By the time their great run in The Beatles ended, John Lennon and Paul McCartney had written about 200 songs between them. Obviously, that’s a massive amount of material, and several songs rank among the best of the 20th century.
But that doesn’t mean Paul heard a lot of compliments from John (or vice versa) over the years. In fact, looking back, Paul only recalled one tune John admitted he liked during a recording session. It was the ethereal “Here, There and Everywhere” from Revolver (1966).
Yet John definitely complimented Paul on his work (if not to his face) after the Fab Four breakup. In one case, John said he considered “Coming Up” from McCartney II a fine piece of work. (Granted, he added he didn’t listen to Paul’s albums at the time, but still.)
In 1980, after all the animosity had blown over, John looked back at most of the Lennon-McCartney songbook in interviews with Playboy’s David Sheff. When he landed upon one of Paul’s most enduring classics, he said he never wished he wrote it.
John greatly admired ‘Yesterday’ but said it wasn’t for him.
The Playboy interviews with Lennon turned into Sheff’s All We Are Saying. John (at times with Yoko) speaks freely and at length about all things Beatles and otherwise, and it’s an endlessly fascinating book. When Sheff prompts John to go through the Lennon-McCartney catalog, so much comes out.
On the topic of “Yesterday,” the song had become a bit of an annoyance for John because so many people believed he wrote it. He could barely have dinner without someone coming by to thank him — or actually sing the song to him. It drove him a bit nuts.
That exasperation comes out in the interview. “Well, we all know about ‘Yesterday’ … That’s Paul’s song and Paul’s baby,” John told Sheff. “Well done. Beautiful — and I never wished I’d written it.” While those ideas don’t seem to go together, John explained why he felt that way in another chat.
Basically, it came down to the lyrics. “They certainly work, you know what I mean? They’re good, but if you read the whole song, it doesn’t say anything. You don’t know what happened. She left and he wishes it were yesterday –that much you get — but it doesn’t really resolve.”
Later, John considered ‘Imagine’ to be the equal of ‘Yesterday.’
Howard Smith, a New York radio broadcaster who became friends with John and Yoko, told tales of John being haunted by “Yesterday” in a 2013 Mojo article. Smith also said that John came to his apartment one day (circa 1971) with a tune he said could match the melody of “Yesterday.”
That song eventually became “Imagine.” After asking Smith what he thought — and if it was the equal to Paul’s classic ballad — John wouldn’t let it go. “You’ll see, it’s just as good as ‘Yesterday,'” Smith recalled John saying in Mojo.
Of course, it’s really an “apples and oranges” situation. As John said over and over (as if we needed to hear it), he and Paul were very different as songwriters. Just compare John’s debut solo record versus that of Paul.
Or pick one of the songwriting duo’s best-known tunes, like “A Day in the Life.” You know exactly who “read the news today, oh boy” and who “woke up, fell out of bed.” Even though John admired Paul’s talent (and vice versa), neither envied the other. There was enough talent to go around.