Words of love and life endure
That the same songwriting brains came up with and is a cause for marvel, writes
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.