Questions I have been asked in gatherings, and on the net.
Beatlemania. What was it. Why did it grip the world? Why did audiences scream and shake and cry in the presence of the Beatles as if they were Deity ?
I have this tendency to emphasize the songwriting of Lennon and McCartney; obviously their charisma as people and as performers was also enormous.
I think the least important part of the Beatles was the frenzy of teenage girls fainting during live shows. If the Beatles had simply been teen heart-throbs, they would have come and gone. Instead, they continued putting out album after album, each album increasing in songwriting skill, maturity, and originality. In addition, the songs came to have a major life outside the Beatles. “Yesterday,” for example is one of the most covered songs in history.
I quote songwriter Steve Earle on this subject: “In retrospect, some have attributed the boys’ preeminence to a simple twist of fate, the right band coming along at the right moment in history. As a songwriter who grew up on the Beatles, I subscribe to an alternate theory. It was the songs.”
Why do you think it matters who wrote which parts?
In other words, why did I write this book? I’ve always been interested in songwriting, as opposed to music performance, and I’ve often felt that songwriters are not given enough credit, while tons of attention is devoted to wildly popular singers and guitarists. I remember hearing “Wichita Lineman” on the radio (before it had become a huge hit), was really struck by it, and the announcer said, “Wichita Lineman,” by Glen Campbell. Well, it’s a great performance by Glen, but he didn’t write the tune. I did some digging, and found out that a person named Jimmy Webb had written it. That led me to tracking down other songs he’d written (many of which were also great), and later to buying his solo albums, which have turned out to be among my favorite albums. So from a practical standpoint, understanding who wrote a great song leads to getting exposed to other great songs. In addition, listening to different songs by the same writer helps you understand his or her vision and style.
In pop/rock music, there are at least three patterns: one is Elvis or Frank Sinatra – you’re a performer only, a singer or an instrumentalist. I think Elvis didn’t even pick his own songs, the Colonel did that. Second pattern is, you’re a songwriter, and other people record your songs. Burt Bacharach and Jimmy Webb are examples of this. They’ve put out their own records, occasionally, but they aren’t known as performers. Third, you have people like Sting and Richard Thompson, who are great performers and great songwriters.
McCartney, Lennon and Harrison are definitely in this last category. However, there’s a special problem with their songs – for the songwriting of the first two, they’re all labeled “Lennon-McCartney.” Often co-writers have their contribution easily separated, as in the lieder tradition of Schubert and Brahms, or with George and Ira Gershwin, Elton John and Bernie Taupin, Burt Bacharach and Hal David. One wrote the music, the other the words. And often the dominant writer, the writer of music, is listed first. Not so with “Lennon-McCartney.” As it turned out, some songs were totally written by Lennon, some by McCartney. Some were thoroughgoing collaborations, with both writers contributing to the music and the words, written from the ground up. For some songs, one writer dominated, and the other writer just added some finishing touches. So my book tries to make sense of the actual songwriting behind the Beatle songs. When people are great songwriters, they deserve full credit for what they’ve written.
When you think about it, “Lennon-McCartney,” is correct for a certain percentage of Beatle songs (for the songs that John dominated in the songwriting stage), but for other songs it is historically incorrect (for songs John wrote alone, songs Paul wrote alone, or songs that Paul dominated). In a way, “Lennon-McCartney” being applied to those other songs is almost dishonest.
So if you take the Beatles seriously, you will see them as songwriters, and if you take them seriously as songwriters, you will want to know who really wrote the individual songs. Then you can see the characteristics of John’s style, or Paul’s style, and have a holistic view of their accomplishment.
Will you talk about the stereotyping of Paul and John as musicians and people?
One issue that has always bothered me: shallow, negative stereotypes about Paul especially. Actually, when you start to take the Beatles seriously as songwriters, you quickly learn that he was not an aesthetic lightweight. In fact, he was the dominant music composer and arranger for the Beatles. He was/is one of the great songwriters of our era. When you realize that the great songs that Paul either wrote by himself, or dominated on, such as “Yesterday” or “Hey Jude” or “Eleanor Rigby,” that kind of shallow stereotyping is blown out of the water. He was also a dominant force on Sgt. Peppers, often seen as the Beatles’ greatest album.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that John is bad. He wrote some of the Beatle songs that are among my favorites. Both Paul and John were brilliant; both were extremely charming and charismatic; both had their share of human flaws. Both were great songwriters. You don’t have to love one and hate the other. You can admire both. (Of course, the Beatles breakup tended to turn Paul fans and John fans against each other; I hope we’ve come out of that since 1970.)
