Joel Goldenberg: Understanding Lennon/McCartney, a compelling documentary

Paul McCartney and John Lennon.

This week's column was supposed to continue our survey of the top-10 hits of the 1970s, beginning with the Beatles. Our latest entry will indeed deal with the Beatles, but in a vastly different context.

"Video-surfing" on YouTube recently for my favourite Beach Boys/Elvis Presley/other-of-my-musical-preferences videos, I came across a documentary series on Paul McCartney's solo career, beginning with the break-up of the Beatles, and continuing with the twists and turns his life and music took from 1970 to today.

That documentary, a mix of McCartney music, videos, audio and transcripts of interviews with Paul and the members of his 1970s group Wings, and produced by a YouTube channel identified as breathless345, was very interesting.

But through that video series, I came across another one also produced by breathless345, a multi-part series lasting more than seven hours called Understanding Lennon/McCartney, which spans the musical partners' relationship from the time of their first meeting to John's senseless murder, and beyond.

The series is artfully done, and very compelling. It basically prods the viewer to relisten to many, if not all, of John Lennon's songs, both from the Beatles and his 1969-80 solo career.

The thesis of the entire series, which juxtaposes Lennon songs and interviews with pictures of Paul, is that John had exceptionally intense feelings towards Paul, positive and negative. Whether they were sexual is not made clear, but even John's widow Yoko Ono is quoted as saying that she knew there was something "going on" with John's emotions towards Paul.

There is also a famous quote, confirmed by John's 1970s friend Alice Cooper, that while John himself was allowed to criticize Paul in interviews, God help anyone else who criticized his former songwriting partner publicly or in his presence.

At least one interviewer even asked John straight out about rumours of a sexual element between him and Paul, but John nonchalantly changed the subject.

More importantly, several John solo songs are played, such as Jealous Guy and Bless You, which have been assumed all these years to be about Yoko. But the documentary has been put together in a way that the viewer could think they are about Paul.

During the 1970s, when all of the Beatles were asked countless times when they were getting back together, these was a period — after legal complications were being resolved between them — when the members said they could be open to the possibility. Indeed, some solo albums had more than one Beatle on them — most famously, John, George Harrison and Ringo Starr played on Ringo's song I'm the Greatest, written by John.

And, thanks to John's former companion May Pang's autobiography, we know that not only did John and Paul play on a (not very good) jam session in 1974, but John was very close to travelling to New Orleans to possibly collaborate with Paul during the recording sessions for the Wings album Venus and Mars. What stopped John was numerous invitations by Yoko to return to their home at the Dakota in New York notwithstanding their then-separation, purportedly just for a smoking cure. To Pang, John appeared to be a different person following a weekend visit with Yoko, and he soon returned to her permanently.

There are also accounts of Paul calling to join John in the studio during the 1980 Lennon Double Fantasy sessions, but that a "third party" (thought to be Yoko) stopped a phone call from Paul from getting through. John apparently said he was waiting for that McCartney call, which could have resulted in a Lennon/McCartney song for the Ringo album that became Stop and Smell the Roses.

The following was not included in the documentary, but Paul said that in his final phone conversation with John, the latter concluded their call with the affectionate words, "think of me, old friend," which coincidentally were the exact words rock veteran Carl Perkins played to Paul in a song during the 1980-82 Tug of War sessions.

I began watching Understanding Lennon/McCartney at Part 2: The Breakup and went on from there, sometimes late at night, and then started watching the somewhat slow Part 1: Together. Part 4, which concluded with John's death, was especially heartwrenching.

But the documentary as a whole is a must for any Beatles fans who wants to delve deeper into the emotions of the most famous songwriting team in music history.

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