The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written
Friday 19 September 2014
Beatles biographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts of Beatles songs for his new book
A Hard Day’s Night
Reading the words now, and probably trying too hard to work out exactly what he [John] is trying to say, it would seem the message is simple: work hard, bring the money home, and you will get marital bliss. There is a slight hint of a chauvinism when he moans that he is working all day for money so she can have things.
Maureen Cleave of the London Evening Standard was one of the first journalists to write intelligently and revealingly about The Beatles. She happened to be interviewing John on the day they were to record the song and went with him to Abbey Road in a taxi. During the journey, John showed her the words of the song, written down on an old birthday card given to [his son] Julian – he had recently had his first birthday – with an illustration of a little boy on a toy train.
Original lyrics for In My Life
This originated with a long poem by John about his life, at a time when they were vaguely thinking of writing an album about their childhood. (email@example.com/ The British Library)
“I said to him that I thought one line of the song was rather feeble. It originally said: ‘But when I get home to you, I find my tiredness is through, then I feel all right’. Seizing my pen, John immediately changed the second line of it and came up with the slightly suggestive: ‘I find the things that you do, will make me feel all right’.”
The lyrics of “A Hard Day’s Night” received a deft backhanded compliment when Peter Sellers produced a record in which he recited all the words in the manner of Laurence Olivier declaiming Shakespeare. It was very convincing.
Original lyrics for Hard Days Night
Maureen Cleeve of the London Evening Standard: “I said to him that I thought one line of the song was rather feeble. It originally said: ‘But when I get home to you, I find my tiredness is through, then I feel all right’. Seizing my pen, John immediately changed the second line of it and came up with the slightly suggestive: ‘I find the things that you do, will make me feel all right’."
The manuscript, which he gave to Maureen, is on show today in the Manuscript Room at the British Library, along with several others on permanent loan from a kind person. The colours of the birthday-card train are still remarkably vivid. You can also see where John changed the words at Maureen’s suggestion – though the original words are not totally clear. There is also an amendment towards the end: “everything’s right from the start” was dropped, along with a line that appears to read “I hope you realise with my heart’.
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
Original lyrics for Help
Lennon uses some rather long words, not normally found in pop songs – such as “self-assured”, “appreciate”, “independence”, “insecure” – one result, apparently, of Maureen Cleave teasing him that all Beatles songs seemed to be filled with one-syllable words. (The British Library)
The song was written to order, seven weeks into shooting, when at last they decided on a title...John wrote the song, mainly on his own, with help from Paul, at home in Kenwood.
He also uses some rather long words, not normally found in pop songs – such as “self-assured”, “appreciate”, “independence”, “insecure” – one result, apparently, of Maureen Cleave teasing him that all Beatles songs seemed to be filled with one-syllable words. There are also some excellent one-liners, such as “my independence seems to vanish in the haze”. This is the line which sums up the drawbacks to their fame and success: being rushed around the world, not knowing where they were or who they were. Their life had changed in so many ways, hence they needed to get their feet back on the ground.
On the other hand, as John told us later, it was a personal cry of anguish. It might have been influenced by their first LSD experience, which had taken place a few weeks earlier. The phrase, “I find I’ve changed my mind” can be taken two ways: a simple change of opinion or a mind-change due to trying life-altering drugs.
The Beatles: George Harrison, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney, at the EMI studios in Abbey Road, 1967 (BIPs/Getty Images)
Pete Shotton, his boyhood friend, who in 1965 spent many weekends with John at his home, and later became his PA and worked for Apple, says that the line about “appreciate you being round” referred to him – which could be true, as he rekindled memories of the laughs and pranks and daft times they’d had together as boys.
The manuscript of “Help!”, which John gave me, is in bold, large handwriting, with quite a few changes. “Would appreciate” became “do appreciate”, as it did in the final version. The first line of the verse has been crossed out. It’s hard to read, but it appears to be a first attempt at the next line, “When I was younger”. He has also written the first three lines of the recorded song at the end, as the last three lines of this version.
Original lyrics for Yesterday
It was during a long car-drive while on holiday in Portugal with Jane [Asher] in May 1965, after they had started recording the Help! album, that McCartney finally put some proper words to it. After fitting “Yesterday” to the first three notes he needed a rhyme, and came up with “all my troubles seemed so far away”. (The British Library)
Paul woke up one morning in his attic bedroom in [Jane Asher’s home] on Wimpole Street with a melody in his head that he couldn’t erase. He went to the piano beside his bed, and played it through. The tune had arrived almost intact, with the glory and the freshness of a dream (which is Wordsworth, “Intimations of Immortality”, but Paul over the years used similar phrases to recount how it had first came to him). Worried that it was someone else’s tune that had crept into his subconscious, for several weeks he played it to friends, such as the singer Alma Cogan, asking if they recognised it.
He put some silly words to it, calling it “Scrambled Eggs”, supposedly followed by “oh baby how I love your legs” just to give him some words to sing when he played it to the other Beatles. They all laughed at the words, but liked the tune.
Let it be: The Beatles on the roof of the Apple Corps building in 1969
It was during a long car-drive while on holiday in Portugal with Jane [Asher] in May 1965, after they had started recording the Help! album, that he finally put some proper words to it. After fitting “Yesterday” to the first three notes he needed a rhyme, and came up with “all my troubles seemed so far away”. That left him needing another three-syllable word, and out popped “suddenly”.
