There are reportedly over 2,000 books about the Beatles. I’ve read probably between five and ten of them. Not a whole lot by some standards, but – along with the many print and online articles I’ve read over the years – I’ve got a fair to very good knowledge of the band. Yet, Hunter Davies’ new book, The Beatles Lyrics, is still refreshing to read. He actually manages to offer something new to the repertoire by taking a close and often witty look at each of their songs and by comparing (as much as possible with what’s available) early and later drafts of the lyrics.
Davies has the distinction of being the journalist most suited to writing this type of book, as he wrote the only authorized biography of the Beatles, published back in 1968. He spent almost two years working on that bio and became friends with the band, particularly with McCartney. During this time he kept fragments and full-texts of song lyrics, usually written in John, Paul or George’s hand, as research material for his book. Some of these scrawled words are also decorated with doodles and sketches by the Beatles. Along with that collection, he’s managed to track down a wide array of similar handwritten Beatles lyrics in the collections of other institutions and private collectors for this new book.
The result is a fascinating look at some of the most creative minds in pop music’s history, as many of the lyrics exist in multiple versions, a line or two taken out here, a word substituted there. These songs, dissected by listeners and writers for decades now, are often cast in a new light as we get glimpses of the thought processes of the writers.
Davies’ text has many asides and wry commentary, such as this on an early draft of “I Am the Walrus”: “the ‘lucky girl you let your knickers down’, seven lines from the end, became ‘naughty girl’. And I should think so, too.”
On “I’m Looking Through You”: “You don’t have to ponder too much about the words, or the sentiments, just move your feet. It’s one I used to dance to a lot, in the old days, when I could still move my feet…” (Davies is now 79 years old)
Though he’s a great admirer of the band (he’s written two lengthy books on them, after all), Davies is not one to fawn. From the entry for “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”: “When I asked John why there were so few words, he told me, ‘This is about Yoko. She’s very heavy. There was nothing else I could say about her other than “I want you”. Someone said the lyrics weren’t very good, but there was nothing more I wanted to say.’ And yet the song last for seven minutes and forty-four seconds, making it the second longest Beatles number (The longest is “Revolution #9”, at 8:12) The reason for the length is that it is mainly an instrumental number, almost an orchestral exercise on a theme, coming back to the same notes, the same words, but in a slightly different way, worrying about it, unable to leave it alone, like a sore, returning to it all the time. The wailing, nagging, trancelike music fits with the words, even if neither of them goes anywhere.”
Some interesting tidbits of info as well, that even some Beatles scholars may not be aware of. Regarding “Penny Lane: “In the USA, where there is no tradition of artificial poppies being sold to commemorate the 1918 armistice, there was some consternation when fans misheard the words and wondered why the nurse was selling puppies from a tray.”
The Beatles are more revered now than when they were recording 45 years ago. “Another book on the Beatles?!” “Another online feature, another magazine article?!”, you might exclaim. It’s easy to get jaded with the onslaught of Beatles hype. The Beatles Lyrics reminds us that they really were that great (well, close to it at least) and is one of the best music books of recent years. And it’s just plain fun to read.