McCartney: Songwriters — A Portrait from 1966
Michael Lydon, previously
unpublished piece for Newsweek, March
Just after the release
of Rubber Soul, I had the
chance to meet John Lennon and Paul McCartney in London, and I
conducted in-depth interviews with them about their songwriting. The
following piece, used as a research file for Newsweek, has
never before been printed – ML
IT IS NOW ABOUT A DOZEN YEARS since the pop music
revolution – since Alan Freed began to play, instead of soupy white
imitations, straight rhythm and blues in New York and called it
rock'n'roll; since Wild Bill Haley and his Comets roared to the top
of the Top Ten with 'Shake, Rattle and Roll'; since the advent of
the 45 rpm record and the post-war prosperity stretched that Top Ten
into the Top 40, and even the Top 100.
Despite adult accusations of the
sameness of all the bleating sounds, pop has changed many times in
those years. Those "indistinguishable" songs from the teenager’s
transistors have in fact been the country rock sounds of Carl
Perkins, Gene Vincent or the Everly Brothers; the sweet harmonizing
of the Platters, the Shirelles, the Drifters or the Five Satins; the
plaintive blues orchestrations of Curtis Mayfield’s Impressions; the
funny, guttural blues of Chuck Berry or the Coasters; and the
jazzed-up beat of the Tamla Motown groups, the Miracles,
Marvelettes, and Martha and the Vandellas.
The list merely hints at the diversity.
Most of the songs, however, are poor, quickly recorded imitations of
a seemingly successful formula written by songwriters with a facile
ear for discerning what sound has "teen feel". But for those few
writers and performers – like Mayfield, Keith Richard and Mick
Jagger of the Rolling Stones, and the Beach Boys – who attempt
something new, these 13 years of evolution and synthesis provide a
rich tradition of themes of rhythms, harmonies, and effects to
create upon. No one has done this more successfully or with more
verve than John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
The duo's claim on immortality can be
established purely by their commercial success. In the three and a
half years since 'Love Me Do' became the first Beatles hit, they
have published eighty-eight songs (not including another hundred or
so, some dating back to the earliest days in Hamburg and Liverpool’s
Cavern Club, which have never been published or
By February 1, 1966, the eighty-eight
Lennon-McCartney songs had been recorded in 2,921 versions, and by
now the figure must be well over three thousand. They have been
recorded by other beat groups like Billy J. Kramer, the Rolling
Stones, Peter and Gordon; jazz singers like Ella Fitzgerald; rhythm
and blues groups like the Supremes; ballad singers like Marianne
Faithfull; dance orchestras of every variety and singers in every
country of the world to which electricity has penetrated.
Versions by the Beatles have by now
sold close to 200 million record tracks; total sales of all
Lennon/McCartney-recorded compositions must be pushing half a
billion. Only songwriters established for 30 years or more, giants
like Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, and Jerome Kern,
could hope to match the records set by the two boys in three years.
And when their life as performing Beatles begins to die a natural
death, their lives as writers become increasingly important to
The extraordinary response to their
songs, aside from their appeal as Beatles, indicates their
instinctive feel for the pop idiom developed from a lifetime
immersion, to the exclusion of all else, in popular music. Growing
up in Liverpool, they absorbed both the fruity tradition of music
hall ballads and the constant imports of popular records from
America. John was a poet first, scribbling verses as soon as he
could write, then writing his first song when he had learned one
chord on a guitar at the age of 14. Paul met him in the mid-'50s
when skiffle, an English adaptation of American folk music, was
popular, and the team began work instantaneously.
"When I first met John, he’d written
the words to a skiffle song," Paul told a British journalist
recently. "It still had a skiffley sound, but he’d changed the words
to ‘Come and go with me, Down at the Penitentiaree’ or something
like that. Then I did one, ‘When I Lost My Little Girl,’ with the
three chords I knew at the time. We got out of that stage and worked
out chords together. We used to play truant and go to his house or
mine and mess about all afternoon. It was a great feeling of escape.
