The Words That Made the Fab Four Famous A review of two new compilations of Beatle lyrics.

The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics: 1963-1970 & The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present

Introduction by Steven Turner; Paul McCartney, edited with an introduction by Paul Muldoon (2020, Thunder Bay Press) 303 pages, including photographs and index; (2021, W.W. Norton & Company) 874 pages, including photographs and index.

Published by Thunder Bay Press, The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics: 1963-1970 offers an attractive, if strangely incomplete, collection of the lyrics that John, Paul, George, and (very rarely) Ringo produced during their 1960s heyday. The brevity of the Beatles’ career—seven short years from “Please Please Me” to “The Long and Winding Road”—remains the most mystifying element of the band, of how so much music poured out of the band in a remarkably brief amount of time. The Beatles Illustrated does not offer any answers or provide any new insight on the Fab Four’s magic—the commentary is limited to Steve Turner’s one-page introduction—but instead captures the bulk of the Beatles’ lyrics alongside some great photos of the band and illustrations that nicely compliment the songs. The volume is organized chronologically, starting with the euphoric rush of “I Saw Her Standing There”—the book nicely lists Paul’s jubilant “1,2,3,4!” count-in as the band’s opening lyric. The book’s title, however, is a bit misleading as it does not end in 1970, but extends into the 1990s, including the material—mainly, the “new” Lennon songs “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” that the rest of the band completed for the Anthology project. It also includes various odd ’n’ sods, like “Come and Get It,” the McCartney-penned tuned that became the first big hit for Badfinger (who were signed to the Beatles’ Apple records), and Lennon’s The White Album reject “What’s the New Mary Jane”—that were officially released on The Beatles Anthology records (1995-96). The additions are a nice touch, although I am not sure John or George would have liked for Paul’s “Teddy Boy” and “Junk,” songs that Paul demoed with the band but would end up on his debut record, McCartney (1970), to have been considered official Beatle songs. It would have also made more sense to place these songs within the context of the band’s development—the Ringo-sung “If You Got Trouble—belongs with the Help! (1965) material—rather than just sticking these songs at the end of the book.¹ The decision to include the Anthology material seems especially odd, however, when taking into consideration the dearth of Harrison material included. No “Here Comes the Sun” (incidentally, the band’s most-streamed song on Spotify), no “Something,” or “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Not even the candy-influenced lyrics of “Savoy Truffle,” a song that George supposedly wrote about his friend Eric Clapton’s incurable sweet tooth, are included.²  The decision to omit the bulk of Harrison’s songs is never explained—it might have to do with the legal technicalities that surround the Beatles’ publishing catalog—but the absence of his songs (as well as Ringo’s “Octopus’s Garden” and “Don’t Pass Me By”) makes the book frustratingly incomplete.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Steve Turner’s concise introduction focuses largely on Lennon and McCartney’s partnership and has relatively little to say about Harrison besides giving a nod to “Taxman” as “a piece of pop art.” (1) The introduction quickly sketches out the pair’s development from ambitious rockers who aimed “to write songs like Chuck Berry” to more ambitious artists, influenced by the “burgeoning underground arts scenes in London and New York,” who desired “to write songs like Andy Warhol or William Burroughs.” (8) That said, I have to argue against the notion that writing “songs like Chuck Berry” is somehow an easy or simple thing—Berry is the best writer to come out of Missouri (sorry T.S. Eliot and Mark Twain).³ Despite recognizing the evolution of Lennon and McCartney’s lyrics, Turner largely plays into the conventional narratives regarding John and Paul’s writing style that was fortified after the band’s dissolution in 1970. “John always wrote like a wounded lover, expecting the worst, whereas Paul wrote the cocky optimism of a born winner. “We Can Work It Out” was Paul at his positive best. John naturally wrote autobiographically while Paul created fiction populated with folk such as Maxwell, Desmond, Eleanor, Vera, Chuck. And Dave.” (1) These generalizations are perhaps too simple—Paul’s “You Never Give Me Your Money,” which laments the fragmentation of his relationship with Lennon, is as autobiographical as any of John’s more confessional songs while John’s “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” gives Paul a run for his money in the whimsy department. Nevertheless, Turner’s introduction nicely captures both writers’ strengths and offers a good springboard into the collected lyrics that follow. The Beatles Illustrated’s greatest strength, however, is all the photographs and images that it includes, many of which were new to me. A great snapshot of a circa A Hard Day’s Night (1964) Ringo snoozing next to his first wife Maureen accompanies “I’m So Tired” while a lovely picture, taken around the time of Magical Mystery Tour (1967), of John and Paul working together around a piano accompanies the lyrics of “Two of Us,” the song that Paul purportedly wrote for Linda but that, in hindsight, seems more like a goodbye to his partnership with Lennon. Such pictures make The Beatles Illustrated a fun, if not necessary addition to any Fab Four library.

