“Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my blog?/ It took me days to write, will you feed my dog?” —“Paperback Writer,” the Beatles (slightly paraphrased)
The recent hullabaloo about the Beatles’ 50th anniversary got me thinking: “How about a blog post about the Beatles songs which tell stories?”
It seemed like a great idea– and by “great,” I mean “easy to write.” Not so, as it turns out. The Fab Four don’t have as many “story-songs” as one might think.
Before I even started digging through their extensive discography, I determined that, in order to qualify as a “story,” a song needed to have three elements: characters, plot, and conflict. (Obviously, other factors go into a story, but I settled on those three.) With those criteria in mind, I was able to eliminate a whole bunch of songs. For example:
- Songs That Don’t Have a Conflict: the happy love songs (“Love Me Do,” I Want to Hold Your Hand,” etc.); the “kiddie” songs (“Yellow Submarine,” “Octopus’ Garden”); the “life lesson” songs (“Let It Be,” “We Can Work It Out,” “Here Comes the Sun”)
- Songs That Only Have Conflict: “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” “Help!”
- Songs That May Have Characters, Conflict, and Plot, But They Just Don’t Have Enough Information To Qualify as a “Story”: break-up songs (“Yesterday,” “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” etc.)
- Songs That Are More Nostalgic Musings Than Stories: “Penny Lane,””Strawberry Fields Forever”
- Songs That Are More Poems Than Stories: “In My Life,” “Blackbird”
- Songs That Are More Character Sketches Than Stories: “Paperback Writer,” “Get Back,” “Lovely Rita Metermaid”
- Songs That Are Just Weird Psychedelic Trips: “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “I Am the Walrus”
- Songs That Lack Cohesion, Since They’re Actually Two Stories Mashed Together: “A Day in the Life”
- Songs That, By John’s Own Admission, Are Just “Gobbledygook”: “Come Together”
You get the idea. In the end, after much internal fussing and fighting, I unearthed five songs that fit my criteria of “story-songs.” In no particular order:
- Characters: cowboy Rocky Raccoon; his ex-girlfriend, Nancy “Lil” Magill; Nancy’s new boyfriend, Dan
- Conflict: A jilted and jealous Rocky wants to shoot his romantic rival
- Plot: A good ol’ gun-slingin’ Western, the song recounts how Rocky challenges Dan to a draw. Unfortunately, Dan’s not only better with the girls, he also has a quicker trigger-finger. Dan shoots Rocky first. Rocky ends the song back in his room being treated by a seemingly less-than-competent doctor. (The doc is “stinking of gin.”)
- Fun Fact: McCartney originally called the main character “Rocky Sassoon.”
- My Take: Unlike many of the Beatles’ story-songs, this one is pretty straight-forward and easy to understand. Yeah, no one will rank this as a favorite, but I do like the twist that the guy out for revenge is the one who got shot.
- Characters: The narrator and his paramour du jour
- Conflict: The narrator might be struggling internally with his infidelity (See “Fun Fact”)
- Plot: An independent woman (with a job, an apartment, and clear sense of what/ who she wants) takes the narrator up to her room; they drink some wine and talk until two, and then… who knows? After all, when she says, “It’s time for bed,” is that an invitation (“time for US to go to bed”) or a dismissal (“time for ME to go to bed”)? On the other hand, the song starts with the great line, “I once had a girl , or should I say, she once had me,” which is none too subtle. Eventually, our narrator ends up sleeping in the bathtub. (Really? I mean, you mentioned she didn’t have a chair, but… isn’t the tub a tad uncomfortable?) When he awakes, she’s has left for work.
- Fun Fact: Lennon allegedly wrote this song as a confession of sorts for all the affairs he had while he was married to his wife Cynthia (the mother of Julian).
- My Take: Personally, I think it’s pretty straightforward: woman meets man; woman and man get to know each other biblically; in the morning, woman leaves for work, while man sits in front of the fireplace reflecting on the previous night’s escapades. Some listeners, though, have a slightly different take: the girl has rebuked the narrator’s advances, and he resorts to arson as his way of getting back at her. Yep: arson. It all comes down to the “I lit a fire” line, which some interpret to mean he set her entire place ablaze, rather than he lit a fire, you know, in her fireplace. An intriguing interpretation, sure, and one that’s not completely outside the realm of possibility… but I don’t buy it. (After all, he says “I lit a fire” not “I lit the fire,” right?)
