A pillow on my couch reminds me to relax and enjoy life, not sweat the small stuff!
Hard to believe the Beatles hit the charts 60 years ago. We learn the backstory about Paul McCartney’s creative work in Lyrics. Now the British Library that I visited in January carries the exhibit. Here’s an inside view on the thoughts and melodies that grew into “Hey, Jude,” “Let it Be,” “Yesterday,” and “Eleanor Rigby,” plus hundreds of other songs we hum, dance to, and are inspired by–the background music of our lives.
“My interest in music came initially from my father, who was a musician,” McCartney said in an interview with Barnes & Noble and Waterstones (UK) CEO James Daunt, when Lyrics dropped late last year. Daunt noted that seven years of research took place to find and retrieve the Beatles archives around the country and stage interviews with the creators, directors, and producers of this tremendous trove of music. The book on the lyrics from 1956 to the present runs to 863 pages, but as one reviewer said, “It reads like having a conversation with Paul. It flows easily, and it’s a lot of fun.” As the Brits say, songs are alphabetic from A to Zed, which make it easier for casual readers.
Although his dad worked at the cotton exchange and his mom was a nurse, the McCartney’s were not wealthy. They lived in “Council Estates,” the low-income housing projects in Britain. But they had a piano in the living room, so Paul learned to play early on. When his mother died of cancer when Paul was 14, music helped him cover the wound. He traces his beginning in music and songwriting to the Liverpool Institute for Boys of 1,000 students that he joined at 11. A teacher who gave him insight into Chaucer’s unexpected “bits” spurred McCartney’s interest in reading. It led him to Shakespeare and nurtured his curiosity, nourishing the ideas that worked their way into his songs.
His collaboration with John Lennon, his schoolmate in graphic design, grew on their shared interest in songwriting. Quickly they realized they both enjoyed Jabberwocky, a nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll included in Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Alice in Wonderland.
Coming to America in 1964
Initially when they were Liverpool blokes trying to make a go of it, the Beatles’ financial aspirations were for a guitar, a car, and a house. But that changed when the Brits flew across the pond to perform on the Ed Sullivan Show. Five-thousand crying and screaming teenage girls greeted them at LaGuardia Airport in New York (only 1,000 saw them off in London). Seventy-three million people watched the program; the crime rate went down that night! The audience included Elvis Presley, who sent them a congratulations telegram. Young Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen were also listening. The Beatles saved “I Want to Hold Your Hand” for their viewers, sending shouts throughout the audience.
McCartney wrote “Hey, Jude” for the next generation. Bandmate John Lennon’s affair with Yoko Ono resulted in his divorce from his first wife in 1968. Their son, Julian, felt sad and alone, like Paul had as a youngster. Lyrics like “Don’t carry the world upon your shoulders” and “Foolish to make the world colder” led to encouragement: “Take a sad song and make it better.” Julian poured himself into creative arts–producing seven albums since 1984, exhibiting his fine art photography, and authored children’s books.
“Let It Be”
The easy-going theme of the Beatles’ “Let it Be” could be living proof that there are fewer innovative ideas (or songs) than we might think. Consider “Let it Go,” an earworm for parents of eight-and-under daughters mesmerized by Disney’s Frozen. “Let it Be,” has a line recorded on their last album in 1970, “When I find myself in trouble, Mother Mary speaks to me.” In the November interview, Paul says this refers to his mother, who died when he was young. He said the phrase came to him in a dream, as she offered advice.
How Eleanor Rigby Evolved
As a British Boy Scout, McCartney visited an older woman and traded groceries and cheer for her counsel and friendship. He looked forward to his conversations with the older women, translating their lonliness into the song. In the song, the woman picks up the rice after a wedding, but never had her own. The sad story served with an upbeat tune. Paul created”Eleanor Rigby” as a name that fit the song’s tempo.
The song became a joint effort: John Lennon encouraged Paul to change the pastor’s name. Father McCartney became Father McKenzie, a name they picked out of the phone book under ‘MC.” George Hamilton suggested putting the song in C significant to provide drama, then added the trumpet and sax. Throughout their years together, McCartney and Lennon created 300 songs together.
“Yesterday”: Popular Melancholy
McCartney’s song, “Yesterday,” earned praise as one of the best songs of the 20th century. A dream inspired this song too. He thought of the composer Cole Porter and dancer Fred Astaire. It started in F chord, but George suggested they detune their guitars to get the mellow F tone he sought. Their manager George Martin suggested putting a string quartet behind it. Paul offered the song to the band, but they agreed this was a tribute to his mother. As a teenager in Ohio, I knew none of this, but a friend and I tried to sing it for a school variety show. If you ever try it, you will realize how difficult it is!
When McCartney and Lennon were not getting along in the late 1960s, John told Paul, “All you ever did was “Yesterday.” But, of course, he wanted the dig to reach beyond the single song. After Lennon was assassinated in New York, McCartney wrote, “If I Said I Loved You,” feeling that in the 1960s, it was not common for men to say that to each other. Instead, he remembered John’s smile and how he would lift his glasses and say, “It’s only me,” and laugh, putting them back in place.
Now that he writes alone, McCartney says, “I always have a song on the go.” It starts with a guitar or a piano, working with a melody. Then, if a line or a word doesn’t seem right, he moves over it, looks into a poetry book for inspiration, or considers how others’ songs he likes handled similar problems. If he can stretch out three hours in the afternoon, Paul says he can get the crux of a song, but it works best if he has an inspiration to ignite.
Words for Young Songwriters
McCartney encourages aspiring songwriters to read widely. He pulls inspiration from others and carries a poetry book in his back pocket to trigger the right word to fit into an open phrase. He also draws inspiration from world events. For example, McCartney wrote “Blackbird,” thinking about the little Black girl who integrated the schoolhouse in Alabama.
Not Afraid to Shake it Up
When the Beatles started making albums, audiences were satisfied with their picture on the cover. But Paul and John began to commission artwork. “Our agents were appalled that we spent 75 pounds on the (cover) art,” noting that the cost and variety of covers just kept going. They started the rush towards artistic album covers.
McCartney’s black lab comes into the room as one interview concludes, and he pets him while concluding the discussion about his music. Much as his composing work moves on, at a less frenetic pace, giving us more music to contemplate!