Lennon and McCartney: Songwriters — A Portrait from 1966
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 recorded).
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 them.
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 then.”
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
That’s all I do
And if you saw my love
You’d love her too
And I love her…
‘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.
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 forward.
During the fall of 1965, in two weeks of constant writing and recording, they producedRubber 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 instrument.”
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 hangover, 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 onRubber 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 doing.”
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.”
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 partnerships.
“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’ as:
Big and black the clouds will be,
Time will pass away
If you put your trust in me,
I’ll 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 that.
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 it.”
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 Thirties.
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 anything.
© Michael Lydon, 1966