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The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present by Paul McCartney and Paul Muldoon

Writing.ie | Book Reviews | Non Fiction

By Colman Rushe

The Lyrics – 1956 To The Present by Paul McCartney, which was published in November 2021, has been chosen by Waterstones, Barnes and Noble and The Sunday Times as their Book of the Year. It is also shortlisted for the British Book Awards – Non-Fiction Book of the Year.

Why has this book gained so many accolades when bookshelves are bulging with autobiographies of famous and often creative people? With a few exceptions, such books are uninspiring, chronological accounts of the lives of their subjects. A few, if we’re lucky, give us some insight into the creative process of the artist. The McCartney book is structured so that we get a fascinating insight into the people and events which shaped his songs without having to wade through the gossipy details of his personal life.

A few creative people have tried to approach biography in a different way. Bob Dylan rejected the tyranny of chronology in his excellent and best-selling Chronicles: Volume 1 when he wrote in fascinating and revealing detail about two short but critical periods in his artistic life. A closer comparison to the McCartney book is provided by Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney by Dennis O’Driscoll. As an alternative to writing an autobiography, Heaney agreed to answer an extensive series of questions submitted by fellow poet, O’Driscoll, in writing and by post. The result was a fascinating insight into Heaney’s life and creativity.

Like Heaney, Paul McCartney had resisted attempts to persuade him to write his autobiography. He agreed to a series of interviews with Irish poet, Paul Muldoon. According to McCartney, they bonded because of their shared Irish heritage and their writing experience. Their empathy may also be due to the fact that, as well as being a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Muldoon has written lyrics for and performed with his own rock band. Over a period of five years, the pair had 24 two or three-hour sessions and spoke about specific songs from McCartney’s songwriting career which has spanned seven decades. The interviews were recorded and transcribed and later edited by Muldoon.

In this fascinating, two-volume book comprising over 900 pages, the 154 selected songs are listed in alphabetical order – from All My Loving to Your Mother Should Know. The songs range from McCartney’s teenage, pre-Beatles days to his most recent recordings. The lyrics of each song are accompanied by McCartney’s comments, edited by Muldoon. Some pieces cover the genesis and inspiration for the song which often reveal details about childhood, parents and family, teachers and mentors. Others examine the writing and recording process, relationships between the Beatles or the members of Wings and the contribution of George Martin. An added bonus is a collection of personal photos, notes, posters, recording notes, musical arrangements and memorabilia which expand the readers’ experience and contribute hugely to the enjoyment of this book.

The revelations about the dynamic between McCartney and John Lennon, arguably the most influential songwriters of the 20th century, are particularly fascinating. An early insight shows us the teenage songwriters sitting opposite one another in a Liverpool living room. With Paul’s left-handed guitar and John’s right-handed one, they mirrored one another as they first teased out the chords and melody and then worked on the lyrics. They disciplined themselves that they would not finish their session until the song was finished, which usually took three hours. The song lyrics could be changed or finessed later if necessary. They were determined that each song would be radically different; they jettisoned any song or idea that even remotely resembled something which they had done previously. In composing their melodies, they strove to catch the listener off-guard; the obvious chord change or melodic progression would be replaced by a more inventive one.

Both Lennon and McCartney believed that the meaning of the song’s words was less important than their sound and shape. Jojo left his home in Tuscon, Arizona because, after hours of debate and searching, Lennon and McCartney agreed that only the words “Tuscon, Arizona” had the exact cadence and rhythm that the song needed. For similar reasons, Eleanor Hawkins was renamed Eleanor Rigby and Fr McCartney became Fr McKenzie.

