The Lyrics: 1956 to the present by Paul McCartney
Paul McCartney never wrote an autobiography. He argued that his remarkable life story is “all in the songs” — the hundreds upon hundreds of timeless, instantly engrossing classics that have become the soundtrack to Western culture.
One hundred and fifty-four of these musical gems are gathered in The Lyrics — a gripping commentary on the inspiration for the tunes, their making and the characters they portray. From boyhood creations such as “I lost my girl” written at the tender age of 14 following the untimely death of his mother, to “Penny Lane”, “Yesterday”, “A Day In A Life”, “Let It Be”, “Hey Jude”, “Back In The USSR”, “The Long And Winding Road” and “Mull of Kintyre” among many iconic others.
Each detail revealed by McCartney adds a layer to the story of the familiar tune and sheds light on the vast array of voices that inspired its creator — including Shakespeare, Dickens, Lewis Caroll, Bing Crosby, Maurice Chevalier and his English literature teacher Alan Durband.
Reflecting on his many songs over the past five years, has helped the former Beatle “put many things into perspective, especially the role that Jim and Mary McCartney played in teaching me that people are basically good — sound lessons that I absorbed and imparted to my children”.
McCartney’s late mother is the thread that runs through the many songs, from “I Lost My Girl”, his earliest ever written, to “Lady Madonna”, “Yesterday” and “Let It Be”. Other constants spanning McCartney’s life journey are John Lennon and the “loving, always nurturing” family he naively assumed was everyone’s reality — “as an older lad I was shocked to find that this wasn’t true,” reflected McCartney, “that many people had disastrous childhoods — and John Lennon was one of them.”
There are also the sights, smells and sounds of his working class childhood in beloved Liverpool. The entire collection is an insightful glimpse into post war Liverpool delivered with potently vivid imagery — “I can picture my father waiting with my brother and me at a bus stop in Liverpool, along with other people in the queue,” wrote McCartney, “he’s wearing his trilby, a kind of hat men wore in those days like a uniform. He’d make sure we raised our own school caps to women. ‘Good morning,’ we’d say. It was such a sweet, old-fashioned gesture, and something that has stuck with me all these years.”
He goes on to describe how they wrote with two guitars
Through “I Lost My Little Girl”, we hear of the death of his mother, his emersion in rock and roll and the game-changing encounter with John.
“She was only forty-seven; I was fourteen,” reflected McCartney, observing in hindsight that with this song, even as early as 1956, “a musical direction was emerging”, and that he was “playing with little musical things” which fascinated him, even though he did not know quite what they were at the time.
“What’s astonishing,” he added, “is that John Lennon, at the home of his Aunt Mimi, was doing something similar, so when we first came together and showed each other what we’d written, we quickly realised that we were both fascinated by songwriting and that by working together, we could take things a lot further.”
He goes on to describe how they wrote with two guitars — “the joy of that was that I was left-handed and he was right-handed, so I was looking in a mirror and he was looking in a mirror”.
We learn that the inspiration for “A Day in the Life” came from McCartney “listening to a lot of avant-garde stuff, Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, John Cage — you know, Cage’s silent piece 4’33” — being intrigued by all that”. McCartney wanted to have “an extraordinary instrumental moment in the middle of ‘A Day in the Life’”, so he talked to producer George Martin, who arranged the orchestra and delivered just that.
We hear that “Blackbird” was slang for a black woman and that when writing it in 1968, McCartney “was very conscious of the terrible racial tensions in the US”. That it came from a McCartney book of poetry and that the little guitar part, where the lyric goes “Blackbird singing in the dead of night”, “was something that George Harrison and I would play as a party piece when we were kids, a lute piece by Bach”.
“Dear Friend” speaks of the deep sadness at the breakdown of the relationship with John
We learn that “Picasso’s Last Words” started as a 1973 dare by Dustin Hoffman and that “Dylan Thomas’s ‘Under Milk Wood’ was a big influence on ‘Penny Lane’”, that “Lovely Rita” was a Portland Street meter maid and of McCartney’s “weakness for naughtiness — in the phrase ‘Give us a wink’, for example, a wink may conjure up an idea like ‘a nod and a wink’, but it’s also a euphemism. I admit, we always liked to put in things like ‘finger pie’, which you’ll find in ‘Penny Lane’. We knew people would get it”.
