Songs with word by The Beatles have never failed to delight their listeners. Now many of those songs are delighting library-goers as well. Mark Phillips takes us browsing:
On a busy road in London sits the British Library, and its collection of about 170,000,000 literary works and historic documents.
Some of them are given pride of place in the Treasures Gallery. Oh, you know, original works of Shakespeare . . . handwritten musical scores by Beethoven . . . the Magna Carta, only the first recorded attempt at constitutional government . . .
And a collection of original lyrics of Beatles songs, scribbled on scraps of paper, or the backs of envelopes, or on a child's card. "Yesterday." "Ticket to Ride." "A Hard Day's Night."
The music seems everlasting. But the lyrics were disposable, throw-aways . . . until Hunter Davies picked them up.
'Well, the Beatles never seemed -- John and Paul, main writers, never seemed to have any paper in the house," Davies said. "They had these massive houses, but they never had stationery or notepads. The songs suddenly came to them, obviously the music, they played the guitar or the piano; but when it came to the words, they were going 'round the house going, 'Gimme some paper. Gimme a scrap.'"
Davies has now assembled the scraps -- those he collected when he hung around with the Beatles as their official biographer, and with Paul on a family vacation. He took his lyrics and those he borrowed from others, and put them into a book.
Once the songs were recorded, the Beatles lost interest in the scribbled notes.
'I would say, 'I'm gonna write about this song. Can I have this?' This being a scrap of paper where they scribbled the words," Davies said. "And the words would be perhaps changed. Perhaps Ringo had come in and they'd say, 'Ringo, this is what we are doing tonight.'
"So at the end of the day they would say, 'Yes, you can have them' because the cleaners would burn them.'"
And those original lyrics tell secrets of how the songs came to be.
The scribbled lines of "Help" show what Davies said were Lennon's difficulty with the scan of the line: "When I was younger than I am today" became "When I was younger, so much younger than today."
And the memorable pop lyric was born -- on whatever scrap of paper was handy.
The opening tune of the movie "A Hard Day's Night" was written on the back of a children's birthday card to John's son, Julian Lennon. But when somebody suggests a change, John agrees.
"And she says, 'Oh that line is a bit poor, 'My tiredness is through,'" said Davies. "And John says, 'You are right,' and he immediately gets his pen out and crosses out 'My tiredness is through' and changes it to 'the things that you do.'"
"But when I get home to you,
I find the things that you do,
will make me feel all right."
But whatever the cultural significance of "A Hard Day's Night," should it and the Magna Carta really be in the same room?
Davies remarked of the Magna Carta, "It'll never get in the top ten. These words are awful!"
He told the story of the time when the Queen opened the library's new building in 1998. She provided a royal lesson as to why The Beatles are not out of place here.
"And when she opened it, she did what we are doing now," said Davies. "She walked around. But she couldn't stand here because she can't read medieval Latin, any more than you or I can. She stood longest at this case, a few feet away, reading 'Yesterday.' Because she knows the words of 'Yesterday.' Because she's a human being alive on the planet. And it's also very nicely written."
But nicely-written slowly. "Yesterday" may be the most-covered song in history, but the tune was written long before the words. To fill the gap, Paul McCartney would sing the phrase "Scrambled Eggs," until he came up with "Yesterday."
And sometimes the oddest words were mixed together. "They came into the studio at this time, at the end of 'Sgt. Pepper,' with two scraps that were not connected," said Davies.
Their producer, George Martin, put together John's unfinished lament on life's banalities ('Woke up. Got outta bed. Ran a comb across my head"), and a scrap of an idea from Paul. ("I'd love to turn you on") into what became "A Day in the Life."
'The thing about the Beatles is the further we get from them, the bigger they become," said Davies. "There are 2,000 books about the Beatles, and there are probably in America 5,000 people studying The Beatles at American Universities. And they will get a Ph.D. out of that."
And now they've got a lot more material to work with: Once worthless scraps of paper that are now worth a lot of money.
"Some of these scraps here are worth a million dollars each," said Davies. "That's what they're being sold for, and even the smallest scrap is probably a quarter of a million dollars."
For more info:
- "The Beatles Lyrics: The Stories Behind the Music, Including the Handwritten Drafts of More Than 100 Classic Beatles Songs" - Edited by Hunter Davies (Little, Brown); Also available in eBook format
- Read an excerpt from "The Beatles Lyrics"
- British Library, London