28 February 2016
So this was on a website that is now down but I wanted to post it here to get your thoughts on it and to hopefully preserve this writing
The Beatles Songwriting
For me, the Beatles songwriting is unsurpassed. They were more productive, more successful, more creative, and more influential than any other songwriting team in popular music history. For me, quite simply, the Beatles songwriting is one of popular music’s greatest treasures.
Close analysis of Beatles songs will make you a better songwriter…and a more creative person. It has for me. In this page, I’ve attempted to apply everything I’ve read to everything I’ve discovered on my own about the Beatles songwriting. My hope is that you can use what I’ve documented here to help you understand and appreciate the true genius in the Beatles songs.
The Beatles Songwriting Phases
First of all, I think of the Beatles songwriting career in the following four phases:
Phase Description Albums Formative phase The Beatles as they become fledgling songwriters; the era until they complete their first album. Recordings with Tony Sheridan, parts of Anthology 1 , Please Please Me Early Beatles The Beatles as they discover and refine their songwritng process. With the Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night , Beatles For Sale , Help , Rubber Soul Mature Beatles The Beatles songwritng at its most creative. Revolver , Sgt. Pepper ‘s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour , White Album , Yellow Submarine Decomposing Beatles The Beatles songwriting teamwork splinters as the band decomposes. Abbey Road , Let it Be
For a complete Beatles history, check out my History of the Beatles.
The Beatles as Songwriters
The main songwriting team in the Beatles was John Lennon and Paul McCartney –especially in the Formative and Early stages of their career. Although George Harrison wrote several important songs (and made significant contributions to the overall Beatles sound and band direction), he wasn’t a major contributor of songwriting ideas until Revolver . John and Paul wrote over 75% of the songs–and nearly all of the hits. Ringo was an important part of the overall Beatles sound and live performance energy, but was not a significant songwriter. His major songwriting contributions are the “Ringo-isms” that John and Paul incorporated into their work. So when you’re thinking of the Beatles songwriting (especially until Revolver ), you’re most likely thinking of the cowriting relationship of John Lennon and Paul McCartney .
In the early days, John and Paul were a true co-writing team–almost in the Nashville or Brill Building sense. They met regularly to write songs. They wrote for themselves; they wrote for the Beatles; and they wrote for other bands and artists. They even wrote for movies. Typically, John and Paul tended to consider themselves THE songwriters for the group, occasionally spending time on one of George’s songs (but never giving him a single)…and encouraging Ringo to write, but teasing him when his tunes came out like a song that already existed. In the Early and Formative periods, John and Paul wrote the songs and brought them to the band and George Martin to finalize the arrangements. In their Mature and Decomposing periods, the Beatles worked together in the studio to create the songs, arrangements, and recordings together–all in the same room.
In the early days, George Harrison was more of a solo writer—he had to be. While John and Paul spent their writing time together, George was forced to find his own muse or to work with outside musicians. He contributed significantly to several albums, but, in general, found it hard to get the rest of the Beatles to spend time on his songs.
I describe the Beatles songwriting first in terms of the John and Paul cowriting team. I’ll add a description of George Harrion’s songwriting at a later date.
How songs are written
To understand the Beatles songwriting, you must first understand how songs are written. Many people think songs just “happen”…that people with the musical gift regularly wake up with full-formed songs in their heads…that it takes only about 15 minutes to write a song. The truth is, songwriting is about 15% inspiration and 85% craft. Sure, you can wake up with song ideas in your head…we’ve heard lots of stories of these song “gifts”: Robert Plant wrote “Stairway to Heaven” in 15 minutes; Paul McCartney woke up with “Yesterday ” in his head. However, in every case that I know about, these “gifts” ALWAYS involve lots of craft to become the finished songs we know. Sure, Robert Plant could’ve written the lyrics to “Stairway” in 15 minutes…but did you know that Jimmy Page spent the 2 weeks before that working out the elaborate guitar parts? And, yes Paul McCartney woke up with “Yesterday ” in his head…and hammered out the rest of it on the piano very quickly…but for several weeks after that, Paul was still working on the lyrics. The whole time he was calling it “Ham and Eggs”!
To oversimplify the process, songs are written like this:
- You get an initial idea. This could include a title and a bit of melody, a riff and a few words, a part of a story, or any combination of these. It happens differently every time, and some ideas are more fully-formed than others. The more complete the initial idea, the easier it is to finish.
- You share the idea with your cowriters, if you have any.
- You begin finishing and reshaping your idea.
- Once your draft is finished, you tweak it until you’re satisfied.
- When your song is “done”, you record it or play it live.
Sure, that’s an oversimplification, but the basic process is roughly the same every time: Inspiration, Elaboration, First Draft Competion, Rewriting, Completion. The Beatles songwriting is no exception. I’ve attempted to dissect how they worked through this process below.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s Co-writing style
John and Paul were a great songwriting team because they were both extremely talented, hard working, and their songwriting “weaknesses” were balanced by the other’s strengths. They seemed to have an innate ability to simplify complex ideas almost instantly in music. In fact, John and Paul had a lot in common: they were both ingrained with the working class Liverpool sense of humor and charm; they both tragically lost their mothers at a young age; and they both were obcessed American R&B music. They seemed to find both pleasure and competition in songwriting. Each songwriter enjoyed constantly trying to out-do the other. Above all, they both LOVED to write songs.
