Paul and John: From BFFs to (Fr)enemies
Youtube’s recommendation systems quickly locked on to me, showing me endless amounts of facts and gossip about the Beatles. No story is more intriguing than the intricate relationship between John and Paul. They started out as teenage BFFs, skipping school to play tunes in Paul’s dad’s house. True to their BFF pledge, they decided they will share credit for every song they will ever write, hence the official Lennon/McCartney attribution of most Beatles songs. Next, they spend years sleeping in the same rooms, from rundown apartments in Hamburg, playing Rock n’ Roll covers in German nightclubs, up to Beatlemania and finally becoming, well, more famous than Jesus. What started as a teenage friendship, increasingly became a contentious ego driven rivalry which eventually imploded in a bitter divorce-like breakup. Financial disputes, backstabbing accusations, the whole shebang. It breaks one’s heart to see such true love die…
As with any divorce, Paul was no saint, but I found myself particularly resenting John’s eventual public comments post-breakup. He was pretty much all over the place. Some highlights: saying “Paul died musically”, describing Paul’s wedding as a funeral, claiming Paul’s music was good for elevators, and deriding Paul in songs such as “How do you sleep at night?”. Ouch! One of the 80’s interviews with Paul had him admitting how hurtful this was, especially since he knew John’s criticism would stick. If John says he was the real genius of the Beatles, who is anyone to argue? And stick it did — to this day, many fans view John as the artistic force behind the Beatles and Paul as just a kitschy song writer. How frustrating it must have been to need to defend your own contribution to the undisputed greatest band of all times, and especially against the accusations of your ex-BFF.
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But what if John was right? What if John really was by far the greatest Beatle? And where does George fit in in this competition?
Let’s look at the data!
A silver lining in the Beatles bitter breakup was that both John and Paul felt free to take as much credit as possible for every song and in essence disentangling the Lennon/McCartney attribution; I used this data source which specifies the main composer as a reference, even for songs on which they collaborated on (which is basically all their songs). I separated tracks sung by Ringo into their own category, as both John and Paul usually wrote simple songs for Ringo, that fit his singing abilities and happy-go-lucky persona, but were uncharacteristic of their best material.
Let’s start by looking at song counts: out of 208 songs recorded by the Beatles, 71 were written mostly by John, 68 mostly by Paul, 22 by George, 21 were cover songs from their early days, 16 John+Paul songs (songs in which they contributed equally), and 10 that were sung by Ringo, out of which 2 he wrote himself (Don’t Pass Me By and Octopus’s Garden). John and Paul were pretty much equally prolific in terms of their song writing contribution, way ahead of George who only started contributing significantly in their later albums.
So who wrote better songs?
One of the “downsides” of art is that is that it is not objectively measurable. Who is to say if one song is better than another? In order to get around this sticky situation, let’s start by analysing the objective measure of popularity, before we go on to the most subjective of quantifying my own preferences! (perks of being the author of the blog post…)
Spotify to the rescue!
Spotify is awesome, right? The following analysis relies on Spotify stream counts to gouge popularity. Let’s dive into it:
Top left: most streamed Beatles songs. Bottom left: Log normal distribution of stream counts for all Beatles songs. Right: Median stream count per Beatle
Out of the top 10 most streamed Beatle’s songs, 5 were written by Paul, 2 by John and 1 by George. It is interesting to note that the distribution of stream counts is an almost perfect log-normal distribution. Why is that? Log normal distributions occur when there are many factors that have a multiplicative effect stacked on one another. One possible hypothesis that might cause this is a network effect; if you really like a song, you’ll probably play it many more times that a song you like only mildly. This will make this song much more likely to be recommended (by either you or Spotify’s algorithm), leading to an exponential phenomena.
An analysis of the median number of song counts shows some interesting facts:Paul was the most popular Beatle! His median stream count is almost double that of John’s. To me this was quite an unexpected result.Ringo’s songs are the least streamed. He was a funny guy. And a really good drummer. We love you Ringo! As a person, but less so as a singer/song writer.