One song of that era was ‘Love Me Do.’ It wasn’t good, but it was
only a little bit worse than the kind of things on the hit parade
In those days when they were still the
Quarrymen and then the Silver Beatles, they were fans of Little
Richard, Buddy Holly, Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Chuck Berry, and in
the four or five-hour sessions at the Cavern Club they pounded out
their versions of the American hits over and over again. The
Liverpool scene, then swarming with groups, many now long disbanded,
was also a formative influence.
"If we hadn’t played so long or so
much, we never would have made it," John told me last week. "It was
a funny place, Liverpool then. You were half friends with the other
groups, half rivals. In a way it was like a school of painting
developing among a group, but people who see the school side forget
there were jealousies and feuds. Sure, we learned from the others;
you couldn’t help it. But we were smart heads, we thought from the
start we were better. We were the only group then writing songs, so
we used to say we had written about a hundred, even though it was
only thirty, Some of those are lost by now. We had one, ‘That’s My
Woman Standing Over There,’ I’ve forgotten how it went."
The early songs on their first LP,
Please Please Me – the name taken from their first hit single
– show these influences clearly, and, in fact, includes several
covers of songs by American groups. 'PS, I Love You' has a melody
and harmony straight from the Shirelles; 'I Saw Her Standing There'
is a mixture of Chuck Berry’s beat and Little Richard’s falsetto.
'Thank You Girl' has the ooh-ooh sound in the back up vocals that
was a Buddy Holly trademark. But even there they were able to mix
different sounds so that no song was simply an imitation. 'P.S.' has
an an almost calypso beat, John plays a very bluesy harmonica on
many tracks, and some songs have a bit of Holly, a bit of Little
Richard plus the quick, driving beat, and Liverpudlian "Yeah Yeahs"
that owed nothing to anyone but themselves.
"There’s nothing wrong with pinching ideas from
other people," Paul told me. "Everybody does it – Handel did it –
but most people aren’t as honest as Handel or us. It’s the same
thing as abstract art. Anybody can throw paint on canvas just like
anybody can pinch bits from other songs, but not everybody can get
the same result. You don’t just stick it together. We go into the
studio with a song, play it over and talk about what other groups it
sounds like. Then we see how we want to do it, and we end up with
our interpretation of their style."
The second LP, With The Beatles,
is still from the early days, but the Lennon-McCartney trademarks
are stronger: the choppy rhythm section at beginning and end with a
more melodic chorus section in between. Their arrangements are more
complex: John introduces organ behind the drums, and they call in
their producer George Martin to play piano. 'Not A Second Time'
shows more concern with melody, and they try for the first time a
heavy blues song, 'I Wanna Be Your Man', which became the Rolling
Stones’ first hit record.
According to Dick James, head of
Northern Songs, which publishes all their music, by this time John
and Paul were extremely competent commercial songwriters. "Take
‘From Me to You,’" James said last week. "It is a perfect Tin Pan
Alley song, extremely commercial. It could have been written 30
years ago and will be listened to in another 30 years. It is simple,
direct, repetitive, yet touching in an odd way. There are no frills,
but it supports one idea. There is nothing special about it, but it
is good a standard pop song as has ever been written."
Each of these LP’s were heavily
interspersed with American songs, and the songs Lennon and McCartney
wrote had for the most part been written long before they were
famous. A Hard Day's Night marks the first real break with
what John calls "the cocoon of Liverpool. All the things there we
dropped. It was like going to the next class in school."
The film began shooting in the winter
of 1964, and for the first time they had to write on demand. "I
remember during the filming we needed the title song," recalls
producer Walter Shenson. "Dick James mentioned it to them, the title
came from Ringo, the boys got to work, and they had written,
arranged, rehearsed, and recorded the song in just over 24 hours."
With their success they were more confident and more professional.
