Movie review: If These Walls Could Sing


On 30th May 2022, I walked up the fabled steps of Abbey Road Studios, guitar in hand, heart in mouth. I was there to record with my band, The Stylus Method, for our second album, The Imaginary Costume Party. Anyone who has made the pilgrimage to St. John’s Wood will be familiar with the magic feeling the place conjures, despite its understated external appearance and sleepy surroundings. Entering the rabbit-warren of connecting corridors, stairways and secret passages adorned with the faces of musical and cinematic greats, I felt honoured to be contributing to the rich seam of sound recorded here. I hoped to mine some of those jewels during my own musical journey there.

Mary McCartney’s new documentary If These Walls Could Sing, celebrating the 90th anniversary of Abbey Road Studios, re-creates that feeling in its opening sequence. As narrator, she even makes the same point: ‘every time I walk through these corridors it feels magical’. Some flashing glimpses of a young George Harrison with his 12-string Rickenbacker and Wings-era Paul and Linda standing on Studio 2’s parquet floor help to set the scene for what follows.

90 minutes for 90 years is barely enough time to scratch the surface and it must have been a difficult task to narrow down the shortlist of contributors. However, the stories and interviews selected are rather hard to argue with. The film begins in 1931 with the black and white genesis of Abbey Road, its inaugural recording/performance of Sir Edward Elgar conducting a live orchestra through his ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, cut straight to a 78rpm disc. McCartney then traces the transition from classical to pop and back again. Cliff & The Shadows, Cilla Black, Gerry Marsden, Pink Floyd, Fela Kuti, Nile Rodgers, Kate Bush, Oasis and Celeste are bookended by performances of Elgar’s ‘Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85′ by Jacqueline du Pré in 1967 and Sheku Kanneh-Mason in 2022, demonstrating the expanse of genres to flourish at Abbey Road, still the place to be to record the world’s greatest music.

Sir Elton John and Jimmy Page recall their days as young session players. The reverence with which they talk of Abbey Road and the musicians with whom they worked in those days is genuinely humbling and shows the power of music in bringing together and inspiring a community of like-minded creatives.

Perhaps the most interesting section of the film is the studios’ survival story, through the drought of bookings in the late 1970s & early 1980s when Studio 1 was relegated to a staff badminton court (and nearly converted into a car park) before being rescued by the tireless work of its staff and a renaissance in film music. Legendary composer John Williams of Star Wars fame provides some delightful insights, including his memories of the studio canteen (which I can confirm from experience serves extremely good roast potatoes). Rather perfectly, the London premiere of If These Walls Could Sing was the first ever to be hosted in Studio 1.

While the coverage of the Fabs’ time at Abbey Road is substantial, the film’s focus is not on the Beatles themselves or their music; it’s on the people at Abbey Road who made it happen (and continue to reinvent it) or, as Paul describes them, the ‘really cool boffins’. From the great George Martin – Ringo putting it eloquently, that ‘George was incredible and we were buskers’ – the tireless work of Ken Townsend, starting out as a trainee engineer in 1950 to retiring as studio chairman in 1995, faithful veteran technician Lester Smith and insights from current studio manager Colette Barber, the commitment to Abbey Road transcends simply what these people do for work; it is love.

It’s always spine-tingling to hear the surviving Beatles talk about ‘The Beatles’ and there’s plenty of that to enjoy. Paul seems genuinely excited to be there, in Studio 2, giving us a rollicking rendition of ‘Lady Madonna’ on the Mrs Mills piano and proclaiming the essence of what Abbey Road meant to the 1960s cultural revolution: ‘here you were in London, which was on fire’.

There are also some choice quotes (and drumming) from Ringo, who is looking fabulous, revealing his favourite song is ‘Yer Blues’. On Paul, he says, ‘if it hadn’t’ve been for him we’d have made like three albums’ and, on The Beatles, ‘it worked out pretty well for us’. You could say that Ringo.

The film includes archive clips we’ve all seen before, like the December 1966 interviews of the newly moustachioed Fabs arriving to work on the Sgt. Pepper sessions or the discussion of John’s ethereal vocal in ‘A Day In The Life’ (from the Anthology series). However, the words from Giles Martin are rather touching, picking up where his dad left off in similar no-nonsense terms that ‘it’s the four of them in a room making a sound together’ which is, perhaps, the most valuable asset of any great recording studio: a space in which people can create music together.

What Mary McCartney does with this film is to illustrate the cultural (or countercultural) significance of Abbey Road. A contemporaneous poetic critique of Sgt. Pepper from Allen Ginsberg gives credence to Roger Waters’ comment that this music gave musicians ‘permission to write songs about real things’ and ‘the courage to accept your feelings’. For, in this building, an entire artistic movement was born, not just a musical one but something much greater and enduring, spanning continents and lasting generations.

In that pursuit, we’re treated to some lovely archive clips such as Paul conducting the orchestra for ‘A Day In The Life’ (complete with clown noses and bald wigs) and a voice-over from George Harrison on the ‘All You Need Is Love’ filmed performance in Studio 1, its technicolour contrasting with the earlier Elgar scene in the same room. In one of the film’s finest moments, we’re shown a clip of Blackbird from the White Album sessions in 1968 (the year before Mary was born) kept in time by the tapping of Paul’s yellow and red shoes. Then, 56 years later, he plays a snippet of the song for his daughter’s camera. Reference to the unstructured Get Back/Let It Be project and a return to Abbey Road for the album of the same name provides a clever dramatic irony for the 2023 audience. The chaos of the former rectified by the latter which, in turn, now officially gives its name to the studios themselves.

Shown working on new music in Studio 3, Nile Rodgers observes that ‘so many massive rock and roll records were made here, people don’t believe that it was just done by accident’. The inherent superstition of musicians will mean that we’ll never know. However, despite the ‘smell of fear’ one might experience upon entering this hallowed ground to commit recorded sound to the history books, If These Walls Could Sing reminds us that Abbey Road is not a pretentious place.

The mark of a good documentary, Mary McCartney rarely emerges from behind the camera, instead seeking to capture the magic of Abbey Road which, for all its history and legend, is not just surviving on past glories, in fact, quite the opposite. It’s more than the name, the zebra crossing or the album cover. This is the most unlikely underdog story of what is still a working studio, and probably the best one in the world.

The studio hasn’t been made over or even tidied up for the documentary. Equipment isn’t pushed to one side to make room for better camera angles. The interviews in Studio 2, particularly those with Paul and Ringo, show cables, baffles and ‘sleeping bag’ dampers in the background and, from the door to the echo chamber to the stairs and god-like control room window, it looks just the same as it did in 1963 for the Please Please Me full-day album session culminating in, as Giles Martin puts it, ‘John’s ripped vocal’ in ‘Twist And Shout’.

For a British institution like Abbey Road, it’s rather frustrating that our American friends were able to watch If These Walls Could Sing two weeks before us, but it was well worth the wait (and a Disney subscription). Fittingly, this film stresses the eccentric Britishness of it all. Noel Gallagher describes the spirituality of the place akin to record shops, pubs, and football stadiums, while Giles Martin analogises that you’re never meant to clean out a teapot: ‘you walk down into Studio 2 and you feel as though the walls are saturated with great music’.

Why is Abbey Road still the greatest place on Earth to record? For all its mysticism, maybe the simple answer lies in the following two quotes:
– ‘People want to come here, they want the sound of Abbey Road’ (Sir Elton John).
– ‘All the microphones work’ (Sir Paul McCartney) – something which will resonate with musicians everywhere who have ever paid for studio time.

The Beatles Handbook rating: 4 stars

Review written by Jordan Frazer. Follow him on Twitter at @TheStylusMethod and find out more about the band at Bandcamp

Review: Revolver Super Deluxe Vinyl Box Set

Revolver super deluxe vinyl
I [pretentious cough] ‘discovered’ The Beatles in the mid-2000s, aged 13. I began like so many others with the Red and Blue albums, but where to go next? Back then the adage that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the greatest thing ever committed to record had largely eroded and been replaced by men-of-a-certain-age advocating for Revolver as the true rock masterpiece, so that’s where I headed.

Revolver. What is that? A pun? I spent hours staring at the artwork. Why are the boys out of order? (Paul, John, Ringo and George) Why are three of them looking away? Why, in a technicolour age is Klaus Voorman’s cover design in monochrome? And then there’s the tracklisting; the song titles are weird. Why doesn’t ‘Love You To’ make grammatical sense? Who is ‘Dr Robert’? What else, besides sing, can your bird do? What on earth (or any other planet) does ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ mean? What, exactly, has Paul got to get into his life? George has three songs on this one; what the bloody hell? Is it even George on the back cover or is it three Beatles and Keith Richards? I hadn’t yet pressed play on the first track and already my little head was filled with things to say. A portable disc player and some over the ear headphones. I was alone, I took a ride, I didn’t know what I would find there.