“In the town where I was born”, which opens “Yellow Submarine”, refers to growing up in Liverpool and the shift from black and white to colour. “When we were kids in Liverpool,” explained McCartney, “our amusement was often homemade, the songs the old people sang were your entertainment, you learnt to make do with very little, so, when you got a bit more, it was like going from black and white to colour.
“For The Beatles — though we didn’t know it at the time — expressing our joy at coming out of the black-and-white world actually contributed to that new burst of colour. It’s hard to believe, but we played an active role in it. We helped to make the ‘Sky of blue and sea of green’ so vibrant.”
There are also serious songs, some reflecting on trauma and pain — “Dear Friend” speaks of the deep sadness at the breakdown of the relationship with John and the hurt felt by his public put downs. “He’d gone through a lot,” reflected McCartney, “his dad disappeared, and then he lost his Uncle George, who was a father figure; his mother; Stuart Sutcliffe; Brian Epstein, another father figure; and now his band. But John had all of those emotions wrapped up in a ball of Lennon. That’s who he was. That was the fascination.”
Years earlier it was John who suggested “Yesterday” as a solo song — “this was kind of a big deal at the time because we’d never recorded like that before,” recalls McCartney, “it had always been the band.”
“George thought that Bach would be a good reference,” said McCartney, “trying to keep things modern, I wanted to add in a few notes that Bach wouldn’t have thought to use, so we added in the flattened seventh, which is also known as a ‘blue note’ which contributed to the song’s ‘quite distinctive’ arrangement.”
McCartney’s comments are not bursting with juicy details on the famous protagonists
Many find it hard to believe that McCartney was only twenty-two when he wrote “Yesterday” — “every time I come to the line ‘I’m not half the man I used to be’, I remember I’d lost my mother about eight years before that. It’s been suggested to me that this is a ‘losing my mother’ song, to which I’ve always said, ‘No, I don’t believe so.’ But, you know, the more I think about it — ‘Why she had to go I don’t know, she wouldn’t say’ — I can see that that might have been part of the background, the unconsciousness behind this song after all. It was so strange that the loss of our mother to cancer was simply not discussed. We barely knew what cancer was, but I’m now not surprised that the whole experience surfaced in this song where sweetness competes with a pain you can’t quite describe”.
McCartney’s commentary throughout feels candid, enlightening and at times philosophical. His insight into the makeup and meaning of the lyrics is illuminating and entertaining, adding layers of depth to the already rich texture. We hear of his and Lennon’s love for wordplay, the brotherly unity of The Beatles and their love for experimentation and embracing accidents in the studio like a tape playing backwards.
We cannot help but wonder at McCartney’s uncanny gift for creating tunes that elevate and unite, but also be intrigued by the very essence of that quality — “we knew that what made a song a hit ‘before your mother was born’ was precisely what would make a hit now and in the future,” reflects McCartney. “I say ‘precisely’, but it’s actually an intangible quality that pulls us all together, it’s what makes us a worldwide community of listeners” — this is indeed a testament to the very power of music.
McCartney and The Lyrics’ editor Paul Muldoon should be commended for not falling for the celebrity gossip trap. McCartney’s comments are bursting not with juicy details on the famous protagonists but with interesting insight into the creative process itself — from Yoko Ono’s trying presence in the recording studio, through the famous post-Beatles feud with John, all the way to the latter’s death — the comments are dignified, articulate and respectful. They are also optimistic — “I was born into that way of thinking, that it’ll be okay in the end,” explained McCartney, “tragedy can happen but the page will turn… that attitude naturally creeps into my songs because I know that these songs are going to go somewhere, and I think it would be nice if they make people take a positive path. I’m going to be optimistic until it’s no longer possible, and the situation would have to be pretty Blade Runner, pretty bad, for me to not be able to think, ‘Let’s sing a song’.”
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