In many ways, the words seemed to come almost as easily as the tune, albeit spread over a longer period of time. The lyrics are short, just 11 lines, with little development.
John always thought the melody was beautiful, but the words, though good, didn’t get very far and were not resolved. That in a way is a strength, leaving it vague. Why had she gone, why was a shadow hanging over him, what was the wrong thing he had said? This is never explained, leaving some analysts to suggest he wasn’t in fact talking about a row with a current love, ie Jane, which is how it appears, but remembering the death of his mother all those years earlier. That was a huge shadow that must have hung over him, though at the time of her death, he admits he didn’t grieve openly as much as he should.
So was he thinking of his mother? Paul has admitted that might well have been at the back of his mind, but says he wasn’t aware of it when writing the lyrics.
Chiswick Park, 1966
This manuscript version was written for me by Paul, very neatly, in 1967, so it has no changes or corrections – although he has added the word “middle” just to make it clear. It went on show with other Beatles lyrics at the British Museum in 1986 then moved to the British Library, alongside Magna Carta.
A Day In The Life
Original lyrics for A Day in the Life
Inspiration for the lyrics came from John Lennon lying around at home, fairly aimless, reading the papers, scribbling notes, tinkling on the piano, picking up on three stories – two from the newspapers, and one from his own life.
John’s contribution to the lyrics was the major part – writing the beginning and the end, with Paul filling the sandwich in the middle.
Once again it was a case of John lying around at home, fairly aimless, reading the papers, scribbling notes, tinkling on the piano, picking up on three stories – two from the newspapers, and one from his own life. One was about the death of someone they knew vaguely – Tara Browne, an Irish socialite around town and member of the Guinness family, whose death was reported in the Daily Mail on 17 January 1967. He had been driving his sports car and smashed into a parked vehicle, killing himself – possibly high on drugs, though this was not stated. He was not in fact in the House of Lords but was the son of a lord. “Tara didn’t blow his mind out, but it was in my mind when I was writing that verse,” John told me.
In the same paper was a small story about there being 4,000 potholes in Blackburn, Lancashire – which begs the question: who counted them? It amused John to imagine how big the holes would be, what sort of space they would take up – and he came up with the idea of the Albert Hall. He had been looking for something to rhyme with “rather small” and Terry Doran, his friend from the motor trade, suggested “Albert Hall”.
Rehearsal, Houston, USA, 1965
The bit from his own life is a reference to the film he had recently appeared in: How I Won the War. It is not clear from the lyrics whether people turned away after watching it, shocked by the horror of war, or if he is returning to the motor accident at this point.
The scrap of a song that Paul came into the session with was even smaller: a memory of his schooldays, back in the Fifties, about him getting up, combing his hair, running for the bus. Just nine lines, getting nowhere, with no narrative or development – and of course no connection with the lyrics John had written. The references to drugs – with John singing “I’d love to turn you on” and Paul having a smoke and going into a dream – resulted in the BBC banning the song.
The manuscripts, one side in joined-up writing and the other on the reverse in caps, are both in John’s hand (without the inclusion of Paul’s verse, so they are incomplete lyrics). Both have minor one-word differences from the final version. It looks as if an early version of the line “a crowd of people turned away” was “a crowd of people stared and stared”.
Ed Sullivan Show, 1965
In 2010 it was sold at Sotheby’s in New York for $1.2m, which remains the highest price paid for a Beatles lyric.
In My Life
This originated with a long poem by John about his life, at a time when they were vaguely thinking of writing an album about their childhood.
The lyrics describe a long bus-ride through Liverpool, from his home in Menlove Avenue down to the docks, listing all the sights and sounds. It grew a bit long and boring and John went off it, thinking it was too clunky and clumsy, a bit like writing about what I did on my hols, but he liked the idea of looking back on his life, so he tightened it up, made it more universal, about someone looking back generally: the loss of childhood, the loss of close friends – presumably thinking of Stu Sutcliffe, though without naming anyone.
But then the song changes slightly, and you realise it’s not some old git down memory lane, about to tell us things were better then; it is in fact a love song, about someone he loves now. He will never lose affection for people and things from the past, but he loves her more. So the song is positive, affirmative – which again is very mature.
“It was the first song I wrote that was consciously about my life,” John later said. “Before, we were just writing songs à la the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, pop songs with no more thought to them than that – to create a sound. The words were almost irrelevant. I think this was my first major piece of work.”
This manuscript, which is one John gave me, has some of the early verses of his original longer poem – or rather, lyric, as he always intended it to become a song, though it is long and complete enough to be considered poetry.
It is of interest to all Beatles fans because of the second verse, about Penny Lane, which was discarded. It also includes the tram sheds with no trams, St Columba’s Church and the Docker’s Umbrella. The latter was a place under the overhead light railway where the dockers used to shelter from the rain. The Abbey was an old cinema. There are a lot of places named, some of them not quite clear.
© Hunter Davies, 2014. Beatles lyrics © Sony. Extracted from ‘The Beatles Lyrics – the Unseen Story Behind Their Music’ by Hunter Davies. Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on 25 September, £25 hardback, £12.99 ebook