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posted by: jere1911
06/24/12 12:21 pm
WERE THE BEATLES GOOD LYRICISTS? A LIST OF SOME FAVORITES.
(7)
A List of Favorite Beatles Lyrics.
In the preface to his fascinating book, Revolution in the Head, which offers terrific song-by-song history and analysis of the Beatles' output, Ian McDonald dares to offer a degree of negative criticism of the God-like songwriters. He says, among other things, that their "casual lyrics look slipshod beside the careful verses and refrains of the great composers of popular song before them." He adds that Lennon and McCartney "wrote their lyrics to create a mood or a tone, so as not to get in the way of the effect created by the music and the sound." Is that a fair point? Haven't lyrics usually been servants of the music (take opera as a major example)? Were Beatles lyrics slipshod? Did many have a "direct" eloquence to which the music and sound were no more than an equal partners? Here are some of my favorites. I welcome additions and comments on McDonald's thesis.


All My Loving
Help!
Nowhere Man
In My Life
I'm Looking Through You
Eleanor Rigby
I'm Only Sleeping
With a Little Help From My Friends
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds
A Day in the Life
Fool on the Hill
Strawberry Fields Forever
Penny Lane
Revolution
All You Need is Love
Across the Universe
Alley Gator says:
06/25/12 12:21 am
This list is a great idea, jere1911. A great example of how to start your own topic at the Alley!

The Beatles wrote so many memorable songs. Surely the lyrics don't stick in the mind just because of good melodies. Help! and In My Life and With a Little Help From My Friends and Revolution stand out for me on first blush.

McDonald's thesis contrasts "casual" with "careful" - that's not an argument, just an assertion that the earlier context gets a higher value judgment from him. IMHO, Rock writers fused sound, rhythm, and message to create new and different meanings than were possible in the Songbook paradigm. Each context has its own significant merits.
jere1911 says:
06/25/12 2:24 pm
Alley Gator said: This list is a great idea, jere1911. A great example of how to start your own topic at the Alley! The Beatles wrote so many memorable songs. Surely the lyrics don't stick in the mind just because of good melodies. Help! and In My Life and With a Little Help From My Friends and Revolution stand out for me on first blush. McDonald's thesis contrasts "casual" with "careful" - that's not an argument, just an assertion that the earlier context gets a higher value judgment from him. IMHO, Rock writers fused sound, rhythm, and message to create new and different meanings than were possible in the Songbook paradigm. Each context has its own significant merits.
Agree with you about the contexts being different and creating many important distinctions. For one thing, the Beatles were a BAND, creating recordings. They weren't writing songs for Fred Astaire and Frank Sinatra. (Though Sinatra did make Harrison's "Something" a staple of his concerts.) That usually, though not always, suggests a different function for lyrics in material created by and for bands. To take one example, a line in a lyric can be a highly effective anthem when repeated over and over and accompanying a winning musical phrase and arrangement, e.g., "All you need is love". Other distinctions abound. We should do a list of greatest lyricists of the rock era. Stay tuned.
Alley Gator says:
07/13/12 3:04 pm
Since jere1911 suggested doing a list of greatest lyricists of the rock era I've been thinking about what it means to be a rock lyricist. I keep coming back to the fact that I'm not primarily attracted to rock & soul music because of the lyrics.

The exceptions prove the rule: Dylan, Springsteen, Paul Simon, Smokey Robinson, Curtis Mayfield - of course there are rock & soul songwriters whose lyrics are outstanding, vital to their appeal. We should add to this "list" and get a conversation going about it.

But I'd rather drop entirely the connection to lyricists in any other context. I think rock & soul are their own context, and comparing their lyrics to, say, show music of the 1930s and 1940s, doesn't get us anywhere.
barbara ann 1945 says:
07/15/12 3:38 pm
I have not read Ian McDonald's book, nor have I asked any of my Beatle friends about it. But I feel confident going up against a thoroughly unjust criticism of Beatle lyrics as expressed by Mr. McDonald. I'm a lyrics-head! And I'm always ready to criticize what I sometimes consider "casual" or phoned-in lyrics. (That's a subject for another topic). But to compare Fab4 lyrics--and call them slipshod--compared to the composers of the Great American Songbook is just plain ridiculous. I am also a very serious Porter, Gershwin, Kern, Mercer, Hart, etc.fan. Lyrics that are ineffably exquisite. But so, OMIGOD!, are so many Beatle lyrics. So here are a few to add to your list, Jere1911.

Norwegian Wood (Best song ever written about a one-night stand! Couldn't resist adding that opinion).
Girl
Blackbird
I Will
Julia
Mother Nature's Son
Two of Us

jere1911 says:
07/17/12 8:53 pm
barbara ann 1945 said: I have not read Ian McDonald's book, nor have I asked any of my Beatle friends about it. But I feel confident going up against a thoroughly unjust criticism of Beatle lyrics as expressed by Mr. McDonald. I'm a lyrics-head! And I'm always ready to criticize what I sometimes consider "casual" or phoned-in lyrics. (That's a subject for another topic). But to compare Fab4 lyrics--and call them slipshod--compared to the composers of the Great American Songbook is just plain ridiculous. I am also a very serious Porter, Gershwin, Kern, Mercer, Hart, etc.fan. Lyrics that are ineffably exquisite. But so, OMIGOD!, are so many Beatle lyrics. So here are a few to add to your list, Jere1911. Norwegian Wood (Best song ever written about a one-night stand! Couldn't resist adding that opinion). Girl Blackbird I Will Julia Mother Nature's Son Two of Us

Some great additions. How could I have forgotten "Blackbird", and I can't quarrel with the other additions. By the way, I don't think McDonald would deny that there are many very good Beatles lyrics (and I do recommend the book). Some of his reactions are certainly to the earlier songs and he does discuss the different objectives of the Beatles from the older writers with regard to lyrics. One can agree or not but it is an interesting point, and relates to Gator's comment about the extent to which one is "supposed" to be attracted to rock and soul because of the lyrics (and my point, perhaps, about writing songs for a band). I comment a bit more in response to Gator.
jere1911 says:
07/17/12 9:00 pm
Alley Gator said: Since jere1911 suggested doing a list of greatest lyricists of the rock era I've been thinking about what it means to be a rock lyricist. I keep coming back to the fact that I'm not primarily attracted to rock & soul music because of the lyrics. The exceptions prove the rule: Dylan, Springsteen, Paul Simon, Smokey Robinson, Curtis Mayfield - of course there are rock & soul songwriters whose lyrics are outstanding, vital to their appeal. We should add to this "list" and get a conversation going about it. But I'd rather drop entirely the connection to lyricists in any other context. I think rock & soul are their own context, and comparing their lyrics to, say, show music of the 1930s and 1940s, doesn't get us anywhere.

I think that in the case of many rock and soul "tracks" one is appropriately less attracted by or focused on the lyrics. I'd guess that the point is more likely true with "up tempo" tracks and less so in the case of soul ballads. But that reinforces your point that the comparison of many rock lyrics with "song book" lyrics doesn't make sense. Ultimately, one judges a lyric by its contribution to its particular "song" and "track". The lyrics to "Respect" are very good lyrics for "Respect" and add wonderfully to our reaction to the song and arrangement. What would have been better, for the moment in question, than repeating "just a little bit" a number times?
Alley Gator says:
07/17/12 9:38 pm
Good point: there's huge variety in rock/soul music, and what makes for great lyrics is how the pieces - rhythm, overall sound, melody/harmony, lyrics - work together as a whole. "Tutti Frutti," "Change is Gonna Come," and "Visions of Johanna" are all great lyrics, each in its own context.