Paul McCartney doesn’t really want to stop the show
His father, Jim, was a cotton seller and an amateur jazz musician. Although Paul grew up in Liverpool in a working-class housing estate, he attended a good secondary school where he caught the literature bug from his teacher Alan Durband, who had studied with FR Leavis in Cambridge. But, after a “pretty idyllic” childhood, the death of her mother threw a veil over the house which lasted for many months. Paul could hear “that kind of muffled sobs coming from the next room, and the only person in that room was your father.”
His own room filled with music. In “The Lyrics,” McCartney talks about his enjoyment early on in matching a descending chord progression (G to G7 to C) with an ascending melody, and speculates that he might have picked up on maneuvers like this while listening. her father, who had led Jim Mac’s Jazz Band — and his “aunts” singing at holiday parties at home. At this time, however, a kid playing his first chords on the guitar and stealthily writing his first lyrics was unusual. To turn this lonely preoccupation into something bigger, he had to go looking for a friend and a group.
On July 6, 1957, McCartney, now fifteen, cycled to a nearby fair to hear a local skiffle group called the Quarry Men. He paid three pence entry and watched them play “Come Go with Me” by the Del Vikings, as well as “Maggie Mae” and “Bring a Little Water, Sylvie”. He noticed that there was a kid on stage who had real presence and talent. After the set, McCartney was introduced; the child’s name was John Lennon. McCartney nervously asked to try out his guitar, hitting a believable version of Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock”.
They had more in common than their talent and ambition. Lennon’s mother Julia died after being hit by a car in 1958. (His father left the family when John was a child.) Lennon, more than a year older than McCartney, covered his injury with a sure mind. And now he was doing a clever calculation that changed history. “I figured I had to keep him in line if I let him join,” Lennon said years later, “but he was good, so he was worth having.” McCartney was now part of the group.
Soon after, McCartney brought in a school friend, George Harrison, a young guitarist. “George was the baby,” McCartney says. In 1960, the Quarry Men renamed themselves The Beatles, and two years later took on a crack drummer from Rory Storm and the Hurricanes named Richard Starkey, who called himself Ringo Starr. They were all working class Liverpudlians (though John was fancier, Ringo poorer). They had grown up listening to Frank Sinatra and Billy Cotton on the BBC. They heard their first rock and roll performers – Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Ivory Joe Hunter – on Radio Luxembourg, a commercial station that broadcast American music. They liked what McCartney calls the “slim and sleek” form of Chuck Berry’s songwriting. Together they discovered guitar chords as if they were ancient runes. When Paul and George heard that someone across town knew the fingering of the B7 chord – the essential chord to accompany E and A for every blues-based song in the rock repertoire – they went up on a bus to meet the guy and learn about it.
First in Liverpool, then for seven, eight hours a night in Hamburg, The Beatles cut their teeth, learning dozens of covers and forging a reputation. When they got tired of singing other people’s songs and wanted to avoid overlapping with the lists of other bands on the bill, they got more serious in their own composition. At first, the songs were nothing special. McCartney heard Joey Dee’s hit “Peppermint Twist” and responded by writing “Pinwheel Twist”. But the seeds of originality were there. Lennon had worked on “One After 909”, which ended up on the album “Let It Be”, when he was about fifteen. “Fancy Me Chances with You”, a comedic song they slapped together in 1958, found its way onto the “Get Back” tapes, with exaggerated Scouse accents. What was clear from the start was that the writing would be Lennon and McCartney’s business.
“I remember walking through Woolton, the village where John was from, and saying to John, ‘Look, you know, it should be you and me who are the writers,'” recalls McCartney. “We never said, ‘Let’s keep George out of this,’ but it was implied.”
As The Beatles gained ground, the sophistication of their composition deepened. McCartney, for example, was won over by epistolary songs like “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” by Fats Waller. On a tour bus, he thought of the imperative phrase “Close your eyes” and left from there. “We got to the scene, and with all the fuss around me – all the different bands and touring crews running around – I walked over to the piano and then found the chords,” he recalls. in “The Lyrics”. At first it was “a pure country and western love song,” but Lennon then provided a unique swing to the verses by strumming his guitar in a delicate triplet rhythm. The result was “All My Loving”. The Beatles recorded the song in 1963, and when they arrived in New York City the following year, they performed it on “The Ed Sullivan Show”. Over seventy million people watched. In two months they had the five best songs on the Billboard charts and Beatlemania was in progress.