What I found when I pressed play was finger snaps, tape loops, wild horns, backwards melodies, searing harmonies, drones, twin-lead guitars, clavichords, changing time signatures, fade-ins and fade-outs. I found the gruff nonchalance of the ‘Taxman’ count-in and the disconcerting semitone piano riff in ‘I Want To Tell You’. The delicate beauty of ‘Here, There And Everywhere’, the thunderous trance monotony of the ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ rhythm section and the austere greyness of ‘Eleanor Rigby’. When the most perfect five-second guitar break in ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ bursts the black and white bubble and lets the colour in, it’s like Bobby Moore lifting the Jules Rimet trophy.

Revolver is the most eclectic Beatles album. It’s the most ambitious and it’s the most fun. Not once is an idea repeated and, listening in order, you can hear the expansion of 20th Century popular music with every note, inspiring future artists across genres to pick up guitars, sit at pianos and evoke the sound of the Dalai Lama chanting on a mountain-top. Well, maybe.

But this article is not about Revolver, the album. It’s about Revolver, the 2022 Super Deluxe Box-Set, for which my adoring family handed over the £189.99 (plus delivery) for my 29th birthday present. Vinyl is my chosen medium these days and the excitement of holding in my hands the ‘new’ version of the album I’d loved for 16 years was palpable.

The New Stereo Mix
Despite the temptation to skip ahead to the studio outtakes, I behaved myself. The changes here are slight but fantastic. This is not a dusting-off or a face-lift. This is more like a leg-up over the wall into the chocolate factory, a gentle nudge into the 21st Century for something that will live forever. With the exception of ‘She Said She Said’ (on which the rhythm guitar on the left channel is a little intrusive), the new stereo mixes are invariably better than the 2009 re-masters.

This is a crisper, punchier sound. It’s more metallic in just the right places, like Paul’s raga-inflected solo in ‘Taxman’ and John’s acoustic strums in ‘I’m Only Sleeping’. It’s also warmer in others, like George’s lush harmonies, Ringo’s fills in ‘Here There And Everywhere’ and the sound effects in ‘Yellow Submarine’, transporting you to Studio No.2 with bathtubs and chains, Mal Evans’ hosepipe, Brian Jones clinking glassware and George Martin wearing brass instruments for hats. You can hear the fun that was had; how amazing that sound can convey that.

For a collection of songs so familiar to its listeners, there are things you’d maybe never noticed before. In at least two places, John and Paul sing ‘Bob Robert’ rather than ‘Dr Robert’ and Ringo does indeed play on ‘For No One’! The final chorus on ‘Good Day Sunshine’ is more pronounced before its fade-out and Paul’s yawn in the middle of ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ sounds like he’s waking-up right next to you. ‘Love You To’ sounds more authentically Indian than ever and for the first time becomes one of the stand-out tracks on the album.

Maybe it’s because of the sequencing or simply because Side One is so strong, but it always felt like the section after ‘Good Day Sunshine’ and before ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ was overlooked. This is where the 2022 stereo mixes shine. The guitar work in ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’, the vocal agility and sympathetic percussion in ‘For No One’, the whirring guitars and Paul’s harmony line on ‘he’s a man, you must believe’ in ‘Dr Robert’ and the interplay between George’s guitar riff and Ringo’s drums in ‘I Want To Tell You’ are the highlights of the new stereo mixes.

Even the Beatles fanatics among us who aren’t in constant search of bootlegs have heard some of this material before on Anthology 2 including take 1 of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, the hornless version of ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’, the how-many-words-can-we-get-into-the-backing-vocal version of ‘Taxman’ and the high-as-kites giggling breakdown of ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’, perhaps more appropriately titled ‘And Your Byrds Can Sing’. It’s the material we haven’t heard before that brings the magic to this collection and there’s a lot to pore over on these four sides.

Rain Take 5 – Actual speed
The song that invented Oasis was recorded in A and then slowed down to G. That version is impressive enough; Ringo’s finest moment on record with a drum part so unusual and busy that it gives the impression it might fall apart at any time, the rest of the song crumbling around it. Paul’s rumbling bass threatens to toss the needle out of its groove. But it’s even more jaw-dropping when you hear the rhythm track at its original speed. An oft-advanced criticism of these previously-unreleased studio tapes is that seeing behind the curtain ruins the illusion. This recording is that most rare example of learning more of how something was created posing further questions and a greater sense of awe. How did they play it at this speed and keep it so tight? Has a band ever sounded that good again?

Got To Get You Into My Life (First version) – Take 8
Paul is the most musically-gifted Beatle and, at the time of recording Revolver, the hippest and most adventurous of the four. It’s rather funny, therefore, to hear his apparent confusion at the idea to fade-in the organ:

Paul: ‘I don’t see how you’ll get any different sound from that’ [hits opening chord]
John: ‘You’ll get the organ but without the start of it’
Paul: ‘Why though?’ (See the photograph of Paul on page 6 of the accompanying book as a perfect companion piece to this quote).

Whether we’d admit it or not, we all want to be in The Beatles’ inner circle and, post-Get Back, these studio chatter clips make you feel like you’re in the room. Imagine that.

Yellow Submarine (Songwriting Work Tapes)
‘Yellow Submarine’ is relentlessly relied on by bores, music snobs and other Blue Meanies as hard evidence that (a) The Beatles are overrated and (b) Ringo is crap. Fortunately, I no longer feel the need to challenge such opinions. Is it musically complex? No, but we have ‘Here, There And Everywhere’ for that. Does it have the best vocal? No, but we have ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ for that. Does it challenge us as listeners? Well, now you mention it…

In Paul’s foreword he writes ‘…one twilight evening, lying in bed before dozing off, I came up with a song that I thought would suit Ringo and at the same time incorporate the heady vibes of the time, ‘Yellow Submarine”. This was certainly my understanding of its genesis. Children’s song. Written by Paul. Sung by Ringo.
However, this seems at odds with the two ‘Songwriting work tape’ versions of the song on side four of the Sessions discs. ‘In the place where I was born, no one cared, no one cared’ sings John, on a recording reminiscent of the earliest versions of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. A John song after all? What is perhaps more interesting is the following track. John sings the revised lyrics, beginning ‘In the town where I was born lived a man who sailed to sea’ after Paul’s encouragement that ‘…you know how to sing it’.

It’s impossible not to see these lines as a description of Alf Lennon. If that’s correct, then this is John at Plastic Ono Band levels of vulnerability and very far from the eventual Goons-like feel of the released version. That is not, of course, to say that Paul (and yes, okay, Donovan who contributed the lines ‘sky of blue, sea of green’ to the final version of the lyrics) didn’t write some, or even most of the remaining lyrics, but this is truly a revelation which challenges one little piece of the accepted narrative of ‘The Beatles’.

Tomorrow Never Knows – Take 1 & I Want To Tell You – Speech & Take 4
The album’s psychedelic closer was a turning point for a band for whom every album presented a turning point. If given its original name, ‘The Void’, it would be all too much. Tempered by the Ringo malapropism title and now also by John’s music-hall ‘da da da’ ending (which was left off the Anthology 2 version), we’re reminded that at almost no time ever did The Beatles take themselves seriously, and neither should we.

Similarly, a comedy highlight of the Sessions is John’s suggestion that George’s as-yet-untitled ‘I Want To Tell You’ should be named ‘Granny Smith part friggin’ two’. A reference to the working title of ‘Love You To’ being ‘Granny Smith’, this self-referential Beatle humour is just what we were hoping for. The actual working title for this song ended up as ‘Laxton’s Superb’.

Eleanor Rigby Speech before Take 2
This fragment reflects so much of what the band and their story is all about. On the studio floor, professional classically-trained musicians with cut-glass accents discuss the virtues (or otherwise) of using vibrato on the string quartet accompaniment to ‘Eleanor Rigby’ while the learned-RP voice of George Martin acts as translator. Up above them, by about 20 stairs, paying half-attention is the not quite 24-year old working class creator, James Paul McCartney. Could he tell a difference between the two takes? ‘Err, not much’. The student becoming the master.

This is a reminder of two things – first, that the creative boom of the 1960s relied on a disruption of the class system in Britain. Second, that The Beatles needed and welcomed collaborators, the most essential of whom was George Martin.

The Other Bits
The Super Deluxe box also includes:
an LP of the original mono master, still sounding glorious on 12-inch vinyl and a good comparator for the new stereo mixes; a ‘Paperback Writer’ c/w ‘Rain’ EP, reminding us of just how fierce that guitar tone was, featuring, on Side A, the new 2022 stereo mixes and, on Side B, the original mono mixes, in replica Parlophone packaging complete with ‘Emitex’ advertisement; and a 100-page book with a foreword by Paul and contributions from Giles Martin, Questlove and Kevin Howlett as well as a track-by-track exploration of the album, a comic strip from Klaus Voorman and some contextual commentary on the album’s release and  musical/cultural significance all embossed with a subtle extension of the album cover’s tentacle-like moptops.