The LP includes two of Paul’s most beautiful ballads 'If I Fell' and
'And I Love Her'. Both match in the setting of a mood and the
restrained sweetness of melody any of the older standards, and are
both well on their way to becoming standards themselves to be played
at every dance with 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes'. 'And I Love Her’' has
been recorded 132 times. The lyrics are not sophisticated, rather as
innocently direct as adolescent love:
I give her all my love
And if you saw my love
You’d love her too
And I love
'If I Fell', with the lines "Cause I’ve
been in love before/ I found that love was more than just holding
hands", is, if not a great lyric poem, a wonderfully straight
statement of the hesitancy of teenage love. The title 'A Hard Day's
Night' lets them express Liverpool slang for the first time, as does
'Eight Days a Week'. 'I Should Have Known Better' is a chance to
explore rhythm while 'Tell Me Why' gets a Tamla-Motown style
opening, another instance of them mixing styles.
WITH A HARD DAY'S NIGHT, THEN, the Beatles began
their maturity. The fourth LP, Beatles For Sale, the single
'I Feel Fine'/'She’s A Woman', and the LP from Help!
continued their exploring of their talents. "We started off first
with songs like 'Love Me Do', with easy, stupid rhymes that didn’t
mean very much," Paul says. "Then we moved to a middle bunch of
songs which meant a little bit more. Not an awful lot more, but they
were a little deeper. There was no mystery about our growth, it was
only as mysterious as a flower is mysterious. There’s no more point
in charting it than charting how many teeth I had as a baby and how
many I have now. Nobody thought that was miraculous, except perhaps
my mother. We were just growing up."
Of these songs virtually all are better
than their early output. Their lyrics improve: the melancholy of
"Please lock me away, and don’t allow the day here inside/Where I
hide with my loneliness"; the Dylanesque rhymes of "Gather round all
you clowns/Let me hear you say, hey, you’ve got to hide your love
away"; and the poignancy of "Suddenly I’m not half the man I used to
be/There’s a shadow hanging over me." The harmonies and counterpoint
of 'You’re Going to Lose That Girl', the strings on 'Yesterday', the
rowdy cocksure mood of 'Another Girl' all marked steps
During the fall of 1965, in two weeks
of constant writing and recording, they produced Rubber Soul,
which, they feel, marks an almost total break with what they had
done before. "You don’t know us now if you don’t know Rubber
Soul," says John. "All our ideas are different now."
"If someone saw a picture of you taken
two years ago and said that was you, you’d say it was a load of
rubbish and show them a new picture," adds Paul. "That’s how we feel
about the early stuff and Rubber Soul. That’s who we are now.
People have always wanted us to stay the same, but we can’t stay in
a rut. No one else expects to hit a peak at 23 and never develop, so
why should we? Rubber Soul for me is the beginning of my
adult life." As Paul told Francis Wyndham in an article in
London Life, "You can’t be singing 15-year-old songs
at 20 because you don’t think 15-year-old thoughts at 20 – a fact
that escapes a lot of people."
Part of this excitement is purely an excitement about the
present, and both boys admit it. But the songs of Rubber Soul
do mark a new maturity, both in music and lyrics. Steve Race, a
well-known British jazz critic who has long been a Lennon and
McCartney fan, admits he was astonished when he first heard the LP.
"When heard ‘Michelle’ I couldn’t believe my ears," he said in
heated excitement recently. "The second chord is an A-chord, while
the note in the melody above is A-flat. This is an unforgivable
clash, something no one brought up knowing older music could ever
have done. It is entirely unique, a stroke of genius. In fact, when
Billy Vaughn recorded it, his arranger was so attuned to the
conventional way of thinking he didn’t even hear what the boys had
done, and wrote an A-flat into the chord below – taking all the
sting out. I suppose it was sheer musical ignorance that allowed
John and Paul to do it, but it took incredible daring. And ‘Girl’,
why, it’s like a folk song from some undiscovered land, it’s so new
– the alternation from major to minor is fantastic. The use of the
sitar on ‘Norwegian Wood,’ plus the involutions of the opening three
phrases, is sheer brilliance."