The Beatles reveled in not only their music but also the fun, the camaraderie just between us, the jokes inside. “In fact, I don’t want to be a living legend, ”said McCartney. The idea was to have fun. “I came here not to have a job. And to shoot the birds. And I shot a lot of birds and stopped having a job. Lennon compared their tours to Fellini’s “Satyricon”.
What is striking about the Beatles is the inventiveness of their melodies and their chord progressions. Each month, it seemed, they became more distinct from the others. The development of album to album – from three chord teenage love songs and intricate ballads to tape loops and synthesizers of their psychedelic moment – both captured and created the Zeitgeist. And they had a sense of matching style: the costumes, the boots, the hairstyles all became an era. Even the classic mavens were impressed. Leonard Bernstein has been on television to analyze the structure of “Good Day Sunshine”. Ned Rorem, writing in The New York Book Review, compared a “tiny harmonic shift” in “Here, there and everywhere” to the madrigal “A un giro sol” by Monteverdi and a clever change of tone in “Michelle” at a moment by Poulenc.
McCartney rejects such a haughty speech, but he doesn’t hesitate to suggest that The Beatles worked from a wider range of musical languages than their peers, notably the Rolling Stones. “I’m not sure I should say it, but it’s a blues cover band, that’s kind of what the Stones are,” he told me. “I think our net was a bit wider than theirs.”
The Beatles worked at a breakneck pace. Their producer, George Martin, brought a great deal of experience to the process, as well as a surefire ability to help the band translate their ideas into reality. As McCartney recalls, “George used to say, ‘Be here at ten o’clock, make yourself cool, have a cup of tea.’ At half past ten you would start. Two songs were recorded before lunch, and often two more afterwards. “Once you get into this little routine, it’s hard, but then you enjoy it. It’s a great way to work. Because suddenly at the end of each day you have four songs.
By 1966, The Beatles were fed up with the road. Fans screaming their hysterical adulation every night sounded to McCartney like “a million seagulls”. While the group saw themselves more as artists than pop stars, they considered performing in stadiums an indignity. “It kind of created, you know, that loathing of hanging out and playing in the rain with the danger of electricity killing you,” McCartney told me. “You kind of look at yourself and you’re like, ‘Wait a minute, I’m a musician, you know. I am not a rag doll that children can scream at. “
On August 29, 1966, The Beatles performed at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. The group stood on a stage at second base, away from their fans, and ended their half-hour set with “Long Tall Sally” by Little Richard. “It was just a disheartening spectacle, we just went through the moves,” McCartney told me. They walked off the stage, he said, and “we were loaded into some sort of meat wagon, just a chrome box with nothing in it except doors. We were the meat. The Beatles never played for a paying audience again.
The divorce rate among musical collaborators is high and the breaking point is difficult to predict. In 1881, Richard D’Oyly Carte, a leading West End impresario, built the Savoy Theater on the Strand to present the comedic operas that made WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan famous. Nine years and many triumphant overtures later, Gilbert, the librettist, is indignant at the extravagance of the carpet that Carte had installed in the lobby of the Savoy, and finds himself in an intense argument with Sullivan, the composer. After the inevitable discovery of other resentments, Gilbert wrote to Sullivan: “The time to end our collaboration has finally arrived. They persevered miserably a little longer, running out of steam with mediocrity, “The Grand Duke”.
The Beatles have never slipped into poor work; they came out on the mastery of “Let It Be” and “Abbey Road”. The band’s disbandment also didn’t have a singular trigger – no stack. But maybe the problems started when in August 1967 their manager, Brian Epstein, died of a drug overdose. Although Epstein was only thirty-two, the group saw him as a unifying, if not a father, figure. Eventually, Lennon, Harrison, and Starr hired Stones manager Allen Klein to run the group’s affairs; McCartney felt that Klein should not be trusted and insisted on doing business with Lee and John Eastman, the father and brother of Linda Eastman, his future wife.
The creative core of the group was also moving away. Lennon-McCartney was no longer an eyeball-to-eyeball collaboration. They had once worked in constant proximity, on tour buses or in shared hotel rooms. Now Lennon was writing at his suburban property, McCartney at his north London home. They did come together anyway to polish each other’s most recent songs, or to suggest a different line, or bridge – the “middle 8”. The results could be sublime, like when McCartney added “woke up, fell out of bed, combed my head…” to Lennon’s “A Day in the Life”. But the process had changed. And Harrison, who was developing as a songwriter, was increasingly frustrated with his modest quota of songs per album. After hanging out in upstate New York with The Band, he believed he had glimpsed a more community-based and equitable version of musical life.