The Book
Paul plays things down in the foreword, referring to Revolver as ‘All in all, not a bad album’. Classic Paul. Giles Martin’s thank you note to his father, The Beatles and their listeners is genuine and heartfelt and the track-by-track analysis (including images of original lyric fragments and annotated tape boxes) is a lovely world in which to escape for a while. Questlove’s ‘Evolver’ piece perhaps focusses a little too much on other albums, but the sentiment is just right and the discussion of the enduring quality of Revolver and its reception by and influence on a black audience is excellent. Klaus Voorman’s comic strip on the creation of the artwork is childlike and endearing, albeit unusual, and includes a particularly enjoyable likeness of Brian Epstein.

But, like so many Beatle things, the best bit about the book might just be the photographs. Particularly good examples are: a working studio band with George on bass (pgs. 20-21), Paul listening to the competition (pg.33), sunglasses indoors (pg.34), the sartorial elegance (pgs.78-79) and the instruments which created it all, including a rare mid-sixties shot of a Beatles’ Fender Stratocaster (pg.100).

A Collection Of Oldies?
Box sets are collectors’ items; how often do you listen to studio outtakes in place of the real thing? They are a completist’s luxury, and I’m okay with that. Since the novelty of the Sgt. Pepper box in 2017 and the expanse of the White Album box in 2018, heavy scrutiny is now inevitable of these expensive annual offerings. But, what are we really looking for? I propose that we Beatlemaniacs have started to take The Beatles for granted.

Until recently, the received wisdom was that we’d never get anything earlier than Sgt. Pepper because of the way those albums were recorded. Yet, thanks to the legacy of Get Back and Peter Jackson’s ‘de-mixing’, here’s the one we were craving (with rumours of Rubber Soul as the next to receive the archive treatment). Not many albums could credibly live up to Giles Martin’s observation that ‘Music doesn’t get old; we just get old around it’ (Revolver Book – Introduction pg.9) and it’s fitting that a record which still sounds so fresh after 56 years can be enhanced for modern listening by the most cutting-edge of technologies. We can all now finally listen to Revolver on stereo headphones which means the sound of Summer ’66 can un-grey your daily commute or provide a soundtrack to your martini-sipping on a St. Tropez sun lounger.

In this chapter of the greatest story ever told, full to the brim with chance meetings, happy accidents and making-it-up-as-they-went-along, sometimes it’s the things that didn’t happen that matter most. Revolver could’ve been recorded at Stax Studios in Memphis (The Beatles’ soul record). It could’ve been called After-Geography or Abracadabra or Beatles On Safari. But it had to be recorded at Abbey Road. It needed the quintessential Englishness of men in white lab coats running around while four crazy twenty-somethings invented, created, pushed the boundaries and changed the world. Where Rubber Soul was all log fires, corduroy and incense, a stylus-crackle adding to the ambience, Revolver is tin foil, strobe lighting and mercurial intensity, demanding of the highest quality audio reproduction, which this box-set offers.

It will be forever the sound of Swinging London, England’s World Cup Win and the glistening water-mark for rock albums to come. But it is also a reminder that creative projects should be just that, creative, not conforming to an expected structure or genre-profile. Popular music has lost that edge now. Again quoting Giles Martin, ‘if you get tired of listening to Revolver, you get tired of life’. I’d urge all musicians and artists of any ability, age and discipline, use this reissue to escape, by all means, but do not view it as an historical record of something which cannot happen again. Use it as inspiration. Create.

It’s pricey, it’s extravagant, it takes up shelf-space you could fill with something more practical and no, it doesn’t have anything majorly unexpected or shocking to anyone who isn’t a seasoned Beatlemaniac. So, should you buy it? Think of it this way: this is not just Revolver, probably the best album The Beatles ever made (ask me again tomorrow and I might give you a different answer), it’s 2 hours, 42 minutes of Revolver and how could anyone not want that?

Review written by Jordan Frazer

The Beatles Handbook rating: 5 stars
Buy this album: Revolver 

Author interview: John Higgs on Love and Let Die

Love and Let Die is quite an undertaking, not only telling two concurrent and interconnected stories that span 60 years, but also putting those stories in their wider historical context and mentioning Freud, Putin, Vonnegut, Desmond Dekker and the Queen (to take just a small random sample) along the way. How did you decide what to put in and what to leave out? Was the book meticulously planned out or did it evolve as you wrote it?

The book is about seeing very familiar things in a new light, so the choice of what to put in and what to leave out was largely dependent on that. Most of the things that made it into the book are things that, I hope, help to show a new perspective or give new insights into a subject that we thought we already knew and understood. There is something very exciting in realising that there is more to the thing right under your nose than you realised. It is a reminder that even the most commonplace thing has its secrets to reveal.

And yes, the book absolutely evolved during writing, as they all do. I think if you knew what a book was going to be beforehand, there would be no point in writing it.

The Beatles must be the most written about band of all time, were you daunted by the weight of words already dedicated to them when you decided to write your own book about them?

Yes, definitely! I didn’t write about the Beatles for many years for that very reason. It wasn’t until I mentally put them alongside Bond and viewed them in that context that I felt I had a way to offer up something new. The great library of Beatle books has pretty much nailed down what happened, but there is still room to explore what it all means.

It helps that, because of the nature of the publishing industry, the perspective of the establishment subculture is massively overrepresented in what has previously been written. There’s still a great deal to talk about from outside that bubble.

The coincidental release of the first Beatles record and first Bond film on the same day is quite extraordinary. Do you have a personal favourite among the many surprising connections between Bond and The Beatles you unearthed in your research?

It’s obviously great that it was Ringo of all the people who ended up marrying a Bond Girl. I also like that Ian Fleming’s wife used to refer to him as ThunderBeatle. At the time of writing, rumours in the press claim Aaron Taylor-Johnson is the favourite to become the next Bond. If that came true that would be very pleasing, given his portrayal of John Lennon in Nowhere Boy.

The Beatles are endlessly fascinating, why do you think that is?

That’s a really good question – because they really are endlessly fascinating. With most subjects, there comes a time when you decide you know enough about it, and can move on. But with the Beatles, you never really reach that point – the more you know about them, the more interested you become. I suspect that it might have something to do with just how implausible it is that they could be that good, that popular, and have that big an impact. It doesn’t seem believable, sometimes, that all that actually happened.

Can you remember the first time you heard a Beatles song?

I can’t, and I don’t think many people can either. Their music is so prevalent in our culture that it’s always present – you’re absorbing it as a nipper. In that way it’s become the folk music of our age.

What’s your favourite Beatle song and why?

My favourite album is the White Album, but naming a favourite song is trickier. Part of the appeal of the Beatles is that there is so much good stuff, and it is so varied, that narrowing it down just seems wrong. If you were to force me to just say one, however, I think it would have to be A Day In The Life. That does feel like the pinnacle of their craft.

Who is the best Beatle?

It’s the chemistry between the four of them that matters, to me anyway. Focusing on any one takes away from that. It’s like asking which is your best limb.

Who is the best Bond?

I’m increasingly of the opinion that it is Daniel Craig. But with luck, the best will be the next guy!

What will be the subject of your next book?

I’m working on four different books at the moment, so my head is far too mangled and confused to try to answer that! I don’t advise anyone try this – one book at a time is more than enough.

Love and Let Die by John Higgs

LOVE AND LET DIE by John Higgs published by W&N available in Hardback, eBook and audio £22

Buy this book: Love and Let Die by John Higgs

Read an extract from Love and Let Die: 1965: Greater Than the Sum of Their Parts 

Read the review 
Coming soon

The Beatles Handbook Guide to Podcasts

I am the EggPod

I am the Eggpod

The tagline to this enormously entertaining series is ‘A jaunty stroll through Pepperland discussing The Beatles & solo Beatle albums with a pot pourri of delicious guests’.  Although that’s a pretty accurate description, it does slightly undersell what makes Eggpod such as great listen.

It is as lively and cheerful as the word ‘jaunty’ suggests and, clocking in at up to two hours per episode (although more often between an hour and 90 minutes-ish), it does have the relaxed pace of an afternoon walk in the woods.  It all seems effortless as charmingly amiable host Chris Shaw chats away to guests that have so far included Sanjeev Bhaskar, David Hepworth, Nicky Campbell, Samira Ahmed, David Quantick and John Higgs among many others. But such is the passion and knowledge of everyone involved that every episode is a close equivalent of a carefully researched documentary, albeit one that sounds spookily like a pub conversation.  

Take for example ep 108: The Revolver Sessions with Matt Everitt. Four minutes in and we’ve already learned that film director Peter Jackson won’t allow anyone else (apart from Giles Martin) to use his revolutionary ‘de-mixing’ software that was used on the film Get Back and subsequently on the new deluxe Revolver box set. It seems as though the technology that could transform the album reissue market is being kept solely for Beatles related projects, at least for time being. We also learn that the third Beatles film was planned to be A Talent for Loving, a cowboy movie set in the 19th century and due to be filmed at the beginning of 1966 in Mexico or Spain. The film was shelved after the Fabs read the script.  

The podcast really comes into its own when the guest is extolling the virtues of a more obscure or unloved album. Iain Lee on McCartney’s folly Give My Regards to Broad Street (ep 9) or Andy Miller on John and Yoko’s Some Time in New York City (ep 110) are must-listens for example.  But whatever the subject and whoever the guest is, you are pretty much guaranteed an engrossing, informative and above all entertaining listen. Both Shaw and his guests tend to wear their expertise lightly and with good humour so the episodes are never hard work to listen to.

