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Book excerpt: "The Lyrics" by Paul McCartney

"The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present" by Paul McCartney (Liveright) is a massive, 960-page memoir and career overview by the Beatle, spanning 154 of his most important songs and the stories of their composition, as well as his life, partnerships, and the people who inspired him.

In the excerpt below, McCartney writes about his Old English sheepdog, Martha, which was an inspiration for his 1968 song "Martha My Dear," from The Beatles' "White Album."


Because my mum and dad both worked and were out all day, and my brother Mike and I were at school, there was no one to look after a dog. I remember one time we heard tell of puppies being given away in the next street, so we legged it round the corner, where, sure enough, there was a litter of puppies. We took a very cute little puppy home, but my mother told us we couldn't keep it. We were crestfallen. Totally crushed.

When I grew up and was in The Beatles, I had a house of my own in London. More than that, I actually had a housekeeper looking after the house. The time was ripe to get a dog. I had always liked the look of Old English sheepdogs, so I went along to a place in Milton Keynes, about an hour north of London, and selected this little dog. I named her Martha.

I'm pretty sure I was taken by Old English sheepdogs because of those television ads for Dulux paint. Dulux had started using an Old English sheepdog as a brand mascot back in 1961. It's a terrible thing to admit, but I'm a sucker for ads. The Dulux dog looked so loveable. It's not the only choice I've made because of what you might call product placement. For instance, I got myself the Aston Martin I mentioned earlier because I'd seen the first James Bond films and was quite impressed by the car.

Anyhow, I got Martha and she was a lovely little dog. I just adored her. One of the unlikely side effects was that John became very sympathetic towards me. When he came round and saw me playing with Martha, I could tell that he liked her. John was a very guarded person, which was partly where all his wit came from. He'd had a very difficult upbringing, what with his father leaving home, his uncle dying, and his mother getting killed in a traffic accident. By the time I knew him, he could be very sarcastic. Not that I couldn't be too. It was my own way of dealing with my mother's death, I expect. We were both quite into the witty put-down. But seeing me with Martha, with my guard down, all of a sudden he started warming to me. And so he let his guard down too.

To hear "Martha My Dear" click on the video player below: 

Martha My Dear (Remastered 2009) by The Beatles - Topic on YouTube

The funny thing is, at the time almost no one listening to the song knew that Martha was a dog. And actually, as the song proceeds, Martha morphs into a person. As it happens, I had a relative who was having an affair and came down to London to tell me about it. Maybe for some hand-holding. If you think about it, by 1968 I represented a breath of freedom. I was now slightly outside the circle. This relative could confide in me in a way that maybe wouldn't have been possible with other members of a gossipy Liverpool family. I'm the only person who knew the song was about someone having an affair, and that gives a line like 'When you find yourself in the thick of it' an added layer of poignancy.

Reprinted from "The Lyrics." Copyright 2021 by MPL Communications, Inc. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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