Criticism of Paul McCartney’s Lyrics – The Stories Behind the Songs | Music books

IIf he hadn’t become a musician, says Paul McCartney, he probably would have been an English teacher. He has fond memories of his English teacher, Alan Durband, who studied with FR Leavis and taught young Paul the value of careful reading. When he wrote songs with John Lennon, chords and melody came first. But words mattered too. Where the first direct and ironic words wowed their audience through a flurry of pronouns – She Loves You, From Me to You, Please Please Me, etc. – the last words aspired to poetry.

Take Eleanor Rigby, which started out as a song about the kind of old lady that McCartney did chores as a scout during work week and thought he called Daisy Hawkins until he worked with Eleanor Bron. on the movie Help! and seeing a sign with Rigby’s name in Bristol. “The secret to successful songwriting is the ability to paint a picture,” he says, and Eleanor Rigby’s photo of “picking rice in the church where a wedding took place” perfectly captures his loneliness, just like the line “writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear” done with Father McKenzie (originally Father McCartney, until a trawl in the phone book revealed an alternative Appropriately trisyllabic). It’s home-made English lyrics – “the face she keeps in a jar by the door” alludes to Nivea cold cream, a McCartney’s mom favorite – with universal resonance: Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs were among the song’s biggest fans.

Many biographies have traced the origins of the Beatles songs. This is the McCartney version. Spread over two sumptuous volumes and over 900 pages, and complemented by memorabilia from the million and more items from his archives (photos, posters, paintings, notes and letters), the book was born from conversations with the poet Paul Muldoon: 50 hours of them, in 24 sessions between 2015 and 2020, covering 154 songs. A priori, the two Pauls do not have much in common: one a complex poet, the other a pop star. But they share an Irish heritage. And some of McCartney’s rhymes (pataphysical / interrogative, Edison / medicine) wouldn’t seem out of place in a Muldoon poem. Either way, the two hit it off. Although Muldoon has stepped back from the text, you can feel it in the background, prompting and inciting. In fact, the book becomes an autobiography, with Muldoon playing the role that Dennis O’Driscoll played in the interviews that became Seamus Heaney’s autobiography, Stepping Stones.

The biggest influence on McCartney’s music was the death of his mother, Mary, when he was 14. ”) But now accepts that it must have been. He wrote more directly about her in the year of her death, 1956, in I Lost My Little Girl, a song that was only released in 1991. And her name is verified (“When I find myself in hard times / Mother Mary comes to me “) in Let It Be, a phrase she liked to use and which also appears in Hamlet, which McCartney read in school. A midwife in life, she was also a midwife in her afterlife, helping to deliver some of her finest songs.

McCartney also has fond memories of his trumpeter father, whose love of crosswords he compares to his own approach to songwriting. When he sat down with Lennon – two guitars, two notepads, two pencils – they would have written a song within three hours: “After that, your brain is fine.” You would think there must have been sessions where nothing happened but he doesn’t remember.

He talks a lot about Lennon, with nostalgia and tenderness (“I still have it whispering in my ear after all these years”), and is keen to stress that they ended on good terms; at their last meeting “we talked about how to bake bread”. Harsh words were exchanged when the Beatles broke up, with the scathing John despising Paul’s taste for “silly love songs,” to which he retaliated by writing a song called Silly Love Songs. But until the breakup, their differences were productive: “I could calm him down and he could set me on fire. They reflected, John with his right-handed guitar, Paul with his left-handed guitar. And their fierce rivalry produced brilliant harmonies. “We saw ourselves as Lennon and McCartney from the start,” he says, a double act like Gilbert and Sullivan or Rodgers and Hammerstein.

The lyrics he wrote as a solo artist and for Wings are also included here. And many aspects of his behind-the-scenes life are discussed along the way: his pacifism (which began after meeting Bertrand Russell), vegetarianism, birdwatching, parenting, painting (which took off after a conversation with Willem de Kooning) and shameless cheerfulness (“this is OSS: Optimistic Song Syndrome”). All kinds of music influenced him, Cole Porter like Little Richard: “Nobody thought that at the time but we were really big fans of music from our parents’ generation.” But the real eye-opener is all he took from the books – “intertextuality as they call it in upscale circles”. Among the writers he alludes to are TS Eliot, George Orwell, James Joyce, Philip Larkin, Harold Pinter, Adrian Mitchell (“a good friend”), Eugene O’Neill, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Sean O’Casey, Charles Dickens, LP Hartley, and Louis MacNeice. And while the tone of the book is conversational, Muldoon’s montage ensures that it is also worth quoting: “Writing a song is like talking to a psychiatrist,” “The vignette is really my business. “,” It’s not so much that I compose songs, they happen “.

The most surprising arrival of its kind was Yesterday, the air of which was in his head when he woke up one day and which seemed very familiar to him; It wasn’t until he played it to others that he realized that it only existed in his head. To bring it down, he used fictitious words: what became “Yesterday all my problems seemed so far away” started out as “scrambled eggs, oh my baby, how I love your legs.” The stories of the songs are often as interesting as the lyrics. With Ticket to Ride, he and John also thought of a trip they had taken to Ryde, on the Isle of Wight; Blackbird, with its “broken wings”, was written after the assassination of Martin Luther King; “Hey Jude was originally Hey Jules and wrote for young Julian Lennon after John divorced Cynthia; the portrait of a community in Penny Lane was inspired by Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood as she leaves the house “was almost like a shooting script for the Wednesday Game.”

The book will not persuade the Nobel Committee on Literature to honor McCartney like they did Bob Dylan, and although he has already written a song about the Queen (“a person I very much admire”), it will not be the next poet laureate. Stripped of the music, the words on the page may seem haphazard or mundane. But at best, he’s a wonderfully versatile lyricist: troubadour, actor, elegist, social commentator, pasticheur. And anyone who is even half interested in The Beatles will find the lyrics fascinating.

The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present is published by Penguin (£ 75). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from guardbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.


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