Shaw himself is however no workshy fop, undertaking what must have been a punishing schedule to publish a series of 21 episodes in January 2022, each covering a day featured in Get Back and posted on the correlating date, so ep77 is actor John Bradley discussing day 1 of Get Back, Thursday 2nd January 1969 with the episode first appearing on 2 January 2022. That mammoth undertaking didn’t prevent him from putting together a four part celebration of Paul McCartney with multiple contributors to coincide with the great man’s 80th birthday in June 2022. 

The series is Beatles and McCartney heavy with only a smattering of episodes given over to John, George and Ringo, but that just means we still have All Things Must Pass and Goodnight Vienna episodes to look forward to.  You get the feeling that even if the idea of podcasts had never been invented, Shaw would be tracking down Beatles fans in order to have hours-long Mop Top-themed chats just for the hell of it but thankfully we can all listen in. 

The Beatles Handbook rating: Five Stars
Listen to this podcast: I am The Eggpod  
Start with: ep 1 Rubber Soul with Rob Manuel
Hidden gem: ep 67 – Red Rose Speedway with Brian O’Conner and Simon Barber of the Sodajerker podcast. 

Beatles Stuffology 

Beatles Stuffology

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Listen to this podcast: Beatles Stuffology
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Hidden gem:  

Blotto Beatles 

Blotto Beatles

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Producing The Beatles

Producing The Beatles

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My Favourite Beatles Song 

My Favourite Beatles Song

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Nothing is Real 

Nothing is Real

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The Big Beatles Sort Out 
The Big Beatles Sort Out

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Ranking The Beatles 
Ranking The Beatles

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Book extract: Love and Let Die by John Higgs

Love and Let Die by John Higgs

`1965: Greater Than the Sum of Their Parts 

For all their distinct personalities, the four Beatles were effectively a gestalt entity. This was one of the reasons why they so perfectly represented Eros, or the Freudian drive to lose your limited self and become part of something larger.

In the decades after the band split, much debate occurred about why they were so special, with the assumption being that the answer must lie with one of the four. In the seventies and eighties, many rock critics took the view that John Lennon was the special ingredient which explained the extraordinary impact of the Beatles. Thinking like this was entirely in keeping with the individualism of the second half of the twentieth century. But as a framework, individualism was always too limited a perspective to understand something as interesting as the Beatles. It was the combination of those four personalities which made the Beatles greater than the sum of their parts. They were, in occult terms, a combination of the four alchemical elements. Ringo was earth, John was fire, Paul was air and George was water. Combined, they produced the fifth, transcendent element: spirit. Or alternatively, Ringo had a big nose, George had big ears, Paul had big eyes and John was always a big mouth. As individuals these attributes may be unfortunate, but when they are combined you get the face of a giant.

And then Paul McCartney wrote ‘Yesterday’.

This is, of course, one of the most covered songs in history. The melody famously came to Cartney fully formed during a dream, a gift from his subconscious that would change his life forever. It elevated him from being part of his ‘good little rock ‘n’ roll band’ to becoming the author of the front page of the twentieth century’s songbook. Even half a century after it was written, it’s impossible to grow up in the West and not know this song. It hinted at the scale of the new territory that the Beatles would now occupy. But it also hinted at the cost.

Before ‘Yesterday’, the Beatles were a unit. Lennon and McCartney had previously written songs alone, without the insights and finishing touches of their partner. But this was the first solo song that didn’t need the other three Beatles. Instead, it was recorded in two takes with Paul alone, playing acoustic guitar and singing, and George Martin added a string quartet three days later. On the same day that McCartney recorded Yesterday’, the full band also recorded two more of Paul’s songs, the larynx shredding rocker ‘I’m Down’ and the acoustic folk rock ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’ – an example not just of the phenomenal work rate that the band operated at, but the variety of styles of both singing and songwriting that McCartney was capable of.

The solo nature of the song clearly troubled the band; here was a situation that they had never had to deal with before. It is striking that, uncomfortable with such a solo effort being credited to the Beatles, they didn’t release the song as a single in the UK. It’s hard to imagine any other band writing a song as strong and commercial as ‘Yesterday’, then only using it as filler on the second side of a film soundtrack album.

What ‘Yesterday’ showed was that new horizons for the band’s music were imaginable. It was not that they had plateaued and were on the way down, it was more that they had barely started. If they were to reach those new artistic peaks it would require the four Beatles to grow and evolve as individuals. They could not remain loveable mop-tops forever. But if the four of them were to change in unexpected and unpredictable ways, then how could they be expected to fit together so neatly into the perfect unit that won the hearts of the world? The future was unparalleled creative growth, yet as the melancholic mood of ‘Yesterday’ realised, it would come at a cost.

‘Yesterday’ is a song about realising that something special has changed and wishing to go back in time to how things used to be. The Beatles were going to mature into four extraordinary individuals who would offer the world so much more than the pre-‘Yesterday’ Fab Four. For all four musicians, their greatest work was ahead of them. But there is a reason why many children fear growing up. The arrival of the future, after all, must mean the death of the past. To evolve and fulfil their potential would mean allowing fractures to grow in the best gang imaginable.

LOVE AND LET DIE by John Higgs published by W&N available in Hardback, eBook and audio £22

Buy this book: Love and Let Die by John Higgs

Read a Q&A with John Higgs 
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Read the review 
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Paul McCartney solo albums ranked: The 70s

1. Wings at the Speed of Sound by Wings (1976)

Wings at the Speed of Sound

In The Lyrics, McCartney claims that “There were accusations in the mid-1970s – including one from John – that I was writing ‘silly love songs'”. Paul’s response? To double down and write more of them. ‘Silly Love Songs’ spent five weeks at number 1 in the Billboard Hot One Hundred in America and reached number 2 in the British pop charts. Who’s laughing now? With a bubbling, popping bassline that wanders delightfully all over the fretboard above a lilting string arrangement and punctuated by catchy-as-hell brass and wind section riffs, it’s an irresistibly infectious piece of 70s pop and one of the jewels in the crown of McCartney’s back catalogue.     

But Speed of Sound isn’t just silly love songs. ‘Beware My Love’, with its echoes of ‘Reach Out’ by The Four Tops is Motown seen through the prism of 70s hard rock (the alternative version with John Bonham of Led Zeppelin on drums that appears on the Archive Collection edition is worth tracking down). The pedaling bass and militaristic drum and wind arrangement on ‘Let ‘Em In’ sounds like little else in pop. The song’s message of inclusivity is more relevant now than ever.

McCartney’s attempt to accentuate Wings as a real group affair rather than just an ex-Beatle and his hired backing band works to great and diverse effect. Guitarist Denny Laine contributes two highlights – an affecting lead vocal on McCartney’s ethereal ‘The Note You Never Wrote’ and a soulful performance on his own top drawer composition ‘Time To Hide’ (that hints at ‘You Keep Me Hanging On’ in the verse), while Jimmy McCulloch’s Steely Dan-esque ‘Wino Junko’ features some excellent soloing. 

However, while I’m extremely reticent to indulge in anything that might appear to be Linda-bashing, the weakest track on the album by far is the under-baked, lightweight rock’n’roll of ‘Cook of the House’ which Linda sings and co-wrote with McCartney.  But it’s a minor irritation and doesn’t prevent this from being McCartney’s best record of the 70s. A joy from start to finish.  

Beatles Handbook rating: 5 Stars

Essential tracks
Silly Love Songs
Beware My Love 
Time To Hide
Let ‘Em In
San Ferry Anne 

Buy this album: Wings at the Speed of Sound by Wings

2. Band on the Run by Paul McCartney & Wings (1973)

Band on the Run

One of McCartney’s best known records, Band on the Run is half a masterpiece. Side one (as it would have been on the original vinyl release) is solid gold, but the album seriously runs out of steam on side two. 

The title track, with it’s various musical sections threaded around a very loose lyrical narrative, has it’s antecedents in ‘A Day In The Life’, the suite of songs that closes Abbey Road and, as Paul Du Noyer points out in Conversations with McCartney, ‘Live and Let Die’ which McCartney wrote almost immediately before recording Band On The Run. The song had more than its fair share of  imitators, at least structurally, in tracks such as Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ or ‘I’m Mandy, Fly Me’ by 10cc, but none quite pull off the trick as well as ‘Band On The Run’.

From the meditative, melancholic opening with its lazily sliding guitar chords, wistful synth noodling and sweet vocal harmonies that’s ‘stuck inside these four walls’, to the broodingly angry distorted riffing of ‘if we ever get out of here’ that bursts into the euphoric acoustic strum that hopes ‘you’re having fun’, words and music are in perfect unison. In The Lyrics, McCartney explains that the theme of the song is freedom and that, “A lot of us at that time felt free from the strictures of civilisation. That’s one of the great things about rock and roll: it does allow you to break the rules.” McCartney evokes that renegade spirit perfectly in the line ‘we never will be found’, lending the band on the run a mythical other-worldly quality.  As an opener, it’s hard to beat. 

