The Lyrics by Paul McCartney review – the stories behind the songs

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The former Beatle traces the origins of his creations in two sumptuous volumes edited by Paul Muldoon

If he hadn’t become a musician, Paul McCartney says, he would probably have been an English teacher. He has fond memories of his English teacher, Alan Durband, who studied with FR Leavis and taught the young Paul the value of close reading. When he wrote songs with John Lennon, the chords and melody came first. But the words mattered too. Where the straight-up, irony-free early lyrics wooed their audience through a flurry of pronouns – She Loves You, From Me to You, Please Please Me, etc – the later lyrics aspired to poetry.

Take Eleanor Rigby, which began as a song about the kind of old lady McCartney did chores for as a scout during bob-a-job week and who he thought of calling Daisy Hawkins until working with Eleanor Bron on the film Help! and spotting a shop sign with the name Rigby in Bristol. “The secret to successful songwriting is the ability to paint a picture,” he says, and the picture of Eleanor Rigby “picking up rice in the church where a wedding has been” perfectly captures her loneliness, just as the line “writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear” does with Father McKenzie (originally Father McCartney, till a trawl through the phone book turned up a suitable trisyllabic alternative). It’s a homespun English lyric – “the face that she keeps in a jar by the door” alludes to Nivea cold cream, a favourite of McCartney’s mum – with universal resonance: Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs were among the song’s biggest fans.

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