Aspiring musicians struggling to compose lyrics need look no further for inspiration than Sir Paul McCartney’s The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present. Recently published in two volumes, over nine hundred pages detail how one of the world’s most prolific songwriters crafted 154 of his most meaningful songs. Each includes a backstory that reveals just how much of his personal life he channelled into his music; anecdotes, trivia, explanations and personal information in the book were captured in conversation with the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Princeton University professor Paul Muldoon. Muldoon paints a picture of a life-long optimist who is, in essence, a literary figure.
LIFE IN MUSIC
While the book has been described as a self-portrait, McCartney insists in the foreword that it is not an autobiography, and he has no intention of writing one. While he has never kept a diary, he says, he is accustomed to distilling life experiences in lyrics. “The one thing I’ve always managed to do, whether at home or on the road, is to write new songs,” McCartney says. “I know that some people, when they get to a certain age, like to go to a diary to recall day-to-day events from the past, but I have no such notebooks. What I do have are my songs, hundreds of them, which I’ve learned serve much the same purpose. And these songs span my entire life.”
Now seventy-nine, the whole of McCartney’s sixty-four-year career is represented in the book, from his first song written at fourteen through his time with The Beatles and Wings, to his solo work. The songs are listed alphabetically rather than chronologically, and the reader jumps back and forth through time. Photos, handwritten notes, drawings, paintings and other memorabilia from McCartney’s personal archive, much of which has never been seen before, accompany the songs. The book even includes the lyrics of an unrecorded Beatles song called Tell Me Who He Is.
The Lyrics explains the circumstances under which the songs were written and the people and places that inspired them. He lists his greatest influences as his parents, his late wife Linda, his high school English teacher Alan Durband, and of course John Lennon. Surprisingly, he also mentions Queen Elizabeth II, on whom he had a crush as a boy when he considered her “quite a babe.”
Among the many revelations in the book is that John Lennon left The Beatles before McCartney did and, while the break-up of the band was painful, the two were on good terms before Lennon was killed. While it is commonly believed that the song Eleanor Rigby derived from a name on a gravestone in a cemetery near Liverpool, McCartney says that it was actually inspired by an elderly lady that he helped as a boy. Eight Days a Week, on the other hand, was an off-hand comment by a chauffeur he employed while he was banned from driving after speeding. Complaining about his long hours, the chauffeur said he’d been working “eight days a week.” McCartney thought it a great title for a song he was working on with Lennon.
McCartney has many more than 154 songs in his repertoire, of course, and his fans will likely disagree with some of his choices! However, there is enough revealing material to keep most people happy. The intention, after all, was to share his personal recollections. In his own words: “I hope that what I’ve written will show people something about my songs and my life which they haven’t seen before. I’ve tried to say something about how the music happens and what it means to me and, I hope, what it may mean to others too.”
Penny Lane (1967)
Penny Lane is described as a ‘docudrama’ as it is an actual street in Liverpool that featured greatly in his younger years. McCartney would change buses there on his way to Lennon’s house and had been a choirboy in nearby St. Barnabas Church; there was even an Italian barbershop there where all the Beatles had their hair cut. The song paints a nostalgic portrait of a special time of his life.
Let It Be (1970)
Written in the run-up to the disbanding of The Beatles, the foursome was stressed and overworked. They also had to deal with the constant presence of Yoko Ono during recordings! McCartney had a dream of his mother telling him to “let it be”. The phrase was like a poetic version of the typical attitude of English northerners: you just have to ‘grin and bear it’.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
The Sergeant Pepper of the famous song came about by accident. A roadie on a plane asked McCartney to pass the salt and pepper and he misheard ‘Sergeant Pepper’. He liked the name, so wrote it into the song. He admits to having taken quite a lot of the psychedelic drug LSD around this time...
Warm and Beautiful (1976)
McCartney cites this as one of his favourite songs. Co-written with Linda, it is a song meant to dispel sadness. It was written after The Beatles broke up, during his time with Wings. He wanted people to look at all the good things in the world as a means to help those dealing with grief.
The tune to one of McCartney’s most beloved songs came to him in a dream. He says it was like finding a £10 note in the street. While working on it, he used what he calls “dummy words“: “scrambled eggs, oh my baby, how I love your legs, scrambled eggs.” Thankfully, these were later replaced by more inspiring lyrics.