An Introduction to Who Wrote the Beatles Songs: A History of
by Todd M. Compton
Who Wrote the Beatle Songs? A History of Lennon-McCartney is, I think, the most important book available on the Beatles’ songwriting — as opposed to their group history, their personalities, their musical performance (all of which are important and related to their songwriting). Thus I believe this is a foundational reference work on the Beatle songs, singles and albums, as well as a major interpretation of the Beatles’ creativity.
All of the Beatles songs (except for covers, and songs by George Harrison and Ringo Starr) were attributed to “Lennon-McCartney.” It has long been an open secret that many of these songs were written by either Lennon or McCartney alone, or that one of them had clear ownership of a song, and the other simply helped finish it up, or did some light editing on it. John, with his gift for words, often helped finish the lyrics of Paul songs (as in “I Saw Her Standing There,” “She’s Leaving Home,” or “Drive My Car”), and Paul, with his gift for music, often added music to John songs (as in “Help!” or “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”). Sometimes both had an incomplete song, and they simply put the two songs together (as in “A Day in the Life,” “Baby You’re a Rich Man” or “I’ve Got a Feeling”) to make a successful whole.
Thus, the attribution “Lennon-McCartney” was often incorrect. In my book, I look at every song recorded or written by the Beatles before their breakup, analyze the evidence for how that song was written, and reach a conclusion on who wrote the song: John Lennon; Paul McCartney; Lennon-McCartney; McCartney-Lennon; Harrison; Starkey; or others. In addition, I found that many Beatles songs were written in collaboration with Beatle family members, wives, or Beatle insiders. I also look briefly at cover songs, as the Beatles sometimes re-interpreted songs so completely as to almost make them their own.
The evidence for the writing of the Beatle songs — from interviews of Lennon and McCartney, Beatle press conferences, reports from Beatle insiders — is often contradictory. Lennon and McCartney frequently disagreed on a particular song, but they also contradicted themselves in their various interviews over the years. In order to disentangle these knots of evidence, I use standard historical methods — using first-hand evidence whenever possible, using early evidence whenever possible, avoiding standards traps such as “appeal to authority” or drawing conclusions from incomplete evidence, or from only one side of a disputed position. I also try to document the evidence carefully, with good footnoting.
Aside from the value of discovering the writer or writers of each song, one result is fascinating narratives on how each Beatle song was written. A few examples:
One of the funniest lines in George Harrison’s “Piggies” is “what they need’s a damn good whacking.” However, George didn’t write it. He sang the song to his mother, Louise French Harrison, with one gap, a line missing from the song’s middle eight. She supplied it.
John Lennon often used “found poetry” in his songs. The first part of “Happiness is a Warm Gun” came from random phrases shouted out by John’s friends Derek Taylor, Neil Aspinall and Pete Shotton while everyone was on an acid trip in a rented house. John had told them that he needed to finish a song, then said, “Neil, take some notes, we’ll get some stuff down. Think of phrases.” The first line came when John wanted to know how you described a girl who was really smart, and Derek remembered his father’s phrase: “She’s not a girl who misses much.”
One song disputed between John and Paul is “In My Life.” John says that he wrote the song, including all the lyrics, drawing on memories of his days in Liverpool, while Paul helped with “the harmony and the middle eight.” Paul, however, said that John had a stanza or two written, without music, when Paul came to John’s house for a songwriting session. According to Paul’s memories, he sat down at a Mellotron and wrote all of the music, then worked on the rest of the lyrics with John.
Paul sometimes dreamed songs. He woke up one day with the melody to “Yesterday” in his head and couldn’t believe that he had written it. He wondered if it was an old standard song that he’d heard somewhere. He quickly worked out chords for the tune, then played it to friends for months, asking if they’d heard it before. The provisional lyrics were “Scrambled eggs —oh baby, how I love your legs.” His friend, singer Alma Cogan, confessed that she was not too keen on this lyric, but liked the tune . . .
I once met someone at a party, and I was telling him about my research. He told me: “One thing you can’t deny — John wrote and sang ‘Helter Skelter’ [the blistering hard rock song on side three of the White Album] and Paul wrote ‘Goodnight.’” [the slow lullaby with lush orchestral arrangement than ends the White Album]. Actually, this person got these songs exactly opposite. Paul wrote “Helter Skelter” after he read a report in a music paper about a song that was “the loudest, most raucous rock ‘n’ roll” song a certain group had ever done. Paul was inspired to write a song of that description for the Beatles. For “Goodnight,” John had written a lullaby for Julian, brought it in, gave it to Ringo to sing, and asked George Martin to give it a real “Hollywood” orchestral arrangement.
While there has been a partisan divide between John and Paul, and their fans, after the Beatle breakup, my research has led me to admire the brilliant, idiosyncratic creativity of both songwriters, and to reject slanted stereotypes of them. Paul has been typecast as a shallow writer of mindlessly optimistic pop tunes and ballads, never interested in experimental or rock music. Actually, many of his songs deal with tragic themes, the problems of loneliness and isolation, and attempts to bridge loneliness in love (“She’s Leaving Home,” “Yesterday,” “Hey Jude,” “Let It Be”). In addition, he wrote and performed many of the Beatle rock screamers — little Richard songs such as “Long Tall Sally,” and his own songs such as “I’m Down” and “Helter Skelter.” He was fully involved in experimental music in the Revolver-Sgt. Peppers period especially. John has been typecast as the sole rocker of the Beatles, but while he loved rock, he was also interested in the melodic “standards” tradition in popular music, and wrote tender ballads, such as “Julia” and “Goodnight.” There is a vulnerable, sensitive side to John that is belied by viewing him as simply a rocker. If there is a significant difference between the two writers, I would say that John gradually came to have more interest in lyrics than in music, while Paul always was more interested in music.
Musicologist Michael Hicks writes of Who Wrote the Beatle Songs: “A special book indeed: an exhaustive — and blessedly fussy — compendium of the impulses behind every Beatles (and Beatles-born) recording. Authoritative and tantalizing, it offers new insights for even the most seasoned Beatles aficionado.”
An overview of my attributions for the Beatle songs can be found below:
"The Beatles Songs: A Chronological Overview"