Six Great Paul McCartney Beatles Lyrics

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Paul McCartney doesn’t need me to defend him. He is one of the greatest songwriters and musicians who has ever lived, and no amount of hating, sniping or shading is ever going to change that. And human nature being what it is, McCartney tends to compare unfavorably to the collective memory of John Lennon’s Legend, I get that.

But a while back the suggestion was made on this site that Paul McCartney was not a very good lyricist, and I feel compelled to say otherwise. The elusive and mysterious Sir Rocknuts offered a well-reasoned and persuasive argument:

I never cared much for Paul’s stuff as the words always seemed more placeholders and often slightly silly, filling cadence spaces. Even his “greatest song ever”, that of “Yesterday”; think of the words dispassionately: “Yesterday. All my troubles seemed so far away. Now it looks as though they’re here to stay. Oh, I believe in yesterday”. Uh, well. Originally, he had that tune and filled in the words “scrambled eggs” for “yesterday”. He also championed the “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” school of la-la-la fillers that made my teeth ache. Even the long ending refrain in “Hey Jude”; wasn’t there something worth saying there? The music was special but the words? Less so, in my estimation…

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I would have to agree that McCartney often used words as placeholders for their sound and for how they filled cadence spaces, or fit the meter of the song. But this is something he did better than anybody, and I find it difficult to hold it against him. Listen to a song like “I’ve Just Seen A Face” or “Paperback Writer” where every word – every “the”, every syllable – is there for a purpose, to hold a particular note. He was a Master of Songcraft who inspired a million songwriters. This is not a bad thing.

As for the actual lyrics themselves, I’ll concede some of McCartney’s stuff is pretty silly if not stupid. He won’t win the Nobel Prize for the lyrics to “Hello Goodbye” anytime soon. There always seemed to be a hint of idiot savant when it came to McCartney. Did some of his great lyrics just come by accident? In “Penny Lane” when he sang about the poppy-selling nurse “And though she feels as if she’s in a play, she is anyway”, was he intending to get existential, or was he just filling a cadence space?

In any case, when anyone says to me Paul McCartney couldn’t write great lyrics, I point them to these songs. And no, “Yesterday” is not one of them.

 

The Long And Winding Road

Might have been more McCartney schmaltz if not for the line “The wild and windy night that the rain washed away / Has left a pool of tears crying for the day”. Melodramatic? Sure, but who doesn’t wish they could have written that?

 

Two Of Us

Paul originally wrote it about going back to the countryside with Linda, but it is speculated that he added some words after singing it with John a few times. The “You and I have memories” part was certainly more true about John than about Linda. And the “chasing paper / getting nowhere” could have been a reference to the legal problems that had already begun. Still, a great lyric top to bottom.

 

Fixing A Hole

“I’m filling the cracks that ran through the door / And kept my mind from wandering / Where it will go”. So Zen, so Sixties, so timeless, the whole lyric. How on earth did good-time Paulie come up with this? Who knew he was such a thinker?

 

For No One

McCartney loved to write about the minutiae of everyday life, he’s a lot like Paul Simon that way, it’s a kind of musical populism. It works so well in this one, making its heartbreaking scene seem so real and true. There’s an uncanny wisdom about love’s complexities here that belies the songwriter’s relatively young age.

 

Eleanor Rigby

McCartney was also big on creating characters to build a song around, like Maxwell Edison, Lovely Rita or Desmond and Molly Jones, but this was his greatest character of all and really, one of the great literary characters of the century, captured in one verse of a two-minute song. “Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door. Who is it for? All the lonely people. Where do they all come from?” Now that’s a lyric.

 

Hey Jude

I think McCartney earned the right to fill the last half of the song with “na-na-na nas” because the first half was so rich in lyrical content. “The movement you need is on your shoulder” has got to be one of his most quoted lines ever. I love the story that he was worried about using the word “shoulder” twice but that John assured him it was OK. I think “For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool / By making his world a little colder” may be the best line McCartney ever wrote. It’s such a quintessential Beatles statement. It doubles down on the ‘Love is all you need” sentiment they had established earlier, and at the same time it set the cornerstone for the “keepin’ it real” wing of Rock, which is thankfully still standing strong today.

 

Photo: By Oli Gill (originally posted to Flickr as Paul McCartney) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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