The Beatles as Poets
The Beatles were more than musicians, they were also poets. John and Paul collaborated
on writing most of the Beatles' lyrics. Many times, the result was brilliant poetry
set to music. One such occasion was the penning of the lyrics to Eleanor Rigby, from
their "Revolver" album released in August of 1966. We're pleased to present an article
that offers insight into the process that the Beatles, and writers of all kinds, have
gone through in order to marshall their works from conception to completion.
The Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show February 9th of 1964 and American pop
music was changed in an instant. Over 70 million viewers turned in, and Beatlemania
in America was born. By the first week in April, the Beatles held the top 5 spots
in Billboard's Hot 100. Prior to the Beatles, rock in America had stagnated.
Unexciting crooners sang songs cranked out by a small group of songwriting "factories".
The Beatles wrote their own songs and delivered them with boundless vitality and enthusiasm.
Their popularity, and that of the ensuing British Invasion, sparked countless legions
of young people to purchase guitars and drums. They joined in groups who hoped to
follow in the Beatles footsteps, thus creating the worldwide Garage
Musicians who write lyrics to be sung over their melodies engage in a process that
is similar to that of all poets and writers. A seed of an idea becomes lodged in the
imagination of the writer. An iterative process ensues where word clusters associatively
bring to mind related concepts. The mind clarifies these notions into phrases which
invoke the next round of thoughts. The prepared wordsmith keeps a notepad handy at
all times to record the resulting output. Eventually a mature, fully developed work
emerges and the author releases it into the world.
Here in the 21st century, writers have the resources of the world-wide-web at their
fingertips. There is advice and councel for every step of the process. If you
are a writer looking for insight and assistance, begin by reading the article that
we present, below. Then, visit JanTheProofer's
site and read the articles in the "Grammar and Writing" section. A concise discussion
of the five steps in the Writing Process can be found at this page.
Comprehensive Writer's Resource web sites include Writers
Write, WritersNet and WritersWeekly.
The Beatles have a web site! Click here to visit
our exclusive Feature Article:
. . . it all came down to
a serious relationship with Eleanor Rigby
by Gary Lehmann 5/9/05
Just when I thought there was nothing new that The Beatles could possibly say to interest
me, I stumbled across a quote from Paul McCartney which revealed how he and John Lennon
wrote Eleanor Rigby, and I was hooked all over again. Eleanor Rigby, McCartney explains,
"started off with sitting down at the piano and getting the first line of the melody,
and playing around with the words. I think it was 'Miss Daisy Hawkins' originally;
then it was her picking up the rice in a church after a wedding. That's how nearly
all of our songs start, with the first line just suggesting itself from books or newspapers."
The Beatles were a legitimate musical group, only lyricists by avocation. Yet, it
is surprising how similar their writing methods were to those of regular, starving-artist
poets. Scraps come along from real life. They get played back in the tape recorder
of the mind. Names get changed, places drift about until they find a happy home, where
everything begins to feel right.
"Ah look at all the lonely people," the song begins. Why "Ah"? There she is, Miss
Eleanor Rigby. She "picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been." I think
all good poetry starts with a single good line or a set of words that get formed up
into a single blockbuster line that contains the whole story in a nutshell. There
it is. McCartney continues, "I saw I'd said she was picking up the rice in church,
so she had to be a cleaner; she had missed the wedding, and she was suddenly lonely.
In fact she had missed it all--she was the spinster type." "I saw I'd said." That's
it exactly. The line spoke to the poet's subconscious mind first, and only later returned
to make sense of itself.
More than ten years after the song was written, McCartney still recalls the process
of discovery that made the words come forward. Many poets have this experience. Both
the waking and the sleeping mind dwell on a set of words that aren't quite right.
They knit at the ideas. They worry the corners. They fidget and squirm while the body
is doing something else. That's what keeps the creative process fresh and interesting.
Next McCartney talks about the incidental circumstances around the writing of the
poem. The mind on the trail of a poem has its own agenda. It has no respect for the
rest of life or whatever the body thinks it is up to that day. "Jane [McCartney's
actress friend] was in a play in Bristol then, and I was walking around the streets
waiting for her to finish. I didn't really like 'Daisy Hawkins'--I wanted a name that
was more real. The thought just came: "Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice and lives in
a dream--so there she was."
Non-writers read this sort of explanation with tremendous skepticism. "This sort of
thing never happens to me," they say, and they are right. Artists and writers have
a certain tap into the subconscious, but it doesn't turn on when you apply counter-clockwise
pressure to the handle. It comes when it comes. "--so there she was."
Then comes the problem of Father McCartney. "It was going to be Father McCartney,
but then I thought that was a bit of a hang-up for my Dad, being in this lonely song.
So we looked through the phone book. That's the beauty of working at random--it does
come up perfectly, much better than if you try to think it with your intellect." Serendipity
created both characters in a way. One arrived half by sound and half by memory, and
the other arrived from free-association with the phone book. Of course, a phone book
is a big book, and you have to start your search somewhere. There are thousands of
names in a phone book. Did they start with McCartney and work both ways? Some element
of surprise was undoubtedly combined with some element of planning in the selection.
Still, that's the magic.
"Anyway there was Father McKenzie, and he was just as I imagined him, lonely, darning
his socks. We weren't sure if the song was going to go on." Now this is an odd thing
for Paul to say. Here he was in the middle of writing one of the finest songs of the
twentieth century, and he says he was thinking about tossing the whole thing away
before it was done. Why? To tell the truth, that's part of the creative process as
well. Half the stuff that makes a start out of your mind never reaches the finish
line. Sometimes, for no good reason at all, the whole thing skids to a halt, for minutes,
hours, days, years, decades. Every writer has this sort of scrap heap somewhere around.
Stuff just dies on you, for no good reason.
As frequently happens, extraneous ideas float into the words which force them off-track.
McCartney explains that "In the next verse we thought of a bin man [garbage collector],
an old feller going through dustbins; but it got too involved--embarrassing. John
and I wondered whether to have Eleanor Rigby and him have a thing going, but we couldn't
really see how." .Or why. Like many poets, the dynamic duo had allowed the story to
get shanghaied in a foreign port, where the whole idea got mugged and dropped into
an alley somewhere. Luckily, they deep-sixed the garbage collector.
Lennon and McCartney may have just been writing a song, but in McCartney's explanation
of how this lyric was written he has revealed methods used by all poets. In so doing,
he reinforces, if reinforcement was ever needed, the notion that The Beatles were
true poets, as well as the greatest songsters of our era.
Quotes from The Beatles: In Their Own Words [Omnibus Press, 1978]
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