As for the following tracks, the words to ‘Jet’ remain delightfully opaque, even after reading McCartney’s ‘explanation’ in The Lyrics; the song is best enjoyed for what it is, a shouty old pop-rocker of the highest order. ‘Bluebird’ might be a slightly poor relation to ‘Blackbird’ but it still boasts a sublime melody that glides effortlessly over a blissful, relaxed bossa nova-like acoustic backing track. Although ‘Mrs. Vandebilt’ is a relatively minor McCartney work, it’s still packed with hooks and is a fine pop tune, and the repetitive, gritty Lennon-esque guitar figure on ‘Let Me Roll It’ slamming up against the bass and drum breakdown is a thrilling rock moment.  

Which brings us to side two. ‘Mamunia’ is a wafer thin slice of disposal pop with an irritatingly repetitive chorus; the word ‘ditty’ comes to mind, ‘No Words’ is like a pastiche of late period Beatles that could have been written by ELO or 10cc (i.e. beneath McCartney) and ‘Picasso’s Last Words’ is simply a dirge. Only the rousingly riff-tastic, piano-driven ‘Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five’ saves the day and brings things to a satisfying conclusion. 

As with Let It Be, the circumstances surrounding the recording of Band On The Run go a long way to explaining why it’s such an uneven listen. Two band members abandoned ship on the eve of recording. The regrettable decision to record in Lagos was made where the studio turned out to be half built, there was a cholera outbreak and McCartney was mugged. That anything was recorded is something of a miracle, let alone an album that contains several classics. 

Beatles Handbook rating: 4 Stars

Essential tracks
Band on the Run 
Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five  
Let Me Roll It

Buy this album: Band on the Run by Paul McCartney and Wings 

3. Red Rose Speedway by Paul McCartney and Wings (1973)
Red Rose Speedway

Red Rose Speedway is one of the most enjoyable albums in McCartney’s entire back catalogue, an opinion not many other people seem to share. Most damningly, producer Glynn Johns walked out on the recording sessions after four weeks, calling the music ‘shite’ and unimpressed by the band’s ‘lackadaisical’ approach, according to Man On The Run, Tom Doyle’s wonderful book on McCartney in the 70s.

Doyle also quotes Linda as describing it as ‘such a non-confident record’ and McCartney himself admitting ‘I don’t remember a lot about it actually. I think the fact that I don’t remember it too well bears that out’. Even Brian O’Conner of the Sodajerker song writing podcast, who chose the album for an episode of I am The Eggpod was equivocal about Speedway, calling it  ‘an overlooked entry in the Paul cannon…it’s by no means Paul’s finest work, far from it, but there’s just something about it that keeps bringing me back to it’.   

Du Noyer is more positive about the album in Conversations with McCartney, saying that the record marked ‘Paul’s commercial re-emergence’ following the ‘ramshackle’ Ram LP and ‘recovered some of the poise and consistency that was expected of Paul’. 

But I don’t care what anybody else says, Red Rose is a consistently great listen with no bad tracks. ‘My Love’ (I’m not sure anything more needs to be said about that guitar solo other than you ought to listen to it again right now) and the exquisite ‘Little Lamb Dragonfly’ aside, it may not reach the heights of the best tracks on Band on The Run, but from the insanely catchy rocker ‘Big Barn Bed’ to the closing medley of ‘Hold Me Tight/Lazy Dynamite/Hands of Love/Power Cut’ McCartney proves that he’s at his best when he stops messing about (see most of McCartney) and embraces his melodic gift. 

Given his unrivalled reputation and achievements, it’s tempting to judge all of McCartney’s output against the standard of ‘towering masterpiece of popular music’ and anything that falls below that as somehow being unworthy of anyone’s attention.  Red Rose is not a towering masterpiece, but it is bloody great way to spend 42 minutes of your life. Give it a go, you will not be disappointed. 

Beatles Handbook rating: 4 Stars

Essential tracks
My Love 
Big Barn Bed 
Little Lamb Dragonfly 
Single Pigeon
When The Night 

Buy this album: Red Rose Speedway by Paul McCartney and Wings 

Red Rose Speedway is one of the most enjoyable albums in McCartney’s entire back catalogue, an opinion not many other people seem to share.

4. Ram by Paul McCartney and Linda McCartney (1971)
Ram by Paul McCartney

McCartney’s second post-Beatles albums suffers from both too many ideas and a paucity of them at the same time.  Overtly Beach Boys-influenced tracks such as ‘Dear Boy’ and ‘The Back Seat of My Car’ are packed with ‘baroque detail’ (Tom Doyle, Man on the Run) while tedious, chugging blues riffing sucks any interest from filler tracks like ‘3 Legs’, ‘Smile Away’ and ‘Eat At Home’. In between these two extremes, we find the six minute long, unnecessarily complex yet lumpen Hey Jude-alike ‘Long Haired Lady’ staggering on vainly in search of a melody that remains stubbornly furtive.  The John and Yoko diss track ‘Too Many People’ features some nice melodies and twangy guitar work, but a weak chorus and the endlessly noodling outro ultimately proves that negativity doesn’t best serve McCartney’s muse.  

But there are high points. ‘Ram On’ has a beguiling other-worldly feel, with a Beach Boy-ish melody soaring over a few simple strummed ukulele chords. In ‘Monkberry Moon Delight’, McCartney delivers surreal lyrics in an effectively scratchy, croaking growl over a mid-tempo stomping backing track with a great arrangement (including some nice BVs from Linda) that sustains interest over the five and half minute duration. ‘Heart of the Country”s laid back, bluesy feel, intimate relaxed vocal from Paul and memorable, hooky chorus make for an enjoyable listen. A minor transitional work; there was so much better to come. 

Beatles Handbook rating: 3 Stars

Essential tracks
Ram On
Monkberry Moon Delight
Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey
Back Seat Of My Car 
Dear Boy
Heart of the Country 

Buy this album: Ram by Paul McCartney and Linda McCartney 

5. London Town by Wings (1978)

London Town by Wings

A disparate collection of tunes that pinballs from catchy pop (‘With a Little Luck’, ‘Cafe On The Left Bank’) to funk and soul (the instrumental ‘Cuff Link’ and album standout ‘Girlfriend’) to touching ballad (‘I’m Carrying’) to folky strum (the Steeleye Span-ish ‘Children Children’, the forgettable ‘Famous Groupies’ and the memorable ‘Deliver Your Children’) to Beatle-like bluesy trudge (‘I’ve Had Enough’).

If that wasn’t enough, McCartney throws in an Elvis impersonation on the hard rocking ‘Name and Address’ and a helping of faux fiddle-di-de on ‘Morse Moose And The Grey Goose’. As the follow up to Speed of Sound, it’s a let down for sure but there are some exquisite songs including the beguiling title track and slow burning ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ (I do love a McCartney/Laine co-write) that make it worth persevering with.  Few would want to listen to the entire overlong, meandering mélange too many times, but there’s plenty to enjoy and admire here once you’ve picked your way through the clutter.   

Beatles Handbook rating: 3 Stars 

Essential tracks
With a Little Luck
Don’t Let It Bring You Down
London Town 
Cafe on the Left Bank 
Deliver Your Children
I’m Carrying 
Backwards Traveller 

Buy this album: London Town by Wings 

6. Wild Life by Wings (1971)

Wild Life by Wings

The fact that there are two people named Denny playing on Wild Life (guitarist Laine and drummer Seiwell) might be the most interesting thing about this album. As Paul, Linda and their then new found mates bugger around for a good half of the 38 minute running time, I find my mind wandering. “Surely one was called Danny? I mean, it’s like Madonna making a record with someone else called Madonna. Or there being two Derrens, or Davinas. Did McCartney originally hire Denny Laine because his name sounds a bit like Penny Lane? Were the Dennys  referred to only by their surnames to avoid confusion in the studio, or did they have numbers, like Thing One and Thing Two? Two Dennys, what are the odds…”. 

When I can focus on the music as it drifts by, other questions occur to me such as ‘The title track, ‘Some People Never Know’ and ‘Dear Friend’ are all wonderful. Why didn’t McCartney just try harder?” and, “Hadn’t McCartney ever heard of EPs”.  That is perhaps a little unfair, as the four songs on what would have been side two of the original release hang together well and display many of McCartney’s best attributes as a songwriter. But it’s an uneven listen overall with McCartney still finding his feet in a post-Beatles world. 

Beatles Handbook rating: 3 Stars 

Essential tracks
Wild Life 
Some People Never Know
Dear Friend 

Buy this album: Wild Life by Wings 

7. Venus and Mars by Wings (1975)
Venus and Mars by Wings

And it all starts so well. ‘Venus and Mars’ is one of those snaking ear-worm melodies that McCartney seems to be able to pull out of thin air. The chiming guitar chords and harmonising bass notes seem to be taking the music to somewhere unexpected. But suddenly we’re into ‘Rock Show’ and everything turns bog standard vanilla with McCartney wailing about ‘rock’n’roll at the Hollywood Bowl’ like he’s completely run out of ideas for lyrics. It’s just horrible. 

