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She’s Leaving Home on the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album is one of the more sublime and yet sorrowful songs in their catalogue. Like Eleanor Rigby from the earlier Revolver LP it did not include any band instrumental but relied exclusively on a string orchestra (Yesterday employed only a quartet); only two of the Beatles, McCartney and Lennon, sang on the track. McCartney, in a fit of grandiosity and eager to record his new song, had summoned producer and arranger George Martin with one day’s notice to arrange and record. As Martin was busy (in fact producing Cilla Black), an impetuous McCartney briefed Mike Leander, whose day in the sun with Gary Glitter was yet to be. Leander had worked already with many in the Beatles’ circle of friendships: with Marianne Faithfull, Joe Cocker and the Rolling Stones (he had scored the tacky arrangement for As Tears Go By), and he had co-written two songs for Peter and Gordon, and he was later to annotate music for the Magical Mystery Tour film. Leander finished his score in time for the next day’s work in the studio with McCartney, work that was preparatory for George Martin to conduct and produce a few days later. In fact Martin was upset by McCartney’s impatient stampeding, and this is the only occasion that Martin was not responsible for a Beatles arrangement until Phil Spector’s desecration of three tracks on the Let It Be album (though these post-date the Beatles as a functioning group). Leander’s arrangement is more taut and dense than Martin’s more fleet of foot signature sound might have been, and no doubt Martin would have done a better job. However its counter melodies have become integral to the song, its fast paced stiffness reinforced the schizophrenic use of two narrative voices – a passive, impersonal voice and the parents of the song’s subject, who are involved emotionally yet naive and with no self-awareness – and its pace prevented the song lapsing into cloying statement. McCartney was often involved in the scoring of arrangements, although hitherto he tended to contribute to individual lines within a song (the french horn solo in For No One or the piccolo trumpet solo in Penny Lane) and not their orchestration other than in descriptive terms; so it is improbable that McCartney was involved heavily in its concept, and it is thought that George Martin, not altogether happy with it, did make some adjustment. Endless comment has been made about the differing speeds of the mono and the stereo releases.
She’s Leaving Home is referred to by George Martin as “not, strictly speaking, a Beatles song at all;” it was, he claimed, “pure McCartney, from start to finish.” There is some dissent to this view. Lennon and McCartney, as always, were not forensic in their memory. McCartney had suggested that Lennon had some input on the chorus melody (or at least the high sustained notes), but I would doubt much more than this, for although one chord only is sustained throughout the first ten bars (McCartney spoke of this being Lennon’s artifice), the melody then develops in a flow of lyricism unlikely to have been within Lennon’s compass. Lennon’s footprint can be seen in the lyrics of the chorus perhaps, where the obvious has been ignored: “love is the one thing that money can’t buy” is the anticipated line. This would have been an appropriation from their previous pubescent ways and childish patois developed at the Cavern Club and their pre-American jaunts (the days of “money can’t buy me love”), and perhaps to be avoided. So “love” is supplanted by the less obvious “fun,” but not just to avoid repetition of the songwriters’ earlier success, rather as a poignant and telling disclosure of parental misinterpretation of their daughter and her reasons for flying from the family coop: fun can so often be bought, but not so with love.
Certainly I would doubt that Lennon’s musical ear and ken would have been able to hear the natural lyricism and subtle melodic lilt that comprise the song. Lennon’s melodic presence on previous albums, especially Help! and Rubber Soul, was assured, but his songwriting tended to be formulaic, he rarely modulated, and his melodies consisted of repeated phrases only, even if these were lyrical; Norwegian Wood or Girl are two such examples, memorable lines, but not developed. (Nowhere Man is a slight exception, though its tune, like Norwegian Wood, uses a phrase in sequence rather than using a flowing linear line). In My Life was perhaps his greatest song to this date, though this was the cause of the most significant Lennon and McCartney memory spat: McCartney in fact claimed to have written the melody, and indeed that would seem not so unlikely for, if Lennon had a great feel for a hook, his songwriting ambition didn’t include developing any melodic gift per se; indeed If I Fell from 1964, the brilliant Strawberry Fields Forever and Jealous Guy, nearly a decade later, are all but his only true melodies with development, shape and definition. Until he was able to take on the personal and describe his internal world, Lennon’s songwriting was marginally in the doldrums, whereas McCartney’s lyricism, particularly at this time in the mid-1960s, knew no bounds: Michelle, Yesterday, Penny Lane, even When I’m Sixty-four (written by McCartney when 16), or the later Beatles’ songs like Hey Jude or Blackbird, displayed melody that developed, and the leaping upward seventh interval in the first phrase of She’s Leaving Home, as George Martin posits, is pure McCartney.
