Words of love and life en­dure

That the same song­writ­ing brains came up with and is a cause for mar­vel, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

IN the be­gin­ning were the words. Or not, as the case may be. John Len­non fre­quently noted that in the Bea­tles’ early years the lyrics were in­vari­ably sub­sidiary to the sound. The idea was to drum up tunes to which kids could dance. Be­gin­ning with Love Me Do, there is plenty of ev­i­dence to support this con­tention. On the other hand, try to imag­ine the band’s first al­bum kick­ing off with the verse “She was just sev­en­teen/ Never been a beauty queen … ” That’s how Paul McCart­ney’s ini­tial ver­sion of I Saw Her Stand­ing There be­gan. Len­non liked the first line but thought the sec­ond was crap. The two of them strove for some­thing more ac­cept­able, came up with the more sug­ges­tive “You know what I mean”, and a rock clas­sic was born.

They did not al­ways suc­ceed in cut­ting the crap. The early Len­non-McCart­ney Orig­i­nals boast plenty of rel­a­tively mun­dane ex­pres­sions and un­chal­leng­ing sce­nar­ios. He or she loves her or him. She or he re­cip­ro­cates, or not. Di­a­mond rings are thrown into the bar­gain. Ev­ery now and then the June-light turns to moon­light. And it all ends hap­pily. Or not.

But then some­thing changed. Some­thing or some­one opened the song­writ­ers’ eyes to the realms that lay beyond what they had ini­tially re­garded as their re­mit. The mys­te­ri­ous Nowhere Man is gen­er­ally re­garded as their first ef­fort that wasn’t a silly love song. Rub­ber Soul, the cutely ti­tled 1965 al­bum on which it ap­peared, in­di­cated there were mind games afoot.

There were sub­stances in­volved. And char­ac­ters. Bob Dy­lan strad­dles both cat­e­gories. Lis­ten­ing to the ra­dio on a road trip, pre­sum­ably in early 1964, Dy­lan stopped in his tracks when I Want to Hold Your Hand wafted across the air­waves. He found the sound ar­rest­ing. He was also amazed, though, that a band in Bri­tain could get away with singing: “And when I touch you/ I feel happy inside/ It’s such a feel­ing/ That my love I get high/ I get high/ I get high …”

When Dy­lan first en­coun­tered the Bea­tles a few months later, he was gen­uinely sur­prised to dis­cover that their ac­quain­tance with mar­i­juana was at best pe­riph­eral. They, mean­while, were de­lighted to know that Dy­lan had mis­heard “I can’t hide” (have a lis­ten: it’s a very easy mis­take to make) as well as to be for­mally in­tro­duced to the weed. McCart­ney and Len­non had, mean­while, also been lis­ten­ing to Dy­lan. Len­non’s sparsely melan­cholic You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away was among the first recorded ev­i­dence of this par­tic­u­lar in­fat­u­a­tion.

There were plenty of other Americans, though, who had ex­erted a pow­er­ful in­flu­ence on them in the past, among them Chuck Berry, Lit­tle Richard, Elvis Pres­ley, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, Roy Or­bi­son and Smokey Robin­son. They pro­vided the band ini­tially known as the Quarry Men, then as the Ja­page 3 and even­tu­ally as the Bea­tles with a sub­stan­tial pro­por­tion of its reper­toire. Len­non and McCart­ney started writ­ing songs to­gether soon after they first met in 1957, aged 16 and 15 re­spec­tively, but were gen­er­ally re­luc­tant to per­form them on stage at least un­til 1961, es­sen­tially be­cause they con­sid­ered their own out­put in­fe­rior to what was emerg­ing from Mo­town and Tin Pan Al­ley.

Some of this ju­ve­nilia was sub­se­quently con­sid­ered worth ex­ca­vat­ing. One After 909 may have resur­faced dur­ing the Let It Be ses­sions as an av­enue for nos­tal­gic self-mock­ery, but I’ll Follow the Sun seam­lessly found its groove in Bea­tles for Sale 50 years ago, and When I’m Sixty-Four is, at least in ret­ro­spect, in­te­gral to Sgt Pep­per’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And Mark Lewisohn, the fore­most Beatle­ol­o­gist of our era, in his mag­is­te­rial The Bea­tles: Tune In (yes, it’s a thou­sand pages, give or take a few, and he’ll be writ­ing more in a year or two, be­cause it takes us up only to the cusp of Beatle­ma­nia) notes that back in 1962 new Bea­tle Ringo Starr demon­strated a tune of his own called Don’t Pass Me By to his band­mates, all three of whom were con­se­quently re­duced to hys­ter­ics.

“All artists de­velop,” Hunter Davies validly points out in his in­tro­duc­tion to The Bea­tles Lyrics, “but in the case of the Bea­tles the trans­for­ma­tion was dra­matic. Who would have thought that the minds re­spon­si­ble for Love Me Do and Please Please Me would go on to pro­duce Eleanor Rigby and Across the Uni­verse?” He’s on less solid ground, though, in claim­ing that whereas the Bea­tles’ mu­sic “has been well

Novem­ber 8-9, 2014 The Bea­tles Lyrics By Hunter Davies Wei­den­feld & Ni­col­son, 376pp, $49.99 (HB) stud­ied, well an­a­lysed, well applauded, almost from the mo­ment they re­ceived any na­tional at­ten­tion”, “the lyrics have, in com­par­i­son, been ne­glected”.

