Music

What Everyone Gets Wrong About the Beatles

The band’s best lyricist isn’t John.

Paul McCartney and John Lennon hold their guitars while on the set of The Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964.
Paul McCartney and John Lennon on the set of The Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964. Bettmann via Getty Images

I’ve long derived a trollish glee from arguing with people that Paul McCartney was, in fact, the best lyricist in his first band—the one that made it very, very big. Fans know that Paul has been much maligned as a lyricist over the years, derided as a writer whose sensibilities range from cheesy to baroque to nonsensical. But I’ve always found hardcore John supremacists to be a uniquely insufferable bunch, and arguing in favor of George, while quite possibly correct, feels boring in a not-as-contrarian-as-you-think-you’re-being sort of way. Give me the glorious nothingness of “Hello Goodbye” over the opaque pretentiousness of “I Am the Walrus” any day of the week, I’ll declare, secretly glad that I don’t actually have to choose.

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This is fundamentally silly, of course, as are most arguments about the “best [x] in the Beatles.” There’s no better example in popular culture of a whole so vastly exceeding the sum of its parts, even considering the staggering individual gifts of said parts. The reason that “Lennon-McCartney” remains the most beloved (and lucrative) songwriting credit in pop history is how well the two complemented each other, their famous mix of collaboration and competition producing a bunch of songs that changed the 20th century.

I nonetheless have felt validated in my heterodoxy after poring over McCartney’s recently published two-volume set The Lyrics, a gorgeous work that’s carefully conceived, lovingly appointed, and totally delightful. All told, the collection spans north of 800 pages and collects the lyrics to 154 McCartney songs, each of which comes with an accompanying commentary essay “by” Paul. (These are written in collaboration between McCartney and another illustrious Paul of Irish extraction, the poet Paul Muldoon; as detailed in the books’ opening pages, the commentaries are culled from about 50 hours’ worth of interviews that Muldoon conducted with McCartney over a span of several years.) Aside from the lyrical transcriptions and McCartney’s own ruminations, The Lyrics hosts a trove of photos (some famous, some less so), handwritten lyrics sheets, and assorted Paulalia, like tour itineraries, notebook doodles, and various pieces of correspondence.

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Reading song lyrics on a page is a definitively incomplete endeavor and in Paul’s case more than most, given that he’s one of the most aurally gifted people to ever walk the face of the earth. McCartney’s best lyrics are marvels of musicality, so expertly fitted to their setting that you almost take them for granted. Consider the beginning of 1965’s “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” an intoxicating tornado of language and, finally, non-language: “I’ve just seen a face/ I can’t forget the time and place where we’ve just met/ she’s just girl for me and I want all the world to see/ we’ve met, mm mm mm mmm mm.” He wants all the world to see they’ve met; what a beautiful little sentiment. Take, also, “Close your eyes, and I’ll kiss you,” such a perfect opening line for a love song that we forget that someone actually thought it up. He can be a master of evocation—“changing my life with a wave of her hand”—and aphoristic bons mots that stick in your head: “Love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight.” Even better: “You may be a lover but you ain’t no dancer,” one of those perfectly McCartney-an phrases that feels like so much more than it actually says.

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Paul McCartney has been one of the most famous people on earth for nearly 60 years, and in many ways, he has served as the best model of how to be a celebrity: He’s disarmingly amiable, boundlessly energetic, gracious and graceful in the face of unimaginable fame. And yet, beneath the charm and composure, there’s always been a guardedness to him; it’s notable, for instance, that McCartney’s never written a proper memoir, a fact he acknowledges in the foreword to The Lyrics. He’s carefully curated his public persona on his own terms, a move that’s occasionally mistaken for phoniness, or worse. His seemingly flippant reaction to John Lennon’s death mere hours after John’s murder, for instance, earned McCartney widespread scorn from rock press and fans, a vilification he wouldn’t live down for years. But watching the clip today is just heartbreaking: Here’s a man clearly in the throes of grief, struggling to hold it together in the face of the most ghoulish extremities of celebrity media. In his eyes is a raw and terrified vulnerability that’s impossible to shake.

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All this is to say that we shouldn’t be surprised that The Lyrics isn’t all that revelatory of the man himself, and many of the stories recounted within will already be well-known to Beatle fans. There’s the oneiric “scrambled eggs” origins of “Yesterday,” for instance, and the nostalgic Liverpudlian specificities of “Penny Lane”; you’ll also find John’s insistence that the placeholder lyric “the movement you need is on your shoulder” remain in an early draft of “Hey Jude,” correctly identifying it as the best line in the song.

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Despite—or perhaps because of—the lack of headline-grabbing revelations, the pleasures of The Lyrics come in its smaller moments of insight and discovery. McCartney writes frequently and touchingly about his childhood, particularly his parents. I’d either forgotten or never knew that the “wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door” line from “Eleanor Rigby” was inspired by memories of his late mother’s Nivea cold cream. (“I love it to this day,” gushes Paul of the skin care product.) In the entry on “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” he recalls having a synaesthetic relation to days of the week as a child, associating each with a certain color, to which he attributes his tendency to personify days in his songwriting. (There’s the “Sunday’s on the phone to Monday” line in “Bathroom,” but also the “Friday night arrives without a suitcase” bit in “Lady Madonna.”)

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There’s also some disarmingly lovely music writing. The entry on “Let Me Roll It,” one of the best songs from Wings’ 1973 masterpiece Band on the Run, mostly eschews the lyrics to focus in on the song’s signature guitar riff:

The hesitation we feel in that situation—of wanting to reach out but being reluctant to be completely open—is made physical in the abrupt starting and stopping of the riff. The constant cutting short of the moment of the song mimes the subject matter. We all relate to that situation. … “Let Me Roll It” is a sort of long, drawn-out stammer.

My own favorite aspect of McCartney’s lyrics is his comfort at the limits of meaning, a genial insistence that, if you’re someone who listens to rock and roll for the words, then get out of here, please. This crops up in one of the most moving entries in The Lyrics is the essay on “Two of Us,” the first track from Let It Be, an offhandedly perfect song that most bands would sell their souls to be able to write and which is maybe the fourth-best song on what’s probably the Beatles’ worst album. It’s a song Paul wrote about Linda, but when you listen to it, it’s almost impossible not to hear it as John and Paul singing to each other, two voices that are still desperately in love with each other even as the humans behind them have outgrown the relationship. In the essay, Paul notes that the song’s opening couplet, “Two of us riding nowhere/ spending someone’s/ hard-earned pay,” doesn’t make much sense, which I’d honestly never noticed, because noticing that is a dumb response to a piece of music this beautiful. “I don’t necessarily want meaning,” Paul confesses. “I don’t root for meaning all the time. Sometimes it just feels right.” If there’s a better distillation of a great lyricist than that, I’m not going to come up with it.

The Lyrics

By Paul McCartney. Liveright.

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