This is a song very much of its time. The phrase “generation gap” was of very recent origin, and its notion has been cited often as the wellspring of rock and roll, the teenage assumption of different tastes to their parents. The Who were accommodating of this new permissive world: My Generation comes down clearly on the side of the rebellious teenager. The Kinks too played a straight bat with Rosie Won’t You Please Come Home: the song is more about lifestyle contrast and social climbing than rebellious dispute. But She’s Leaving Home is far more sympathetic in its understanding of the family dynamic and deals with both sides of the divide without sitting on the fence. Both Lennon and McCartney had lost their mothers as teenagers (one of their reasons they had bonded so well), and their understanding of loss perhaps allowed them to include such insight. If there is a hint of disdain for the parents’ ignorance of their daughter’s situation and her need for freedom, then that is softened by the momentum of the song and the functional, non-saccharine aspect of the arrangement with its abundance of seventh and ninth chords. McCartney’s vocal is masterful: restrained, aloof and conversational when need be yet with a withdrawn pathos when called upon; it evokes a pity, even a subdued sympathy, for the parents. However McCartney’s antiphon call of the song is knocked for six by Lennon’s antiphon response, and his closing line of the chorus, “bye bye,” which is sung over McCartney’s falsetto choirboy rendition in the chorus, is like Pilate’s hand washing, and the parents are here revealed to say: she’s gone, nothing we can do, never mind then. So there is a knife in the belly of this song, a wound that exposes the polar opposite of its pathos. This is why it is truly a great song.
With a natural and unerring ear McCartney, if he chose to, could churn out song pastiche after pastiche. At first they sit quaint and snug within the Beatles’ output: Got To Get You Into My Life as a Motown resting point on Revolver works well, and so too When I’m Sixty-four on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the spit of comedy hall routine that blends well with Lennon’s found lyric for the Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite, all fairground sawdust and calliope. 1967 sees McCartney on the cusp of rock erudition yet lurching so often towards banality; hereafter he strays readily into a pot-pourri of parody and lame musical farrago. As swinging London and World Cup fever are replaced by an alternative culture of experimental theatre, the Roundhouse and Pink Floyd’s light shows, McCartney’s use to the group at producing classic pop at the drop of a hat became dubious and almost detrimental to the Beatles’ mythology. Hello, Goodbye was likely to have been the first of his songs that overly offended Lennon, and Lennon pushed for I Am the Walrus to be the A-side of the single; previously it had been rivalry that had driven Lennon to vie for an A-side, now it was brand sensitivity. A crescendo of vocal disquiet about McCartney’s bubble gum aspect ensued, and how it is that Rocky Raccoon or Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, natty and ornate though they are, take such billing on future albums must be down to Paul’s overbearing nature, by all accounts, and his fellow Beatles’ accommodation and habitual applause of him. Songs had to be shoehorned out of Lennon once he had ambition and life outside of the group; McCartney’s urbane lava was like candy floss and was secreted too diffusely and too often.
