Monday, October 27, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Beatles Lyrics


Hunter Davies is a renowned author of novels who also had the good fortune to have gotten to know and write about the Beatles.  As the author of the first and only authorized biography on the band, first published in 1968, he was afforded unprecedented access to them between 1966 and 1968, not only interviewing them and their families, but being allowed to sit in on their songwriting and recording sessions during the Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, and early White Album sessions.  Although he was asked to excise some bits from the final version (mainly by John's Aunt Mimi, who didn't like the way she was portrayed), his book is still required reading for any Beatles fan. Having developed long lasting friendships with the four Beatles, he compiled and edited the exquisite book The John Lennon Letters, which has been reviewed on this site.  In that book, he chronicled John's life through his letters, presenting numerous scans of the letters and postcards John sent to everyone in his life along with transcriptions and detailed discussions on the meanings behind each one.  Now, with the brand new book The Beatles Lyrics, he turns his hand to the words behind their songs.

***special thanks to Victoria at Little Brown for sending me a copy of this book to review!***


The brilliance of Lennon and McCartney lies in one of the things that has always made them unique as a songwriting team, which is that they both worked on the music and the lyrics.  While the music behind their songs has rightly been lauded, studied, dissected and deconstructed, their lyrics have escaped the same level of scrutiny.  That's not to say that their words have not been appreciated and praised...they have. It's just that the almost academic level of study that has been devoted to their music has not been applied quite as much to the words. With this new book, Davies goes chronologically through every song the Beatles recorded and released in their lifetime as a band, starting with "Love Me Do" in 1962 and finishing with "I Me Mine" in 1970. Along the way, he has worked to track down as many existing lyric manuscripts as he can, including them in the entries for their respective songs. Many of these are little more than scraps of paper, envelopes, cards, anything upon which John, Paul, and George could scribble down their lyric ideas. Many of them are fully written out on paper or typed up and annotated, final (or near-final) versions they wrote prior to going into the studio to record the songs.  Some are torn or stained, and a few are missing pages. There are obviously fewer pages existing for the really early songs, but by the time their peak period of Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, and the White Album is reached, there are manuscripts for nearly every song.

Hunter Davies in the 1960s, while he was shadowing the Beatles

Davies today, with Lennon's handwritten draft of "In My Life"

The Beatles didn't think much of these drafts, often throwing them away or leaving them laying around the studio, at their homes, friends' homes, cars, wherever. Davies himself has nine of these manuscripts, collected from Abbey Road studio (after he asked the Beatles if he could have them) while he was shadowing the band in the 1960s for his book. There are seven in the collection at Northwestern University in Chicago, while the rest are in the possession of various collectors around the world who were kind enough to anonymously send Davies scans and photographs to include in the book. The entries for each song have a short synopsis detailing what the song is about, any personal memories or opinions Davies has from his firsthand experience with the band, and when a manuscript is available, a discussion about where it came from and what it says. In many cases, the lyrics are different from what was finally recorded and released, which makes them endlessly fascinating to go through.  It's an absolute treat to read these drafts in the Beatles' own handwriting (or sometimes written out by Mal Evans as they dictated the words to him) and see how the words evolved toward their final versions. Sometimes, the songs were fully formed from the beginning. In other cases, there may be a few words here and there that ended up being changed, or lines that were placed in a different order. Oftentimes, entire verses and lines were excised and never used. Many of these deserved to be left on the cutting room floor (so to speak), while others were so good that they would have made a great song even better.  What's even better is seeing all of it in their handwriting, often with the little doodles or decorations that they added, clearly lost in thought as they were trying to hammer the lyrics into shape. There are little in-jokes, puns, pop culture references, and even self-deprecating comments scribbled in as well (my favorite is when Paul wrote "another Lennon-McCartney original" at the end of a draft for a song circa 1968-69, harkening back to how he and John titled all of their early songs in a notebook when they were teenagers).  It's also really nice seeing certain bits of paper that they wrote them on which have a date written or typed on them; it not only makes it easier to place it in chronological context, but in a way it enables the draft to transport the reader back to that specific time and place.

For the most part, this book is an absolute treat, incredibly fun to read as well as magical...the sense of wonder and awe any Beatles fan will have while reading this can't be explained with words. Davies, on the whole, does his usual excellent job transcribing the lyrics and offering a lot of great personal recollections, especially on the ones during which he was present during the creation. There are even several photographs from his personal archives of him in the studio, on the train, or on vacation with the Beatles in the 1960s.  While I didn't always agree with his assessments of certain songs, I can respect his opinions and most his reasons make sense. The one thing this book suffers from are some typos sprinkled throughout (most egregiously, writing May Pang's name as "Peng") and some factual inconsistencies that clearly slipped past whoever edited the final version of the book. The biggest offender was when Davies repeatedly stated that John's mother died when he was fifteen, which is not the case (she died when he was seventeen). However, later in the book, he states she died in 1958 (which is correct, and John was not quite eighteen when it happened)...and still states John was only fifteen! Whether this is a fact Davies didn't know (unlikely) or a result a faulty memory (more plausible) isn't as important as the fact that this clearly got past the final edit of the book. An honest mistake, but one that stuck out like a sore thumb to me (and many other readers, I'm sure) as a devoted Beatles fan.

John and Paul working on some lyrics, 1968

These minor complaints aside, this is an exquisite book and absolutely one that any serious Beatles fan needs in their personal library. It does for their lyrics what Ian MacDonald's excellent Revolution in the Head (which I'll be reviewing at a later date) does for their music, but in a less-clinical, warmer and more fun way. Whereas MacDonald tends to deconstruct and analyze the songs to the point where they're stripped of all of their magic and fun, Davies keeps the magic intact and in most cases, adds to it.  When you can read the hand-written lyrics for entire albums like Sgt. Pepper and the White Album, you've got to feel a sense of awe and excitement, and you will.  Simply put, this is one of the essential books for any Beatles fan.

MY RATING: 9/10



(Before anyone asks me why I didn't include any images of lyric drafts from the book in this review, I would have loved to have included some but due to copyright issues I could not. However, I urge any fan to buy this book for themselves, where you will be able to see them all!)

2 comments:

  1. Nice review, great to have something a little more detailed than most. Looking forward to your review of Revolution In The Head, it needs a good one!

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  2. Thanks! I am planning on re-reading RITH and reviewing it soon...I've got mixed feelings about that book even though, overall, I think it's excellent.

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