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Why Were John and Paul More Innovative Together Than Apart?

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

Key points

  • John Lennon and Paul McCartney were more innovative together than apart. Not because they were opposites but because they resisted each other.
  • After John Lennon and Paul McCartney split, neither found another creative partner able to resist in the same way. Innovation suffered.
  • Resistance is essential for innovation. When two creative minds come together and resist each other, innovation often results.

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? R ‘n’ B? Psychedelia? Folk? Hard Rock? Concept albums? Boy bands? Singer-songwriters? Harmonies? If you don’t like the Beatles, you don’t like music. Period. It’s just not possible to enjoy music and not like at least one of the above, and thus, at least one or two songs by the Beatles. 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, genius for melody, love of wordplay, surprising chord progressions and unpredictable rhythms, 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!

United Artists (corporate author)., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Beatles Trailer US Help
Source: United Artists (corporate author)., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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 invention in each bar of them than in 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 and 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.

Peter Fordham, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
John Lennon Imagine 1971
Source: Peter Fordham, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Richard from Peterborough, United Kingdom, CC BY 2.0
Paul McCartney Roundhouse
Source: Richard from Peterborough, United Kingdom, CC BY 2.0

In Powers of Two, Joshua Wolf 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.

Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Pierre and Marie Curie
Source: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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 can often result.

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