Here’s one example of less-than-insightful Beatle stereotyping. “Paul wrote the soppy ballads, and John wrote the hard rock songs. However, Paul’s ballads on the Beatle albums were not so bad surrounded by John’s harder edged music.” Actually, from very early on, Paul specialized in screaming rock songs – from his version of “Long Tall Sally” to “I Saw Her Standing There.” On the same day he recorded “Yesterday,” he also recorded his screamer, “I’m Down.”
And John often wrote lovely, gentle ballads – such as “Julia” and “Because.”
So instead of the Beatles as Paul’s ballads against John’s hard rock songs, instead we have two songwriters with amazing ranges, going from ballads to mid-range rock to hard rock. They were proud of their range. John bragged about writing “silly love songs” at times, like Paul. When Paul talked about writing “Helter Skelter,” he said he wrote it “’cause I like noise.”
You’re emphasizing Paul and John as separate songwriters. Wasn’t their collaboration important?
Yes. Of course, there was collaboration at times, so it’s also important, and fascinating, to see how that worked. As I explain at great length in the book, Paul had a tendency to specialize in music, and John had a tendency to emphasize words. So sometimes they would contribute those particular talents to the songs of their counterpart.
However, I reject the idea, especially applied to Paul, that “Paul only wrote great songs when he had John there to help him.” Paul wrote many great Beatle songs by himself. And in songs that Paul clearly dominated, John’s few edits at the end of the process were not what made the songs great, though such edits might have been significant. “John could always spot a bum line,” Paul said.
For those who argue that the Lennon-McCartney collaboration was the key element of the Beatles’ greatness, I show in the book how in the Beatles’ last great albums, the White Album and Abbey Road (and in a lot of the great songs on Let It Be), Paul and John were writing together less and less, were going their own ways. “Thoroughgoing” collaboration is found most frequently on the early Beatle albums. So I see the John and Paul’s increasing departure from collaboration as a sign of their increasing artistic maturity.
I agree that the collaboration was important and interesting, when it occurred. In the early days of the Beatles, John and Paul had this kind of mystical friendship and partnership. They influenced each other and helped each other. However, they started going different ways, and this didn’t bring about a disastrous drop in quality for the Beatle music; instead, it actually led to a kind of maturity and flowering.
Don’t you agree that the Beatles’ solo music does not measure up to their Beatles music, though?
I run into this all the time. “Paul, when he was collaborating with John, helped write many of the great Beatle songs, but even his most enthusiastic supporters will agree that his solo songwriting is dwarfed by his Beatle songs, even if he has had some commercial success as a solo performer.” For some reason, this kind of argument never comes up when John is the subject.
With all due respect to those who have written in this vein, I don’t find this perspective very insightful.
Actually, during the Beatles era Paul was writing many of his great songs alone. By the argument used above, you’d expect them to be inferior. But many of these are masterpieces, such as “Hey Jude,” “Yesterday,” “Things We Said Today,” “Here There and Everywhere,” “Helter Skelter,” “Blackbird,” “You Don’t See Me.” Add a bunch of really wacky songs like “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da,” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” When you go to songs he solidly dominated, you can list things like “Eleanor Rigby,” “Yellow Submarine,” “Lady Madonna,” “Mother Nature’s Son.”
Certainly, he did reach some astounding heights during the Beatles era. The sceptic may ask, “Aren’t these better than the solo songs?” Well, you could argue that a lot of the Beatle songs aren’t as great as “Hey Jude.” That doesn’t mean they’re not good songs. Take “Fool on the Hill” – is it as good as “Hey Jude”? Maybe not. But these kinds of comparisons are kind of nonsensical. They’re both great songs.
You could argue that Beethoven’s Fifth is obviously his greatest, so the rest of his symphonies are lesser works. Well, in a way they are. In another way, they’re different moods in his greatness.
