Paul McCartney Reveals the Stories Behind The Beatles’ No. 1 Hits
The rock legend tells Billboard the origin stories — some moving, some bawdy — behind eight of The Beatles’ record-breaking 20 No. 1 hits.
More than 50 years after the release of their debut single, “Love Me Do,” principally written by a then-16-year-oldPaul McCartney, The Beatlesremain the Billboard Hot 100’s biggest act of all time. Even in 2015, the band’s accomplishments still stagger: 34 top 10 hits, 50 songs in the top 40 and the most No. 1s in a calendar year (six in 1964 and five in 1965) — plus, McCartney, John Lennon,George Harrison and Ringo Starr are the only artists to take over the Hot 100’s top five positions simultaneously. The deluxe reissue of The Beatles’ 1 hits collection, released Nov. 6 and featuring the following eight indelible classics, is expected to make a top 10 debut on the Billboard 200.
“I Want To Hold Your hand” (REACHED NO. 1 ON FEB. 1, 1964)
In late 1962, The Beatles began to blitz the United Kingdom with effusively energetic songs, but America initially took a skeptical view of their music, as well as their girlish haircuts. “The big story about ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’ ” recalls McCartney, “I’d said to Brian [Epstein, the band’s manager], ‘We don’t want to go to America until we have a No. 1 record.’ A lot of British artists went there and came back with the audience having been slightly underwhelmed by them. I said, ‘We don’t want to be like that. If we go, we want to go on top.’ ”
After Epstein convinced Ed Sullivan to book The Beatles on his top-viewed primetime CBS show, Capitol Records U.S. stopped ignoring the band and agreed to put out “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in the States, to coincide with its American TV debut — but then had to rush the release in December 1963 after a Washington, D.C., DJ began to play an import single ahead of schedule. “We were playing in Paris, an engagement at the Olympia Theatre, a famous old theater Edith Piaf played at, and we got a telegram — as you did in those days — saying, ‘Congratulations, No. 1 in U.S. charts.’ We jumped on each other’s backs. It was late at night after a show, and we just partied. That was the record that allowed us to come to America.”
One of the band’s five songs to occupy the Hot 100’s top five slots on April 4, 1964 (with “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Twist and Shout,” “She Loves You” and “Please Please Me”), “I Want to Hold Your Hand” ranks as the chart’s No. 45 single of all time.
“Love Me Do” (May 30, 1964)
With a two-chord structure and repetitive, singsong melody, “Love Me Do” from debut studio album Please Please Me doesn’t hint at the grandeur or emotional complexity of future Beatles songs. “Our early stuff is more simple than our later stuff, and that’s one of the great things about The Beatles,” says McCartney. “This was a very simple song that fell into the category of ‘fan songs.’ All our early songs contained ‘me’ or ‘you.’ We were completely direct and shameless to the fans: ‘Love Me Do’; ‘Please Please Me‘; ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand.’ A lot of people are fond of ‘Love Me Do’ because it evokes a period — and hey, it was No. 1, so it’s OK by me.”
On “Love Me Do,” Starr plays only the tambourine, because producer George Martin, accustomed to working with England’s top session aces, replaced the band’s drummer with veteran studio musician Andy White. “George wasn’t dealing, ever, with guys like us, who hadn’t been taught music, and he thought Ringo wasn’t professional enough, much to Ringo’s eternal sorrow. So Ringo was relegated to a tambourine. We hated it. We didn’t think Andy White was anywhere near as good as Ringo. But we had to listen to the grown-up.”
“Eight Days A Week” (March 13, 1965)
Recently, McCartney has been starting his concerts with “Eight Days a Week,” originally sung by Lennon. “When people review my shows, they say, ‘He opened with a Beatles classic, ‘Eight Days a Week.’ ‘ I wouldn’t put it as a ‘classic.’ Is it the cleverest song we’ve ever written? No. Has it got a certain joie de vivre that The Beatles embodied? Yes. The best thing about it was the title, really.” In many anecdotes, Starr uttered the phrase that became the song’s title; the actual story is that McCartney had lost his license for a year due to a speeding ticket, so a driver was taking him to Lennon’s house. “Just as we reached John’s, I said, ‘You been busy?’ Just small talk. And he said, ‘Busy? I’ve been working eight days a week.’ I ran into the house and said, ‘Got a title!’ And we wrote it in the next hour.”
With the swaying “Hold me, love me” chant in the pre-chorus, The Beatles — all still in their early 20s — continued to turn innocent desire into carnal wishes. “Our parents had been rather repressed, and we were breaking out of that mold. Everyone was let off the leash. Coming down from Liverpool to London, there were all sorts of swinging chicks, and we were red-blooded young men. All that’s on your mind at that age is young women — or it was, in our case.”
“Help!” (Sept. 4, 1965)
After two years of breakneck recording and touring, Lennon was unhappy in his marriage to his former college sweetheart and stuffed with drugs. Tasked with writing a song for The Beatles’ second film, he began to erase the band’s merry, dashing veneer with “Help!” “I turned up at John’s house for a writing session,” recalls McCartney, “and saw the opportunity to add a descant [melody in the second verse]. We finished it quite quickly; we went downstairs and sang it to John’s wife at the time, Cynthia, and a journalist he was friendly with called Maureen Cleave. We were very pleased with ourselves.”
