The Beatles FAQ
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The Beatles FAQ

Two countries divided by a shared language?

The Beatles began by trying to sound American. Soon they were exporting a very British vocabulary to a vast international audience.

The Beatles first flew into New York in February 1964. They brought with them what to many American ears was a charmingly fresh approach to the English language.

Interestingly, this came across more in their spoken interviews than their song lyrics. Until the mid Sixties British pop musicians not only aped American vocal phrasing and accents but often tried to write songs in what aspired to be an American idiom. One of the things that impressed Paul McCartney on first watching John Lennon perform was that he improvised cod American lyrics (‘down at the penitentiary’)

Several early Beatles songs consciously adopted an American flavour: ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’, for example:

I wanna be your lover, baby

In fact, their breakthrough single, ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ was the outcome of Brian Epstein’s request for a song suitable for US radio stations.

Business English

There was, however, a protocol that American English was strictly for business or comedic use. Once they stepped off the stage British singers switched back into their local idiom: a penitentiary was a prison, guys and dolls were blokes and birds and so on.

In interviews you generally got a cleaned up version of this, often in strangulated versions of received pronunciation. Another approach was to use a vaguely mid-Atlantic accent — Cliff Richard had one of the less annoying versions of this. The only other option was the full Cary Grant/Hugh Lawrie immersion — way beyond the thespian capabilities of most.

The Beatles cheerfully broke this convention, something which immediately struck George Martin when he auditioned them. They pioneered a new relaxed approach based on their natural speech patterns. Of course they ditched the swearing and the Scouse slang but they never pretended to be Prince Charles. It sounded authentic — and largely was. Their besotted fans always got the gist, if not every word

Acting Naturally

Until The Beatles first flew into Kennedy Airport, post-war cultural traffic across the Atlantic had been largely been one way. The British were familiar with Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe, Americans perhaps less so with Cliff Richard and Diana Dors.

Success gave The Beatles to licence (or license!) to ‘act naturally’ as their song put it. Lennon and McCartney lyrics began to show the influence of Dylan’s looser ‘freewheeling’ approach, minus the Americana heritage. Bob Dylan claimed a youth riding freight trains. Lennon and McCartney had less glamorous material to work with: it took the latter’s genius to give the Penny Lane bus terminus iconic status.

Occasionally Lennon and McCartney would attempt attempt an overtly American idiom — but usually with self-deprecating parodic exaggeration. Rocky Raccoon is perhaps the most obvious example. Here sheer brio compensates for ludicrous inauthenticity — an approach that would later be developed by Bernie Taupin for Elton John.

Generally, however, The Beatles songs became more English as their own lives became more trans-Atlantic. Moving away from the formulaic Brill Building approach to writing pop songs, Lennon and McCartney increasingly drew on people, places and words that had formed them. British cultural and linguistic references began to permeate their song lyrics.

John Lennon: In His Own Write

Under the influence of Aunt Mimi, John Lennon had always been an avid reader. He was especially keen on the absurdist tradition in English literature: the stories and poems of Lewis Carol, Edward Lear, Hilaire Belloc and Kenneth Graham being favourites.

“These books made a great impact and their influence will last for the rest of my life,” he declared in 1964. In that year he achieved an unlikely publishing success when In His Own Write, a scrapbook of stories, poems and cartoons was published by Faber.

This unexpected literary success helped Lennon to become more assertive in in his lyric writing. ‘Help!’ had marked a new autobiographical direction while Norwegian Wood is narrated in colloquial British English.

I told her I didn’t/And crawled off to sleep in the bath

This would increasingly form the template for his lyrics.

  • the (UK) National Health Service (from ‘Dr Robert’)
  • ‘…the News of the World (newspaper notorious for sex scandal stories from ‘Polythene Pam’)
  • ring my friend’ (‘Dr Robert’ Americans would say call)
  • ‘Time for tea’ (British advertising jingle from ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’
  • Charles Hawtrey and the deaf-aids’ (Interlude Let it Be.) Hawtrey was a comedy star in Britain (the Carry On films were largely unknown in the US). The slang term deaf-aids politically incorrect, even in 1969.
Charles Hawtrey was a much loved British comedy actor in the Benny Hill mode.

Paul McCartney

Paul McCartney had always been more comfortable in the show tune conventions — you could not imagine his songwriting partner volunteering to sing Till There Was You or Besame Mucho. Though he was less obviously in thrall to Dylan, he was also fiercely competitive (and still is. See Paul McCartney: The Lyrics (2021). McCartney was the first to realise that The Beatles need to expand their lyrical horizons. What sufficed for ‘Hold Me Tight’ in 1962 had a limited shelf life:

Tell me I’m the only one
And then I might
Never be the lonely one

By Revolver he has broken free of pop music conventions. Eleanor Rigby is arguably the most daring Beatle lyric to date

Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door’

The new approach remained accessible to a mass audience. McCartney moved into new thematic territory but was careful not to overload his songs with unfamiliar vocabulary. The theme of loneliness in Eleanor Rigby and ‘She’s Leaving Home’ is universally comprehensible. An American listener might use bathrobe rather than dressing-gown but the meaning is clear.

Lennon would sometimes be more challenging in this respect.

  • Plasticine porters in ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ — the American equivalent Play-Doh doesn’t quite work here.
  • ‘Such a stupid git’ (‘jerk’)
  • ‘Doris gets her oats’ interlude Let it Be. A ‘Doris’ is an unflattering reference to a female and ‘oats’ is British slang term for sexual activity.

Even George Harrison, who had the strongest family connection to the US, was turning to very British themes. Taxman not only complained about UK tax system but referred to British political leaders (Mr Wilson and Mr Heath).

The four young men from Liverpool absorbing novel cultural and linguistic references from a country they had never visited. Now young Americans were doing the same in reverse.

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