Have they re­ally? Charles Man­son did not ne­glect them, he merely rein­ter­preted them for his own ne­far­i­ous ends. But even in the case of less ar­dent fans and com­men­ta­tors, the case could surely be made that the Bea­tles lyrics — at least the more in­ter­est­ing ones — have, if any­thing, been over-an­a­lysed by fans and com­men­ta­tors alike. Davies him­self notes that Len­non, on re­ceiv­ing a let­ter from a pupil at his old school in Liver­pool in­form­ing him that the Bea­tles’ lyrics were now part of the cur­ricu­lum, was mo­ti­vated to go out of his way to be ob­scure, which led to I Am the Wal­rus. Back in 2007, The Chaser’s An­drew Hansen came up with a de­light­ful par­ody ti­tled I am Th­e­saurus, but 40 years ear­lier Len­non him­self was on the case. Some­what less en­am­oured of Dy­lan by that stage, the most lethar­gic of the four­some de­voted some of his en­er­gies to a song (ap­par­ently never recorded) ti­tled Stuck Inside of Lex­i­con with the Ro­get’s Th­e­saurus Blues Again.

Davies does not cite this, and on oc­ca­sion he mis­fires spec­tac­u­larly in in­ter­pret­ing par­tic­u­lar songs, as in the case of I Don’t Wan’t to Spoil the Party, where he com­pletely mis­reads the sce­nario. Else­where, his con­jec­tures about the likely ori­gins of a given song are, if not mis­guided, of­ten com­mon­place. Any­one who gives a damn knows, after all, that Len­non’s pain over his fam­ily cir­cum­stances, and par­tic­u­larly the ac­ci­den­tal death of his mother, lin­gered on, that McCart­ney was in­fat­u­ated for sev­eral years with Jane Asher and re­sented her bid for in­de­pen­dence, and that George Har­ri­son loved Pat­tie Boyd and was heartbroken when she chose Eric Clap­ton over him. It more or less in­evitably fol­lows that sev­eral of their songs re­flected the agony and ec­stasy of th­ese re­la­tion­ships. Of­ten enough, how­ever, oth­ers em­anated from ex­tra­ne­ous events.

Not­with­stand­ing the ob­vi­ous er­rors and du­bi­ous as­sump­tions, though, this tome stands out by virtue of in­clud­ing fac­sim­i­les of scrib­bled lyrics. Th­ese are par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing where the ini­tial ver­sion dif­fers sub­stan­tially from the recorded song. It’s good to know, for ex­am­ple, that the verse “You know I love that woman of mine/ And I need her all of the time/ And you know what I’m telling to you/ That woman don’t make me blue” did not make it into Har­ri­son’s Some­thing. And there are plenty of gerunds that were kept out of While My Gui­tar Gen­tly Weeps, although we do have to put up, in a gor­geous tune, with the janitorial line, “I look at the floor and I see it needs sweep­ing”.

Then there’s the early ver­sion of what be­came Len­non’s In My Life where he tries to re­count a bus jour­ney. His sub­se­quent edit­ing was im­pec­ca­ble, though, and the dis­carded ref­er­ence to Penny Lane even­tu­ally turned up in a clas­sic McCart­ney song, on the re­verse side of a sin­gle that also fea­tured another un­for­get­table song about Liver­pool, Straw­berry Fields For­ever.

Davies also sparkles where he quotes an ear­lier self: the young jour­nal­ist en­trusted with the for­mi­da­ble task of com­ing up with an au­tho­rised biog­ra­phy of the Bea­tles. His ac­cess to the band meant he was privy, in­ter alia, to the ges­ta­tion of With a Lit­tle Help From My Friends and Get­ting Bet­ter. The in­sights are price­less.

Davies’s biog­ra­phy, first pub­lished in 1968, was a scin­til­lat­ing read for all afi­ciona­dos. As an au­tho­rised ac­count, though, it steered clear of con­tro­versy, which is why Philip Nor­man’s Shout! (1981) turned out to be such a re­fresh­ing al­ter­na­tive. In the case of The Bea­tles Lyrics, Davies tosses aside the chal­lenge from Ian MacDon­ald’s ground­break­ing Revo­lu­tion in the Head (1994), which he says re­volved mostly around the mu­sic (not en­tirely true, given that the highly opin­ion­ated MacDon­ald had few qualms about tack­ling the lyrics wher­ever he deemed it nec­es­sary), and doesn’t bother to men­tion Steve Turner’s com­mend­able, if not en­tirely sat­is­fy­ing, A Hard Day’s Write: The Sto­ries Be­hind Ev­ery Bea­tles Song (1994).

Ul­ti­mately, the only au­thor­i­ta­tive ex­pli­ca­tion of any of the songs in ques­tion can come from the au­thors them­selves, and two of the most cru­cial con­trib­u­tors are no longer with us, while McCart­ney is gen­er­ally re­luc­tant even to con­cede that some of the most gor­geous songs clearly based on his re­la­tion­ship with Asher ( Here, There and Ev­ery­where, for in­stance, and For No One, both of which turned up on Re­volver, the 1966 al­bum that in some eyes eclipses Sgt Pep­per) re­lated to any par­tic­u­lar per­son. Be­sides, even the most poetic lyrics can­not en­tirely be plucked apart from the groove in which they were grounded

In that re­spect, Davies’s lat­est work can teach us lit­tle that is new. It’s a sat­u­rated field, after all. That it nonethe­less man­ages to en­gage one’s in­ter­est on more than one level is a tes­ti­mony both to the writer’s per­se­ver­ance and the cul­tural luminescence sparked by a phe­nom­e­non that, give or take a Brian Ep­stein or a George Martin plus a host of other in­dis­pens­able co­in­ci­dences, may never have reached its apogee.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.