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Only a Northern Song

Strawberry Fields Forever: the legacy of The Beatles

As a die-hard Beatles fan, I was delighted to learn that the Beatles’ lyrics are very popular with teachers of English as a foreign language. Apparently, the songs are notable for containing high percentages of the commonest English words, and are therefore very useful for learners. But in writing this article, I’m more interested in what makes the language of the Beatles special. August 22nd is an important day for Beatles history: fifty years ago, on August 22nd 1962, the new line up of John, Paul, George, and Ringo was first captured on film, by Granada TV cameras. On the same date in 1969, the Beatles attended their final photo session. So, what better day to look back at some of the now well-known words that caused such excitement when they were first written?

Tangerine trees and marmalade skies

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is one of the Beatles’ most famous songs, and as everyone knows, the title refers to the drug L.S.D. Well, actually, maybe not. It was one of those “facts” that was trotted out in school drug-awareness lessons (perhaps my teachers thought the Beatles would catch our attention; given that this was the 1990s and all my friends were nuts for Kylie and Jason, their ploy failed dismally.) Unfortunately, at the age of thirteen, I was the biggest Beatles fan who had ever lived, and I would fight you to prove it. I put my hand up, and said “actually, sir, the song is named after a drawing done by John Lennon’s son. It doesn’t refer to drugs at all. And the Beatles are very cross when people say that it does.” If you take one lesson from this, let it be that precocious teenagers are the pits. But if you feel like taking a second lesson, then it should be that John Lennon’s son Julian really did present his dad with a drawing of his friend surrounded by stars, which he described as “Lucy in the sky with diamonds”. Nonetheless, the context of the song in the psychedelic 1960s, the Beatles’ own well-known experiments with drugs, and the song’s hallucinogenic lyrics have all conspired to make sure that it is remembered as a classic of acid-inspired pop. “Lucy” is even occasionally used to refer to L.S.D., although if you look her up in the dictionary, what you’ll find is that Lucy is the name given to a partial female skeleton of a fossil hominid, discovered in 1974. Apparently the name comes from the coincidence that the Beatles’ song was on the radio when she was being dug up, though I prefer to believe that it’s because the anthropologists found a hash pipe and a pair of round blue-tinted sunglasses buried with her.

In the beginning I misunderstood

The tendency to read extra meanings into Beatles lyrics is not confined to people who see drug references in every other syllable. There are also those who like to look for hidden sexual content. Paul McCartney once lamented this tendency, saying that “I think you can put any interpretation you want on anything, but when someone suggests that Can’t Buy Me Love is about a prostitute, I draw the line. That’s going too far.” One of the more fertile songs for the euphemism hunters has been Happiness is a Warm Gun. It’s certainly not a big stretch to see the phallic symbolism in the image of the “warm gun”, especially not with lyrics such as “when I hold you in my arms, and I feel my finger on your trigger”, and the repeated chorus “Bang, bang, shoot, shoot!” The use of this kind of language to refer to sex is not particularly new. Shoot, in the sense “ejaculate”, goes back at least to Victorian times, and bang as a term for sexual intercourse is well established. The source for the title of the song came from an American gun magazine. An advertisement proclaimed that “happiness is a warm gun”, something that appealed to John Lennon: “I thought, what a fantastic thing to say. A warm gun means that you’ve just shot something.” In fact, the more obvious sexual images of the song are those of the “touch of the velvet hand” and the “man in the crowd with the multi-coloured mirrors on his hobnail boots”. The former was inspired by a friend of Lennon’s, who told a story of having met a man who got a thrill from wearing moleskin gloves when with his girlfriend, and the latter came from the story of a football fan arrested for sticking mirrors to his shoes in order to look up women’s skirts. “Shoot” can also refer to the practice of injecting drugs, a sense which the word first acquired in the early twentieth century. The middle section of the song’s assertion that “I need a fix” also supports the view that the song is about drug taking. Fix, meaning a dose of narcotics, appears to be a shortening of the earlier “fix-up”, and came to prominence in the 1930s. It’s impossible to say whether any or all of these meanings were in John Lennon’s mind when he wrote the song. If they were, then it certainly gives us a brilliant example of the classic trio: sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.

