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Mundanity In The Lyrics Of The Beatles

“When I wake up early in the morning
Lift my head; I’m still yawning
Wake up in the middle of dream
Stay in bed; float up stream
Please don’t wake me, no, don’t shake me
Leave me where I am—I’m only sleeping”

This lyric, from the song “I’m Only Sleeping” from the Revolver album—British version, he said superciliously—came to mind quite recently. My nephew, Josh, has taken to falling asleep in mid-afternoon (he’s four). His mother resisted this, on the grounds that a nap in the middle of the day would mean resistance to bedtime. Although I can see the logic, and Josh does have the reputation for resisting bedtime, I truly hated watching her trying to wake him up after he succumbed to one of these mid-afternoon naps, because Josh truly hated waking up, and, I think, honestly felt like he was being punished, or at least treated unfairly. And for what? He was only sleeping.

As a life-long insomniac, I could readily identify with Josh’s discomfort. When his mother finally reached the conclusion that he resisted bedtime anyways, nap or no, simply as part of his renegade character, I was greatly relieved. Not only is it more pleasant not to have Josh screaming in the background directly prior to suppertime, but also it’s pleasant to see that, in fact, he’s only sleeping.

Of course, I would hardly be the first to suggest that a part of the reason The Beatles’ songs stick with us is that they are about mundane behavior and mundane things, acts and articles that most of us, if not all of us, can identify as parts of our everyday lives and experiences. (It’s also been suggested that they wrote about this stuff because they were under contract, under deadline, and absolutely had to produce something, a suggestion that gets borne out in large, in my opinion, in the film “Let It Be.”) But it does, I think, bear examination: Are The Beatles part of many of our lives because they sang about things we are familiar with in our everyday lives? Is that why they’re still with us, all these years? Why they are the only band in my music collection that my nieces, entering teenage and obsessed with N-Sync, don’t turn their noses up at? Why their latest anthology, unassumingly labeled “#1” (all of the songs on the anthology were, in fact, #1 hits in either the US or the UK- or both) entered the charts, unironically, at #1?

Could be.

It might sound a bit disingenuous to say that The Beatles had a unique grasp on the mundane, but that conclusion, I think, is inescapable upon examination. One of my favorite examples is “A Day in the Life.” The first section of the song (Lennon’s) is devoted not to extraordinary events, but to news of extraordinary events, presented in a tone so world-weary as to suggest that any and all news would be taken as mundane. This has always fascinated me: how did Lennon mean us to take these things? On the one hand, he seems to want to provoke us into a consideration of the way we go through the motions of our daily lives; on the other, and most disturbingly, he seems to want to provoke us into a state of shame for taking things for granted. In a world full of war movies and suicides by members of Parliament, how can we go about our daily lives with any kind of grace? On the other hand, what alternatives have we, except to observe the absurdity and remain as aloof to it as possible?

The middle section (McCartney’s) presents a much brighter picture (this will always and interminably be the case). (Some day I’m going to find an excuse to compare Lennon’s “Woman” to McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed,” and then I’ll REALLY get myself in Dutch with Lennon fans.) The theme is as mundane as it could possibly be; there’s a mixture of militaresque order with bohemian disorder, a vivid picture of your average Londoner (or really anyone) of the office worker class, haphazardly doing what simply has to be done in the most nominal name of work. There is also a kind of sense of fun: the indulgence of getting up late, the thrill of racing for the bus, the illicit thrill of escaping work on the excuse of smoking a cigarette. And then there’s a bit about falling into a dream, which has never made sense to me, and I’ve always thought of as a simple excuse to make a transition into the third part of the song, which, rather naturally, is a coda of Lennon’s hearing the news. (I feel the same way about the way Lennon ended his sections, with the phrase “I’d love to turn you on;” it was just something Lennon liked to say, and it could mean all kinds of things, from “I’d like to make you see the world around you” to “I’d like to get you high” to “eh, what?” Of course, I’m quite comfortable with the possibility that I could be wrong.)

Both of them have in mind, I think, a kind of transcendence of the mundane, a notion that spiritual freedom can come from understanding how mundane ordinary life is. This would be the point of separating the three sections with the “wall of sound” effect. (In point of fact, I don’t actually care why they put the effect in there. I’m just plain glad that they did.) Whether they achieve this, or whether the listener transcends due to their message, is up to the individual listener. My own verdict is that they achieve a nifty and ambitious pop song.

I think that’s part of the magic of The Beatles as well: they were often after much bigger things than pop songs could acquire or accomplish. Consider the political message of “Nowhere Man:”

Nowhere man, please listen:
You don’t know what you’re missing.
Nowhere man, the world
Is at your command!

On the one hand, I think Lennon had in mind an energization of all the blasé people in the world who were letting war and famine go on outside their doors, which is not a hard guess since that’s often what Lennon had in mind. On the other hand, though, I think he accomplished something that he should have found horrifying: a perfect description of those blasé people, with no real suggestion as to why they ought to turn their attentions away from tea cozies and football matches and take a good hard look at Bangladesh. To me, one of the most fascinating moments in the history of popular culture was when Lennon told Jan Wenner of Rolling Stone that (haltingly, hedgingly) he was a Nowhere Man, that he was describing himself in the lyric.

(Let me break that out here, and let me be clear on two things before I do so: first, I’ve put years of unnecessary thought into this, and second, I’m probably wrong. When Lennon first wrote this, I think he probably was writing about himself, in an excruciating, excoriating way: “I’m just a Nowhere Man. I haven’t an original thought in me head.” When it came time to turn it into a pop song, however, it became necessary to turn the hose on another target: society, even better yet, the anonymous society, that faceless entity known as “them.” It is highly to his credit that he lets “them” off the hook, especially since he doesn’t have to: “Isn’t he a bit like you and me?” Yes, now that you mention it, I seem to be a bit of a Nowhere Man myself. Like I said, I’m probably wrong.)

Lennon’s description here takes its strength from a broad generalization. I think, perhaps, that’s part of why we have pop songs as such a large part of our culture: it’s one place where broad generalizations can be fit in without much controversy or harm. After all, if Britney Spears can sing “Hit me, baby, one more time,” and then go out and convince the popular press that she knew exactly what she was saying, and that it had nothing to with sex, drugs, tequila, blackjack, or abuse, perhaps that says we need a place for that in our culture as well. Yeah, I don’t know where that came from either. Don’t get me started on Britney Spears. After all those years of R&D, they finally came up with a fully posable Barbie.

But back to The Beatles: consider if you will, McCartney’s “Penny Lane,” a portrait of a village virtually teeming with Nowhere Men. Penny Lane is a study in mundanity, the simple sights and sounds of a suburban British neighborhood; it’s also one of the most stunningly gorgeous songs in the world. The descriptions of completely generalized, almost homogenous people and practices off set with small details and punctuated by a central contradiction (example: “And the banker never wears a Mac in the pouring rain; very strange), the revolving chorus (“And mean while back in Penny Lane is in my ears…”), all set to that rich melody, with the horns, the flute, augh! Splendid! Additionally, it contains the lines that probably most influenced my own artistic point of view: “Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes/There beneath the blue suburban skies…” The persistence of memory, the importance of experience, the way the smallest visual and aural details build up to form and inform this amazing thing we call A Life, all summed up in these simplest of lines. Or perhaps I’m imagining things. It’s been known to happen.

But I think it’s there. What used to be called “a love for the common man,” trotted out among the virtues of the poets in the 18th and 19th centuries, in this instance converted to awareness of the ordinary, the happy little mundane moments that make up our everyday lives. The mundane rendered sublime. Consider the song “HELP!” (Pardon me, but I always loved the incongruity here: the title rendered in all caps with an exclamation point, while the song itself is simply about feeling insecure. When I was younger, so much younger than today, I dug into those lyrics with the madness of the monks, looking for something deep and elemental, and all I could find was “Help me if you can, I’m feeling down/And I do appreciate you’re being ’round.” Naturally, I didn’t realize until years later that being “down,” itself, is elemental, in a low, ordinary way.) It’s rather mundane.

