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