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The Beatles: Will You Read My Book? (May 2016): Music and Lyrics

By Paul O. Jenkins

Music and Lyrics

As early as 1963, music critics detected something special in the Beatles’ music.  Thanks to the group’s transformation of the genre, musicologists began to take pop music seriously for the first time.  Some of the best work on the Beatles is that written about their music and lyrics.  Among these is Wilfrid Mellers’s excellent Twilight of the Gods: The Beatles in Retrospect.  Though less experienced readers may find it slow going, Mellers’s book is required reading for those with a serious interest in the Beatles.  Allan Kozinn’s The Beatles is also well done.  Published in the “20th-Century Composers” series alongside works on Béla Bartók, Richard Strauss, and other musical luminaries, Kozinn’s book treats the Beatles with the respect they deserve.  Tim Riley’s Tell Me Why: A Beatles Commentary, another outstanding piece of scholarship, offers invaluable insights that, although now well understood, were fresh when the book first appeared.  Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head is revolutionary, a fascinating and discriminating read that celebrates the band’s highest achievements while taking them to task for what the author deems their less inspired efforts.  Walter Everett divides his analysis of the group’s music into two companion volumes: The Beatles as Musicians: Revolver through the Anthology, which came first and examines the later years, and The Beatles as Musicians: The Quarry Men through Rubber Soul, which covers the early years.  Both are highly regarded and slightly more accessible to nonmusicologists than the works of Mellers, Kozinn, and MacDonald.  In his A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles, Mark Hertsgaard examines the Beatles’ creative process.  Though perhaps not as insightful as the titles named above, Hertsgaard’s book is well executed.  And Devin McKinney’s discursive Magic Circles is a multidisciplinary exploration of Beatles music as “both timeless expression and visceral response to their historical moment.”  There is certainly nothing else like it in the literature, and in places it is insightful and even poetic.

The Beatles’ lyrics improved dramatically after 1964.  Lennon and McCartney stopped writing to a formula and, following Bob Dylan’s lead, began to write more personal songs.  Lennon had written stories and poems since his adolescence and had published his writings (In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works) before songs like “I Am the Walrus” ever appeared.  Some of his correspondence, collected by Hunter Davies in The John Lennon Letters, provides insight into his methods.  That said, Lennon’s words could not always be trusted.  Lennon Remembers, the transcript of an interview with Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner, is interesting as evidence of Lennon’s attempt to rewrite history.  By far the most scholarly treatment of the Beatles’ lyrics is Matthew Schneider’s The Long and Winding Road from Blake to the Beatles.  Schneider, an English professor, compares Lennon and McCartney’s relationship to that of Wordsworth and Coleridge.  Though Lennon would perhaps have guffawed at the comparison, Schneider argues his points well and makes a compelling case for this more “serious” view of the group’s lyrics.  Harrison and Starr also feature in this book, Harrison being compared to Lord Byron and Starr to William Blake.  While not as robust as Schneider’s study, Hunter Davies’s The Beatles Lyrics is serviceable and includes, as a fascinating bonus, more than one hundred images of the original manuscripts of the songs.  Steve Turner’s A Hard Day’s Write: The Story behind Every Beatles Song includes no analysis of the lyrics but does reveal what inspired each composition.  Jean-Michel Guesdon’s All the Songs: The Story behind Every Beatles Release is similar, but Guesdon goes into more detail and also includes information on songs the band covered.

Works Cited