The song’s whereabouts in the Beatles timeline is crucial. As novice and enthusiastic pop stars five years earlier, as their touring became more triumphant and as their early records were pumped out rapidly and to more acclaim, they barely stopped for breath. Their juvenile aping of the American rock’n’roll mythology was writ large in their early songwriting, as they oozed American ease and inherited its cultural litany. Yet by 1967 and Sgt. Pepper the Beatles were exploring the roots of their Englishness with a confident English accent, their sense of place and experience of England’s industrial hinterland was pushed to the fore, and the streets and demotic sounds of their Liverpudlian childhoods were worn proudly as songwriting medals. For Lennon and McCartney, rock stars in England, folk song, even church music, fairground sounds, Al Bowley and the humour of the Goons become eventually as important as the blues, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Little Richard’s early foray into gospel sound. The barber’s in Penny Lane, Father McKenzie’s churchyard and traffic wardens are as vital an experience as the railroads of the American South and Elvis’ jailhouse. The day-to-day debris of English life – the mixing of the observant with the trite, the banal with the profound – the newspaper clippings that comprise A Day in the Life, their own biographies and of those around them, become their lyrical scrapbook. She’s Leaving Home has newspaper jotting as its starting point: Melanie Coe’s abscondence from her family home was front page fodder for the Daily Mail. In fact Coe stole away to meet a croupier rather than a man from the motor trade (a profession, said McCartney, more redolent of sleaze with the car’s back seat, windows wound down and a bag of sweeties), and she left mid-afternoon rather than at five o’clock in the morning. As symptomatic as it is humourous, McCartney’s recounting of when he and Lennon had composed She Loves You in the back room of his father’s house, and then proudly sang it to his father when completed, is relevant. His father applauded the song, but questioned if they should be singing “she loves you yes, yes, yes” rather than “yeh, yeh, yeh?” This observation that could be met only with merriment. But by 1967 English parlance and colloquialism is used comfortably. McCartney lilted his glottal accent when he sang the words “clutching her handkerchief” or “dressing gown,” as though he was reciting evensong in an Oxford college chapel; Lennon in the chorus assumed the tone of his Aunt Mimi, whose familial lexicon it is thought he may have been reciting. She’s Leaving Home, then, exhibits McCartney’s Englishness and a rare gift for the telling of the poignant, made personal to each of us by its use of fussy detail. The landscape of Englishness on display in She’s Leaving Home should have been vital for McCartney and could have offered him something to steady himself by as a songwriter. Lennon it was who fled England’s shores, McCartney it was who hid himself in rural England and played the jolly farmer: vaulting ambition versus the idyllic, perdition versus the pastoral (and Lennon, of course, paid the price). But McCartney in later years, certainly once the Beatles had flown their nest and Lennon was no longer his antidote, busied himself instead in a cornucopia of the whimsical, the kitsch and nostalgic; as his solo career progressed he was prone more to the unfinished, certainly the pointless – Silly Love Songs one of the many nadirs of his later career. The astute observation of English life fell by the wayside and his deft contribution to musical enquiry went overboard as he mimicked every fad and musical dead end.
She’s Leaving Home is one of the summits on McCartney’s timeline as a songwriter, even if it is not one of his greatest songs, and there is the nub of McCartney, his Achilles’ heel. Each of his best songs are narrative driven, they each tell a story, yet they are never McCartney’s own story. Eleanor Rigby, For No One, Hey Jude, Blackbird, Let It Be, Junk, Teddy Boy, the much later London Town (this track has McCartney’s most superlative singing), each in their own way disclose loneliness and expose the isolated world of the individual. But none of these songs are in the first person. Lennon had no such need to sing as a third person narrator. He could plunder his inner world and its demons, and, for all the poignancy on offer in She’s Leaving Home, it only reveals more and more as time lends distance, how repressed McCartney has been as a songwriter, however musically brilliant. The rock and roll song is a genre that has survived its severe musical limitations because it unearths the personal and the instinctive in a way that earlier generations of tunesmiths never could. McCartney’s songs – Maybe I’m Amazed to one side – are neither personal nor instinctive, they are fashioned as gem stones, their pedigree is Tin Pan Alley, their justification the Ivor Novello award and an excess of wealth. Yet whilst Lennon could write of the intimate – songs like Julia and Mother (and do so in an evening before a recording session) – McCartney’s riposte is lacklustre always. Much of his early songwriting career had been nurtured by emotional displacement activity: he wrote out of other people’s experience, often brilliantly but this was never developed, and one assumes that he didn’t possess the emotional or mental stamina. But perhaps also McCartney’s fingers had been burnt by the experience of being a Beatle, his need for subsequent privacy all but paramount: this may have diminished the reservoir of his songwriting stock and afforded a retreat to his psyche only at times of crisis, and, in broad terms, there just have never been many of them. The troubled denouement of the Beatles begat Maybe I’m Amazed, truly his greatest song, and otherwise, in spite of an innate and supreme musical talent, his scorecard here is all but empty.