Graded on a Curve: Paul McCartney, The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present edited by Paul Muldoon

Paul McCartney The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present (Liveright), edited and with an introduction by Paul Muldoon, is a hefty, two-volume hardcover book, housed in a slip case and clocking in at nearly 1,000 pages. It covers 154 songs that McCartney wrote as a solo artist and while he was in Wings and The Beatles. In some cases, the songs were co-written with others.

The book includes such welcome discoveries as “Tell Me Who He Is,” an unearthed Beatles song discovered in the MPL Communications archives during research for this project. McCartney and Muldoon engaged in 29 sessions, comprising 50 hours of conversations, done between 2015 and 2020.

This book is beautifully laid out and offers more than just McCartney’s lyrics and his annotations on how songs were written, and in some cases, what inspired him to write a given song. The photos of handwritten lyrics, complete at times with McCartney’s playfully childlike doodles and basic chord sequences, are fascinating.

There are also family photos, postcards, letters, notebooks, scrapbooks, artwork, and other personal artifacts. Other items drawn from the MPL Communications archives include acetates, concert posters, tape boxes, and promotional items including curios from Apple, as well as a carefully collected handful of photos of some of McCartney’s contemporaries in the ’60s and ’70s—The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and Joe Cocker.

The book has some of the same feel in spots as George Harrison’s book I Me Mine, where lyrics, memorabilia, photos, annotations, and other ephemera create a sense of the creative songwriting process and the man behind the music and his life and times.

While the Barry Miles book Many Years From Now was a biography of McCartney, with McCartney’s cooperation, this lyrics book is really meant to be his autobiography, with his songs being the roadmap of the narrative.

It’s interesting how so many songs, lyrically and musically, are inspired by so many influences, big and small. There are some songs where McCartney gives insights into the song, maybe where it was written, and a snapshot of his personal family life.

It’s difficult to pick out individual songs to comment on, as there are so many fascinating insights into various songs, the creative process in general, and the especially the songs written in the ’60s and ’70s and the hothouse atmosphere in which they were created.

There are patterns that do emerge in some of McCartney’s songs, particularly the presence of deeper or unexpected meanings beyond the surface. For example, judging from their titles, one would not suspect that “Helen Wheels” is about a jeep, “Jet” is about a pony, and “Martha My Dear” is about a sheepdog.

Some annotations go into considerable depth and can be very instructive in revealing McCartney’s songwriting method. One such example is “Eleanor Rigby,” certainly one of McCartney’s most accomplished works.

In that description, he provides insight into the limitations of remembered history in a book like this when he says, “Even if you were there, which I obviously was, it’s sometimes very difficult to pin down.” One thing that is clear is how often McCartney cites the composers of the great American songbook and old Hollywood musicals as an influence, particular on his songs of the 1960s.

The book does not include 15 songs McCartney wrote while he was in The Beatles. In comparison, there are even less of the songs he wrote in Wings and for his solo albums in the book, compared to how many he actually wrote. There’s simply no way to cover every song. It would have taken a considerable amount of time to gather all the basic information and then there would have been a need for several volumes, as he has written roughly 400 plus songs.

There has been some controversy over McCartney’s attribution of songwriting credit for certain songs which some people are characterizing as revisionist. In question are some songs previously credited to Lennon and McCartney or just to Lennon. It’s difficult to say how accurate some of these assertions are and they seem to be less about proving composing ownership than revealing what McCartney remembers as the way the songs were written.

Regardless, this book adds much to the official record of The Beatles and McCartney’s own illustrious career as a solo artist and in Wings. It’s also an extraordinary visual feast of one of the most important and prolific careers in pop music history.

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