The Beatles Illustrated does not offer any answers or provide any new insight on the Fab Four’s magic—the commentary is limited to Steve Turner’s one-page introduction—but instead captures the bulk of the Beatles’ lyrics alongside some great photos of the band and illustrations that nicely compliment the songs.

Speaking of “Two of Us” it is one of the 154 songs included in Paul McCartney’s The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present. Of “Two of Us,” McCartney recalls the aimless drives that he and Linda would take at the beginning of their relationship and includes a great picture of his handwritten lyrics for the song, with the inscription of “A Quarrymen Original” written at the bottom of the page, giving credence that Paul had the band’s earliest days in mind when composing the song. (739) The collection spans the breadth of McCartney’s six-decade-long career, from his first pre-Beatles’ forays into songwriting to several of the songs included on his most recent studio records, Egypt Station (2018) and McCartney III (2020). McCartney provides a thoughtful introduction to the volume that emphasizes the autobiographical impulse that bubbles beneath many of his songs. “Over time I came to see each new song as a new puzzle,” McCartney writes in his introduction. “It would illuminate something that was important in my life at that moment, though the meanings are not always obvious on the surface. Fans or readers, or even critics, who really want to learn more about my life should read my lyrics, which might reveal more than any single book about The Beatles could do.” (xiii) Accompanying the lyrics to each song are McCartney’s reflections that he shared with the Irish poet Paul Muldoon, whose introduction casts a literary sensibility over the entire endeavor—he somehow manages to invoke Roland Barthes, Donald Barthelme, W.B. Yeats, and Little Richard (there is a fab four for you!) in his consideration of McCartney’s art.

Neatly divided into two volumes, The Lyrics is arranged alphabetically, freeing the book of having to stick to the conventional narrative of McCartney’s career, the unimaginable success of The Beatles followed by the more ambivalent critical reaction that his work with Wings and as a solo artist received. The Lyrics contains all of Paul’s central contributions to The Beatles—“Eleanor Rigby,” “Let it Be,” “Hey Jude”⁴—but the real pleasure of the book is reading McCartney’s reflections on some of the lesser-known songs that he released in his five-decade career as an ex-Beatle. Reflecting on “The World Tonight,” the lead single off Flaming Pie (1997), Paul notes how it “has a line that’s one of my favorites of all the lines I’ve ever written: ‘I go back so far I’m in front of me.’ It’s one of those lines where you don’t know what it means but you do know what it means.” (818) Paul is even more candid about the process that went into “Getting Closer,” the wonderfully nonsensical power-pop gem from the Wings’ swansong album, Back to the Egg (1979): “One of the things about Wings was this freedom to not make sense. Sometimes I just liked the words and I wasn’t bothered making sense. ‘Say you don’t love him’—that’s not from any real experience; it’s not like I was being jilted or cuckolded or anything; it was a device to get me into the song . . . ‘Hitting the chisel and making a joint’ . . . You know your audience would be amused by those little references, because rolling joints was still a little bit underground at the time.” (197)⁵ Similarly, McCartney describes “Let ‘Em In,” the earworm ditty that opens 1976’s Wings at the Speed of Sound, as “A stocking filler. That’s how I think of some songs. It’s a fun little item, but it’s not your main Christmas present. I can get a perfectionist about things and think ‘This is just not one of my grand pieces,’ and often I’ll get a bit down on them. Yet, even that song has bits of autobiographical truth, the song’s nod to “brother John” a sly acknowledgment of how his relationship with Lennon had healed by the mid-1970s. (407)⁶

Turner’s introduction nicely captures both writers’ strengths and offers a good springboard into the collected lyrics that follow. The Beatles Illustrated’s greatest strength, however, is all the photographs and images that it includes, many of which were new to me.