So I would argue that Paul and John wrote great songs and great albums after the breakup. It’s silly to simply write them off as “not as good as the Beatle albums.”
While on this subject, I can wander into the realm of personal preference – in my view, all of the McCartney albums have some great songs, some really good songs, and maybe one or two clunkers. However, I would also say that of many of the Beatle albums. I find the music that McCartney has produced since the breakup is astounding.
John produced some great songs and albums after the breakup, too.
What are some songs by Lennon and McCartney that seem to go against type?
I tell the story in my book of meeting a musician at a party and telling him my views of the individual creativity of Paul and John. He got kind of annoyed, and finally said, “Ok, one thing you can’t deny: John wrote and sang “Helter Skelter” (the scorching hard rock song from the White album) and Paul wrote and sang “Good Night” (the magical, richly orchestrated ballad that ends the White album).” Of course, he had gotten it backwards; Paul wrote and sang “Helter Skelter” and John wrote “Good Night” (and gave it to Ringo to sing).
John wrote so many great ballads (from “If I Fell” to “Across the Universe” to “Because”) that it is actually kind of hard to describe that as going against type. It is going against a widely-accepted cliché, though.
The same is true of Paul’s rock songs. In the early Beatles he specialized in Little Richard screamers, and wrote songs like “I’m Down” as conscious imitations. Late McCartney songs in this style are “Back in the USSR,” “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road,” and “Oh Darling.”
Paul is sometimes viewed as producing light pop songs, while John produced the “serious” Beatle songs. I would say that both produced good or great songs in a wide variety of genres. On the White Album Paul had weird, quirky songs like “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road,” “Honey Pie,” and “Ob-la-Di Ob-la-Da” as well as those haunting folk hymns, “Blackbird,” “I Will,” and “Mother Nature’s Son.” As well as scorching rock songs like “Helter Skelter” and “Back in the USSR.” John had a similar range, from “Julia” to “Dear Prudence” to “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey.”
Didn’t John have an impact on Paul on those songs?
John said that the White Album is the album when the Beatles really broke up. He was adamant about this. “All you experts out there, can’t you hear? This is the album of the breakup. It was John and the band, Paul and the band, George and the band.” I’m paraphrasing, but go read his quote. So John, at least, would really disagree that he had significant impact on Paul’s songs in the White Album.
What did the Beatles mean by the “middle eight” of their songs?
[When I answered this question at the gathering, I think I gave a fairly technical answer and left the questioner still mystified. So, I’ll try to simplify here.] Many songs have two musical parts – the main melody (which in the case of “Yesterday” would be the tune to the words “Yesterday – all my troubles seemed so far away” and so on) and a different, somewhat contrasting melody (in “Yesterday,” the tune to “Why she had to go I don’t know she wouldn’t say”). Call the first main part A, the second part B. Some songs have a third musical section, which you can call C.
So “Yesterday” goes like this A/A/B/A/B/A. With a brief intro and a brief “extro.”
Now there are lots of different names for those sections. Some people call A the “verse” (you repeat the melody but with different words for every verse). And they call B the “bridge.”
The Beatles called B the “middle eight.” It’s not technically correct (just like “bridge” is not technically correct), but that was their colloquial term for B. You can see that the “middle” idea works – B is always between two A’s.
Now go to my book and read footnote 13 on page 31 for a more technical explanation.
George Harrison transparently stole material from others, e.g., the first line of “Something” (from James Taylor’s “Something in the Way She Moves”) or basically all of “My Sweet Lord” (from the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine”). Do you know of any cases of Lennon-McCartney doing that, at least in such an overt way?
Great question. Lennon and McCartney obviously took certain songwriters as models, and wrote songs in those styles. I noted the various influences on Paul’s “Back in the USSR” in my book. Paul learned to write pastiches but put his own stamp on them. John also loved those early rock songs, especially soul/Motown, such as Wilson Pickett, and imitated them. Now, as for actually overt appropriation — Paul said the bass part for “I Saw Her Standing There” was an exact copy of the bass part from Chuck Berry’s “I’m Talking about You.” Much later, in “Come Together” John took Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” as a model. Paul warned that John’s song was too close to the Berry song, so they changed the tempo and sound of it. But John kept some of the Berry words! He was sued, successfully, like George. Those are the only examples I can think of. Oh, the opening lyrics of John’s “Julia” are from Kahlil Gibran.