Man you been a naughty boy

Of course, the Beatles’ lyrics do have plenty of obvious sexual and drugs references beyond the euphemisms of guns and sky-dwelling girls. The song It’s Only Love, with the line “I get high when I see you go by”, shows how the experience of taking drugs and sexual attraction can be conflated with each other. She’s a Woman, similarly, speaks of a woman who will “turn me on when I get lonely”. To turn someone on, meaning to excite them sexually or to introduce them to drugs, goes back to 1953 in the Oxford English Dictionary’s evidence, though Henry James also used the term in 1903 to refer to piquing someone’s interest. There is also a darker side to sex in the Beatles’ songs. In Don’t Let Me Down, the lyrics say of a woman that “she done me, she done me good”, a sexual sense of do which is first found in print in Victorian erotic literature. (And for those who complain that the use of good here as an adverb is bad English, I can only say that it has a venerable history, being first recorded in the 1300s). The narrator of Norwegian Wood meanwhile claims that “I once had a girl – or should I say, she once had me”. Had in the sexual sense goes all the way back to Shakespeare. Interestingly, both “do” and “had” could also be interpreted as “cheated” or “swindled”, senses which are first seen in the 1600s (do) and 1800s (had). A Freudian might well see an interesting comment here on the Beatles’ attitudes to the opposite sex.

People and things  that went before

As we might expect, the Beatles’ lyrics are full of contemporary slang, language that might well not have been understood a hundred, or even fifty years previously. I’m a Loser uses a meaning of loser, someone who is a failure in life, which first appeared around the middle of the twentieth century. (The very earliest meaning is “a destroyer”, so next time someone calls you a loser, just give them your best wicked laugh. . .) Day Tripper, meanwhile, refers to a phenomenon that began to appear later in the 1800s, when mass transportation made short breaks away from home possible for large numbers of people. Jazz slang and other American slang are also popular with the Beatles: the line “I feel hung up” (from I Want to Tell You) uses a term recorded in the Hepcat’s Jive Talk Dictionary in 1945, where it is defined as “completely bewildered”, while the line “Man, I was mean, but I’m changing my scene”  (Getting Better) uses a sense of “scene” which the OED describes as originally “U.S. Jazz slang and Beatniks’ slang”. “Killer diller” (a description of the character Polythene Pam) also started out life in jazz contexts, attributed to jazzman Benny Goodman and meaning impressive or formidable.

The Beatles also use plenty of contemporary-sounding words which have a surprisingly long history. That use of “man” as an interjection, from Getting Better, is first recorded by the OED in 1823. And those of us young people who are pretty sure that we invented rude words might raise an eyebrow when we discover that the line “everybody had a wet dream” (I’ve Got a Feeling) uses a term already recorded in 1851. But even these terms are relative babies in comparison with some of the Beatles’ other “modern” language. The description of a man “watching the skirts” in Good Morning, Good Morning uses a slang term for women which is first found in 1560, while John Lennon’s description of Sir Walter Raleigh as a “stupid get” is one which might have been used by Wally’s contemporaries: get as a term of insult is first recorded in 1567. Meanwhile, the description of Bungalow Bill as “the all-American bullet-headed Saxon mother’s son” may give us a vivid picture of the typical 1950s square-jawed Yankee hero, but “bullet-headed” goes back to 1699, where the New Dictionary of the Canting Crew defines it as meaning “a dull silly Fellow”.

I’ve got something I can laugh about

But it’s not really their use of slang, whether contemporary or centuries old, that makes the Beatles’ lyrics so fantastically enjoyable. It’s their sense of humour, their cleverness, and sometimes their sheer nonsense. The later songs, such as I am the Walrus with its image of “sitting on a cornflake, waiting for a van to come”, or Maxwell’s Silver Hammer and its bizarre tale of a serial killer, are obvious sources of humour and invention, but the Beatles’ earlier work also shows evidence of creative wordplay. A Hard Day’s Night is a famous example. Ringo Starr claimed to have invented the paradoxical term, although it appears in print first in John Lennon’s book of nonsense verse and prose, In His Own Write (1963). “A hard day’s night” has by now become almost a cliché to refer to any long and tiring period of activity, and you’ll find it in countless newspaper headlines and sports commentaries, but it regains its original humour and cleverness when you stop to think about the meaning of the words. And if we go back to Happiness is a Warm Gun, we’ll find my favourite Beatles joke. The “man in the crowd” has “a soap impression of his wife, which he ate and donated to the National Trust”. To “donate to the National Trust” is perhaps not the best-known euphemism for defecation, but it’s certainly one of the more creative ones.

But it would be wrong to end by focusing on the humour of Beatles lyrics. Because what I and so many others love most about the Beatles is their sense of poetry. The earlier albums may have been based on catchy pop, but the group’s style developed throughout the 1960s into something far more thoughtful. From the romantic Things We Said Today, through the darkness of She Said She Said and the Zen-like tranquillity of Because, the Beatles produced some of the most beautiful lyrics in the history of popular music. August 22nd 1969 may have been an ending for the Beatles, but it was also the beginning of the making of their legend.

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