On the Beatles and Counterweights

This week’s long-awaited wedding between iTunes and the Beatles may have been overhyped, but amid all the deflated and angry responses are some impressive figures: Within 24 hours of the announcement that the Beatles were finally available on iTunes, all 17 albums were in the top 50 most downloaded, and 3 were in the top 10. 5 songs were in the top 50 most downloaded as well. But what is most interesting, I think, about the top selling Beatles songs in particular is that of the top 3, one was written by George, one by Paul, and one by John.

People love to argue about who was the ‘greatest’ or ‘most important’ Beatle, but I think this helps show that what was so special about them is that they complemented each other so well. Harrison famously felt under appreciated in the band, something that helped lead to their polarization towards the end, and the posthumous vindication of “Here Comes the Sun” being the best selling Beatles song on iTunes helps put to rest the question of the magnitude of his contribution.

But because the vast majority of the Beatles catalog is under the Lennon/McCartney name, the battle between who was the more influential member continues to this day. What I think these iTunes stats help show is that without one or the other, the Beatles wouldn’t have been what they are today. Yes, Lennon and McCartney are called the greatest songwriting duo of all time and such, but most people know that by the time Revolver came around, Lennon and McCartney were for the most part writing separately. This doesn’t mean that they didn’t influence each other, however. John and Paul were each other’s perfect counterweights, they helped tweak each others writing to push it to the next level, and they prevented each other from straying too far from a common sound (yes yes I know there are exceptions, like “Revolution 9”, but lets just say Yoko tipped a balanced scale).

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how rare it is for a single artist with a single vision to reach huge success. It seems that in the vast majority of cases, widespread popular and critical acclaim of a band or artist can only come with a significant collaborator or counterweight. Jagger and Richards, John and Taupin, Ellington and Strayhorn, Becker and Fagen, Rogers and Hammerstein/Hart, Tyler and Perry, Page and Plant, Hall and Oates, Henley and Frey, Hayes and Porter, Goffin and King, Gilmour and Waters…the list goes on. And not all of these were ‘songwriting duos’, some were producers and writers, some were guitarists and singers, some were lyricists and songwriters. Some were even just stubborn and strong personalities (The Police? Talking Heads?) that forced compromise.

There are very few examples of artists who have risen to huge success without ANY counterweight whatsoever. Prince comes to mind, as does Joni Mitchell (Blue, in particular), and Bob Dylan, but even these are very idiosyncratic acquired tastes. To reach the level of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or Elton John, the legendary status where even the biggest haters can’t deny your place (example: I’m not a huge Rolling Stones fan) there needs to be someone pushing or pulling you in a different direction. Only then, it seems, can a catalog worthy of such inflated hype as Tuesday’s Beatles announcement be developed.

Now, the question is whether all their genius is worth 256 kbps…


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