The Beatles songwriting relationship changed with each stage of their career. In their formative days, John and Paul would skip school to get together in Paul’s house to write songs and smoke ciggies. From what I can gather, these sessions lasted about 4 hours or so each and consisted mainly of John and Paul working “eyeball to eyeball”. Songs were hammered out (or not) and were not usually written down. They felt that if they couldn’t remember the song, then it probably wasn’t very good anyway. Interestingly, Paul was left-handed and both boys learned to play guitars upside down to trade licks more easily.
Later, in what I call “the early days of the Beatles”, John and Paul would either work while they were touring (in a bus, car, or hotel), or Paul would drive to John and Cynthia’s house. While in the car, Paul would frequently come up with an idea to work on. When he arrived at around 9 o’clock or so, he’d often have to wake John up. While he was waiting on John to get ready, Paul would flesh out the idea a little more. When John arrived, they would trade their ideas over tea, and choose one to work on. They would work several hours until they made significant progress. They usually finished a song during a session. During this point in their career, the Beatles were trying to keep up with Brian Epstein’s goal of releasing a new album of songs every 6 months, plus a Christmas release for their fan club. Of course, this was in addition to touring, interviews, and movie work. Talk about pressure! Some of the Beatles songs written this way include: ?????
During the “mature stage of the Beatles”, the Beatles were no longer touring. Instead, they spent their time redefining how the studio was used in popular music. At the beginning of this period, John and Paul were writing songs whose arrangements were significantly enhanced in the studio (????? ). By the end of this period, they were writing almost entirely either in the studio or not together at all. In this era, the Beatles began to come up with an idea for each album to keep their creativity flowing. This began with Sgt. Pepper ‘s (“let’s do an album about a band”), continued through their trip to India (White Album ), their “no overdubs/live album” (Let it Be), and their self-proclaimed final album (Abbey Road ).
When the Beatles began to fall apart as a band (their Decomposing period), John and Paul’s cowriting process changed again. During this era, Paul seemed to be the one keeping the music going and the band together—despite John’s drug problems, lawsuits, and financial disasters. On Abbey Road , for example, Paul added bits of lines to John’s song ?????, despite being in the middle of a lawsuit that John brought against him…AND despite being mad that John had Phil Spector finish and release a song that Paul had only roughed out a bass part on. By the end of this era, John and Paul both wrote almost entirely on their own, and the Beatles were disbanded.
The Beatles Songwriting Work Ethic
The Beatles work ethic was amazing, turning out incredible songs one after the other. However, John and Paul did seem to work differently. Paul was the more disciplined of the two, taking his cue from Jane Asher’s family’s schedule book. (Paul lived with the Ashers for a year or so during early Beatlemania. Everyone in the family was as an artist of some sort, and they kept a ledger on the coffee table that everyone had to fill out each day with what they were doing. This disciplined approach to creativity seemed to make a big impression on Paul, who was always the Beatle coming up with the next idea for an album…be it the Sgt. Pepper idea, the “live album”/Let it Be idea, the “last album”/Abbey Road idea, etc.) John, on the other hand, seemed to be an obcessive writer. He would go a while without working on something (especially in the later and post-Beatle days), and then work non-stop until he finished an idea.
John aspired to be the philosopher/artist, while Paul was the more disciplined/accomplished musician.
John and Paul as cowriters: Music vs. lyrics
A lot of cowriting teams work with one writer creating most of the lyrics and the other writer supplying most of the music. Interestingly, John and Paul BOTH contributed words and music to their collaborations. This joint collaboration supplies their writing with the true voice of each writer—John’s philosophical, cynical wit and Paul’s storytelling and elaborate song ideas.
The Beatles Melodies
Typically, the Beatles songwriting is successful because of the highly memorable melodies. John Lennon ’s melodies are easy to spot, because they typically do not vary in pitch very much (“Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup, they slither wildly as they slip away Across The Universe ” or “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together/See how they run like pigs from a gun see how they fly”). Sing those tunes to yourself and notice how few intervals they have. John’s melodies are also more rhythmic, stemming from his fascination with American Uptown R&B. Meanwhile, Paul McCartney ’s melodies are characterized by more interval jumps, making them less tension-building and more dramatic. (“Yesterday , all my troubles seemed so far away. Now I know that they are here to stay. Oh, I believe in yesterday.” Or “Hey Jude , don’t make it bad/Take a sad song and make it better/Remember to let her into your heart/Then you can start to make it better.”) When they combined a “typical” John Lennon melody with a “typical” Paul McCartney melody in the same song, they get the best of both worlds: ????
The Beatles Song ideas
The Beatles songwriting benefited from the fact that both John Lennon and Paul McCartney brought song ideas to their writing sessions. To generalize, John’s ideas were often songs about personal experiences, sex, pain, politics, or peace. He frequently wrote in first person, and loved word play. His satirical/cynical sense of humor frequently shone through. Paul’s ideas, on the other hand, were more often in 3rd person, told as made-up stories. He wrote more story songs, more songs about love, and more optimistic songs. His song ideas were typically more grand and dramatic while John’s were more ascerbic and witty. Together, they made for a great team with Paul always pushing to make the ideas bigger, and John always poking out the cheesy bits with his needle-sharp sense of observation and humor.
This was originally posted at brianhartzog.com/beatles/beatles-songwriting.htm