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I read the book on Beatles' lyrics today, oh boy.
And I like it.
The layout and size of this book is similar to Hunter Davies' book 'The John Lennon Letters', this means little less than 400 pages, in a mid-size hardcover book with reader friendly but old fashioned typography. The layout similarity is especially noticeable in the way the content of the manuscript photographs is repeated in the text body, as in the `Lennon Letters' book this works very well here. The images provide a glimpse of a Beatles' activity in the past, writing on a piece of paper; the words reproduced in the text-body are presented for contemplation and analysis and for you to hear the words thru voices and music sounding in the hallways of your mind.
Davies presents approximately 120 reproductions of song transcripts. Sometimes these were scraps of paper on the studio-floor from 1966/7 Hunter Davies took with him, when he had the privileged position of closeness to the boys while working on his authorized biography, others are nuggets from antiquarian shops, published in auctions catalogues or from unnamed friends. Hunter even had the opportunity to ask the boys for handwritten lyrics of songs he said he wanted to write about in the biography. Manuscripts of lyrics are even re-handwritten after the actual process of composition and recording was finished. Davies presents pictures of these little manuscripts and we are lucky, he adds pictures of e.g. Beatles' summer activities for 1966, the 'Being for the benefit of Mr. Kite'-poster, contracts, concert programs, etc.
Some of these manuscripts reveal the development of the lyrics, occasionally this info is unique and a first. The revealed perspectives are sometime funny as with Maxwell's Silver Hammer, sometimes illustrative for the creative process e.g. Old Brown Shoe and 'It's Only Love', and for the Beatles' Sherlock in us, handwriting can raise doubts on who composed what, check out for this e.g. Don't Pass Me By (?). From the handwritten corrections in the manuscripts we get a perspective on the development of songs and the quality and (un-)intended or meanings of lyrics. E.g. the word 'naughty' in "naughty girl you let your knickers down" from John's 'I Am The Walrus' was first considered by John to be a 'lucky' girl; yeah right, what else.
The three pillars of a song, whether from Schubert, Lennon and McCartney, or Dylan are words, voice and music/sound. Davies' discussion of 'Here, There and Everywhere' illustrates this perfectly well and simultaneously confirms the high respect of the song in The Beatles' catalogue. Other manuscripts suggest that in the process of composition and recording music and the singing, the meaning of words and lines become secondary to the overall sound, as they change words for musical reasons and we see how the meaning of the lyric changes significantly or shifts the perspective 'from me to you'.
The lyrical change from 'lucky girl' to 'naughty girl', in John's 'I Am The Walrus', creates a punchier improved rhyme (naughty and knickers) and adds a bite perfectly fitting Lennon's singing Beatles' rock music, yet it also changes the meaning. The 'lucky' puts Lennon in a position of: 'Hey girl you're lucky to get attention from ME because your knickers are down', making her grateful for his sexual prowess. The 'naughty' transfers the sexual initiative to the girl and puts Lennon in the position of the innocent male who is willing to be seduced. In sixties-thinking this makes the girl more slutty than it does in England today.
There are terrific risks you are obliged to take as an artist. 'All songs about relationships between men and women are (potentially) accusable of sexism. Every great writer and artist, who has tackled relationships and sexism has been accused of sexism - Jane Austen was accused of sexism', Christopher Risk said a few years ago in a conversation with Sean Wilentz.
The same goes for religious stuff. Any fan of The Beatles knows, John was accused of blasphemy or worse more than once. In the review of 'The Ballad of John and Yoko' Hunter Davies offers considerations that the line 'they're gonna crucify me' was 'ridiculous', 'total paranoia' or even 'delusional' - and then he writes that 'in a sense, that is what happened to him in the end...'. Now that seems to be too far gone, the journalist Davies is obliged to rise above the public's stupid mythical point of view and make smarter interpretations. The verb 'crucify' does have more meanings than criminals getting death penalty by crucifixion on a wooden cross, there is really more than the literal interpretation of the verb 'crucify'. But, hey Hunter Davies was the biographer, so maybe he knows john better than anyone of us - the potential buyers of his book.
Davies does not claim know the truth, he doesn't brag either and his writing appears to be very relaxed. He doesn't wanna get you in the end. He observes and presents comments and interpretations as such. Even though on a rare occasion he elevates an opinion and judgment to the level of truth and reality, as in his suggestion the lyrics to 'Paperback Writer' "don't in fact have a lot of logic to them", he presents this as a fact, but it is only his opinion, his way of interpreting this piece of art without considering his interpretation might be irrelevant or even misplaced. The good thing is Hunter Davies describes, explains and provides arguments, which is what a annotator should do. I really like his honesty when he admits he totally missed out on the song 'Rain', at the time.
There are a few relevant negatives about the book. I dislike the paper that is used. The quality of the printed pictures are greyish bland and often boring, they lose their potential power and become e/affectless on the reader. Hunter Davies presents almost all The Beatles' songs, yet he leaves out the Anthology collection, on the other hand for the sake of (not so) completism songs are included about which Davies doesn't have a lot to say. I think there a bit too many handwritten lyrics that were produced when the creative process of composition and recording was already way back in the past, I wonder: 'are we still living in the times of idolatry?'
As with the 'Lennon Letters' these images of manuscripts and the discussion of them are a joy to have, when one doesn't have the money to buy memorabilia. As such this book is a valuable contribution to the vast amount of books discussing the art of The Beatles.
Please be aware this is not THE most complete, nor is it the final book that reviews and discusses creative processes and the artistic results of the Beatles as composers, musicians and performers, but Hunter Davies provides a contribution to that end that should not be ignored.
I do hope this book challenges other authors to dig deeper into the creative process of composition by The Beatles.
So click on thru and buy the book.
(sorry for my not so native English)