Lennon later said, “I was fat and depressed, and I was crying out for help,” though he also masked his misery with the song’s chirpy tempo. Adds McCartney, “He didn’t say, ‘I’m now fat and I’m feeling miserable.’ He said, ‘When I was younger, so much younger than today.’ In other words, he blustered his way through. We all felt the same way. But looking back on it, John was always looking for help. He had [a paranoia] that people died when he was around: His father left home when John was 3, the uncle he lived with died later, then his mother died. I think John’s whole life was a cry for help.”
“We Can Work It Out” (Jan. 8, 1966)
McCartney refers to “We Can Work It Out” as “a girlfriend song,” and like “Help!,” the lyrics acknowledged that not everything in a Beatle’s life was perfect. According to lore, he wrote it about a fight he had had with girlfriend Jane Asher. “I don’t remember the circumstances, but I’m clearly saying, ‘Try and see it my way, because I’m obviously right.’ It may be arrogant, but it’s what every man wants to say to every girl. ‘Please think of this from my point of view. It might make things easier. It’d certainly make it easier for me.’ ”
In Ian MacDonald’s book Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties, the author points to “We Can Work It Out” as the moment when Lennon’s dominance of the band ended and McCartney became “ascendant not only as a songwriter, but also as instrumentalist, arranger, producer and de facto musical director of The Beatles.” MacDonald also notes that the song took 12 hours to record, which was an unprecedented length of time. “It wasn’t a complicated song,” says McCartney. “Maybe I was fussing over it because it was my song. You get an idea of how things should sound, and if it doesn’t quite sound like that, you keep pushing.”
“Paperback Writer” (June 25, 1966)
“Love is a great thing to write a song about,” says McCartney. ” ‘You left me, I hate you.’ ‘I love you, please come to me.’ ‘Don’t go anywhere, because I’m coming.’ It’s what us humans are about.” But after a few years of writing love songs, he got restless. One result was “Paperback Writer,” a funny tale of ambition, frustration and a desperation to please others, inspired by a Daily Mail article he read about an aspiring novelist. McCartney wrote the lyrics in the style of a form letter, and Lennon sagely advised him not to change it.
Two sounds dominate the recording, which spent three weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100: McCartney’s snappy, booming Rickenbacker bassline and knotty, contrapuntal harmonies, inspired by The Beach Boys, that start the track and recur in a breakdown. “Before that, we had been influenced by artists like Smokey Robinson & The Miracles or Phil Spector. But at this point, it was The Beach Boys. ‘Paperback Writer’ is a nod to them, and to the idea that everyone wants to write a novel. I liked the word ‘paperback.’ ” And why are Lennon and Harrison chanting “Frere Jacques” in the background vocals? “That’s a good question. No idea! We threw in all sorts of stuff. Why did we say ‘Harold Wilson’ and ‘Edward Heath’ [in the background vocals of 1966’s “Taxman”]? We were completely free about throwing in an interesting idea.”
“Penny Lane” (March 18, 1967)
The farther The Beatles traveled from Liverpool — in physical and emotional distance, money and fame — the more they thought about the city. Their combined sentiment culminated in “Penny Lane,” a pre-Google Maps aerial view of their hometown. McCartney even unsheathes a Liverpudlian accent when he sings the word “customer.”
“Penny Lane was a place in Liverpool that we were very nostalgic for,” he says. “It was a terminal where John and I got the bus to go to each other’s houses. And all the things in the song are true. We never saw a banker in a plastic mac [raincoat] — we made him up — but there was a barber, there was a bank. There was a fire station. Once there was a nurse selling poppies — a lot of people thought the lyric was ‘selling puppies,’ but we’re saying ‘poppies,’ which is a Remembrance Day thing for the British Legion. It was all true, basically.”
It’s also one of The Beatles’ most baroque arrangements, with not a guitar in sight — their influences had receded past Robinson and landed in the 18th century. “I heard Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and asked George Martin what the high trumpet was. He said, ‘It’s a piccolo trumpet,’ so we got the best piccolo trumpet player in town, and I wrote a piece for him at the recording session. I wanted to make a very clean record. It was all very magical, really.”
“Hey Jude” (Sept. 28, 1968)
There might not be a better-known origin tale in Beatles lore than “Hey Jude,” which McCartney wrote while thinking about John’s son Julian, then 5 years old — but that’s only part of the story. “I was on the way to see him after John and Cynthia got divorced, and because I was good friends with [Julian], it came into my mind: ‘Hey, Jules, don’t make it bad,’ ” he recalls. “It’s a song of hopefulness.”
Later, McCartney changed “Jules” to “Jude.” “I’d heard the name in a musical —Carousel, I think: ‘Jude is dead’ or something like that. I hadn’t realized ‘Jude’ means ‘Jew’ [in German]. That caused some confusion, and a man got quite angry with me over that.” So angry that after McCartney and a few friends painted “HEY JUDE” on the highly visible window of the Apple Boutique on London’s Baker Street in 1968, the passerby mistook the phrase for anti-Semitic graffiti and smashed the glass with a soda siphon.
Lennon suspected the song was about him and his relationship with Yoko Ono, pointing to the lyrics — especially “You have found her, now go and get her” — that address an adult, not a child. “The only thing about Julian in the song is the first lines,” says McCartney, declining to elucidate the mystery of who else he’s addressing in the song.
“Hey Jude” was not only The Beatles’ longest song to date, it was the first release on their Apple Records label. The single spent 19 weeks on the Hot 100 — longer than any other Beatles entry at the time — and nine of them at No. 1, making it the group’s longest-leading hit and the No. 10 Hot 100 single of all time. Even Lennon, who often said unkind things about McCartney’s songs, called the stirring ballad a masterpiece.
By Rob Tannenbaum Billboard