I had the Samoans I was ward teaching in 1964 tell me ALL the Beatles’ songs were stolen from them, most notably “I’ll Follow the Sun.”
Interesting. “I’ll Follow the Sun,” huh. That’s a fairly obscure one. Not a question, but I still have incisive, insightful commentary, as you can see. If the Beatles stole everything from the Samoans, I’ve got to listen to more Samoan music.
What songs were they proudest of having written?
Hmm. John was very proud of his “confessional” songs that he began to write in the “middle early” Beatle albums. “I’m a Loser,” “Help,” “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Paul was proud of the songs he wrote that harked back to the “standards” of his father’s generation, like “Here There and Everywhere” or “Long and Winding Road.” I think they both liked their experimental, lunatic music, like “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “Yellow Submarine.” Paul said his favorite Beatle recording was “You Know My Name (Look Up My Number)”, just because it was so fun to record. Endless crazy hours in the studio.
I am musically vacuous, but useless trivia! Anyways . . . What important person in the Beatles life had “A Day In A Life” played at their funeral?
That one I don’t know. Brian Epstein?
Whose songs do you prefer?
What, you want me to take sides in a family dispute? Well, I’ve got this classical music background — as a violinist I got used to “absolute” music, music without words. So I had a tendency to focus on music when I listened to pop music, and for me the words were secondary. And Paul was the main musician in the Beatles — he was always more interested in music, John was more interested in words. So I love McCartney’s melodies — “Here There Everywhere,” “You Won’t See Me,” “Eleanor Rigby,” I Will,” “Things We Said Today.” But I really love a lot of the John songs — “I’m So Tired,” “Nowhere Man,” “Strawberry Fields,” “I’m Only Sleeping.”
George wrote my favorites, especially if we move into post-Beatle’s material. But I love your answer.
George wrote some great ones, especially on two albums, the White Album and Abbey Road. Of course, I make the point that many of the great songs on All Things Must Pass were written during the Beatle era. Having two great songwriters in a group, like Lennon and McCartney, is actually pretty rare. To have a third great songwriter is even more surprising.
How long did it take you to write this great book?
I started collecting material for this when I was in college, in the 70s. Especially interviews with Paul and John. I wrote an article on the Beatles’ songwriting that was published in The Journal of Popular Culture when I was in grad school. (Don’t bother to look it up; it is really outdated now. I kind of disown it.) I kept collecting relevant books and interviews. Finally a couple years ago, I thought that I ought to do something with my files, since a lot of the standard misconceptions about the Beatles’ songwriting were still prevalent. So I guess I could say that it took me forty years or so, but a year or two to do the actual writing.
Who is your favorite Beatle author? (mine is Mark Lewisohn).
Yes, Mark Lewisohn is a great Beatles writer. He had some wonderful research on the writing of the early Beatle songs in the first volume of Tune In. I’ll probably have to revise my book when the second volume album of Tune In appears.
What is your favorite post-Beatle song written by McCartney, by Lennon, and by Harrison?
That’s a tough one. I’ll avoid the “solo songs” written during the Beatle era, like “Maybe I’m Amazed” or “All Things Must Pass.” For McCartney, I think of something from Tug of War—maybe “Wanderlust” or “Here Today.” Lennon might be “Watching the Wheels.” Harrison would be “When We Were Fab.” Not to leave Ringo out, “Photograph.”
Why do you think there are so many contradictory statements regarding authorship of songs? (sometimes people even contradict themselves).
Yes, Paul and John in interviews often contradicted each other. And they contradicted themselves in different interviews. The reasons. First, the standard problems with memory—as time passes we forget things, and our memory gets worse. So Paul and John’s memories got wobbly as the years went by. Two, personal perspective. We see things from our own perspective. So, in a song that John contributed a lot of the words to, John said he wrote it, because words were most important to him. And Paul will remember collaboration, in a song to which he might have made a musical contribution.
I’ve got blisters on my fingers. From what song and who said.?
[Someone else: “They’re lobbing it over the plate for you, Todd.”]
