If there’s even one genre in this list that you enjoy, then the Beatles recorded at least one classic example of it. This isn’t an opinion. It’s fact. So there.


Now that’s out of the way, let’s get serious. You can’t like John songs and not like Paul songs, or vice versa. John and Paul have too much in common, in their creativity, their genius for melody, their love of wordplay, their surprising chord progressions and unpredictable rhythms, their shared tastes, source material and life experience. Yes, I know: John’s sharp and Paul’s soft; John’s radical and Paul’s twee; John’s rhythmic and Paul melodic. All I have to say to that is: You know the White Album? Where each of them did more or less their own thing? Julia; Helter Skelter. I rest my case. Thank you; you’ve been a lovely audience; good night!


So, John and Paul aren’t opposites. But now we have a problem. Wasn’t their being opposites the magic dust that made the music they made together so much more innovative than the music they made apart? Hmm. Now you’re onto something. The evidence is incontrovertible. For all the greatness of each genius’s post-Beatles output – and there’s plenty of greatness there – nothing compares to the shocking novelty and exuberant creativity of the music they made together.


Imagine; Maybe I’m Amazed; Watching the Wheels; Live and Let Die: They’re great songs and performances; really great. And there’s more creativity in each bar of them than most of the rest of Spotify and iTunes combined. But none of them can hold a candle to most Beatles’ songs, let alone to an even more select set of masterpieces that includes almost-solo tracks like Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields as well as intensely collaborative pieces like She Loves You or We Can Work it Out. Even today, after hearing them countless times, and absorbing their timbre and cadence with our mother’s milk, these songs and performances arrive at our ears fresh, as if from nowhere. Clearly of their time and building on earlier musical traditions. But also radically, shockingly new. Instantly familiar but different from anything that went before and an indelible point of reference to everything that came after. The very definition of innovation.


But if these sparks of innovation weren’t created by rubbing two opposites together, what then was their source?


Read the biographers; listen to the interviews; watch the clips on YouTube and the trailer to Peter Jackson’s forthcoming, “Get Back” movie. The magic dust wasn’t opposition. It was resistance. If what John offered wasn’t good enough, Paul would tell him so, and they’d work on improving it. And vice versa. Paul: “It’s getting better all the time.” John: “It can’t get no worse.”


After the “divorce,” no one else could provide that same resistance. And any who dared try were summarily dismissed – figuratively or literally. After being a peerless creative duo, each became a soloist who had no peers. And as each creator became irresistible, their creations became a little less so.


In his book, Powers of Two, Joshua Shenk documents similar connections between innovation and resistance in many other creative pairs, from scientists Marie and Pierre Curie to Apple’s Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. In The Undoing Project, Michael Lewis does the same for the creative partnership between Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.


Despite the proverb, two heads aren’t always better than one. But when two creative minds come together in mutual admiration and competition, and have the courage to resist and improve each other, innovation often results.


An earlier version of this article appeared in Psychology Today.


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