The Beatles Lyrics: The Unseen Story Behind Their Music, by Hunter Davies
Even fans who think they know it all already will treasure this forensic exploration of the Beatles’ songs, writes Paul Howard
Fri, Dec 19, 2014
Here’s an interesting fact. The period of time between John Lennon and Paul McCartney writing the ultimate 1960s bubblegum-pop hit, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, and sitting down to collaborate on their crowning masterpiece, A Day in the Life, is the same length of time that One Direction have been a band.
All great artists develop over time. But, in the case of The Beatles, the metamorphosis happened so quickly that it’s almost impossible to believe now that the two men who knocked out formulaic pop songs, with simple rhymes and even simpler sentiments, became, in just four years and a handful of months, the most admired and studied songwriters in the history of popular music.
Capturing the speed of that transformation – from early-1960s boy band to the group that revolutionised the way we listen to music today – is one of the many achievements of The Beatles Lyrics: The Unseen Story Behind Their Music, a handsome coffee-table book by Hunter Davies that manages to shed new light on the creative process behind such songs as Eleanor Rigby, Across the Universe and Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.
The work of the Beatles has been analysed, even overintellectualised, to the point where you can’t imagine there’s very much of value that remains to be said. Musicologists have dissected every melody, examined every chord and investigated every crochet and quaver. The secrets of the band’s studio trickery are so well known that “serious” Beatles fans can tell you which band member played which note on which instrument in which song.
The lyrics, in comparison, have been neglected – or at least that was the contention of Davies, the band’s original biographer, who, back in the 1960s, enjoyed more access to The Beatles than any other journalist.
He notes in the book’s introduction that the diorama of cardboard-cutout heroes on the cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band featured nine writers, including Lewis Carroll, Dylan Thomas, HG Wells and George Bernard Shaw, but only three musicians, one of whom, Bob Dylan, was celebrated more for his lyrics than for his music.
It’s a measure of the importance that the band placed on the written word. So if you’re looking for an original way to retell the story of the world’s most written-about pop group, what better way to do it than through their handwritten lyrics?
Davies set himself the task of tracking down the original versions of as many Beatles songs as he could. He managed to lay his hands on more than 100, an impressive tally given that they were scattered all over the world, in the ownership of museums, libraries, universities, old friends of the band and wealthy private collectors who didn’t want their identities revealed. Then there was the issue of copyright, a tricky enough obstacle when you remember that McCartney is required to pay a fee every time he performs Yesterday in public.
Fab four: John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney and George Harrison in New York in 1964. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty
The result of these endeavours is a treasure of a book, a forensic, song-by-song exploration of the band’s creative process. Each set of lyrics is given a context by the author: the story or inspiration behind them, where and when they were written and what the band was doing at the time. Alongside these he produces John, Paul, George and Ringo’s first handwritten expression of the song, usually scribbled but occasionally spelled out in painstaking capitals, on scraps of paper, unpaid bills, hotel notepaper or whatever happened to be at hand when inspiration struck.
I Read the News Today, Oh Boy - The Beatles Lyrics
Weidenfeld & Nicolson