Although there’s far too much turgid 70s rock on the record, it’s far from all bad. There’s the haunting ‘Love in Song’, beautiful ‘Treat Her Gently’ and of course ‘Listen To What The Man Said’, a highlight of McCartney’s work in the 70s and one that foreshadows the treasures in store on Speed Of Sound.    

Beatles Handbook rating: 3 Stars

Essential tracks
Treat Her Gently – Lonely Old People
Listen To What The Man Said 
Love In Song 

Buy this album:  Venus And Mars by Wings 

8. McCartney by Paul McCartney (1970)
McCartney by Paul McCartney

It’s worth noting the historical context in which this album was made before you read the damning verdict that follows.  McCartney’s first solo album was recorded while he was still officially a Beatle and during the band’s messy break up. It says something profound about McCartney’s unrelenting drive as a creative force (and his ambition) that he would seek to begin to establish his musical identity as a solo artist even as his role as band member/leader was being painfully taken from him.

McCartney unquestionably documents an important moment in popular musical history. But it also documents Paul dicking about by himself for the majority of the running time, making it an extremely unrewarding listen. But among all the under-developed, under-produced inconsequential whimsy, McCartney manages to pull out three stunners just to remind the world of his genius.

Although ‘Every Night’ would have benefitted from a more detailed arrangement, it is a beautifully constructed, hook laden ballad where a pensive melancholic verse  resolves effortlessly into a joyful, celebratory chorus. It wouldn’t be out of place on a late period Beatles album. It’s not surprising that it’s been covered many times, including a striking version by Richie Havens.  ‘Junk’ is a gorgeously simple acoustic ballad with a floating wistful melody and a lyric about consumerism that feels very contemporary.  But the true stand out is ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ – the instantly recognisable piano riff, bluesy impassioned vocal, carefully constructed guitar solos and the remarkable lyric, a love song about ‘fear and loneliness’ as McCartney explains in The Lyrics

Despite the presence of these three classics, McCartney remains an album for completists only. 

Beatles Handbook rating: 2 Stars

Essential tracks
Maybe I’m Amazed
Every Night

Buy this album: McCartney by Paul McCartney

9. Back to the Egg by Wings (1979)

Back to the Egg by Wings

An album not worthy of your time.  The sophisticated blue-eyed soul of the Michael McDonald influenced ‘Arrow Through Me’ is a great track and ‘So Glad To See You Here’ provides Eagles of Death Metal with a template for an entire career  (the similarity to that band’s particular brand of perky, bouncing 12 bar riffing is really quite spooky) but there really is not much else to appeal in another motley selection of uninspired second and third rate compositions.

McCartney sounds uncomfortable in his own skin, trying on a variety of musical disguises, from the Bowie-ish ‘To You’ to the punky ‘Spin On It’, none of which really suit him.  Yes, he can pull off a jazzy 20s style ballad with ‘Baby’s Request’, complete with some lovely vocal harmonies, but the question is why bother? It’s a b-side at best and adds one more unnecessary ingredient to an already muddy musical stew. 

Beatles Handbook rating: 2 Stars 

Essential tracks
Arrow Through Me 
So Glad To See You Here 
Getting Closer

Buy this album: Back To The Eggs by Wings 

The Lyrics by Paul McCartney with Paul Muldoon

Paul McCartney The Lyrics

The least interesting aspect of this book is Paul McCartney’s lyrics. That is not to say Paul McCartney is not a great pop and rock lyricist; he is arguably the best in the history of the form. But deprived of the oxygen of musical accompaniment, the words die a little on the page. It may seem an obvious thing to say, but lyrics are written to be sung, not read as poetry. As Poet Laureate Simon Armitage points out, ‘Songwriters are not poets. Or songs are not poems, I should say. In fact, songs are often bad poems. Take the music away and what you’re left with is often an awkward piece of creative writing full of lumpy syllables, cheesy rhymes, exhausted cliches and mixed metaphors.’

While that description doesn’t fit McCartney’s work, you sort of know what he means. The genius of McCartney as a lyric writer is that his words are not opaque and convoluted as poetry can sometimes be, but are often simple, direct and honest. It’s what makes his songs so popular and relatable and in particular what makes him the finest composer of love songs in the history of popular music.

So, why then spend £75 on a two volume, 921 page, slipcase bound set of large format hardback books full of 154 examples of McCartney’s words when you’d be better off just listening to them as was originally intended? Because The Lyrics is Paul McCartney’s autobiography by stealth. Each lyric, an eclectic and sometimes eccentric selection that covers his entire career from boyhood to the present day, is a jumping off point for McCartney to not only explain the creative process behind the song’s composition but reminisce about the time it was written. As he explains in the introduction , the songs are his diary and ‘illuminate something that was important in my life at that moment’.

The accompanying commentary to each alphabetically ordered lyric is based on transcriptions of 50 hours of conversations between McCartney and the poet Paul Muldoon that took place over 24 sessions between 2015 and 2020. The effect is very much like being around a pub table with Sir Paul and the poet, earwigging on a relaxed nostalgic chat. Taking the first and last songs in the book as examples, we learn that ‘All My Loving’ was written on a tour bus and backstage in 1963 when The Beatles were on a package tour of Moss Empire theatres in the UK on a bill with the likes of Roy Orbison and that, although he and Jane Asher were ‘courting’ at the time, the lyrics are more about being on the road than a specific relationship. Written in 1967 for the Magical Mystery Tour album, ‘Your Mother Should Know’ was inspired by a visit to McCartney’s London residence in Cavendish Avenue by his Auntie Jin from Liverpool who had come to lecture him on the ‘sin of smoking pot’.

One of the other great joys of the book is the previously unseen photographs, letters and drafts from McCartney’s archive. Thrill to the re-production of Sir Paul’s hand written lyrics to ‘Mull of Kintyre’ (OK, so that might be many people’s least favourite Macca song, but it’s undeniably of genuine historical importance, at least in terms of the British pop charts); swoon to the candid shots of Linda, pre-70s feather cut looking like the Princess of Pop she actually was; marvel at McCartney and Youth from Killing Joke hand-painting the cardboard boxes used for the cover art for the pair’s Electric Arguments album made under name of The Firemen. There’s also a fantastic picture of McCartney’s Sgt. Pepper costume, an alternative design for the drum skin featured on the album cover and more hand written lyrics, this time the album’s title track complete with Beatles-as-Lonely-Hearts-Club-Band doodle.

While there are plenty of McCartney’s best known songs here, including ‘I saw Her Standing There’, ‘Lady Madonna’, ‘Hey Jude’, ‘Let It Be’, ‘Band On The Run’, ‘Jet’, ‘Waterfalls’, ‘No More Lonely Nights’ and many more you would hope and expect to have made the cut, there are also some rum old choices. ‘Check My Machine’ is the B-side of Waterfalls and consists mostly of the the title repeated over and over, while ‘Cook of the House’ is a throwaway track from Wings at The Speed of Sound that is not much more than a shopping list. More interestingly, there are fan-favourite ‘deep cuts’ like the intriguing ‘House of Wax’ from Memory Almost Full and ‘Junk’ from McCartney (1970).   

Even if the lyrics are the least interesting thing about the book, it is nevertheless a delight to read them, denuded even as they are, especially narrative songs like ‘Another Day’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby’. ‘Silly Love Songs’ is a masterclass in just saying what you bloody mean; how can you beat ‘I love you’ for the chorus of a love song?

The Lyrics is a beautiful object that as been compiled with real care and attention. Even at the full price (although you will almost certainly find it heavily discounted), it overdelivers.  It is the perfect introduction to McCartney’s life and work and may even offer something new to all those dedicated, longstanding Beatle maniacs out there. An essential purchase.

The Beatles Handbook rating: 5 Stars
Buy this book:
The Lyrics by Paul McCartney
£75, Allen Lane

The Beatles Albums Ranked

1 Revolver


Most songwriters would give their right arm for just one of the melodies, riffs or chord sequences on Revolver. The playing is terrific too. From the looping bass, taut guitar stabs and crisp drumming of the opening ‘Taxman’, to the hallucinatory ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ with that legendary, defining Ringo drum pattern, The Beatles sound like the tightest band on the planet.  And they don’t just hit the back of the net with rock, pop and psychedelia; whatever they turn their hand to on the album is pure gold, from the heart-breaking pathos of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ with its haunting double string quartet arrangement, to the achingly tender ‘Here, There and Everywhere’, arguably McCartney’s most beautiful love song. With every track a banger (and no, I’m not excluding ‘Yellow Submarine’ which has the hookiest chorus ever written), it’s unquestionably the highpoint of The Beatles recording career. An awe-inspiring achievement, especially when you consider it was released only eight months after Rubber Soul and that many of the tracks wouldn’t even make a top 20 of The Beatles best known songs.

