The GWS 10: Borrowing from the Beatles (Part 1)
It was fifty years ago that those four lads from Liverpool took the United States by storm with a blend of rock-and-roll and Tin Pan Alley that made young women swoon and made James Bond beg for earplugs. (Seriously; Sean Connery’s Bond dissed The Beatles in Goldfinger.) For the next several years, the Fab Four churned out album after album, playing a large role in redefining pop music. Alas, it was over in 1970; the band broke up and fans were enjoined to “Let it Be.”
Whenever I think about pop culture issues, I try not to be a stick in the mud. I am aware that my disdain for the “music” of Nicki Minaj is the same pain felt by parents who heard their children blasting “Love Me Do” from their bedrooms. Many contemporary critics were annoyed by Frank Sinatra in the same manner that One Direction’s “music” irks me. Each new generation will have their own clothing and music and language. I get it. Creative people, of course, do their best to understand the craft and ideas behind all kinds of human expression, regardless of era. Our focus, of course, should remain closest on timeless works that define and defy the times in which they were created.
Writers must understand the passion behind Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and they should learn what they can from The Beatles. Here are just ten lessons in writing craft that John, Paul, George and Ringo have to teach us:
1. Repetition is powerful and allows you to get a big affect out of small changes. – “I Saw Her Standing There” (Lennon/McCartney)
Can you believe that this is the first song that Lennon and McCartney wrote together? Amazing. Now, the song flat-out makes you want to move, so you may have missed a cool trick that Paul and John played with the lyrics. Like many of the Beatles’ early love songs, the rhymes and the concept aren’t very complicated. The narrator sees a beautiful woman across the dance floor. Got it. The rhymes? “Boom/room.” “Night/tight.” “Me/see.” (Well, I will admit that “seventeen” and “what I mean” make a pretty cool cretic rhyme.) The chord structure is pretty darn simple: a basic rock I-V with a few IVs thrown in. None of this is a knock; simple can definitely be awesome. Besides, don’t we all want a love life that is as easy as “I Saw Her Standing There?”
Importantly, the simplicity of the song allows the few complicated elements to take center stage and to have a much bigger effect. Don’t you love the playful, insistent bass line all the more because George’s rhythm guitar part is so simple?
Writers will want to take a look at a lyrical move that John and Paul make at the end of each verse. I believe that I noticed this cool bit myself a long time ago, but I’m a big fan of Alan W. Pollack’s Beatles scholarship, so I’m happy to give the gentleman a shoutout either way. Go see his site. It’s awesome.
VERSE 1: How could I dance with another when I saw her standing there?
VERSE 2: She wouldn’t dance with another when I saw her standing there.
VERSE 3: Now I’ll never dance with another since I saw her standing there.
Paul keeps the music chugging along with that exciting bass line and uses the words to add momentum, too. The changes I’m pointing out create a narrative. In the first verse, the woman is a stranger to the narrator. Eventually, he asks her to dance and she begins to develop reciprocal feelings. In the third verse? The coupling is formalized; the narrator proclaims his joy that he’s found a mate. The listener is grabbed because, inspired by these small changes in the context of repetition, he or she subconsciously wants to see what happens to a character who expresses longing.
2. Experiment by writing in the voice of an author you admire. – “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” (Lennon/McCartney)
Isn’t that music video beyond charming? If you listen to John’s pinched tone and the circuitous nature of the verses, you’ll definitely hear the influence of Bob Dylan. (Who seems to have introduced the boys to some other things, too.) Compare “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” to an early Dylan hit that was likely swirling around in John’s head in 1965:
What was one of John’s intentions when composing the song? Here’s what Paul said in a 1980s Playboy interview:
That was John doing a Dylan–heavily influenced by Bob. If you listen, he’s singing it like Bob.
We each have our own unique voices as writers, but what happens if you play around and pretend to be someone else for a little while? (In John’s case, you get a hit song.) Look back at the body of your work to see what kinds of themes and archetypes and even words you usually use. What would happen if you try ditching some of those crutches? I’ve done this in my own work. For reasons that are obvious to anyone who knows me, I tend to write about unrequited love and characters who feel abandoned. For the past couple years, I’ve tried to play around with other themes and other tones in the same way that John wanted to see what it would be like if he ditched some of the bright tone of his previous songs and tried a chug-chug-chug folk song in 3/4.