Paul himself talked for two hours on
Rubber Soul to Francis Wyndham. On 'The Word': "This could be
a Salvation Army Song. The word is love, but it could be Jesus (it
isn’t mind you, but it could be). 'It’s so fine, it’s sunshine,
it’s the word'. It’s about nothing, really, but it’s about love.
It’s so much more original than our old stuff, less obvious.
‘Give the word a chance to say/ That the word is just the way’ –
then the organ comes in, just like the Sally Army."
On 'We Can Work It Out' (released as a
separate single in Britain): "The middle eight is the best – it
changes the beat to a waltz in the middle. The original arrangement
was terrible, very skiffley. Then at the session George Martin had
the idea of splitting the beat completely. The words go on at a
double speed against the slow waltz music."
On 'Girl': "John’s been reading a book
about pain and pleasure, about the idea behind Christianity – that
to have pleasure you have to have pain. The book says that’s all
rubbish; it often happens that pain leads to pleasure, but you don’t
have to have it, that’s all a drag. So we’ve written a song about
it. 'Was she told when she was young that pain would lead to
pleasure/ Did she understand it when they said, that a man must
break his back to earn his day of leisure/ will she still believe it
when he’s dead?' Listen to John’s breath on the word 'girl': we
asked the engineer to put it on treble, so you get this huge intake
of breath and it sounds just like a percussion
All the lyrics are imaginative, either
probing problems usually too serious for pop songs or having touches
of the wildly inventive humour that marks Lennon’s poetry. Part of
'Norwegian Wood', written by John after a late night and a
Goes: "I had a girl, or should I say
she once had me/ She showed me her room, isn’t it good, Norwegian
wood, She asked me to stay and she told me to sit anywhere, I looked
around and I noticed there wasn’t a chair."
Every song on the LP has something new. This time,
instead of picking up a country and western song for Ringo to sing
they wrote their own: 'What Goes On'. They fulfil an ambition of
long standing in writing 'Drive My Car', a near perfect one-note
song in which, strictly speaking, there is no melody but the
rhythmic singing of one note. "Melodic songs are in fact quite easy
to write," Paul told me. "To write a good song with just one note in
it – like 'Long Tall Sally' – is really very hard."
Into 'I’m Looking Through You', a piece
with a loping beat, they stick riffs of what is known in England as
"rave-up" guitar, until it comes out as part country and western and
part blues-shout. And yet, despite all the innovation and the
radical expansion of the pop idiom on Rubber Soul, the LP has become
their biggest seller to date. That is one of the advantages in being
both a Beatle and a songwriter, Paul says. "We are so well
established that we can bring the fans along with us and stretch the
limits of pop. We don’t have to follow what everyone else is
Like many artists, however, Lennon and
McCartney find it both difficult and hardly relevant to explain in
words what they are doing and how they do it. When a now-famous
January 1963 article in The Times referred flatteringly to
their use of
"Aeolian cadences" and "chains of
pandiatonic clusters,’ "melismas," and "submediant switches," they
were as baffled as the ordinary fan. They do not find extraordinary
what they have done. In interviews there is hardly a trace of
introspection or critical analysis of their work. If pressed they
try to answer as truthfully as possible, but avoid getting involved
in detailed discussion of how and why they have changed. "It all
comes back to this," Paul said after an hour’s talk. "We just happen
to be songwriters. We write songs that people like. We wrote worse
songs, we hope to write better songs."
They are almost as vague about the
process of writing the songs. Paul has just begun to learn written
notation and for practice recently wrote a simple piece for his
girlfriend, Jane Asher, who plays classical guitar. Otherwise they
write in their heads or work out a tune on a guitar. "I’ve never sat
down to write a simple song," John explained to me. "I might think
the song won’t be complex, but I’m not of those writers who chomp
out songs to a formula. The beginning idea could be anything on
earth. A bit of melody might come to me, and if it sticks, I’ll find
my guitar and play it into a tape recorder, try to fool with it and
extend it. Maybe I’d call Paul up and tell him to come over and
we’ll work on it together. ‘Norwegian Wood’ started as a guitar bit.