Beatles Handbook rating: 5 Stars

Essential tracks
Eleanor Rigby
Here, There and Everywhere
And Your Bird Can Sing
Got To Get You Into My Life
Tomorrow Never Knows

Buy this album: Revolver

2 Help!


For any other band, Help! would be a greatest hits album. But because this is The Beatles, it’s just another shift in the mop tops’ factory of greatness. With what must be the most impactful beginning of any pop album, ‘Help!’ makes for a direct, startling opening statement, vulnerable and yet uplifting as though by simply making the request, Lennon has made himself feel better. With only one track tipping the three minute mark (Ticket To Ride at a hardly epic 3m9s), the band rattle though 14 perfect slices of guitar pop.  Every track is a cracker, including the Ringo-sung ‘Act Naturally’.  As astonishingly excellent as the film it soundtracks is appallingly bad. 

Beatles Handbook rating: 5 Stars

Essential tracks
The Night Before
You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away
You’re Going to Lose That Girl
Ticket To Ride

Buy this album: Help!

3 Rubber Soul

Rubber Soul
It’s amazing what you can do with some tight guitar riffs, even tighter vocal harmonies, passing piano chords and a killer hook line. ‘Beep, beep, beep, yeah’ indeed. It’s incredible to think that, a little more than two years earlier, the same four lads were banging, thrashing and crooning their way through a disparate rag bag of rudimentary rockers and schmaltzy ballads. And ‘Drive My Car’ is just one of any number of sophisticated, mature, memorable and melodic songs on what isn’t even their best album. It may be a music mag all-time-best-list staple but it can’t quite keep pace in terms of quality with Help!  or Revolver, but make no mistake, this is a band close to the very height of their powers sounding both assured, thrilling and moving by turns.

Beatles Handbook rating: 4 Stars

Essential tracks
Drive My Car
Norwegian Wood
Nowhere Man
The Word
I’m Looking Through You
In My Life

Buy this album: Rubber Soul

4 A Hard Day’s Night

Hard Days Night
As Luke Haines recently noted in his column in Record Collector, “the opening chord of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’… singlehandedly seemed to usher in a new era”.  It certainly ushered in a new era for the mop tops themselves with what might be considered by contemporary listeners as their first ‘proper’ album. Most of the Hamburg hard edges have been sanded off and chugging rock’n’roll for the most part replaced by sophisticated song writing with ace melodies and harmonies. Lennon dominates, taking lead vocals on nine out of the thirteen tracks and, according to, writing ten, but McCartney still manages to make a big impression with his three contributions; the hauntingly beautiful ‘And I Love Her’ (the signature opening guitar motive courtesy of Harrison),  the instantly catchy ‘Things We Said Today’ and of course the timeless classic ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’.  Harrison is given ‘I’m Happy Just To Dance With You’ to sing, one of the weaker numbers that wouldn’t have been out of place on Please Please Me or With The Beatles but it’s still a pleasant enough sub-two minute listen. A great album that soundtracks the band’s finest moment on film.

Beatles Handbook rating: 4 Stars

Essential tracks

A Hard Day’s Night
I should Have Known Better
If I Fell
And I Love Her
Can’t Buy Me Love
Things We Said Today
I’ll Be Back

Buy this album:  Hard Day’s Night 

5 Let It Be

Let It Be

An album that includes songs of the quality of ‘Across The Universe’, ‘Let It Be’, ‘The Long and Winding Road’ and ‘Get Back’ should rate five stars, but it’s actually somewhat of a disappointment.  The inclusion of two sub-one minute tracks (‘Dig It’ and ‘Maggie Mae’), a piece of Lennon juvenilia in the form of ‘One After 909’, and Harrison’s lightweight ‘For You Blue’ gives Let It Be an uneven quality. That’s exacerbated but the inclusion of second division songs (at least in the context of The Beatles catalogue) ‘Dig a Pony’ and ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’, but it’s hardly surprising once you’ve seen the film Get Back and understand the chaotic nature of the rehearsal and recording sessions for the album. McCartney’s touching and wistful ‘Two of Us’ and Harrison’s waltzing ‘I Me Mine’ are the album’s two relatively hidden gems.    

Beatles Handbook rating: 3 stars

Essential tracks
Two of Us
Across The Universe
I Me Mine
Let It Be
The Long and Winding Road
Get Back

Buy this album: Let It Be

6 The Beatles (White Album)

The Beatles White Album
Where to start with The Beatles by The Beatles? An album that sounds like an extended re-issue of itself with bonus tracks that should never have seen the light of day (WTAF is Wild Honey Pie?). Starting at the beginning is actually a very good idea as you get to hear ace rocker ‘Back In The U.S.S.R’., the dreamy psychedelia of ‘Dear Prudence’ and the archly self-referential ‘Glass Onion’. Then the problems start. Oh bloody hell, it’s ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’, McCartney at his absolute worst, culturally appropriating a story that’s not his to tell over a weird and horrible umpah-meets-cod-reggae backing track. Jesus wept. At least the aforementioned ‘Wild Honey Pie’, the next track up, with its faux avant garde stylings has the decency to last a merciful 53 seconds.

I’m not going parse all 30 tracks of this sprawling mess, but suffice to say that to get to every magnificent song such as Harrison’s ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, Lennon’s ‘Julia’  or McCartney’s ‘Blackbird’ you have to wade through dreck like ‘The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill’ or the more than eight unlistenable minutes of ‘Revolution 9’ (if anyone tries to tell you that, actually, that’s their favourite Beatles song, run). It is however almost worth the slog to end up at one of the loveliest songs the band ever recorded, ‘Good Night’, affectingly sung by Ringo.

Beatles Handbook rating: 3 stars 

Essential tracks
Back In The USSR
Dear Prudence
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Happiness Is A Warm Gun
Martha My Dear
Helter Skelter
Mother Nature’s Son
Everybody’s Got Something to Hide
Revolution 1
Cry Baby Cry
Good Night

Buy this album: The Beatles

7 Beatles For Sale

Beatles For Sale
Sorry, I’m not buying. Compared to the giant leap forward that was A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles For Sale is a big step back. But let’s be fair; it was released just 21 weeks after Hard Day and was the fabs fourth album in two years. No wonder they resorted to padding out the 33 minute running time with no less than six cover versions. We are sadly back in Hamburg it seems, but at least Chuck Berry’s ‘Rock’n’Roll’ and Leiber/Stoller/Penniman’s ‘Kansas City’ sound convincingly raucous. The less said about Ringo’s rather painful stab at Carl Perkins’ ‘Honey Don’t’ the better.  Of the originals, ‘Eight Days a Week’ is the obvious stand out but the nakedly vulnerable, confessional lyrics of ‘I’m A Loser’ are striking, ‘Every Little Thing’ is a beautifully constructed pop song full of hooks, and Harrison’s twelve string riff gives ‘What You’re Doing’ a distinctive sound that would be much copied by the likes of The Byrds.

Beatles Handbook rating: 3 stars

Essential tracks
No Reply
I’m A Loser
I’ll Follow The Sun
Eight Days a Week
Every Little Thing
What You’re Doing

Buy this album: Beatles for Sale


8 Abbey Road

Abbey Road

The band’s final recordings (although penultimate release; Let It Be appeared eight months later) are sadly a rather scrappy affair. Harrison comes out on top with two stone cold, all time classics in ‘Something’ and ‘Here Comes The Sun’, not only the best songs on the album, but among the best he ever wrote and among the best of the entire Beatles catalogue. Lennon’s strident ‘Come Together’ makes an ear-grabbingly effective opener, especially with Ringo’s rolling drum pattern, one of the most famous in pop history. 

Beyond that, things get rather messy. Apart from inventing three chord punk nearly a decade before the Sex Pistols with ‘Polythene Pam’, there is McCartney’s music hall fetish in the form of ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, the white man’s doo-wop of ‘Oh! Darling’ and whatever the hell ‘Octopus’s Garden’ is meant to be to contend with. Not to mention a patience-testing 7 minutes 47 seconds of ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’, although the extended instrumental outro is pretty mesmerising. 

There are some stunning moments scattered around, ‘Sun King’ is a rather lovely thing, reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Albatross’, and there are some great melodies on ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ and ‘Golden Slumbers’, but ultimately the album fails to cohere in the same way as Revolver or Help!.

Beatles Handbook rating: 3 Stars

Essential tracks
Here Comes The Sun
Sun King 
You Never Give Me Your Money
Golden Slumbers

Buy this album: Abbey Road

9 Magical Mystery Tour

Magical Mystery Tour
Not a full studio album as such but a compilation of a double ep soundtrack to a made-for-TV film plus some singles. It might be a bit of a mess thematically (as is the film itself, and that’s putting it mildly) but that’s hardly a rare trait in the Beatles album canon and it does contain some of The Beatles best-known songs.  The original British ep release not only included the rousing title track (a far better signature tune for a concept than St. Pepper’s) but ‘The Fool On The Hill’ one of McCartney’s greatest and most unusual compositions, ‘I Am The Walrus’, Lennon’s most successful stab at musical and lyrical surrealism, and Harrison’s remarkable, woozy and weird ‘Blue Jay Way’ (is there anything in pop or rock that sounds quite like it?).