Ringo, “Helter Skelter.” It’s a song about the downfall of civilizations. Kind of a mellow, happy song, huh?
Todd, what can you tell us about side-B of the Abbey Road album. It is a delightful collection of shorter-than-usual pieces of music.
Without getting too much into details, Paul wanted to end the Beatles era with a grand “operatic” moment. Both he and John had some not-quite-finished songs that they could throw into the mix. Of course, then there were those great songs from the beginning of side B, “Because,” and “Here Comes the Sun.” The “medley” was mostly Paul, though John contributed “Mean Mr. Mustard,” “Sun King,” “Polythene Pam.”
Who’s the audience for this book?
Extreme Beatle nerds, and my close friends. Joking aside, anyone who takes the Beatles seriously. Anyone who’s interested in songwriting, in creativity. I have one songwriter friend who said reading it inspired him to write more songs, and to work on some of his unfinished songs.
Some critics have noted the similarity of this book and “In Sacred Loneliness.” Do they have a point, or is it too much of a stretch?
Funny question, ha. The subject is totally different. However, the methodical, plodding scholarly technique — with lots and lots of numbingly boring footnotes — is pretty similar. Actually, there are some really good stories in both books. Which critics by the way? From the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Rolling Stone or the L.A. Times?
Those too, probably, but I was thinking of the Deer Valley Shopper.
Somehow I missed that coverage from the Deer Valley Shopper.
Which songs’ reputations have improved over time? And vice versa
Good question. I’ll have to think about that. However, on an album level, Sgt. Peppers is an interesting case. It used to be the “Citizen Kane” of rock albums, always voted number one in polls of best rock album ever. Then there has been a kind of reaction against it. Mikal Gilmore, writer for the Rolling Stone, has written that its reputation among rock critics went down when they found out that Paul McCartney dominated it. That’s a complex issue. John definitely added a lot to the final product — including the main part of “A Day in the Life.” Again, on an album level, the reputation of Revolver has gone up. A lot of people now choose Revolver as the Beatles’ masterpiece.
As you’re well aware, we can no longer think or feel our way back into a pre-Sgt Pepper mindset, so we can’t fully appreciate how revolutionary it sounded.
That’s true. With great art, after you’re used to what was once novelty, you have to still find a certain depth of artistry and humanity to keep you coming back. But Pepper really had overwhelming uniqueness, even after great albums like Rubber Soul and Revolver.
What do Paul and Ringo think about the book?
Ha. I have this wonderful daydream. Paul calls me on the phone. He tells me he loves the book. I say, all right, who is this, pretending to be Paul McCartney? He finally convinces me he is Paul, then offers to let me interview him at length some time. Oh well, a little megalomania never hurt anyone . . . Now, as for Ringo, I don’t think he cares much about the whole issue of Lennon-McCartney songwriting.
When did you become interested in The Beatles?
I became interested in the Beatles when I was in 6th Grade in Roy, Utah, and saw them on the Ed Sullivan show. I was fascinated by their music. I kind of took a detour into classical music, but got interested in pop-rock music again in high school, about the time of Sgt. Pepper. One of our radio stations in Provo, Utah played the whole White Album — I was gobsmacked by it.
Have you written any songs yourself?
I’ve never written any songs, though I’ve written melodies for the songs of my friend Mark Davis. I played violin, acoustic and electric, with him for years. He’s a great songwriter, too.
Which was greater, the Beatles’ influence on Brian Wilson, or Wilson’s influence on them?
Wilson’s influence on McCartney’s music was tremendous. I haven’t researched the Beatles’ influence on Wilson. Apparently, Brian has said that Rubber Soul had a big impact on him. Paul has said that Revolver and Sgt. Peppers were influenced by the Beach Boys. (Then the first cut on the White Album has Beach Boy influence, along with other influences.) Paul often says that the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds is his favorite album, and “God Only Knows” is his favorite song.
What are some of the most interesting stories behind specific Beatle songs?
