From the time they were teenagers, John Lennon and Paul McCartney had been credited together for songs that either of them had written. They commonly wrote together, with John writing the verse-chorus part and Paul adding the middle eight, or some such thing, but they just as commonly wrote songs completely on their own. Their collaboration was such that most of the time they paid no real mind to who wrote what. It was the song that was important, not where it came from. So the Lennon/McCartney credit was very prolific by 1965.
By Rubber Soul, however, they had started to distinguish themselves from their songwriting partner. From the beginning, you could usually tell which of them took the lead in the writing from who had the lead vocal. Starting with Rubber Soul and Revolver, though, it really started to show with the style of the lyrics. John was usually more acerbic and sarcastic than Paul, having had a more difficult childhood. Paul was a little more of a child of privilege, and thus had a more optimistic outlook on life than John did. Those different outlooks eventually became undeniable.
Take the songs “Here, There and Everywhere” and “Doctor Robert.” The Paul McCartney tune is a gentle, soothing love song, unabashed in its overarching sweetness. Like an Elizabeth Barrett-Browning poem, it doesn’t pull any punches on the gooey feelings. It has a splendid beginning-middle-end structure to it, anchored on three points (“here,” “there,” and “everywhere”). It works on the same level as a Shakespearian sonnet, and reveals that Paul McCartney is just a little lovesick puppy. He’s like a modern day Lord Byron, without the club foot or the penchant for choir boys.
“Doctor Robert,” on the other hand, is about drugs. On all the band’s tours, John Lennon was the keeper of all the pills, and the other band members went to him when they wanted a fix. He wrote “Doctor Robert” about the band’s drug dealer, which was himself. It’s acerbic, witty, and filled with John’s crooked sense of humor. It stands in direct contrast to Paul’s personality, which is sunny and optimistic. John wrote a lot of love songs (“If I Fell,” “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” “Please Please Me”), but Paul has a mastery of that material John could never fathom. On the other hand, Paul could never write a song like “Doctor Robert.”
On Revolver, the Beatles were breaking out of their previous mold, and even showing a little disrespect for it. While the girls who were going gaga over them had probably never tried an illegal drug in their lives, the Beatles released one of their druggiest songs up to that point with “She Said She Said.” John wrote it about Peter Fonda, who said he knew “what it’s like to be dead” while Peter, John, George and many others were sitting in a giant bathtub in an estate in Beverley Hills, all of them tripping on acid. Fonda, who was showing them his old bullet wounds, was thought of by George as being “very uncool.” This incident is probably also the basis for “And Your Bird Can Sing,” which John described as “another of my throwaways… fancy paper around an empty box.”
Amidst the swirl and confusion that most of the album is mired in, we have “For No One,” a moment of surprising maturity and sophistication. Paul actually cuts deeper than he normally does with this song. He describes the end of a relationship with some rather poignant insight. Later comes the Paul song “Got to Get You Into My Life,” where Paul’s twee tendencies crystallize perfectly. Sung with passion and optimism, it’s active instead of passive, if a bit of a backwards step from the bold new direction the Beatles were clearly going in.
The album finishes off with “Tomorrow Never Knows,” a twisting, gyre-and-gimble type of song. Written by John and with lyrics largely based on Timothy Leary’s Psychedelic Experience, it’s the single boldest statement by the Beatles up to this point. It says, “Throw away everything that you know about the Beatles.” From here on out, all bets were off.
The Beatles changed the game when they first came on the scene, making it suddenly plausible for all those snot-nosed rock and roll kids playing in garages to make it, and make it big. Revolver was another game-changer, shifting the public’s idea of them as simply the Fab Four. And it prepared the world (although insufficiently) for the far-out freakishness of Sgt. Pepper.