I was just fiddling when it came to me. It almost never got written,
but then I found some time."
IN LIVERPOOL, IDEAS USED TO come from playing together,
and a new song might have grown from improvisation on stage. Now,
except for occasional late night sessions when they play for their
own enjoyment, they tend to develop ideas on their own. Many songs,
however, get written just by sitting down to write. "When we have an
LP to do, we know have to write twelve songs, so we will sit down to
write a raver or a ballad on order," said John. "We want to write
more this way, I’ve never liked the idea of going to an office just
to write, but we might do this soon. Otherwise a lot of ideas, good
ones, get lost."
Many songs John and Paul write
together, both doing words and music; others are done solo. But just
as they are distinct personalities, their musical abilities differ.
Paul, more open, gentle, and articulate, tends to write the
"soppier" songs – "John doesn’t like to show he’s sentimental; I
don’t mind." John, a deeper, more explosive, and enigmatic person,
is more willing to try less conventional sounds. John also tends
toward a greater interest in lyrics; Paul towards music. But their
tastes and personalities complement each other, and they are close
and trusting friends, a rare thing in creative
"A perfect example of how we work is
‘Drive My Car,’ Paul said. "I wrote it with the repetitive line
being 'You can give me golden rings'. When I played it to John at
the recording session, he said,
‘Crap!’ It was too soft. I thought
about it and knew he was right, so we went on to other songs, then
that night we spent hours trying to get a better idea. Finally we
ended up with ‘You can drive my car.’ The idea of the bitchy girl
was the same, but it gave the song a better story line, and made the
key line much more effective."
Lyric ideas come on everywhere. They
once wrote a song called 'Thinking of Linking', picking up the
phrase from the television commercial for the Link Furniture
Company. Noting the ambiguous meaning, however, they never recorded
it. Some of John’s ideas stay semi-conscious for years before they
come out as songs. As a child he was amused by a religious motto
that hung in his home:
"However black the clouds may be, in
time they’ll pass away. Have faith and trust and you will see, God’s
light make bright your day." This appeared in Spaniard in the
Works, John’s second book, as: "However Blackpool tower may be,
in time they’ll bass away. Have faith and trump and B.B.C., Griff’s
light make bright your day." And in the song 'Tell Me What You See'
Big and black the clouds will
Time will pass away
If you put your trust in me,
make bright your day.
Both stress that since they do not
write their songs down, the finished record is really the song they
write. In the studio they do most of the arranging, but are aided by
George Martin, who has recorded everything they have done, and by
the inventive playing of George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Though
they would blanch at the comparison, they are rather like Duke
Ellington, who writes and arranges with particular musicians in
mind. "George Martin is important because he knows what we want,"
John told me. "He acts as a translator between us and Norman Smith,
the engineer who actually runs the recording machines."
Now they are interested in getting more complicated
electronic effects, using more over-dubbing, feedback, and "hyping"
their sounds. One of their biggest recent influences has been a
newly popular British group, the Who, who use tremendous amounts of
feedback. "They started us thinking again," Paul said. "We had that
feedback idea in ‘I Feel Fine’ but the Who went farther and made all
kinds of weird new sounds. I suppose Donald Zec [a disparaging music
critic on the Daily Mirror] would say ‘What would they
do without amplifiers?’ But that’s as silly as saying, ‘If God
wanted us to smoke, he’d have given us chimneys.’ We haven’t got
chimneys, but we smoke – so what?" What would the theatre be without
a stage and make-up, or movies without a camera?"
Both men say that other influences are
hard to pin down. "If we say we are influenced by someone or we like
them, that will make them too important. Our best influences now are
ourselves," says Paul. "We listen to records every day, a big
mixture of stuff," says John. "You can’t pick out anyone person."