Woot for Paul! But is popularity really the best indicator of quality? If Spotify stream counts would qualify as a measure of quality, Drake and Ariana Grande should be the best musicians in the history of popular music. And if that doesn’t sound off to you, than you’re definitely reading the wrong blog post…
Going Beyond Popularity: a Subjective Analysis
I listened to every one of the 208 Beatles songs (that’s 14 hours of play time, did I already mention the time I had with a newborn on my hands?) and rated each song on a scale of 0 to 10. You can see the dataset here. This is obviously a very subjective rating! Beautiful melodies, interesting harmonies and intimate emotion provoking lyrics are what get high scores in my book. Let’s first examine how my own preferences correlate with Spotify popularity:
There is a strong Pearson correlation of 0.59 between song awesomeness (as rated by me) and Spotify stream counts. Of note are a few songs which differed significantly from this correlation: George’s cute Indian inspired the Inner Light and John’s Yes It Is with its gripping harmonies both over-performed while John’s boring avant-garde Revolution 9 (thanks Yoko!) was the biggest under-performer. Pauls too cute Ob-la-di Ob-la-da, and Let It Be both scored reasonably high, but much lower than their popularity on Spotify.
Next, it’s time for the main course. Let’s look at awesomeness by Beatle:
Digging a bit deeper into the John vs. Paul rivalry, we can see that John actually had more truly awe inspiring songs, but he also had more Meh-ish songs. Paul was a bit more consistent, with most of his songs in the Looove it! category, but slightly less songs that got to pure genius rating.
Conclusion: Paul Was The Greatest Beatle
There simply is no clear winner, but if pressed, I would say this analysis shows Paul as the slightly better song writer. One thing that can be safely said is that John was not the lone artistic driving force behind the Beatles as he sometime tried to portray himself post-Beatles, and Paul can confidently claim his place as one of the two best songwriters that ever existed. One important thing to remember is that they never truly composed songs by themselves, and almost always took part in the recording sessions of each other’s songs, even in the late bitter infused days before they broke up. What would John’s I Want You (She’s So Heavy) be without Paul’s amazing bass line? Or Paul’s Can’t Buy Me Love without John’s harmonizing and rhythm guitar? Or so many Beatles songs without George’s beautiful guitar solos for that matter?
John helping Paul with his song in a picture taken by Linda McCartney
On a less data driven note, after hearing all their songs it is quite clear that each had his own talents: Paul was a musician in the purer sense of the word, consistently creating beautiful melodies (Yesterday, Michelle to name a few), managing even to do that with his melodic base playing. John on the other hand was the more complete artist, who is in some ways was only incidentally using music to express himself. He was a great musician, but one could argue that his lyrics were just as great as the music, if not better (Across the Universe, Nowhere Man, Because). His emotional spectrum was much darker, which in some sense helped him create Rock n’ Roll songs with a bigger punch to them.
Thank you John and Paul! While their love for each other did not last as long as their musical legacy, the world would not be the same place without the special relationship between these once-in-a-lifetime geniuses.
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Let’s rank all the Beatles albums based on to the average of manually-rated song awesomeness:
It turns out that Abbey Road is the Beatle’s best album with Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s follow closely behind. This is an especially amazing feat, given that at the time of recording Abbey Road the Beatles were already hardly on speaking terms, their communication almost solely limited to a musical one in the studio. I feel this analysis does not do justice to the White Album, as it actually has the most songs with the “genius” rating. This is indicative of the inconsistency of this double album — had the Beatles scaled down the White Album album to a single album with the two albums’ best songs, it would jump to the top on the average rating as well. I also felt that Rubber Soul is slightly underrated here; while it lacks many songs in the genius level, I feel it is a case where the sum is larger than its parts, which is not reflected in this single song based statistics.