The secrets are in the songs. Sir Paul McCartney, who has always declined to publish an autobiography, has now relented — in his own unique style.
In The Lyrics: 1956 To The Present, two volumes comprising no fewer than 912 pages which are set to go on sale next month, Sir Paul gives us a glimpse into the inspiration for, and hidden meanings of, 154 treasured songs.
In doing so, he provides a fascinating new insight into his life at the time they were written, and the lives of his fellow Beatles.
The songs are, according to the publisher, ‘arranged alphabetically to provide a kaleidoscopic rather than a chronological account’.
The secrets are in the songs. Sir Paul McCartney, who has always declined to publish an autobiography, has now relented — in his own unique style. Pictured: McCartney with his Hofner 500/1 ‘violin’ bass guitar during rehearsals the day before the band’s first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show at CBS’s Studio 50 in New York City on 8 February 1964
‘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,’ Sir Paul said in an extract from the memoir published in The Sunday Times yesterday.
‘What I do have are my songs, hundreds of them, which I’ve learned serve much the same purpose. The one thing I have always managed to do, whether at home or on the road, is to write new songs. And these songs span my entire life.’
This, then, is a book for dipping into and sampling at leisure. It allows us to see some of the most familiar songs ever written in new and surprising ways.
They range from his earliest efforts, when he was barely into his teens, to songs from his latest album, McCartney III, which was released last year.
What they uncover will not only thrill Beatles obsessives but fascinate anyone who has ever sung along to a Lennon and McCartney tune. Which must, surely, include half the world or more.
Here, CHRISTOPHER STEVENS explores the stories behind some of the Beatles’ best-loved songs.
LET IT BE 1970
Paul McCartney says he sees ‘each new song as a puzzle’.
He explains: ‘It would illuminate something that was important in my life at that moment, though the meanings are not always obvious on the surface.’
Nowhere is that more true than of the anthemic Let It Be, which Paul initially thought he had written as a response to the disruptive arrival of Yoko Ono in the Beatles’ universe.
Today, 50 years and countless funeral services later, he realises the song is about grief and loss.
The clue is in the line ‘When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me’, which most listeners assumed was a nod to his nominally Catholic upbringing in a Liverpool family with Irish roots during the 1940s.
But McCartney’s mother, who died from breast cancer aged 47 in 1956, when he was 14, was called Mary. In the late 1960s, as the Beatles were becoming increasingly disparate, ‘I fell asleep exhausted one day and had a dream in which my mum did, in fact, come to me.
Mother Mary: With young Paul and his brother Mick
‘When you dream about seeing someone you’ve lost, even though it’s sometimes just for a few seconds, it really does feel like they’re right there with you.
‘Seeing my mum’s beautiful, kind face and being with her in a peaceful place was very comforting.’ McCartney uses the new book, and a sprawling portrait in the New Yorker magazine this month, to insist that he wasn’t the instigator of the Beatles’ break-up. That was John Lennon, he says, who ‘quite gleefully told us it was over’.
George Harrison wasn’t present on that occasion, but Paul recalls that he and Ringo Starr were aghast at John’s selfishness: ‘He really was a bit loony, in the nicest possible way. It was not quite so exciting for those left on the other side.’
As in the best families, recollections may vary. In April 1970, four weeks before the release of the album Let It Be, Paul broke the news of the band’s break-up with a press conference in which he stated: ‘I have no future plans to record or appear with The Beatles again. Or to write any more music with John.’
Eight months later, he filed a High Court writ against John, George and Ringo, seeking ‘a court order winding up the affairs of the Beatles and Co’.
Many believed such a split was impossible. George certainly couldn’t accept it. In 1971, he told an American radio interviewer that he expected to work with the band again: ‘I think it’s the least we could do, to sacrifice three months of the year — you know, just do an album or two.’
I LOST MY LITTLE GIRL 1956/1991
The impact of Paul’s mother’s death resonates through many of the songs, including this very early number. It was not officially recorded until his Unplugged album at the start of the 1990s — although bootleg versions exist, including a Beatles one from the Let It Be sessions.
‘Well, I woke up late this morning, my head was in a whirl,’ he sings. ‘And only then I realised, I lost my little girl.’
It was the first number he ever wrote with a guitar, but the real significance is surely that the words came to him just a few weeks after Mary died.
A year later, at a church fete in the Liverpool suburb of Woolton, Paul first met John, who was more than 18 months his senior — a substantial age gap to a teenager. John’s skiffle band, The Quarrymen, were performing on the back of a flatbed truck. Paul envied the older boy’s swagger and the way he improvised when he didn’t know the words to a song.
Early Days: Paul (left), aged 15, performing with The Quarrymen in 1957, left by John Lennon (centre) at the Conservative Club in Liverpool
For those who want an intensely detailed account of the encounter, and how Paul impressed John by grabbing a guitar and, in the scout hut, performing Eddie Cochran’s Twenty Flight Rock, the definitive history is in Craig Brown’s biography of the band — One Two Three Four: The Beatles In Time.
This quotes Lennon’s memories: ‘I half thought to myself: ‘He’s as good as me. If I take him on, what will happen?’ It went through my head that I’d have to keep him in line. But he was good. He also looked like Elvis.’
Everyone agrees that John didn’t extend the invitation himself. He sent his friend Pete instead.
‘Pete caught up with me when I was out on my bicycle,’ Paul remembers, ‘and said: ‘They want you in the band.’
