Having received this book as a Christmas gift, substantial 375-page tome that it is, I devoured it in a few days.
I found the book utterly compelling. Hunter Davies starts by describing his search among collectors, companies and auction houses for what must surely rank among the most valuable “scruffy scraps of paper” in the world: those the Beatles first wrote their original lyrics down on. A good proportion of these got thrown away by the Beatles then disposed of by the cleaners at Abbey Road Studios but several of those which didn’t ended up in the possession of certain key individuals who wish to keep the huge value of their possessions secret.
Hunter Davies himself offered his own personal collection of handwritten lyrics to the British Library on permanent loan and they now reside in the Manuscript Room alongside the Magna Carta, Shakespeare and Wordsworth.
Alongside photos of the handwritten lyrics, some on the backs of letters and birthday cards and envelopes, Davies gives an account of how the words were chosen, and what they mean, with some intriguing memories from his own personal contacts with the Beatles and with Brian Epstein. In so doing, he tells the story of the Beatles’ lives as musicians and songwriters entirely in and through the lyrics, the way they were composed, and the way in which their writers developed personally between 1957 and 1969.
During his observations on the songs he draws out not only the intended sense of them (if there was any – and sometimes John Lennon would deliberately write nonsense to defy the intellectual analysts) but also the unconscious meanings in the words, what they reveal of their composers’ inner lives. On one occasion, referring to some of George Harrison’s lyrics, Davies observes: “Perhaps George fooled himself, harbouring a subconscious fear that he was not admitting at the time or even aware of.”
Davies also examines the way the words emerged from the Beatles’ own life experience. I found his insights into Paul McCartney and John Lennon all the more moving because a lot of those biographical details held high emotional charge for me at the time. I became a Beatles fan at an early, and very impressionable, age – too young to be allowed to go to any of their concerts. Nevertheless I was devoted to them; every detail of their lives reported in the media, I followed avidly.
But there were several things I misunderstood.For instance, by the time “Beatles For Sale” came out, the acquisition of a new Beatles LP was so precious to me, so desirable, that I would never have guessed this title emerged from the Beatles’ own feelings of almost unbearable pressure at the commercial expectations being laid upon them.
One of the most engrossing aspects of the book is Davies’ reflection on the nature of success, and upon the creative process, often erratic and uneven. For instance, he recounts journalist Kenneth Allsop encouraging John to show his feelings more in his pop lyrics, closing the gap between his literary outpourings and his pop lyrics. And writing song lyrics is comparable in one sense to writing a novel, something Davies is quite explicit about, showing the way writers may unwittingly betray attitudes never consciously intended. “Novelists in particular,” writes Davies, “often create situations on paper, out of their imagination, which then come true.”
Davies gives a sensitive and penetrating analysis of John and his angst in particular, for, as he notes, “the discovery that success is all rather hollow, that you are still alone with yourself, can of course lead to self-destruction through excess be it drink or drugs.”
On page 234 Davies notes: “This was their philosophy: you could do these things, if you really wanted. There was no need to follow the rules or be bossed around.” How I identify with that ideal. Yet the truth is that this can only really apply to creatives when they have established themselves and become successful. As Hunter Davies says, “it helped that by this time they were multi-millionaires who had already made their mark in the music business.” And they’d made their mark through following Brian Epstein’s rules and letting him boss them around.
To conclude, I found studying this book to be a very intense experience. As we see the lyrics developing from boy-girl love songs fixated with promises to “be true” into richer, profounder and often more disturbing lyrics, as we study how the Beatles’ lives became more complex and their experience of the world deepened, it’s almost like seeing a reflection of our own lives, moving on from naivety, simplicity and idealism, through all the mistakes, folly, betrayal, loss and disillusion, along with the flashes of wonder, fun, hope, and joy.