The Beatles Lyrics edited by Hunter Davies (Little, Brown, $39)
By Stuart Nulman – mtltimes.ca
In early 1964, John Lennon was riding in a taxi on his way to the EMI Abbey Road studios to record a song that would end up being the title song for their third album – and first feature film – “A Hard Day’s Night”.
Accompanying Lennon was Maureen Cleave, a journalist for the London Evening Standard. During the ride, he showed Cleave the lyrics to the song, which was scrawled by him on a children’s birthday card that was given to his son Julian earlier that year for his first birthday. Cleave liked the song, but found the line “But when I get home to you, I find my tiredness is through, then I feel all right”, in her words, “rather feeble.” Lennon then seized her pen, and on the spot changed the second line to “I find the things that you do, will make me feel all right,” which ended up in the final recorded version of the song.
For the past 50 years, everything about the life and career of the Beatles – both individually and collectively – has been written about, analyzed, dissected, studied, examined and evaluated by journalists, experts and fans alike. One aspect of the Fab Four that has held a peculiar fascination is their songs that have been written and recorded by them between 1962 and 1970, especially the stories behind their respective origins.
Journalist and author Hunter Davies, who wrote the first – and only – authorized biography of the Beatles during their lifetime, which was published in 1968, tackles the Beatles’ songs. However, this time, he focuses on the words that went so well with their music in his fascinating study The Beatles Lyrics.
From “Love Me Do” to “Her Majesty”, Davies gives a chronological look at the songs that appeared on their British albums that were released on Parlaphone during the 60s (as well as the hit songs that did not appear on any of their UK albums) from the point-of-view of the lyrics. Davies gives the reader a great deal of interesting stories behind the words to see how the Beatles (well, mostly the team of Lennon & McCartney) came up with some of the most famous and most memorable words in the history of rock music.
For example, “In My Life” actually began as a long form poem by John about his growing up in Liverpool; the title of the song “Getting Better” was taken from a phrase that drummer Jimmy Nicol used to utter a lot (Beatles fans know Nicol from his brief turn as a Beatle, when he substituted for Ringo during the group’s tour of Holland and Australia in 1964, because he was getting his tonsils removed); “Help” was actually written as a sort-of cry of help from John, who was beginning to get weary of the fame that Beatlemania was bringing him at the time; the lyrics to “Yesterday” came to Paul during a drive he took with then-girlfriend Jane Asher during a vacation in Portugal (while he was still tooling around with its famous working title “Scrambled Eggs”); “A Day in the Life”, which is regarded as one of the Beatles’ most perfect songs, was actually a merger of two sets of lyrics … one set by John based on an account he read in the newspaper about the tragic death of the heir to the Guinness brewery fortune in a car accident, and one set by Paul about how he got ready for school every day during the 50s.
Davies keeps the reader’s attention quite well with his combination of lyric analysis and background stories (most of those stories culled from the time he spent with the group as he was researching his famous Beatles biography). However, another main attraction of this book is the 100 original drafts that are peppered throughout the text, and almost looks like a museum catalogue (most of them are from Davies’ personal collection, which are now housed in the British Library in London). They give the reader a rare glimpse of the rough drafts of the Beatles’ creative process, and what some original lyrics might have ended up in the finished song if it wasn’t for a last minute change or adjustment because a certain verse didn’t sound or rhyme properly.
Another interesting thing that the reader takes away from these much treasured lyrical scribblings is that John and Paul (and sometimes George) would write these rough drafts on any type of paper that they could get their hands on at that moment, whether it be a child’s birthday card, a piece of hotel stationery, a concert advertisement, or even the back of the group’s agenda for their final tour in the summer of 1966 (which was where the lyrics for their romantic ballad “Here, There and Everywhere” was penned). These spur-of-the-moment musical manuscripts, many of which were discarded or given away to friends and associates by John and Paul after the songs were recorded, are now seen as some of the most sought after and valuable pieces of Beatle memorabilia (in fact, the original draft of the lyrics to “All You Need is Love” sold at an auction in 2005 for $1 million).
The Beatles Lyrics is an insightful, authoritative look at how the most memorable lyrics in rock music came to be, and the circumstances behind those memorable lyrics. Beatle fans everywhere have to thank Hunter Davies for his tireless efforts in tracking down these original drafts that forever changed the face of rock music, so we can get the opportunity to see how every “yeah, yeah, yeah” came to be from their own hand, to the page, to the recording studio, to the record stores. It’s a fine testament to the creative legacy of the Fab Four.
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Stuart Nulman’s “Book Banter” segment is a twice-a-month feature on “The Stuph File Program” with Peter Anthony Holder, which now has almost 150,000 listeners per week. You can either listen or download it at www.peteranthonyholder.com, Stitcher.com or subscribe to it on iTunes. Plus you can find it at www.CyberStationUSA.com, www.KDXradio.com, True Talk Radio, streaming on www.PCJMedia.com, and over the air at World FM 88.2fm in New Zealand, Media Corp in Singapore and WSTJ, St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Stuart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.