The lyrics – how good a writer was Paul McCartney?
Paul McCartney is one of the most famous songwriters of all time, but is he a good lyricist? “Distractions / Like butterflies are buzzing / Round my head,” from his solo song “Distractions,” is a weirdly bad description that makes butterflies buzz for no better reason than alliteration. “Women scream and run / To dance on the battlefield / Like wild mad horses” are lines from another solo outing, “House of Wax”. “The song itself gets pretty dramatic,” McCartney euphemistically notes in Words.
This two-volume doorstop with a hefty price tag collects lyrics from 154 songs spanning McCartney’s career. They range from his debut album, “I Lost My Little Girl,” written when he was 14, to last year’s album. McCartney III, released when he was 78 years old. Outright clunkers are the exceptions rather than the rule. Buzzing butterflies are not two cents; or a dime a dozen, to adopt the mobile Mid-Atlantic feast of Macca’s lingo (his song Wings “London Town” takes place on a sidewalk, not a sidewalk). But the book does not confirm the optimistic similarities made in the introduction by its publisher, the poet Paul Muldoon, to WB Yeats, Lord Byron and McCartney’s “fellow lyricist” William Wordsworth.
Beside these so-called literary ancestors, McCartney’s verse in “Here Today” about the murder of John Lennon – “I still remember how it was before / And I can’t hold back my tears anymore” – is doggerel. He forcibly sticks a constant memory (“I still remember”) with a contradictory surge of feeling (“I can no longer hold back the tears”). But “Here Today” should not be considered literature. The awkwardly read verses on the page turn into a moving tribute to Lennon when McCartney sings “Here Today”.
“Nobody listens to the words. It’s just the sound of the song, ”was his philosophy and that of Lennon at the start of The Beatles. The way the words are heard defines their meaning. The way “love” is extended in McCartney’s voice for “Can’t Buy Me Love,” while “money” is spoken at a brisk pace, perfectly illustrates the song’s message. It was written in 1964 in the luxury hotel George V in Paris, a city where McCartney and Lennon had hitchhiked a few years before. What money could buy was at the forefront of their concerns.
Words is full of contextual details like this. Each of the 154 songs is accompanied by airy passages of reminiscence, based on conversations with Muldoon. The text is accompanied by beautifully reproduced illustrations, including personal snapshots, official portraits and memorabilia. The result is a hybrid of lyrics, memoir and picture books put together, a composite form resembling the completeness of McCartney’s musicality.
He and Lennon combined the roles of composer, lyricist, instrumentalist and singer. There’s a gorgeous photo of them as teenage doppelgängers leaned over guitars in the living room of McCartney’s terraced house in Liverpool in 1962 writing “I Saw Her Standing There”. A left-handed guitarist to right-handed Lennon, McCartney likens their pairing to mirror images. As shown in Peter Jackson’s new film To recover documentary, their telepathic closeness persisted until the very end of The Beatles.
True to the one-upmanship that also shaped their partnership, McCartney presents himself as the delivery boy, avid reader and armed theater lover of an A-level in English (“John has never had anything like my interest in literature “). Strenuous efforts are made to establish literary influences. LP Hartley’s novel The in-between, who McCartney isn’t sure he heard of at the time, “may well have influenced” The Beatles’ “She Loves You”, he says. A sardonic version of his chorus comes to mind: yeah, yeah, yeah.
Her memory of her father sitting in the next room smoking his pipe and declaring that they should cut Americanism by singing “yes, yes, yes” is a far more revealing snapshot of the song’s creation. He and Lennon were writing songs in about three hours, and he doesn’t take much longer as a solo songwriter. “I had this belief that you could mix words together and they would get meaning,” he said at one point. The surrealism of a slight stream of consciousness and the doodles of cartoon characters recur in his work, alongside the romantic sunshine that Lennon mocked during the post-Beatles hostilities. McCartney retaliated by writing a song called “Silly Love Songs”.
He does not reveal his vocal style (“I never really thought about my voice”), although he does share some hitmaker advice (“A scream is always a good start to a song”). The closest he comes to self-analysis is linking the positivity and sentiment of his songs to his mother’s death from cancer when he was 14, just before writing “I Lost My Little Girl ”. The final song in the book is “Your Mother Should Know,” while the final photo shows McCartney as a parent, holding a daughter’s hand as a child. Despite his incredible literary pretensions, Words is a rewarding portrait of an exceptional songwriter.
Words: 1956 to the present day by Paul McCartney, edited by Paul Muldoon Allen Lane, £ 75 / Liveright, $ 100, 912 pages
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