The Beatles

John Lennon’s first “complete song” for The Beatles

The Beatles were excellent storytellers. While tracks like ‘Revolution 9’, ‘I Am The Walrus’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ are obvious exceptions to the rule, on the whole, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison liked nothing better than a good narrative. This is, of course, one of the fundamentals of pop songcraft: telling a story without overcomplicating things or waxing too poetical.

The best songwriter is the person who is able to make a complex and multifaceted idea gloriously transparent. By the end of the song – if the composer has achieved what they set out to – the listener might even feel a rush of enlightenment wash over them. The Beatles honed this songwriting style in their day, forging a path for the countless others who followed in their footsteps.

That’s not to say it was an easy road. The Beatles spent years honing their craft behind the closed doors of sweaty German clubs before they started rolling out hits like ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ and ‘She Loves You’. But even then, many in The Beatles camp believed that Lennon’s songwriting had a way to go. According to Dick James, The Beatles music publisher, it wasn’t until 1964 and the release of The Beatles For Sale that Lennon’s writing took off – a controversial opinion by anyone’s standards, especially considering The Beatles were already the biggest band in the UK by that time, and soon to break America.

As Lennon recalled of The Beatles On Sale opener ‘No Reply’ in 1972: “I remember Dick James coming up to me after we did this one and saying, ‘You’re getting better now– that was a complete story.’ Apparently, before that, he thought my songs wandered off.”

For James, ‘No Reply’ marked an important development in Lennon’s songwriting. Unlike The Beatles’ previous hits, it followed a traceable narrative arc, reaching a conclusion that gave a sense of completion and resolution rather than “wandering off”. Arguably, this wouldn’t have been possible without the help of Paul McCartney, who wrote one of The Beatle’s most poignant narrative tracks, ‘Eleanor Rigby’.

As McCartney remembered in 1994: “We wrote ‘No Reply’ together but from a strong original idea of his. I think he pretty much had that one, but as usual, if he didn’t have a third verse and the middle-eight, then he’d play it to me pretty much formed. Then we’d shove a bit in the middle or I’d throw in an idea.”

Lennon and McCartney would go on to play with structure throughout their careers with The Beatles. By The Time the group got to Revolver in 1966, Lennon had seemingly grown frustrated with the limitations of narrative and went about finding new ways to cobble tracks together, often relying on found material (‘A Day In The Life’) and experimental collage techniques (‘Revolution 9’).

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