In my book, each song entry starts with a narrative of how the song was written. Then I discuss evidence, especially contradictory evidence. The narrative parts have some great stories. The story of how Paul dreamed the main tune for “Yesterday,” and played it for people with the working title “Scrambled Eggs,” (followed by “Oh baby how I love your legs”) is a great story, but probably so well known that I don’t need to repeat it here. I like the story of how Paul wrote “Let It Be” from another dream, in which he talked with his departed mother, Mary McCartney. The story behind “Hey Jude” is fascinating, as it reflects the complex interrelationships of John, Yoko, Cynthia, Julian, Francie Schwartz (Paul’s girlfriend) and Paul at the time. (Paul started writing the song while driving to visit Cynthia and Julian after the divorce. When John first heard the song he thought it was about him and Yoko.)
The extent to which non-Beatles contributed to the Beatle songs is striking. For example, the first lines of “Happiness is a Warm Gun” came from Derek Taylor, the Beatles’ press officer. John asked a group of friends for a phrase describing how smart a woman was, and Derek said his father had a phrase, “She’s not a girl who misses much.” John liked that and it became the first words of the song. He melded three different songs together for this song. The title came from the cover of an American gun magazine. John often used “found poetry” for his lyrics.
Many of the songs were written in stages. For example, Paul’s “Michelle” used to be a guitar instrumental that Paul would play as a joke at parties when he was still at school. He would play like he was a “cool” Frenchman, strumming away in a corner. Much later, John said, Paul, why don’t you do something with that? It’s a good tune. So Paul resurrected it. John helped with the middle eight. Paul worked with Jan Vaughan, wife of his friend Ian Vaughan, to get the French lyrics.
Probably the most complicated writing history of all the Beatle songs is “Eleanor Rigby.” Everyone agrees that Paul started writing it, then we have lots of conflicting evidence from Paul and John about the extent of John’s collaboration.
The Beatles often had a song fairly complete, but with phrases missing from the lyrics. One example is George’s “Piggies.” He had a blank space that needed some lyrics. His mother, Louise French Harrison, suggested “What they need’s a damn good whacking.” A classic Beatle line, from a non-Beatle. It has a real motherly touch.
There are other books that discuss how the Beatle songs were written. What does your book add that they don’t have? How is your book different?
Yes, there are other books about the Beatles’ songwriting. Some of them are good books, and were useful to me. Steve Turner’s book, A Hard Day's Write: The Stories Behind Every Beatles Song, is an excellent work of journalism, in which he interviews people involved in the Beatle songwriting. But none of the other books focused entirely on the Beatles’ songwriting are scholarly. And by scholarly, I don’t mean just pedantic. I mean, showing the evidence in a careful way. With footnotes, so people can check your evidence. Putting the evidence in chronological order. (For obvious reasons, early, first-hand evidence is more valuable that late or second-hand evidence.)
This is all important and necessary because on specific songs, there is lots of contradictory evidence. For example, John may claim a song as his own, and Paul remembers collaboration. Often, John will contradict himself in different interviews, and Paul will contradict himself in different interviews. Sometimes, they will give maddening possible or probable “memories,” instead of certain memories. Like “I think I contributed to that song, but maybe not.”
So to reach a conclusion on who wrote each song, you have to collect and balance this evidence carefully.
In my introduction, I give examples of flawed use of this kind of evidence. John gave a long interview to Playboy late in his life, in which he commented on all of the Beatles songs, and it was published as a book. So it is readily available. One thing careless authors do is take that one late source, then say, a certain song is a John song or a Paul song. Actually, there might be five relevant, somewhat contradictory, interviews that the author should reflect to be fair. What did Paul say about that song? (Often he remembers collaboration when John claimed a song.) What did John’s earlier interviews say about the song?
So the other books can be helpful, but are not scholarly. My book gives a much more complete, updated treatment of the subject.
Some biographers of the Beatles are often not even interested in their songwriting. So they start with a basic misunderstanding of the accomplishment of McCartney and Lennon. When they do deal with their songwriting, they do it in the flawed ways I describe above.
What interesting stories did you end up leaving out of the book?
I can’t think of any, off the top of my head.
Do you have plans to write more about The Beatles?
I have no plans to write more about the Beatles, though it might be fun to write about the solo Beatles’ songs. My son wants me to write a book on the great Richard Thompson, whom we just saw live. My next book, however, might be a biography of a nineteenth-century Navajo leader, Ganado Mucho.