McCartney’s mother Mary, who died when he was 14, is reflected in many songs and, he now realises as he gets older, has deeply impacted his life. The expression “Let It Be” was constantly on mother Mary’s lips; her equivalent of the Liverpudlian phrase “Calm down!”. During a difficult period in McCartney’s life, she appeared to him in a dream, spoke the words and inspired the song. A regular admonition from his father, “Do it Now”, also became a song title and informed a philosophy that McCartney carried into his songwriting and later his painting. McCartney advises: “Do it now. Get rid of the hesitation and the doubt, and just steamroll through… you’ve spilt your guts onto the page and, like it or not, there it is. You can mess with it later if you want to…”

Anyone who reads this book (or who watches The Beatles: Get Back, the 2021 TV mini-series directed by Peter Jackson) will have their preconceived picture of McCartney and the other Beatles altered radically. When the Beatles were being launched in the USA in the 60s, their publicity machine ascribed a persona to each of the four. John was the clever, artistic one. George was shy and sardonic. Ringo was cuddly and fun-loving. Paul was the precocious, lightweight one; the girls’ favourite. The perception thus created has coloured commentary on the Beatles over the last seventy years. In particular, the image of Lennon as the intellectual and artistic core of the group has persisted. McCartney, in comparison, is often portrayed as more vacuous; the one who contributed the “silly love songs”, as Lennon described them. Undoubtedly, Lennon was a genius and McCartney pays tribute to this throughout the book. But the reader gets the impression that, in this book, McCartney is making an effort to redress the balance.

Names of musical, literary and artistic influences or acquaintances of McCartney crop up throughout the book. The reader is unsurprised to encounter Presley, Little Richard, Fats Domino as well as Harold Arlen, Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer. McCartney speaks with equal enthusiasm about less obvious names such as Chaucer, Magritte, Dickens, Chekhov, Lichtenstein, Stockhausen, Picasso, Ginsberg, de Kooning, Pinter, Joyce, Larkin, MacNiece, Orwell and others.

The book reveals that, apart from a passion for Lewis Carroll which was shared by McCartney, the young Lennon had no interest in literature. Conversely, McCartney, from an early age, was an avid reader of books and plays. In this, he acknowledges the influence of his english teacher. When he won an essay competition in 1953, his prize was a book about art that stimulated an interest in painting and painters. In London, he was a regular theatregoer, attended art exhibitions and sought out writers and playwrights. With some friends, he set up the Indica art gallery in London. When Yoko Ono was holding an exhibition at the gallery, Lennon came along to the exhibition and met Yoko Ono.

McCartney’s relationship with Lennon is explored in great detail, from their first meeting as teenagers to their final phone conversation shortly before Lennon’s death. They trusted each other’s instincts when composing. Paul says: “We grew up together. It was like walking up a staircase and we both went side by side.” Lennon, who had a difficult childhood compared to McCartney, was given to making the occasional witty, sarcastic and sometimes hurtful comment. McCartney describes how Lennon, recognising that his words had upset his friend, would charmingly disarm him by lowering his specs and saying: “It’s only me, Paul.” As the Beatles disbanded, tensions arose between them arising from business matters and fuelled by intemperate comments in the press. The relationship was repaired over time and they met or spoke regularly on the phone. As tends to be the case in interactions between men, much was left unsaid. In the note accompanying “Here Today”, surely the most beautiful love song written by one man for another, McCartney asks: “Why can’t men say ‘I love you’ to each other?”

When Muldoon, in his introduction, refers to “the emotional range and intellectual robustness of The Lyrics”, he seems to be making a case for the literary merits of the song words. But this is not poetry. Some of the lyrics are banal on the printed page. Yet, they are transformed when the music and the voice are added and many provided the soundtrack for the second half of the 20th century.

The power of the compositions and performances can be experienced on the Spotify Playlist, which features all the songs in this book and affords an opportunity for the reader to listen to the songs as one reads. Readers who are unfamiliar with McCartney’s work since his recordings with The Beatles and Wings, have a treat in store. The book and the playlist will introduce a wealth of less-heralded but wonderful music produced by McCartney since then.

I agree with James Daunt who has described this richly illustrated book as “stunningly beautiful and a masterpiece of book design, a true joy for bibliophiles”. Regrettably, the price is likely to deter many readers. If it’s outside your price range, I urge you to encourage your local library to source a copy. Or do as I did. Drop hints that it would make an ideal family present for Christmas or that big birthday. You won’t regret it.

(c) Colman Rushe

Order your copy online here.

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