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It's no surprise that John Lennon harbored some ill will toward Paul McCartney in the aftermath of the Beatles' breakup. In the new book The John Lennon Letters, a previously seen handwritten 1971 note from John and Yoko On0 to Paul and his wife Linda (whom Lennon sarcastically addressed as "you noble people") confirms what everyone already knows about that enmity, as Lennon chides McCartney to "get off your gold disc and fly!"
What's not so well known: the tiff between Lennon and producer George Martin, a beloved figure not usually known for his participation in Beatle beefs.
In one of the angrier missives included in The John Lennon Letters, the then-bitter ex-Beatle lays into Martin for supposedly taking too much credit for the group's sound. He also smacks the producer down for giving McCartney too much credit for some of the songwriting.
"When people ask me questions about 'What did George Martin really do for you?,' I have only one answer, 'What does he do now?' I noticed you had no answer for that! It's not a putdown, it's the truth," wrote Lennon, who had brought in Phil Spector to redo Martin's work on Let It Be and then continued to work with Spector as a solo artist.
"I think Paul and I are the best judges of our partners," Lennon wrote, less than politely. "Just look at the world charts and, by the way, I hope Seatrain is a good substitute for the Beatles."
Can you say "snap, squared"? Seatrain, as very few people will recall, was the unremarkable California roots-rock band Martin was assigned to produce by Capitol Records immediately after the Beatles' breakup.
What angered Lennon so? In the larger sense, armchair psychologists might suppose that a would-be "working class hero" like Lennon possibly harbored some resentment over having his musical revolution seen as reliant on a stiff-upper-lip establishmentarian like Martin. But in the immediate sense, Lennon was reacting to a Melody Maker interview in which Martin made some seemingly innocent remarks that got the rocker's considerable gander up.
"Now on to 'Revolution No. 9,' which I recorded with Yoko plus the help of Ringo, George and George Martin. It was my concept, fully," Lennon wrote in a letter co-addressed to the Melody Maker interviewer. "For Martin to state that he was 'painting a sound picture' is pure hallucination. Ask any of the other people involved. The final editing Yoko and I did alone (which took four hours)...
"Of course, George Martin was a great help in translating our music technically when we needed it, but for the cameraman to take credit from the director is a bit too much. I'd like to hear what the producer of John Cage's 'Fontana Mix' would say about that... Don't be so paranoid, George, we still love you," ended the main part of the note, signed by " John (and Yoko who was there)."
Looking back at Martin's 1971 Melody Maker, it's not hard to pick out some other passages that might have set Lennon off. "John's become more obvious in a way," Martin told the British music weekly, then a bit less circumspect than he later became. "'Power To The People' is a rehash of "Give Peace A Chance," and it isn't really very good. It doesn't have the intensity that John's capable of. Paul, similarly with his first album ... it was nice enough, but very much a home-made affair, and very much a little family affair. I don't think he ever really rated it as being as important as the stuff he'd done before. I don't think Linda is a substitute for John Lennon, any more than Yoko is a substitute for Paul McCartney."
Martin managed to step into a dispute over authorship that continues to confound Beatles fans to this day when he was asked if he remembered anything about the writing of "Eleanor Rigby." "Not the song, but I do remember the recording taking place. I had assumed that it was all Paul," Martin told Melody Maker. "In fact I do remember, actually at the recording Paul was missing a few lyrics, and wanting them, and going round asking people 'What can we put in here?' and Neil (Aspinall) and Mal (Evans) and I were coming up with suggestions. Rather petty, really... everyone contributed things occasionally."
Lennon bristled at that, big-time, in a P.S. "At least 50% of the lyrics of 'Eleanor Rigby' was written by me in the studio and at Paul's place, which was a fact never clearly indicated in your previous article."
