What’s your favourite Paul McCartney lyric? From iconic lines in Beatles’ songs like ‘Hey Jude’ (‘The moment you need is on your shoulder’) to moments of solo brilliance like ‘Find My Way’ (‘You never used to be afraid of days like these / And now you're overwhelmed by your anxieties’) by way of a wonderful decade of Wings classics like ‘Mull of Kintyre’ (‘Smiles in the sunshine and tears in the rain / Still take me back where my memories remain’), Paul’s words have touched so many people over the course of his career. In fact, it’s quite hard to pick just a favourite!
And here’s some good news for lyric fans: Paul’s extraordinary new book The Lyrics arrives on bookshelves today, so we’re now able to delve deeper into 154 of his best-loved songs, with commentaries and insights.
So, for this month’s ‘You Gave Me The Answer’ Q&A, we took to social media to find out what you wanted to know about Paul’s songwriting, the songs he’d pick to best describe his Beatles, Wings and solo years, and how the book came to be…
PaulMcCartney.com: This question came from ‘McCartney Vinyl’ on Twitter: Why did you decide to create The Lyrics and how long did it take to put together?
Paul: It was suggested to me by my brother-in-law John Eastman, and by the publisher of my Blackbird Singing book Bob Weil. They thought of the idea of putting together lyrics and associated material, and I liked it, so we put things in motion. Then it was suggested that I could work with the poet Paul Muldoon and give him loads of information, as much as I could remember about each song, and that was that. It took forever! I think it took about five years in total to create the book.
I had never met Paul before, but he’s a great guy and I was very happy to work with him. We first met up to have some initial chats when I was in New York, and then we did some Zoom calls once everywhere went into lockdown with Covid. We just talked and went through a whole big bunch of songs, and they’re all the songs that ended up in The Lyrics.
PM.com: Greg on Twitter asks: In the process of putting the book together, were there any lyrics or memories that came back to you and reminded you of a time you’d forgotten?
Paul: It wasn’t really a forgotten memory, but revisiting the first song I ever wrote ‘I Lost My Little Girl’ was interesting. It kind of turned into a therapy session, because I thought I was happily writing a little pop song when I was fourteen, but if you look at the timing of it I had just lost my mother. When you think about that, the song seems to have a much deeper meaning that I hadn’t noticed before: the possibility of it being subliminally written about her.
I’ve always said ‘Let It Be’ was written after dreaming of my mum, but some of the lyrics from ‘Yesterday’ might have been to do with my mum as well. Then there were surprising memories that would come out, like when I got into talking about John and was reminded of the hitchhiking trips we’d taken as kids, and with George. I think the whole process of analysing the songs took me to stuff that I hadn’t thought of recently - not because I didn’t want to, but because there was never a clue, never a prompt, never a trigger to think about those things.
That was the interesting thing about making this book. I had to go back in my memory to see how I’d written that song, why I’d written it and any interesting side stories. It became about more than just the songs: it became the memories that the songs evoked. It was a nice process, actually. Better that being with a psychiatrist!
PM.com: Rory on Facebook asks: When you were deciding which songs to include, did you go through it chronologically, in order the songs were written?
Paul: I never worked out Paul Muldoon’s system, but he would appear with a sheet of paper and would say, ‘Let’s do these today!’ It was always good fun, because really it was just a couple of friends sitting and talking. And the more we got to know each other, the more we talked about the act of writing, what with him being a well-known poet. We had a lot of things in common and were always asking each other, ‘How do you start a song?’ Or, ‘How do you start a poem?’ And I would tell him what I did and he would tell me what he did.
PM.com: That leads on quite nicely to our next question from Val on Instagram: What is your songwriting process, and do you follow a formula?
Paul: It is a very interesting process, songwriting, and to be honest I don’t know anything about it! I always tell my students in LIPA that, because it’s not like building a car or fixing a television, it’s something that is very different each time you do it so you never learn a set of rules. In fact, you don’t want to learn a set of rules because that’s what keeps it interesting! The minute you know how to do a thing it kinda spoils it.
I remember people used to ask me and John, ‘What’s the formula? Who writes the words and who writes the music?’ And we would say, ‘There is no formula and if we ever found one, we’d reject it.’ There is this idea of discovery when you’re making music, especially when you’re not formally trained but you’re having to produce something that is professional. Nobody’s told you how to do it, so you’re just doing it out of love. For me and John we thought, ‘Oh yeah – we should have a riff at the beginning of this!’ But nobody ever said to us, ‘You should have a riff at the beginning of songs’.
I was talking to Jeff Lynne from ELO once and he said, ‘We just made it all up, didn’t we?’ It’s absolutely true! Sounds a little bit bland, I suppose, but it’s the absolute truth - all the people and all the groups from my generation were very untrained, but we were just passionate about what we did.
PM.com: Steven on Facebook asks: When you’re writing about characters like ‘Eleanor Rigby’ or ‘Jenny Wren’, do you know what the story will be when you start writing it? Or does the story reveal itself as you’re working through?
Paul: The story reveals itself. I think the idea starts with the character. With ‘Eleanor Rigby’ I knew I wanted to write about a lonely old lady, but I didn’t really know more than that, I just was looking for the name. Eventually when the name came to me, I did what I always do, and started the song by adding a tune to that name ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and then asked myself what should happen next. I never quite know where the answer to that question comes from - in some way it’s like trust. I trust that something will come along, at some point. So, once she ‘picks up the rice in the church’ then I’ve got a bit more of her character, and I start thinking that maybe she’s the cleaner in the church, or whatever. From that line I’ve got more of an idea of who she is. I didn’t have a big concept, and it was the same with ‘Jenny Wren’ where I just had the idea that she’d had her voice taken away, and that gave the pathos that I could work with and build on.
PM.com: The next question is from James on Twitter: If you had to pick only one song from your Beatles days, Wings days and your solo days to best showcase each band to curious aliens who had no idea and wanted to learn about you, which ones would you choose?
Paul: It’s always very hard to narrow down favourite songs, so what I do is just make a guess. What comes to my head for The Beatles would be ‘Yesterday’ – I’d say that was an important moment. But then again, my inner voice says, ‘What about ‘Hey Jude’? What about ‘Let It Be’…?’ So it is a very difficult question to answer. But I’ll plump for ‘Yesterday’.
For the Wings period I’ll go for ‘Band on the Run’, although I’ve just heard recently the song ‘Arrow Through Me’ is really getting all sorts of attention, so maybe the aliens would like that! I always liked it myself as a song, but it’s obviously been played somewhere recently and people are going mad on the streaming. That’s another lovely aspect of writing songs - you do something and think it’s of its time, and then years later it gets put in a film soundtrack or something and there’s suddenly a big uptake. I remember ‘Blackbird’ was in the film Boss Baby - it’s an animation film for kids - and parents would come up me and say, ‘You know my kid’s favourite song of yours? It’s ‘Blackbird’!’ It is great that this young generation is getting into the song. I wrote it so long ago and it’s resonating with them now – it’s quite amazing, it’s very gratifying. But anyway, that aside, let’s say ‘Band on the Run’ would be my choice for Wings.
Then for my solo period I would go for ‘Coming Up’ from McCartney II_._
Well, you’ll be pleased to know that ‘Yesterday’, ‘Band on the Run’ and ‘Coming Up’ all feature in The Lyrics, along with 151 other songs! And if you want to add a soundtrack to your read, we’ve pulled the featured songs into a handy playlist over on Spotify. Check it out here!
The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present by Paul McCartney is out now. Get your copy here.