If you write romance stories, why not consider writing a hard-boiled crime story to see what your voice sounds like when you’re describing murder instead of love? (Here are some cool audio renditions of stories from Ellery Queen.) Say you love Alice Munro, but most of your work is more like the horror output of Stephen King. What would happen if you try to write your own “Munro” story?
3. Find a writing partner or first reader who complements you well. – “Getting Better” (Lennon/McCartney)
One of my many writing-related regrets is that I never found a writing partner. Can I do a lot on my own? Sure. But I love what a partnership can do and how the whole can be bigger than the sum of its parts. Lennon and McCartney pushed each other with the friendly competition they shared. I’m a longtime fan of The State; Tom Lennon and Robert Ben Garant have done some amazing things in collaboration.
An honest and occasionally brutal writing partner or first reader can tell you where you’ve gone wrong and can even contribute to the final product in meaningful ways. “Getting Better” is a great example as to how the Lennon/McCartney partnership resulted in a better song than would have emerged had Paul been on his own. It’s too simplistic to say that Paul was the “happy/melodic” one and that John was the “melancholy” one focused on creating an atmosphere and evoking emotion. In this song, however, you have a great example of how the two men came together. Here’s what Paul said about the song in that Playboy interview:
PAUL: Wrote that at my house in St. Johns Wood. All I remember is that I said, “It’s getting better all the time,” and John contributed the legendary line “It couldn’t get much worse.” Which I thought was very good. Against the spirit of that song, which was all superoptimistic–then there’s that lovely little sardonic line. Typical John.
In this case, John was keeping Paul’s optimism in check. Adding “can’t get much worse” adds a layer of complexity that ensures the song possesses more philosophical weight than it might otherwise have.
How do you find a close collaborator? I have no idea. Like I said, I’ve never really had a partner in that way. I guess it all comes down to hanging out with other people who create works you love and developing a mutual relationship with them. Maybe a little luck, too.
4. Create a modern version of a classic form. – “For No One” (Lennon/McCartney)
I hope you had a hanky while you were listening to the song. (Surprisingly, the piece is not performed in D minor, which is, as we all know, the saddest of all chords.) As Mr. Pollack agrees, “For No One” features a number of attributes of the nineteeth-century lieder that have long been a part of the repertoire of the classical singer. Here’s an example I know about because of my late and much-beloved German teacher:
“Der Erlkönig” is an art song and art songs are cool because they are often a musical representation of a piece of literature that is composed for the vocal repertory; the point is to show off the voice of the singer.
Here’s another art song from Schubert. I afflicted a few folks with a terrible rendition of this in high school. (My much-beloved music teacher did her best; you can’t turn lead to gold.)
I don’t know if this is technically an “art song,” but Igor Keller earned my eternal respect by creating an oratorio out of the court documents that were released in Bill O’Reilly’s sexual harassment case. (You’ll never look at felafels in the same way…)
The point is that art songs don’t HAVE to be something that we don’t write anymore. Look what (primarily) McCartney did with “For No One.” Can’t you see the song being performed by a classical singer in a beautiful recital hall? Wow…look what Moran Meisels did with the song…
Did you dry your tears again? Okay, good. What are some other “forgotten” forms that are still perfectly good? The epic poem? The silent film? The five-act Elizabethan-style play? It may be the twenty-first century, but there’s no reason you can’t write a good, old-fashioned “ode.”
5. Nail down the fundamentals…then deconstruct the form you just mastered. – “I’ll Follow the Sun” (Lennon/McCartney)
If you look at the Beatles canon, you can tell how quickly Lennon and McCartney reached a level of expertise in songwriting. “I’ll Follow the Sun” was an early song that Paul wrote primarily on his own. The gentleman was weaned on Broadway songs and folk songs: pieces that have (or at least had) a well-defined structure. Compare “I’ll Follow the Sun” to one of George Gershwin’s best. (Here’s the song…sung by one of the best.)
The song has what is called a “32-bar structure.” I’ll let Wikipedia tell you some of the music nerd stuff that I don’t know. The point is that while McCartney goofs around with that traditional structure, the song is clearly in the tradition of those great musical theater songs. (A tight rhyme scheme, 8-measure verses…) Once Paul and John had mastered the very basics of creating songs, they were able to create great works that DIDN’T conform to the long-established conventions of popular song:
So short stories, poems, essays and novels resemble songs in the sense that there are structures and conventions that most great works have in common. Once you research these “rules” and have written good stuff in compliance with the “formula,” you can experiment with much more confidence. (Just don’t take any psychedelic drugs. No one wants to imagine that an area rug is going to eat them.)
To be continued in Part Two…