That said, there is plenty of “real experience” in The Lyrics, and the collection shows Paul to be a much more autobiographical writer than his reputation would initially suggest. Eschewing the explicitly confessional mode that Lennon would adopt for much of his solo career, McCartney tended to be more obliquely personal in his lyrics, a nod or an allusion to a personal situation that was often masked by a more generalized lyric or by the rush of the music. Even the seemingly and gloriously nonsensical “Jet” has its autobiographical roots, stemming from Paul’s impression of his first father-in-law, Lee Eastman, who “was a cool guy—very accomplished—but he was little too patriarchal for my liking. That’s partly where the ‘sergeant major’ comes from.” (377) More typical of McCartney’s approach is the playfulness of “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” the Abbey Road track inspired by “a woman [who] did actually sneak into my house through the bathroom window that was a bit ajar. A fan, apparently—one of a group called the ‘Apple Scruffs.’ She found a ladder lying outside my house in London. As far as I recall, she stole a picture of my cotton salesman dad. Or robbed me of it. But I got the song in return.” (645) McCartney is also candid to suggest how the various losses he has experienced—the death of his mother, Mary, when he was a teenager; his relationship with the actress Jane Asher, which lasted the better part of the Beatles’ career; the dissolution of the Beatles and his partnership with Lennon; the death of his first wife, Linda, from breast cancer—that fueled many of his most notable songs. Of “I Lost My Little Girl” (1956), the earliest lyric included in the book, McCartney notes, “You wouldn’t have to be Sigmund Freud to recognize that the song is a very direct response to the death of my mother. She died in October 1956 a the terribly young age of forty-seven. I wrote this song later that same year. I was fourteen at the time.” (317) Likewise, McCartney discusses how “Let it Be” was inspired by a dream he had where his deceased mother comforted him during the “mess” of the Beatles’ breakup. McCartney also writes of his relationship with Lennon and John’s influence on his writing. Looking back at the dissolution of their relationship in the song “Dear Friend,” a song that Paul wrote after Lennon’s brutal takedown of him in “How Do You Sleep” (which was Lennon’s retort to McCartney’s own swipe at him in “Too Many People”), McCartney acknowledges how he was “sort of answering [Lennon] here, asking, ‘Does it need to be this hurtful?’ I think this is a good line: ‘Are you afraid, or is it true?’—meaning, ‘Why is this argument going on? Is it because you’re afraid of something? Are you afraid of the split-up? Are you afraid of my doing something without you? Are you afraid of the consequences of your actions?’ And the little rhyme, ‘Or is it true?’ Are all these hurtful allegations true? This song came out in that kind of mood. It could have been called ‘What the Fuck, Man?’ but I’m not sure we could have gotten away [with] that then.” (109)⁷

The Lyrics contains all of Paul’s central contributions to The Beatles—“Eleanor Rigby,” “Let it Be,” “Hey Jude”—but the real pleasure of the book is reading McCartney’s reflections on some of the lesser-known songs that he released in his five-decade career as an ex-Beatle.

Such reflections suggest how The Lyrics reads like the autobiography that McCartney never wrote.⁸ Unlike even the most successful rock star memoirs—say, Keith Richards’s Life (2010), which reads like an eighteenth-century picaresque novel with Richards as the roguish protagonist who somehow survives all his escapades, or Bob Dylan’s more impressionistic Chronicles, Volume 1 (2004), The Lyrics allows McCartney to jump through the different moments of his life without having to conform to the conventional narrative plot points—Liverpool childhood, Hamburg, The Cavern, Ed Sullivan, Sgt. Peppers, Yoko, Beatles bust, Linda, Wings, pot bust in Japan—that have defined most treatments of his life and career. The result is an engaging portrait of McCartney, both as a person and as an artist. In his introduction, McCartney compares the book to “an old snapshot album that’s been up in a dusty attic. Someone brings it down, and suddenly you’re faced with page after page of memories.” (xiv) The line recalls one of my favorite moments from John Updike’s memoir Self-Consciousness (1989) where he describes going through old childhood photographs. “Without those accumulating photographs my past would have vanished, year after year” Updike writes. “Instead, it accumulated, loose in a set of shoeboxes, in no order, and because of its randomness ever fresh, ever stunning: shuffled windows into a sunlit abyss.” (12) A similar sensibility informs The Lyrics, as McCartney uses the songs lyrics to launch into different moments from his life—there is an associational quality to the book that makes it very appealing and enables it to escape the narrative clichés that hamper most rock star memoirs. While there are some moments of his life and career that remain untouched—McCartney refrains from discussing his marriage to second wife Heather Mills and does not include any of the great songs (“My Brave Face,” “Veronica,” “So Like Candy”) that he co-wrote with Elvis Costello—The Lyrics ultimately provides a comprehensive and freewheeling portrait of McCartney’s life and immense songbook. The book is bolstered by a treasure trove of photographs, drawings, and memorabilia—even a pre-Beatles setlist—from the McCartney archives. Much like Peter Jackson’s recent Get Back (2020) documentary, in which we see McCartney miraculously conjure up “Get Back” one morning while waiting for Lennon to show up to the studio, The Lyrics captures McCartney’s tremendous creative energy while illuminating the depth that his often-cheery public persona frequently masks.⁹ Neither The Lyrics nor The Beatles Illustrated explains the mystery of the Beatles—how did these four guys from Liverpool create so many remarkable songs in such a short period of time?—but both books, but especially The Lyrics, allow us to once again marvel at the work itself and gain a bit of insight into the imagination that helped create it.