Tell us about “Eleanor Rigby.”
Well, briefly, Paul came up with the melody at the Asher residence, in London, where he was living. He was vamping on an e-minor chord and the tune came. He heard it all in that chord. In interviews, he said, Tunes are in the chords if you listen carefully enough. But no one listens carefully enough.
He got the beginnings of the story quickly enough. It was a song about female loneliness, which is one of his themes. He didn’t have the names though. At first it was Father McCartney, but he thought his father was very different from this character, so decided to change it. He or John or someone else looked McKenzie up in a phone book. (The story varies.) Paul got Eleanor from Eleanor Bron, an actress he knew.
So now the story goes in different directions. Paul says he was still missing verses (the words for the verses), so he went to Lennon’s house and they finished it up. (According to one account.)
However, Lennon says Paul brought it to the studio still incomplete. So he (Paul) turned to non-musicians in the studio, like Mal Evans and Neil Aspinall, to help him fill the gaps. This deeply offended John, and he took Paul off to a private place and they finished up the lyrics. None of the suggestions from the non-musicians was used, says John.
Others say these suggestions were used.
How much did John contribute to the lyrics? Both Paul and John are all over the map on this. John said he wrote more than 70 percent of the lyrics at some times; at other times, he said more than half of the lyrics.
Paul, in an angry interview, said John contributed about half a line. Elsewhere, asked about how he collaborated with John, he provides “Eleanor Rigby” as an example, which doesn’t sound like “half a line.”
Pete Shotton, John’s close personal friend, describes his own contributions to the song, and says his personal recollection is that John made absolutely no contribution to it at all.
So it isn’t certain exactly how much Paul and John contributed to the lyrics. I accept John as an important contributor. However, it is typical that this kind of collaboration is finishing incomplete lyrics. Paul already had 100% of the music before any collaboration started.
So that is a very condensed retelling. Go read the five pages in my book.
Tell us about a song that was collaborative.
Well, as I’ve said, there were two forms of working on the songs. One was writing a song from the ground up, eye-to-eye, playing guitars, sitting on the hotel room beds.
The other was one or the other starting a song substantially, then bringing it to the other for help in finishing it. John helped Paul finish up the lyrics to a lot of his song. Paul said he often wrote the middle eights to songs John had started.
One song that is an example of that first type, collaboration from the ground up, is “She Loves You.” They wrote it eye-to-eye, with guitars, sitting on a hotel bed. Apparently, Paul had the idea of doing an answering song, “She loves you” then someone answers, “Yeah yeah.” This answering idea was dropped but some of the lyrics remained. Then they worked on it at Paul’s home, with Jim McCartney watching TV in the next room. When it was done, they played it for him. “Very good,” he said, “but you need to change ‘yeah yeah yeah’ to ‘Yes yes yes.’” At which, Paul and John collapsed in laughter.
What were your sources?
Because firsthand sources are so important, I take the interviews of Paul and John as my primary source. John went over the entire Beatle catalog at least five times in interviews. The Connolly interview in 1970, the Rolling Stone interview with Jan Wenner (late 1970), Hennessy (1971), the Playboy Interview with Sheff (1980). Paul went over the catalog in his interviews with Miles, published in Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now in 1997. Then you have lots of other interviews by Paul and John, some of them published in pretty obscure places. You have press conferences. Sometimes you can find these interviews or press conferences on bootlegs or on Youtube.
Then you go to interviews and books by early Beatles insiders, some of whom actually contributed to the Beatle songs, by filling in a blank in the lyrics. Sometimes they saw the songs being finished in the studios, or at one of the Beatles’ homes.
The Get Back tapes are a gold mine for the songs the Beatles were writing at that time. Some of them, like “Get Back,” they kind of wrote in the studio. Of course, there is a huge library of Beatles bootlegs. Sometimes they have information on writing the songs.
What were some of the songs Paul and John disagreed about, in those interviews?
Well, one of the major misconceptions about those interviews with Paul and John is that they disagreed on only a few songs. In fact, once Paul said, we only disagreed about one song – “In My Life.” That is simply not so! They disagreed on the writing of many songs. One common pattern is John claiming a song as his own, and Paul remembering a mutual songwriting session for that song. (I think John was possibly focusing on words, not music.)
