By Paul McCartney
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Earlier this year, Sir Paul McCartney entered a recording studio with Rick Rubin and filmed what became a six part miniseries called McCartney 3, 2, 1 which had the composer discussing his songs with Rubin in the sparse studio, occasionally listening to the songs they were discussing and isolating specific tracks to explore what was happening musically at any given moment. That series ties in perfectly with McCartney's massive new book, The Lyrics, in which he provides the lyrics and discusses the backgrounds of 154 of his songs based on a series of discussions he had with poet Paul Muldoon.
The collection isn't comprehensive, only including a small portion of McCartney's songs. Ranging from such pre-Beatles songs as "I Lost My Little Girl" and "In Spite of All the Danger," to songs as recent as "The Kiss of Venus" from the McCartney III album, the book also includes songs like "Goodbye," which was recorded by Mary Hopkins, and "Come and Get It," which Badfinger debuted. While McCartney is generally associated with pop music and rock, the book does contain the lyrics to "The World You're Coming Into" from his 1991 Liverpool Oratorio.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about The Lyrics is that even with its selection of 154 songs, it only begins to scratch McCartney's lyrical works. Such songs as "How Many People," "C Moon," and "Famous Groupies" will have to wait for a potential future volume to be discussed. McCartney doesn't completely ignore the works which are not included in The Lyrics, for instance, noting the song "Bip Bop" (from Wild Life), which he tended to look down upon as a weaker song until he was discussing it with someone who said it was his favorite McCartney song and suddenly McCartney remembered what it was about the song that caused him to include it on the album.
Of course, some of the songs, particularly Beatles songs like "Michelle" and "When I’m Sixty-Four" have been analyzed and discussed for decades. Other songs are more obscure and one of them, "Tell Me Who He Is was written before the Beatles burst on the scene and even McCartney admitted that he didn't really remember the song, using the opportunity of presenting its lyrics to discuss his process for creating songs and images and comparing it to the way George Harrison wrote (or claimed to write) his songs.
Some of the stories McCartney relates seem questionable. In his discussion of "Band on the Run," for instance, he says Wings would just show up at student unions asking, "Can we do a gig?" and charging 50p admission, which seems highly informal for a band that includes a former Beatle. Other stories are more poignant. In talking about "Give Ireland Back to the Irish," he mentions that he was visiting with John Lennon on January 30, 1972 when Bloody Sunday occurred, although he doesn’t mention that the events of that day also inspired Lennon to write "The Luck of the Irish" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday."
Of course, in addition to discussion of the included songs, the book includes the lyrics, although it also acknowledges that lyrics can be amorphous and changing, with slight (or not so slight) deviations between versions of the song sung in different live concerts or even in different recordings. The crew that put the songs together went through McCartney's archives and came up with the "definitive" version of each of the songs included. The lyrics and discussions are punctuated by numerous photos: of the handwritten lyrics, the people or places that inspired them, or just Paul McCartney being Paul McCartney.
Although the book contains a table of contents listing the songs McCartney has chosen to share and discuss, as well as an index, it lacks running headers throughout the book, so opening one of the volumes at random means that unless you hit the page a discussion starts on, you have to flip pages to figure out where you are in McCartney’s repertoire.
In addition to forming a nice companion to the film McCartney 3, 2, 1, it is also an interesting book to be able to refer to when watching Peter Jackson's The Beatles: Get Back. The reader can watch McCartney's actual process as he tweaks the words to Get Back and reads what he has to say about the song in The Lyrics. Whether a reader reads the book straight through, dips in to find out the story behind favorite (or obscure songs), or looks up McCartney's songs as they hear them playing, The Lyrics is a wonderful look at McCartney's career and technique and pairs nicely with both of the major documentaries released this year.