¹ John’s impatience with the former song can be heard in his clowning around in the version released on Anthology 3:


² Although I have always thought the song, with its lyrical nod to “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” was George beginning to grouse about Paul, a grumbling that would become a whole lot more explicit on “Wah-Wah,” one of the standout tracks on George’s triumph, All Things Must Pass (1970). I read somewhere that Paul had given George a wah-wah pedal for Christmas, but the song was inspired by the fight captured in Peter Jackson’s recent Get Back film where George bristles at Paul’s suggestions for how to play the lead part on “Hey Jude.” George and Eric’s friendship, of course, would take its own weird turn during the 1970s, but that is probably a subject for a different essay. Anyways, “Savoy Truffle” is a great little jam, one of those songs that keeps me coming back to The White Album. And for song maybe about Paul annoying George, Macca’s backing vocals help make it. (Also, George should not complain—he made Paul do many more takes of “Not Guilty,” a self-righteous response to what he felt as the band’s dismissive treatment of their 1968 trip to India, that did not make the cut for The White Album but found its way onto Harrison’s 1979 self-titled record, one of his strongest post-All Things records.)


³ And right behind Chuck is Gene Clark, the doomed Byrd from Tipton, Missouri, whose “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” is one of the most perfect pop songs ever written. Eliot and Twain can console themselves with an honorable mention in my book.


⁴ I do have to say I’m disappointed that Paul did not include “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” the wonderful acoustic shuffle that precedes that other famous acoustic song, “Yesterday,” on Help! (1965) but appeared as the opening track of the American version of Rubber Soul (1965). My first copy of Rubber Soul was a cassette version with the US track listing, and I have always felt like this song belonged as that record’s opener—sorry “Drive My Car”— as it better fit the folk-rock feel of the record. It is one of the Beatle songs that Paul returned to performing live after the break-up—Paul refused to play any Beatle songs live before his 1975/76 World Tour and “I’ve Just Seen a Face” made the cut with “Lady Madonna,” “Long and Winding Road,” and “Yesterday.” Anyways, it is one of Paul’s most perfect songs so if Macca wants to publish a bonus-track version of the book in a few years I would encourage him to include it.


⁵ “Getting Closer” is what happens when McCartney listened to Cheap Trick and Elvis Costello (and maybe The Cars’ debut record) over his holiday break—the song makes absolutely no sense and that is half the fun.  Incidentally, when it popped up on the stereo when I was driving my two young sons to swim class the other week, and my oldest, Dylan, declared it to be his favorite song ever. My younger son, Lucas, then declared another McCartney song, “Biker Like an Icon” (unfortunately not included in the book) as his favorite song. All of this as a way of saying that all this time in quarantine has paid off, allowing me to brainwash my sons’ taste in music (at least for a few years). I am sure all the other kids on the playground are humming obscure Macca tunes.


⁶ It should be noted that Paul actually did have an “Auntie Jin” (as well as an “Uncle Albert”). “Sister Suzy” was a nickname that Linda had gotten in Jamaica that she uses as pseudonym (Suzy and the Red Stripes) for her reggae-inflected song “Seaside Woman” that was cut during the Red Rose Speedway (1972) sessions and “Phil and Don” are, of course the Everly Brothers. (I read somewhere that Paul double-tracked his vocals to mimic the Everlys in that moment of the song and it always pops out when I hear that line.) Always assumed “Uncle Ernie” was an allusion to The Who’s Keith Moon, who McCartney befriended, but Paul does not confirm that rumor in the book.


⁷ “Dear Friend” is an underrated gem in the McCartney songbook and remains one of his most direct and unadorned songs—the lyrics eschew the obscurity and the allusions that often characterize his writing. The song is also one of the best in that sub-genre of Beatles writing about other Beatles, a grouping that, to name but a few, includes Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep”; Harrison’s “Run of the Mill” and “Wah-Wah”; McCartney’s “Too Many People,” “Three Legs,”  and “Flaming Pie”; and Starr’s “Early 1970” and, maybe “Backoff Boogaloo,” which, at least according to Wikipedia, is about McCartney.


⁸ The closest McCartney has come to an autobiography is the biography that he commissioned his friend Barry Miles to write, Many Years from Now (1997). The book is an enlightening read as it emphasizes Paul’s engagement with London’s art scene during the 1960s, but it pretty much ends with the break-up of The Beatles.


⁹ The other remarkable thing about the Get Back sessions is how much material McCartney brought into the first weeks of the project: “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “Let it Be,” “The Long and Winding Road,”, “Oh! Darling!,” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” the bulk of the Abbey Road medley (Paul meant “Carry that Weight” to be a Ringo song), “Another Day” (which would be his first single as Paul and Linda McCartney), and “The Backseat of My Car,” which would end up as the final song on his sophomore record, RAM (1971). Again, The White Album had only been completed a couple of months earlier—Paul pretty much produced all this material over his winter break, which makes me feel very, very lazy. Anyways. Here is the moment from Get Back: