Almanac Book Review: The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present by Paul McCartney


The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present, by Paul McCartney. [Wikimedia Commons.]


The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present by Paul McCartney


If I had to nominate one person as the most influential and important in the history of popular music from the 1950s onwards, it would be James Paul McCartney. Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan are certainly close to this pinnacle too, but no-one one has matched McCartney’s combination of longevity, volume of quality original work, and, equally importantly, widespread popularity and reach into the everyday lives of countless millions across the world. Interestingly, Dylan, a man not given to making effusive statements, said the following about McCartney in 2007: ‘I’m in awe of McCartney. He’s about the only one that I am in awe of. He can do it all. And he’s never let up… He’s just so damn effortless.’


For me – and so many others, I’m certain – the publication of the two-volume, coffee table size boxed set, The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present by Paul McCartney (edited by Paul Muldoon), is a milestone event in the history of pop/rock texts. Just to have this big, impressively packaged set in front of you is a buzz!


But, to the specific questions: does The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present illuminate McCartney’s work to a significant extent? Is it worth the high price tag? It is it an enjoyable experience to make one’s way through the approximately nine hundred pages involved?


Before answering these questions – which I will endeavour to do, even if in a roundabout way – some general details about the books need to be provided.


The two-volume set contains detailed commentaries by McCartney on 154 of the songs of which he was either the solo, main, or an important co-songwriter. Even though this is the case, there were many more songs I felt that deserved inclusion, such as ‘I’m Looking Through You’ (1965) from the mid-Beatles period, ‘Every Night’, from McCartney (1970) and covered wonderfully by Phoebe Snow, the quirky, lolloping ‘Famous Groupies’ from London Town (1978), ‘Ballroom Dancing’ and ‘Wanderlust’ from Tug of War (1982), the lovely, lush ‘Wings of a Nightingale’ (1984) written for – and recorded by – the Everly Brothers, as well as ‘You Want Her Too’ (1989) and ‘Veronica’ (1989), the last two co-written with Elvis Costello. That said, I suppose the line had to be drawn somewhere in relation to what was included, and what indeed was put into the volumes was basically all the great songs McCartney is known and loved for, as will be shown later.


The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present is edited by Pulitzer Prize winning poet and Princeton professor, Paul Muldoon. Basically, the book is the outcome of an extended series of conversations on particular songs between McCartney and Muldoon from 2015 through to 2020. What results, as should be the case in a collaboration such as this, is McCartney’s particular perspective on each song. The songs are arranged in alphabetical order, and the collection also provides definitive texts of the lyrics of the songs included.


McCartney indicates that his backgrounding and commentary on the 154 songs selected is in lieu of writing an autobiography, something he has been asked to do many times. And it is certainly the case that we find out a considerable amount about his life – especially, his growing up days in Liverpool, his time during the Beatles period, and his early post-Beatles days, with particular emphasis on his marriage to Linda Eastman – through his discussion about the songs written during, or concerning, these years. That said, it is also true that some of what he says about a number of particular songs has been said before in past interviews and articles. (I have read various accounts about the writing of ‘Yesterday’; for example, and particularly recall one in a 1970s publication called Paul McCartney: In His Own Words.) This is unavoidable, of course, given the great deal of attention his music has received over many years. Furthermore, as one makes ones way through The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present, one often has the sense that McCartney is not a confessional kind of person, or inclined to particularly deep analysis. Sometimes it is as if he is telling us about his songs in spite of an underlying resistance to doing so. This is interesting in itself – what emerges as much as anything else, perhaps, is that his genius is fundamentally a gift he has be blessed with, and that his colossal talent is, at bottom, inexplicable. Hemingway’s famous comments about F. Scott Fitzgerald are apposite here: ‘His [Fitzgerald’s] talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did …’ (Source:… )


Basically, I view McCartney in a similar light. Interestingly, I believe this is so with all geniuses. I feel that they cannot fully explain the nature of their great talent, and, furthermore, we can never get to know them in the same way we can become familiar with the non-geniuses around us – the vast bulk of humanity. Dylan is a similar case in point. In the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens was too. So were Mozart and Shakespeare before then. We feel we know these people, primarily through their work, but ultimately what really makes them tick, that special X factor, is, to all intents and purposes, unreachable.