I’ve made a list of some of the songs that have major conflicts in attribution. They are: “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Help!,” “Norwegian Wood,” “In My Life,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” “Tell Me What You See,” “This Boy,” “Ticket to Ride,” “Yes It Is,” “It Won’t Be Long,” “It’s For You,” “Bad to Me,” “If I Fell.” There are many other examples.
What’s the story on “In My Life”?
Well, this is one where John claimed the song, and Paul remembered extensive collaboration. Paul has vivid memories of coming to John’s house, finding the lyrics to “In My Life: written out (either complete or the first few verses), and saying, Hmm, you need a tune for this. So Paul sat down at John’s Mellotron and came up with the tune, influenced by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. He played it for John, “What do you think?” “Nice,” said John. According to one interview, they continued with the lyrics now, filling out the verses together. (Or in other accounts, John had written all of the lyrics before Paul saw it.)
While John claimed the song completely in some interviews, giving it as an example of how he could write melody “with the best of them,” in other interviews he says Paul contributed to it.
Paul, in his “angry” interview, was upset that John just “forgot” that he (Paul) had written the tune to the song.
I accept that Paul wrote the music, John wrote the words, the only Beatles song (that I know about) with that pure, logical division of labor.
When you have a dispute in attribution like that, how do you come to a conclusion on who wrote the song?
I use a lot of the standard principles used for evaluating historical evidence. For example, the earliest evidence is often the best, simply because the subject’s memory is better then. So sometimes you have interviews and press conferences before those post-breakup interviews of John and Paul, and you lean toward those if they conflict with the later interviews.
As I’ve mentioned, firsthand evidence is best, so the interviews of Paul and John are the bedrock. However, sometimes Beatles insiders, such as George Martin or Derek Taylor or Mal Evans, were in the studio when songs were being finished up. Sometimes they were at Paul or John’s houses when they were working on them. (Sometimes, as we have seen, they were even contributors to the song, as was the case with Derek Taylor and “Happiness is a Warm Gun.”) So I go to interviews and books by insiders.
Third, you have to be wary of bias in the interviews of John and Paul. After the breakup, which was like a bitter divorce, they were going back and forth in interviews, sometimes attacking each other. So I think that’s another reason to balance the post breakup interviews with earlier interviews, when you can.
Fourth, you have to wary of your own biases. When there is conflicting evidence, you can’t simply say, I’ll accept whatever John says, and assume on principle that Paul is wrong. Or, as a big Paul fan, I’ll accept whatever Paul says. You have to look are both sides of the story.
Because of all this:
Often I will lean toward the earlier evidence.
I’ve found that there was a lot of collaboration in the early Beatles, so when there is conflicting evidence, I often lean toward collaboration for that time period.
When there is a detailed, anecdotal account of writing a song (as in the case of “In My Life”), I find that convincing.
Sometimes, evidence can support other evidence. For example, if five interviews agree, and a sixth is an outlier, you might go for the position with the most support. (On the other hand, if the outlier is the earliest, most detailed and most firsthand evidence, you might give it added weight, making it a more difficult decision.)
Sometimes you cannot come to an exact conclusion on attribution in a song. Partly this is because Paul or John contradict themselves in different interviews, or use possible or probable language. For example, in his 1997 interview, Paul says, of “Tell Me What You See,” “I seem to remember it as mine. . . . it might have been totally me.” So this is “probable” language. But if he uses “might,” it equally “might” have included some collaboration from John. However, Paul is leaning toward “totally me.” Then he continues on and undercuts this: “I would claim it as a 60-40. . . . they [the early McCartney and Lennon] did a job.” Now he definitely includes collaboration, including a substantial 40% contribution from John! So our alternatives are 100% McCartney and 60/40 McCartney-dominated collaboration. All in one interview. But how can you go from 100% to 60%? What happened to 90% or 80%?
John, by the way, twice ascribed the song to Paul, 100%.
So sometimes this is not an exact science; you have to make difficult judgments. Different people might look at the evidence and come to different conclusions.
The great advantage of my book, however, is that it puts the conflicting evidence in front of readers so they can evaluate my conclusion for attribution, and come to their own conclusions.