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Holiday Mixtape: Lennon/McCartney.

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There's a quote about the Beatles that has stuck with me for years, ever since I first read it:

"The world is split into two kinds of people: those who would go out for a drink with John Lennon, and those who'd choose Paul McCartney ... After The Beatles came back from India, Lennon wrote 'Happiness Is a Warm Gun' and McCartney wrote 'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.' End of argument."

I'd long since forgotten who said it, so it's with some embarassment that I admit I tracked it down to Paul Bettany's IMDb bio—figured it was, like, Martin Amis or somebody. But the point stands, even if it was made by the bad guy from The Da Vinci Code and encountered by me while I was evidently clinging eagerly to his every word. John Lennon, pretentious, abusive prick though he may have been, always had something to say. Paul McCartney has always erred on the side of frivolous.

The balance between those two traits is precisely why their partnership worked: Paul saved John from getting too far up his own ass, and John saved Paul from being a disposable cornball. It's also why their solo work was always a total crapshoot. For every "Jealous Guy" or "Maybe I'm Amazed," there are 20 Yoko tone poems or Michael Jackson duets. When it came time to write a Christmas song, though, one of them got it absolutely right and one of them whiffed so, so goddamn hard. Here:

John Lennon - Happy Xmas (War Is Over) (via TheFabFour14)

Paul McCartney - Wonderful Christmas Time (via videosanta69)

The contrast couldn't be starker. John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" is mawkish. It's hopelessly naive (Ohhh, we just have to want war to be over and then it'll be over. Freakin' doy! Thanks, J-Lenno, m'main man). But it's also beautiful and sweet, expressing a fervent belief in the possibility of peace in our time. It is an eminently hopeful song from one of the 20th century's most cynical songwriters, and even Yoko is subdued and melodious on it. It is a great Christmas song.

And then there's "Wonderful Christmastime." Is there ever "Wonderful Christmastime." It starts with the confounding lyric, "The moon is right," which, what? "Awww man, you see the moon tonight? It's shaped like Richard Nixon's head and keeps yelling LFO lyrics at me. This is all wrong. Not like that right moon last night." And it just gets worse from there. The lyrics, which remain god-awful. The terrible synth track, which is the only instrument in the song other than jingle bells and snapping. The "guitar solo," which sounds like a Game Boy drowning in a bathtub. The weirdly anticlimactic last bit, which just sounds like Paul and Linda couldn't come up with an ending but had to be somewhere in 20 minutes. The Tim & Eric-style video. It is so, so, so fucking bad.

Paul McCartney is a far better human being than was John Lennon. He is by all accounts, a genial, self-effacing, humble person, as opposed to the raging asshole and bully that Lennon purportedly was. Unlike Lennon, he didn't beat any of his wives or girlfriends (evidently false allegations from Heather Mills in the middle of their bitter divorce proceedings notwithstanding). Unlike Lennon, he didn't abandon any of his kids. He has done far more good in the actual real world for animal welfare than John Lennon ever did for vague notions of peace and love. But Christ, was he outmatched in the holiday music department.

I'm not convinced that Paul Bettany's analysis is fair across the board, but it is dead right when it comes to Christmas songs. Anyone who wants an actual wonderful Christmastime will avoid "Wonderful Christmastime" like the plague and go straight for John Lennon.