(Estimating percentages can be an unwise errand, as Mitt Romney recently learned the hard way. After claiming credit for "at least 50%" of the "Rigby" lyrics in this note, a year later, Lennon told Hit Parader, "I wrote a good lot of the lyrics, about 70 per cent." McCartney responded, "I saw somewhere that he says he helped on 'Eleanor Rigby.' Yeah. About half a line. He also forgot completely that I wrote the tune for 'In My Life.' That was my tune. But perhaps he just made a mistake on that." Many years later, a more magnanimous McCartney came up with a slightly more generous ratio: "John helped me on a few words but I'd put it down 80-20 to me, something like that.")
But there were bigger issues at play than just one song. Last year, in an interview with London's Independent newspaper, Martin talked about what he considered the ultimate insult from Lennon: hearing Lennon say that he wished they could re-record every song the Beatles ever put on tape.
"I said to him: 'I can't believe that. Think of all we've done and you want to rerecord everything?' 'Yeah, everything.' And I said: 'What about 'Strawberry Fields'?' And he looked at me and said: 'Especially 'Strawberry Fields'.' Which I was very disappointed with. If he felt that way about it, he should have recorded the bloody thing himself."
Of course, it's Lennon's previously revealed broadsides against McCartney that will again get the most attention with the release of The John Lennon Letters. Linda McCartney had written a letter to John about some of his public statements about Paul, and Lennon told her to "get off your high horse."
"I was reading your letter and wondering what middle-aged cranky Beatle fan wrote it. I resisted looking at the last page to find out... What the hell—it's Linda!... Who do you think we/you are? The 'self-indulgent doesn't realize who he is hurting' bit—I hope you realize what s--- you and the rest of my 'kind and unselfish' friends laid on Yoko and me, since we've been together. It might have sometimes been a bit more subtle or should I say 'middle class'—but not often. We both 'rose above it' quite a few times—& forgave you two—so it's the least you can do for us, you noble people. Linda, if you don't care what I say, shut up! Let Paul write—or whatever."
In talking about the Beatles' breakup, Lennon even seemed to insinuate that McCartney was destined to divorce himself from the Eastman family, if not Linda herself. "About not telling anyone that I left the Beatles: PAUL and Klein both spent the day persuading me it was better not to say anything—asking me not to say anything because it would 'hurt the Beatles'— and 'let's just let it peter out'—remember? So get that into your petty little perversion of a mind, Mrs. McCartney: the [expletives] asked me to keep quiet about it. Of course, the money angle is important—to all of us— especially after all the petty s-- that came from your insane family/in-laws. And GOD HELP YOU OUT, PAUL. See you in two years. I reckon you'll be out then..."
Lennon didn't reserved his zingers just for ex-compatriots, as the letters show.
On a postcard to an anti-Yoko fan, he wrote, "Why don't you open your box and dig 'Mind Train' on (Ono's album) Fly—your prejudice can't be that deep... P.S. YOU might have an ageing (sic) problem. Me? I wouldn't go back ONE DAY!"
A review of Ono's art installation by the Syracuse Post-Standard brought about a memorable letter to the editor, in which he resented being brought up in the criticism. "What on earth has what the husband of the artist said, four or five years ago, got to do with the current [show] by Yoko Ono?... I mean, did people really discuss Picasso's wife's gossip?" He went on to refer to the criticism as "bourgeoisie mealy-mouth gossip" from "blue meanies."
He could be fairly tongue-in-cheek even when he was angry... and also get in a good product plug. Writing to Melody Maker (again) after a joint interview with Ono, he scribbled, "She never, but never, wears clogs (or anything resembling clogs) on her most divine and beautiful little feet! (This is shown by sexy Polaroid Lennon photograph of Yoko's above mentioned extremities on back of her fantastic new double-album Fly…)"
As fans know, Lennon mellowed considerably in the latter half of the '70s, and had his rapprochement with McCartney, if any eventual communiques with Martin are lesser known. But "Tell us what you really think, John" was surely even then never uttered in anything but jest.