• Bob Roden

Did Paul McCartney Screw Up?

Recently I wrote an arrangement for the quintet of “And I Love Her,” the classic Beatles song from A Hard Day’s Night. Although it was an instrumental arrangement, writing it caused me to go back and listen to the original recording for the first time in a while.

In doing so, I ran across something I hadn’t noticed before: two separate instances in which the song’s lyrics appeared to be obviously flawed.


This was disturbing, to say the least. How could it be? After all, we’re talking about Paul McCartney, the man who wrote what is probably the most perfect set of pop lyrics ever,* and whose body of lyrical work is likely unsurpassed by any other human being, living or dead.


Could he have screwed up? It sure seemed like it. But it got me to thinking, and I will share that thinking with you here.


So -- what were the two apparent flaws?


The first one was an inconsistency in how the lyrics are set up. The first verse goes like this:


I give her all my love

That’s all I do

And if you saw my love, you’d love her too

I love her


So it’s perfectly clear, at that point, that “her” refers to the woman he loves, and that “you” refers to you, the listener to whom he’s explaining how he loves “her.” Right?


Right. But a few moments later, at the bridge, he says:


A love like ours

Could never die

As long as I

Have you near me


Wait a minute! Now the “you” is suddenly the woman he loves, not the listener. And “a love like ours” suddenly refers to the love he and “you” share. In other words, he’s gone from speaking about his love in the third person to speaking directly to her in the first person. What’s up with that?


Then, in the next breath, he says:


Bright are the starts that shine

Dark is the sky

I know this love of mine

Will never die

And I love her


So now his love is back to being referenced in the third person, and presumably he’s once again speaking to the listener.


OK, that’s the first apparent flaw.


The second one is what looks like an unnecessary re-use of the same lyrical idea twice in a row. Both uses are in the lyrics I just quoted above.


First he says:


A love like ours

Could never die


Then just a second later he says:


I know this love of mine

Will never die


Although this isn’t grammatically incorrect, in general it would be better lyric-writing practice to find something different to say the second time. He’s already said his love could never die, so why tell us again in the next breath that he know this love of his will never die? It isn’t strictly “wrong,” but it seems, well, perhaps a little sloppy or lazy.


Sloppy? Lazy? Paul McCartney? Really? No, come on now.


And to be honest, that was my first reaction: I have found an instance in which McCartney was a bit sloppy or lazy with his lyrics and could have done a little better.


But I couldn’t quite accept that, so I continued thinking about it. Why did he do what he did, when he’s obviously more than aware of the kinds of things I’ve pointed out above?


Let’s look again at the first “flaw”:


A love like ours

Could never die

As long as I

Have you near me


The “problem” isn’t with the words; it’s with the switch from first to third person. But if we “correct” that problem, then the lyrics read as follows:


A love like ours

Could never die

As long as I

Have her near me


There’s nothing wrong with that, but, for reasons I can’t quite identify, it’s clearly weaker than what McCartney actually wrote. “As long as I have you near me” just feels more solid and impactful than “As long as I have her near me.” It's what belongs there. I can’t explain it, but (to me, at least) it’s plainly true.


Now let’s think about the second "flaw" – two consecutive statements that his love will “never die.” Let’s assume for the moment that we will keep the first statement but replace the second. That leaves us with:


Bright are the starts that shine

Dark is the sky

[________________________________

_________________________________(rhymes with “sky”)]

And I love her


So what’s it going to be? Maybe:


Bright are the starts that shine

Dark is the sky

Let’s go to Trader Joe’s

And get a pie

And I love her


That’s a silly example, but can I think of something better than what McCartney wrote to go there? No, I absolutely cannot.


Could he? Maybe, but that’s where the kicker comes in.


As I struggled to think of a “better” lyric for that spot, I realized: it literally took me 56 years just to notice what I’m talking about here. I’ve always loved the song, and it has always sounded perfect to me, and only now, over half a century later, do I even notice these two unusual aspects of the lyrics. So these lyrics have been working perfectly well for all that time.


This led me to realize something: McCartney was operating at a higher level than the level at which I had been thinking.


With a song, as with any work of art, the only thing that matters is what comes across to the recipient of the work. A Picasso portrait is not “flawed” because the face on the canvas is not proportioned like a real human face. Rather, it is proportioned the way it is because that’s what Picasso wanted it to look like in order to convey a particular experience to the viewer.


In other words, if an artistic creation works, it doesn’t matter if it breaks what one might think of as “the rules.” I mean, duh. This isn’t news -- it's a commonplace truism. But it's very easy to forget, especially when we concern ourselves with analyzing and learning about artistic works.


So that’s where I come out on “And I Love Her”: I think McCartney had a genius-level sense for what would work best in his song. He may have been consciously aware of the two things I’ve discussed here, or they may never have crossed his mind, but either way, he knew instinctively how to make the parts add up to the best possible whole and create the best possible experience for the listener, so that’s what he did. Somehow those choices just work, and that’s all that matters.


So thank you, Paul. It’s a good reminder that art is not simply a matter of rules and techniques and best practices. It operates at a higher (or perhaps deeper) level than that, and we make a fundamental error (as I initially did here) when we allow those convenient points of analysis and teaching to confuse our direct experience of an artistic work.


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* In case you need a refresher, they go like this:


Yesterday

All my troubles seemed so far away Now it looks as though they're here to stay Oh, I believe in yesterday


Suddenly

I'm not half the man I used to be There's a shadow hanging over me Oh, yesterday came suddenly


Why she had to go I don't know

She wouldn't say I said something wrong

Now I long for yesterday


Yesterday

Love was such an easy game to play Now I need a place to hide away Oh, I believe in yesterday


Obviously you can find other lyrics that are also wonderful and inspired and beautifully constructed, but I doubt you will ever find a set that is better.

© 2017 - 2020 Bob Roden