When Sir Paul McCartney met Paul Muldoon: former Beatle and poet discuss the song lyrics
Sir Paul McCartney appeared at the Royal Festival Hall on Friday night as part of the Southbank Centre’s London literature festival, a celebration of poetry and lyricism. He was discussing his song lyrics with eminent poet Paul Muldoon, and broadcaster and writer Samira Ahmed, with the publication of The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present, which has been edited by Muldoon. McCartney explained how he and Muldoon had co-operated: “Working with him as a poet, we were really analysing the lyrics, and where they came from. My contribution was to talk for five years to this man!”
At no point during the two-hour conversation on Friday was it suggested that the former Beatle’s lyrics amounted to poetry, although Muldoon did say, when talking of the song Eleanor Rigby: “The pressure per square inch of the song is somewhat reminiscent [of a poem] …” Earlier he had observed: “So many of the songs are dramas, or mini-dramas”, and praised McCartney’s “capacity to present a character in a song”.
During the conversation they discussed the grammar schoolteacher that introduced McCartney to Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales, and whether the title of Let It Be, one of McCartney’s most famous songs, was a reference to Hamlet. McCartney said he didn’t think so, but Muldoon added wryly that perhaps it came from the unconscious. McCartney conceded: “It’s the same for you in poetry … you don’t know where it’s coming from.”
More on song titles … Ticket to Ride was apparently a pun on a hitchhiking trip that McCartney and John Lennon took to Ryde on the Isle of Wight. Another title, Eight Days A Week, came from a throwaway remark from a chauffeur, after McCartney had been banned from driving.
Muldoon said of his conversations with McCartney before publication: “It was wonderful to get under the skin of the lyrics.” And to make discoveries, like that McCartney’s teacher Alan Durband had been a student of the noted academic FR Leavis at Cambridge.
The former Beatle spoke of the Swinging Sixties, when anything seemed possible, like knocking on the door of and having a chat with the veteran philosopher Bertrand Russell. He paid tribute to the fact that his generation was the first to benefit from the 1944 Education Act: “Me, John and George went to grammar schools … even though we were against it, we almost didn’t want it.”
Samira Ahmed asked him how he would feel if his lyrics were studied for exams? His friend, the poet Adrian Mitchell, was very opposed to the idea, for instance. McCartney replied: “I don’t worry about what happens to a song after you release it to the world. People are going to put their own meaning on it … I think you just have to accept that.”
You could feel the warmth and emotional power of the occasion, even when watching the livestream. Often the audience broke into spontaneous applause, especially when Paul mentioned his friend and long-time songwriting partner John Lennon, who had supplied the second line of I Saw Her Standing There: “She was just seventeen / You know what I mean.”
Paul said: “I would suggest a line, and then he’d suggest a line … we were ping-ponging off each other. It was always great to work with John. We just developed a way of working with each other, of trusting each other. We grew up together … Now I’m like a fan. Now it’s great to realise, how much I loved this man.”
Wisecracking in the press conferences as a team – “John was very good at it, I was more the straight man” – he recognised that “the strength was in the unity. It made it fun, helped it to be bearable.” He said of the four Beatles: “It was us against the world.”