‘I paused and said: ‘I’ll give it some consideration.’ I wasn’t exactly playing hard to get. But I was a careful young fellow. I wondered whether I really wanted to be in a band. Was this a good thing, or should I be trying to study for school? ‘Anyway,’ he adds, ‘I did get back to them and said: ‘Yeah’.’
PENNY LANE 1967
One lovely feature of the new book is the glimpse it provides of Paul’s handwritten drafts for lyrics. Barely a word is crossed out in his vignette of Liverpool life, Penny Lane. It’s as if the lines were dictated.
Only one change stands out, in the first verse about the ‘barber showing photographs / of every head he’s had the pleasure to know’. It seems the next line was originally to be ‘It was easy not to go — he was very slow’. That changed to ‘All the people that come and go, stop and say hello’.
As McCartney recalls, Bioletti’s Barbers on Penny Lane really did exist, and all four Beatles used to drop in there. ‘You’d look at the photos in the window and then go in and say: ‘I’ll have a Tony Curtis,’ or ‘I’ll have a crew cut.’ ‘
One lovely feature of the new book is the glimpse it provides of Paul’s handwritten drafts for lyrics. Barely a word is crossed out in his vignette of Liverpool life, Penny Lane. It’s as if the lines were dictated
Paul is still proud of the opening line, about ‘every head’. It’s a technique he calls ‘free indirect speech’, echoing something a barber might say and giving it a new twist of meaning — a trick he credits to his English teacher, Alan Durband, at Liverpool Institute High School for Boys.
Those lessons must have stuck, because he suspects there is an echo of Hamlet in Let It Be: ‘O, I could tell you — but let it be. Horatio, I am dead.’
He explains: ‘In those days, you had to learn speeches by heart because you had to be able to carry them into the exam and quote them.’
Slivers of Shakespeare are mixed up with boyhood memories, like the ‘pretty nurse’ he saw as he waited for a bus at the Penny Lane shelter. She was ‘selling poppies from a tray’, as the song goes.
‘That pretty nurse,’ he says now. ‘I remember her vividly.’
Like fragments of coloured glass in a kaleidoscope, all those memories tumble over each other and form the pattern of a song. It’s a breathtaking insight into the mind of a genius.
GOT TO GET YOU INTO MY LIFE 1966
Every Beatlemaniac and Dylanologist knows it was Bob who turned the Fab Four on to marijuana, in 1964. For Paul in particular, the discovery of pot was a revelation.
‘We were introduced to grass when we were in the U.S. and it blew our tiny minds,’ he says.
He has been open about his love for cannabis ever since. In 1966, he described to journalist Hunter Davies how he wrote Eleanor Rigby: he took the tune and rough lyrics to John’s house, where ‘we sat around laughing, got stoned and finished it off’.
The drug was obviously working. ‘I can hear a whole song in one chord,’ he told Davies. ‘In fact, I think you can hear a whole song in one note, if you listen hard enough.’
Let’s get stoned: Bob Dylan at a press conference at the Savoy hotel in London, May 1966
In his book, Macca reveals that the jaunty Got To Get You Into My Life, from the Revolver album in 1966, was an ode to the joys of pot: ‘I was alone, I took a ride, I didn’t know what I would find there / Another road where maybe I could see another kind of mind there . . .’
Previous accounts of that first joint describe a party in the Delmonico Hotel in New York. Dylan saunters in with his tour manager and drug supplier, Victor Maymudes. They are met by Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ well-heeled manager, who apologises: ‘I’m afraid we can only offer champagne.’
Dylan has something more illicit to share. John tries it first.
Paul’s recollection is that they were drinking scotch, ordered from room service, when Dylan sidled past, into another room. Ringo, curious, followed him and emerged looking a bit strange.
‘The ceiling is kind of moving. It’s sort of coming down,’ Ringo announced. ‘That was enough,’ Paul says now. ‘The other three of us all leapt into the back room where Dylan was, and he gave us a puff on the joint.’
The story has been often repeated — how Paul woke up in the garret room of his girlfriend Jane Asher’s family house in Wimpole Street, London, with a tune ringing in his head. A small upright piano stood by his bed and, before he could forget the dream melody, he started picking out the tune.
To make it stick, he added the first words that came into his mind: ‘Scrambled eggs/ Oh my baby, how I love your legs.’
Worried that the song was just something he’d heard before, he played it to John, then to his friend Alma Cogan, the singer. And when they didn’t recognise it, he tried it on everyone he met. But the lyrics we all know didn’t come until a long car journey with Jane, driving to Portugal for a holiday. ‘I was in the back of the car. It was very hot and very dusty, and I was half asleep.
Hippy and his chick: Paul and Jane Asher in 1967, off to see the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Bangor, North Wales
‘One of the things I like to do when I’m like that is try to think. I started working through some options, possibilities like ‘yes-ter-day’ and ‘sud-den-ly’.
‘I remember thinking people like sad songs . . . even I like sad songs. By the time I got to Albufeira, I’d completed the lyrics.’
Once again, there are overtones of grief, for the loss of his mother. ‘The more I think about it — ‘Why she had to go, I don’t know, she wouldn’t say’ — I can see that might have been part of the background.
‘It was so strange that the loss of our mother to cancer was simply not discussed. The whole experience surfaced in this song, where sweetness competes with a pain you can’t quite describe.’