The collection of non-album A and B sides that make up the rest of the album is almost ridiculous in terms of its quality. ‘Hello, Goodbye’, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘All You Need Is Love’ are of course among the cream of the Beatles crop; even ‘Baby, You’re A Rich Man’, the B-side of ‘All You Need Is Love’ is a cracker.

Because it’s status as an album is questionable and having all those non-album singles on it is sort of ‘cheating’ in the context of the band’s other releases which lack that advantage, it appears lower down on this list than it might do.  A great listen, especially for those whose favourite Beatles album would be ‘The Best of The Beatles’.

Beatles Handbook rating: 4 stars

Essential tracks
The Fool On The Hill
I Am The Walrus
Blue Jay Way
Hello, Goodbye
Strawberry Fields Forever
Penny Lane
All You Need Is Love

Buy this album: Magical Mystery Tour 

10 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
The first Beatles album I bought as a kid, aged 11. I never really liked it and now, more than four decades years later, I still don’t. It sounds to me like a band losing their way; the Sgt Pepper’s conceit merely a way of bringing some sort of cohesion to a very disparate group of songs written by musicians with one eye on the exit door.  You can either view the juxtaposition of ‘Within You Without You’ and ‘When I’m Sixty Four’ as audacious and daring or simply desperate. ‘Lucy In The Sky’ has aged badly into try-hard psychedelia; ‘Fixing a Hole’ is uninspired, lumbering and mundane, ‘She’s Leaving Home’ is a re-tread of the vastly superior ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite!’ is much less clever and much less listenable than Lennon probably thought it was.  ‘A Day In Life”s haunting refrain is swamped by over production and the unwelcome intrusion of McCartney’s ‘middle eight’. It’s a striking, innovative piece but I’m not sure I’d ever want to listen to it for fun. It’s another album that would make a great EP with ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ and Ringo’s touchingly performed vocal providing the lead track.

Beatles Handbook rating: 3 stars 

Essential tracks
With A Little Help From My Friends
Getting Better
Lovely Rita
Good Morning Good Morning

Buy this album: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band


11 Yellow Submarine

Yellow Submarine

A curio in The Beatles album canon. The soundtrack to the animated film contains only four previously unreleased songs, the rest of the running time made up from the title track, which previously appeared on Revolver,  ‘All You Need Is Love’ which was a single and also collected on Magical Mystery Tour, and George Martin’s instrumental orchestral music for the film, none of which will be troubling us here. Unusually, Harrison gets two out of the four new cuts and both are very decent examples of late period Beatles. The inventive and unusual ‘Only A Northern Song’ is built around a loping bassline and random-sounding soundscape of squawling trumpets and backwards tape loops that is much easier on the ear than that description might sound. ‘It’s All Too Much’ is a medium paced stomper with a droning organ riff and busy percussion track supporting a lilting verse melody and catchy chorus hook that all adds up to a distinctive and enjoyable addition to the bands catalogue. ‘Hey Bulldog’s driving piano riff underpins a snarling, menacing Lennon vocal to great effect, but McCartney’s throwaway knees up ‘All Together Now’ irritates rather than amuses. One for Beatles collectors rather than the general listener.

Beatles Handbook rating
3 Stars

Essential tracks
Northern Song
Hey Bulldog
It’s All Too Much

Buy this album: Yellow Submarine

12 Please Please Me

Please Please Me

Released shortly after their return from their extended show band stint in Hamburg, Please Please Me sounds like a historical recording from an ancient civilisation. That the album sounds underwhelming now should come as no surprise; after all, The Beatles had been so busy performing for eight hours a day that they hadn’t quite got around to creating modern pop music.
Instead, we get a rather underpowered impersonation of The Beatles’ rock’n’roll heroes (‘I Saw Her Standing There’ sounds pretty energetic until you play ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ immediately after and Little Richard really blows your hair back) along with some pretty schlocky and sappy love songs.  The title track hints at the greatness to come, as does Lennon’s  plaintive harmonica refrain on ‘There’s A Place’ and the song’s touchingly introspective lyrics. Ringo’s forceful, driving vocal on ‘Boys’ is another highlight.
For those that lived through the era, it’s no doubt an essential album and that has to be respected, but if you missed out on those heady days this is a record you can probably live without.

Beatles Handbook rating
2  Stars

Essential tracks
Please Please Me
Do You Want To Know A Secret
Baby It’s You
There’s A Place

Buy this album: Please Please Me


13 With The Beatles

With The Beatles
Released eight months after Please Please Me, the band’s second album sticks pretty much to the debut’s formula with again, eight originals and six covers including Chick Berry’s ‘Roll Over Beethoven’. It’s a similar mix of rockers and sappy love songs but this time there’s a high quotient of original top pop tunes including the urgent opening track ‘It Won’t Be Long’, the timeless classic ‘All My Loving’ and Harrison’s sombre and relatively overlooked ‘Don’t Bother Me’. But as an album, it still sounds too much like it’s based around a got-to-please-them-all Hamburg set list.

Beatles Handbook rating
2 Star

Essential tracks
It Won’t Be Long 
All My Loving
Not a Second Time
Don’t Bother Me

Buy this album: With The Beatles 

The Essential Beatles Playlist

I Listened to all The Beatles albums in order and these are the tracks I liked

John Lennon Solo Albums Ranked

1. Walls and Bridges by John Lennon (1974) 
Walls and Bridges

Lennon’s most complete, satisfying and well produced solo album containing some of his finest post-Beatles songs. Head and shoulders above his other albums which by comparison seem under-developed.   

Essential tracks
Whatever Gets You Through The Night
#9 Dream
Steel and Glass

Beatles Handbook rating: 4 Stars
Buy this album: Walls and Bridges by John Lennon 

2 Mind Games by John Lennon (1973)
Mind Games

Mind Games is the first great solo Lennon song and the album is his most consistent effort up to that point. Thankfully, the clumsy sloganeering that characterised his previous album Some Time In New York City is set aside, allowing Lennon’s emotional side to shine.

Essential tracks
Mind Games
Aisumasen (I’m sorry) 
Bring On The Lucie

Beatles Handbook rating:
3 stars
Buy this album:
Mind Games by John Lennon

3. Imagine by John Lennon (1971)

A pretty solid collection including some beautiful heartfelt love songs is marred by self indulgent nonsense like Crippled Inside, I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier Mama (a none-more-70s title) and the execrable title track. 

Essential tracks
Jealous Guy
Oh My Love
Oh Yoko

Beatles Handbook rating:
3 Stars 
Buy this album: Imagine by John Lennon

4. Double Fantasy by John Lennon and Yoko Ono (1980)
Double Fantasy
A bizarre mix of Lennon’s MOR tracks alternating with Ono’s post punk stylings that make for an unsettling and wholly unsatisfying listen, despite the presence of some great songs by both parties. A side each would have made so much more sense, but at least we now we know what a collaboration between Jeff Lynne and Hazel O’Connor would sound like. 

Essential tracks
Watching The Wheels
(Just Like) Starting Over 

Beatles Handbook rating:
3 stars
Buy this album: Double Fantasy by John Lennon and Yoko Ono

5. Rock’n’Roll by John Lennon (1975) 
Rock n roll

Lennon puts his back into a set of cover versions of songs from his not that distant youth with more success than most of the British chart act revivalists of the time (Showaddywaddy et al). A footnote to a catalogue that doesn’t really have room for one. 

Essential tracks
Slippin’ and Slidin’
Ain’t That A Shame  

Beatles Handbook rating: 3 stars
Buy this album:
Rock’n’Roll by John Lennon

6. Milk and Honey by John Lennon & Yoko Ono (1984)
Milk and Honey

A big old posthumously-released mess of a cash-in. The mix of Lennon demos (and some completed tracks) and newly recorded Ono originals refuses to gel into a cohesive whole. Not the most dignified end to a career. 

Essential tracks
Nobody Told Me 
I’m Stepping Out 
Borrowed Time 

Beatles Handbook rating:
3 Stars 
Buy this album: Milk and Honey by John Lennon & Yoko Ono

7. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band by John Lennon (1970)
John Lennon Plastic Ono Band

Solipsistic, self pitying, morbid and badly underproduced…and that’s just ‘Working Class Hero’. Mostly unlistenable apart from a few saving graces. A bad beginning to Lennon’s solo career (I think we can safely ignore the false starts of Two Virgins and Life With The Lions).

Essential tracks
Hold On 
Look At Me

Beatles Handbook rating:
2 stars
Buy this album: John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band by John Lennon

8. Sometime In New York City by John Lennon (1972)
Some Time In New York City

Hard to credit a man in his 30s could have written some of the more juvenile lyrics on this album. In the 21st century, the opening track has become even more of an ideological minefield than when it was first released; best skipped over for everyone’s sake. The overtly anti-establishment sentiments occasionally mesh well with some hard rock stylings to create moments of true excitement, but Some Time is mostly a chore to listen to, especially Yoko’s 7 minute-long filler ‘We’re All Water’.

Essential tracks
Attica State 
Sunday Bloody Sunday 

Beatles Handbook rating: 2 stars 
Buy this album: Sometime In New York City by John Lennon