Sister Celluloid

Where old movies go to live

Paul McCartney’s Way with Women (In Song)

Happy Birthday, Sir Paul! And in his honor, I’d like to focus on a part of his much-mined legacy I’ve not heard too much about: his story-songs about women.

Let’s start with “Eleanor Rigby,” still one of the most evocative songs ever written, and a novel unto itself. (I know Paul is Catholic, so Father McKenzie was probably not marriage-eligible, but I can’t hear that song without wishing he’d thrown off the collar so he and Eleanor could rescue each other.) On a broader note, it’s about the deep chasms of loneliness anyone could feel, in an era of post-war upheaval when all the “pulling together for a common cause” has long since come apart. But what you see most vividly is Eleanor. Has there ever been a lonelier image set to song than that of a straggler in the back pew who “picks up the rice in a church where a wedding has been” as the happy couple sets off on their new life together?

And Paul was 24 when he wrote it. I mean Jesus. John Lennon had apparently advised against the downbeat ending, but Paul held fast.

“Eleanor Rigby” was something of a lonely song to record as well: none of the other Beatles played on it (shades of Yesterday earlier), though George and John chimed in on vocals. And the strings were producer George Martin’s idea—reportedly inspired by those he’d heard in… wait for it… Psycho.

Similarly, none of the Beatles played on “She’s Leaving Home,” though John sang the chorus. This stunner seems completely out of place on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (much as “Eleanor Rigby” did on Yellow Submarine) but to me it’s the best cut on that legendary album. “Silently closing her bedroom door… leaving a note that she hoped would say more…” The stark imagery throughout the song captures everything.

The song was loosely based on a story Paul had read in the Daily Mirror about a 17-year-old runaway, but her interior life, and the mystified grief of her mother and father, were purely Paul’s creation. (The very act of acknowledging the feelings of — gasp! — her parents, even wryly, was enough to make this song revolutionary for 1967.)

Martin was tied up on another project, so Paul turned to Mike Leander to produce the song, once again bringing in strings to underscore the mood. “[George] was busy and I was itching to get on with it, I was inspired,” Paul told Playboy in 1984. “I think George had a lot of difficulty forgiving me for that. It hurt him, I didn’t mean to.” You’ve gotta love a man who’s still wracked with guilt about hurting a friend, almost 20 years on. (Did I mention he was Catholic?)

Brian Wilson cried when Paul played it for him, and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Ned Rorem called it “equal to any song that Schubert ever wrote.”

Most heart-rending break-up songs are written from the perspective of the dumpee. “For No One” splits the difference between the man left behind and the woman out there creating a life without him. “She wakes up, she makes up, she takes her time and doesn’t feel she has to hurry, she no longer needs you…”

Paul recalls writing the song in the bathroom of a Swiss chalet while on vacation with his then-girlfriend Jane Asher, as their relationship was falling apart: “I suspect it was about another argument.” And yet he wrote it as much from a woman’s perspective as a man’s.

During the recording session, Paul asked Alan Civil, the soloist on the French horn, to play a note that stretched beyond its normal range, to strike the perfect mournful tone, which recording engineer Geoff Emrick said resulted in “the performance of his life.” In terms of his bandmates, this was yet another virtual solo for Paul, with Ringo adding some light percussion. 

I admit I was reluctant to put “Lady Madonna” in here as I’ve never liked the song and it always felt like something of a put-down. But a recent interview with Paul changed my mind.

“I think women are very strong, they put up with a lot of shit,” he told the UK’s Far Out magazine. “They put up with the pain of having a child, of raising it, cooking for it, they are basically skivvies a lot of their lives, so I always want to pay a tribute to them.”

Paul’s own mother, a midwife in Liverpool, was also an inspiration here, as elsewhere in his music. (She’s the one he references in “Let It Be,” though it’s been wrongly assumed to be the more iconic Mother Mary.) “It’s really a tribute to the mother figure, it’s a tribute to women,” Paul told author Barry Miles for the book Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now. “‘Your Mother Should Know’ is another.” Yes, that little music hall-style ditty is the one where Paul, in the midst of a particularly turbulent generational war, “was basically trying to say, your mother might know more than you think she does. Give her credit.”

In researching “Another Day,” I was shocked — though I shouldn’t have been — to see how many (male) music critics sneered at it, in one case likening it to a jingle for underarm deodorant, and generally dismissing it as trite.

The single was released three months before Paul’s second solo album, Ram — and just as his former bandmates were turning out All Things Must Pass and John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. It was deemed far too lightweight to compete. Yes, how could a song about a woman’s interior life have any gravitas?!? These are pretty much the same kind of myopic misogynists who sniffed at “women’s pictures” during the classic movie era. In fact this song pretty much is a women’s picture. “At the office where the papers grow she takes a break… drinks another coffee and she finds it hard to stay awake, it’s just another day… So sad, so sad, sometimes she feels so sad.” It’s loneliness and depression set to a slight samba beat.

Lennon snidely referenced “Another Day” in his song about Paul, “How Do You Sleep?”: “The only thing you done was yesterday/And since you’ve gone it’s just another day.”

But Denny Seiwall, the session drummer on Ram, called it “Eleanor Rigby in New York City.” And I’m guessing that most women whose strength and sanity are being sucked slowly dry by jobs and relationships going nowhere will see themselves much more clearly in this song than in, say, “Instant Karma.”

None of this is to take away from all the other gorgeous ballads Paul wrote. But there’s something about these story-songs, all centering on women, that reveals such a deep understanding and compassion. With them, he created characters wholly outside himself, something not many songwriters do, and not nearly that well.

To close out this birthday tribute, here’s Sir Paul — no entourage, no crew, no bullshit — strolling through JFK Airport a couple of years ago, ticket and luggage in hand. Safe travels always, you beautiful man…

1 Comment

  1. Wonderful piece and an interesting look at his story-songs about women. Paul has been my forever favorite and I was so tickled to see him show up here! Thanks for interesting insight and inspiring me to take another look and listen to his songs about the ladies.

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