- Characters: Narrator and his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend
- Conflict: The girlfriend wants to break up, but he doesn’t want to. (Unfortunately, he doesn’t have much say in the matter.)
- Plot: The girlfriend wants to end things, not necessarily because the narrator did anything wrong, but because she doesn’t want to be tied down to anyone. (“She could never be free while I was around,” he explains.) The narrator’s bummed out, but he’s also mad that she’s NOT bummed out. (“I don’t know why she’s riding so high…” he fumes). The song ends without saying for sure what happens with these two; still, the fact that she has a ticket to move somewhere else can’t be a good sign.
- Fun Fact: Apparently, McCartney said the title is a pun: she has a ticket to a British seaside town named Ryde. Meanwhile, Lennon says the song is about prostitutes in Hamburg, Germany. So take your pick.
- My Take: Music has given us plenty of break-up songs, but “Ticket to Ride” is unique in that it’s a pre-break-up song. Our narrator has not yet been dumped, but he’s pretty sure it’s imminent– maybe even “today.” Anyone who’s been in that situation knows that feeling.
- Characters: Desmond, Molly, their kids
- Conflict: Uh… gee… not sure there is one… things seem pretty swell for the Jones family, actually… sure, maybe Molly gets a little resentful sometimes that she’s out slaving away in the band while Desmond stays home putting on his pretty face, but other than that…
- Plot: Desmond Jones, who has a cart in a marketplace, meets Molly, a singer in a band. He proposes (with a twenty carat ring that seems considerably out of his price range); they marry, buy a house, and have a couple of kids.
- Fun Fact: McCartney borrowed/ stole the chorus from his Jamaican friend Jimmy Scott, who used to say “Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on.”
- My Take: The lack of a conflict almost made me cut this from the list. The song might be too “happy ever after”… which is weird, because isn’t “life goes on” a platitude you’d say after something unfortunate happens? What does Desmond and Molly’s life have to go on from, exactly? Come on, Paul: get some tension in there! Maybe Molly buys a ticket to Ryde and ends up having an affair with the “Norwegian Wood” guy?
- Characters: Eleanor Rigby, Father McKenzie, the narrator (who looks at all the lonely people)
- Conflict: A sort of a “man’s inhumanity to man” kind of thing going on
- Plot: In Act I, we meet Eleanor, a lonely spinster who wears a lot of cold cream to make herself appear younger. Presumably an employee at a church, she is first seen picking up rice after a wedding; we get the sense she wasn’t at this wedding, nor at any wedding, ever– including her own. Act II introduces the equally lonely pastor, the sock-darning Father McKenzie, who is writing a sermon no one will hear. (Why won’t they hear? Because no one comes to church? Because no one actually listens to him? Because he won’t actually give these sermons, even though these are things he really wants to say? All delicious possibilities.) Finally, in Act III, Eleanor has died and Father McKenizie presides over her funeral; in a Gatsby-esque sort of scene, no one else is at the funeral.
- Fun Fact: McCartney had several names for the characters, including Miss Daisy Hawkins (for Eleanor) and Farther McCartney (for Father McKenzie).
- My Take: The best Beatles story-song– and one of the best Beatles songs, period. The song has it all: great metaphors (“wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door” and “buried along with her name”); a great mood, thanks to the string quartet; and great (albeit pathetic and tragic) characters. Plus, it leaves you wondering: How did Eleanor get so lonely? Why didn’t anyone help her? Why doesn’t the narrator help her? (Instead of just looking at all the lonely people, Mr. Narrator, why not say ‘Hi’ to her once in a while, so she wouldn’t be so damn lonely all the time?) And most importantly: who are the Eleanor Rigbys in our own lives?
Are there other Beatles songs that tell stories? I’m sure. But I need some assistance sussing them out. So, to my audience: Won’t you please, please help me? Help me? Help meeeeeee?