But John did mention Steve Cropper, guitarist/writer with Booker T.
and The MG’s, suggesting that they would like to have Cropper
produce Beatle recording sessions. Paul mentioned a wide range of
people he likes now: from groups like the Marvelettes and rhythm and
blues singer Otis Redding, through Stockhausen and John Cage, and
onto Albert Ayler, a pioneer of random jazz. Cage, he felt, is too
random. "I like to get ideas randomly but then develop them within a
frame." As an afterthought he put forward the Fugs, a New York group
who sing wildly obscene songs, purposely using verbal shock as a
musical technique. "It’s like a new development in discordancy.
Anyway, its new and very funny," he explained.
Summed up, their musical achievements
have been breathtaking. Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Richard
Rodgers all had written songs, and good ones, by their early
twenties, but none could have matched the sheer output, range, or
originality of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, aged 25 and 23
respectively. Yet they feel they have done nothing extraordinary,
rather that they have just begun, and fairly modestly at
In interviews they stress over and over
again the obvious facts: they have been at the game seriously just
over six years; that much of their early work was adolescent and
imitative; that they can hope to live and create for another forty
years; and that they have total financial freedom to develop in any
way they please.
"None of us has barely started," Paul
says. "At first we wanted to make money, now we’ve got it, a
fantastic platform of money to dive off into anything. People say
we’ve had a fantastic success and that is all. We don’t look at it
that way. We look at our lives as a whole, think in terms of forty
more years of writing. I wouldn’t mind being a white-haired old man
writing songs, but I’d hate to be a white-haired old Beatle at the
Empress Stadium, playing for people. We might write longer pieces,
film scores – I know we want to write the whole score of our next
film. We might write specifically for other people, write for
different instrument – you name it, and it’s possible we could do
Their development has already, in fact,
brought them fully around one circle: Marshall Chess, head of Chess
Records which records Chuck Berry, has asked John and Paul to write
songs for Berry, who until now has written all his songs himself.
The boys now influence their influences.
John and Paul like to write songs and
so far they have hardly had to work at it. "I’d never struggle
writing a song till it hurt," John says, "I’d just forget it and try
something else." The direct sense of their own enjoyment comes
through in the songs. Each one, from the first to the last, is a
direct statement of a simple emotional idea. Perhaps in some cases
the emotion is a juvenile one. They would be the first to admit
that. Yet each song is honest. None has the syrupy sentimentality of
the songs written by adults for teenagers. This transparent honesty
is the key to both the appeal and quality of songs. In that way
their work is a perfect mirror of themselves, the boys whose candid
simplicity has baffled and annoyed their elders.
"One thing that modern philosophy, existentialism and
things like that, has taught people, is that you have to live now,"
says Paul. "You have to feel now. We live in the present, we don’t
have time to figure out whether we are right or wrong, whether we
are immoral or not. We have to be honest, be straight, and then
live, enjoying and taking what we can."
Each song can stand as a statement of
that idea. Thus any comparison of their work with that of earlier
generations of songwriters is beside the point, not just because the
boys have been totally grounded in the idioms of rock ‘n’ roll, but
because their rough and straightforward presentation has no more to
do with Cole Porter’s ironic sophistication than Levi's and the
direct fashions of today have to do with the gauzy silks of the the
To stretch a point, Lennon and
McCartney’s music is pop art, not just pop music; but unlike pop
art, which with time is increasingly evidencing its sterility, their
music shows every sign of deepening in meaning and mood. Their work
to date has shown an unbounded, joyful inventiveness unparalleled in
popular music; it has also shown a deep, if not "serious," insight
into the emotions of growing up. Nothing so far has curbed then. As
John and Paul grow, they are losing none of their fey freedom or
their youth. With that, as they have proved, they can do
© Michael Lydon 1966, 2000
and McCartney: Songwriters,
Michael Lydon, 1966
Beatles and Sgt. Pepper, Mick
Links to the Library:
The Beatles: Music's
Gold Bugs Al Aronowitz, 1964
A Conversation with
Paul McCartney Miles,
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