A range of other interesting issues emerge as a result of reading this two-volume set. For example, I didn’t realise the great extent to which Jane Asher (Paul’s girlfriend from 1963-1968) was McCartney’s muse with regard to some of his greatest work, such as ‘And I Love Her’ (1964), ‘For No One’ (1966), ‘Here There and Everywhere’ (1966) and ‘We Can Work It Out’ (1966). The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present also underlined how much John Lennon was a blunt but fundamentally benign and constructive critic, particularly in The Beatles period of McCartney’s career (as well as, of course, co-writer on the early Beatles lyrics and songs more generally).


The two volumes of lyrics also make one reflect on how many fine songs McCartney wrote after The Beatles era. To cite some examples: ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ (1970), ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’ (with Linda McCartney, 1971), ‘Let Me Roll It’ (with Linda McCartney, 1973), ‘Junior’s Farm’ (with Linda McCartney, 1974), ‘Mull of Kintyre’ (with Denny Laine, 1977) and ‘Arrow Through Me’ (1979). If these examples, with the possible exception of ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’, aren’t in the same rarefied air as the absolute best of McCartney’s Beatles work (e.g. ‘Yesterday’, [1965], ‘Eleanor Rigby’ [1966], ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ [1966] and ‘She’s Leaving Home’ [1967]), which are all discussed in the two volumes under current consideration, they nevertheless remain superior quality work in their own right.


The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present incorporates a great deal of highly evocative material from McCartney’s archives, including reproductions of many photos from his earliest days to the present. There are also images of drafts of his lyrics, and plenty of examples of his visual art, whether in the form of drawings, more detailed sketches or oil paintings. Particularly interesting to me were pictures of handwritten set lists from McCartney’s early days in bands such as The Quarry Men and The Beatles (before they started recording), where we can see in detail the kind of material these bands played at this formative time. Unsurprisingly, many of these songs were from the mid-1950s American rock’n’roll era, and some were later recorded by The Beatles, such as ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ (original version recorded by Chuck Berry in 1956 and recorded by The Beatles in 1963) and ‘Long Tall Sally’ (originally recorded by Little Richard in 1956 – Beatles version recorded in 1964).


Did I want or expect anything more from The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present? Apart from some additional songs, no, not to any great extent – I don’t think he could have said much more about the 154 songs selected for the two volumes. On the whole, one feels that McCartney has made a major effort to explain his work to the extent that he has, and what he says is suitably illuminating and informative, even if we can’t get to know the man behind the songs in a particularly profound way. And it is a great pleasure to work one’s way through this impressively assembled collection of the great man’s work.



(The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present, by Paul McCartney [edited by Paul Muldoon], Penguin, Hardback, Two Volumes, 912 Pages, 2021. RRP $155.)






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Kevin Densley is a graduate of both Deakin University and The University of Melbourne. He has taught writing and literature in numerous Victorian universities and TAFES. He is a poet and writer-in-general. His fifth book-length poetry collection, Please Feed the Macaws ... I'm Feeling Too Indolent, will be published in late 2023 by Ginninderra Press. He is also the co-author of ten play collections for young people, as well as a multi Green Room Award nominated play, Last Chance Gas, which was published by Currency Press. Other writing includes screenplays for educational films.


  1. Kevin Densley says

    I should add that I believe this book is most likely available at various outlets at a significant discount.

  2. Richard Griffiths says

    Excellent summation Kevin – it sits proudly on my lounge coffee table.

  3. Kevin Densley says

    Many thanks for responding, Richard!

    And I’m so pleased you feel that I did this important two-volume work justice. I certainly laboured conscientiously over the writing of my review – and it was such a pleasure to work through the nine hundred-plus pages involved.

  4. Kevin Densley says

    For those interested – just noting that today I watched and listened to a wonderful hour-long, very recent interview with Paul McCartney in which he talks about his life and work, and goes into detail about The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present, reviewed above. I’d say it’s the best single interview I’ve seen with the great man.

    For the many Almanackers who I’m sure truly love Macca, you’d be neglectful not to give this a listen:

    Please leave any thoughts below. And don’t be reluctant to express an opinion – such comments following a post are an important part of the conversation, I feel.

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