Of course, some of the most mundane lyrics are the hardest for me to swallow. For instance, “Ticket to Ride.” If it weren’t for Harrison’s heroic guitar riff, I’d probably never willingly listen to the song again. (Harrison, it should be noted, had a serious crush on that Rickenbacker 12 string.) The lyric is about the breakup of an apparently unrequited love affair. Great guitar riff, though. And if you listen closely your can hear the rest of the band hanging their parts, mainly drones, on that riff like tinsel on a Christmas tree, and then the lyric comes in: “I think I’m gonna be down, I think it’s today, yeah/The girl that’s driving me mad is going away/She’s got a ticket to ride… But she don’t care.” What in the hell is that supposed to mean? I get the sense of “This girl can do no wrong,” except that the girl is doing wrong. And there’s the sexual metaphor, of course, but, in this context, well, that’s just sad.

Probably a better example is “Eleanor Rigby.” The reason this is The Beatles most covered song (or second most, after “Yesterday,” I always get ’em switched up) has, of course, nothing to do with the mundanity of its subjects. In fact I had better back off here, because I’m about to get myself in trouble by pointing out that McCartney tried very, very, very hard to make his subjects mundane, but they are all too tragic. “Wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door,” Sir Paul, cannot be taken for anything short of absolutely pathetic. “Picks up the rice by the church where a wedding has been?” Egad! I want to look this bird up and buy her a meal! But then you go and kill her! Not mundane, Paul; not mundane in the least.

On the other hand, he did accomplish “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” which is an absolute celebration of mundanity. Except, I think, that Desmond becomes a cross-dressing chanteuse at the end. I never could quite work that out. But it says it right there in the liner notes: “Desmond stays at home and does his pretty face/And in the evening she’s a singer with the band.” (Has anyone but me ever noticed that the liner has the last lyric wrong? It’s very clearly sung “And if you want some fun/Sing o-bla-di-bla-da,” but the liner has it with the full title as the last part of the lyric… Oh, never mind.)

(If you play the song “Hey Jude” really, really loud, it sounds like there are people yelling unintelligibly outside your house. Little known fact.)

But to continue: How about “Norwegian Wood?” Can there be a more mundane song than “Norwegian Wood?” (If Lennon were alive, he’d hit me for that.) I have read a description of this as a tale of Lennon’s infidelity. That reviewer got it wrong: in the song, there is only a contemplated infidelity. It’s a sumptuously ordinary picture of an unfurnished apartment, a night of wine and conversation, an intoxicated collapse into the tub, and waking the next morning to find oneself alone in a strange apartment with the object of our intended debaucheries fled to parts unknown. Who amongst us has not had this experience? And the physical setting itself, “Norwegian Wood,” can only be a block of flats, cheap apartments that, due to having fireplaces, are enviable in that sector of the market (“Isn’t it good?”) And here’s the proof: as fascinating as the song is, that is absolutely all there is to say about it. If that’s not mundane, what is?

This brings us to “Taxman,” because that’s the first title I saw when, in a panic to find the next subject, I glanced at the back of Rubber Soul. At the time, no one had ever written a song about the modern system of taxation, and few have since. In fact, Harrison didn’t then. This is basically a screed against having to give away half of your compensatory riches to the government, which, as a British rock star in the 60’s, was apparently a fairly traumatic experience. But it qualifies as mundane, so there.

And another thing: to whom was McCartney referring in the little ditty at the very end of Abbey Road? Who precisely is “Her Majesty? It can’t be the Queen. I’ve always thought it must be some stuck-up beauty queen, rendering the lines absolutely hilarious. “Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl, but she doesn’t have a lot to say.” If this is about a girl so stuck up that she wouldn’t speak to a member of The Beatles—well, that’s almost cruelly funny! (Then again, there’s the suggestion that Her Majesty is in reference to dear departed Linda, which makes perfect sense.)

Of course, there were deeper mundane subjects to discuss, both earlier and later. The subjects of “In My Life,” not to say mundane, are damned near anonymous. Yet, as countless beauty pageant contestants have proved, it’s evocative, no matter how badly sung! (Another note, ladies: lay off “The Wind Beneath My Wings.” It’s no good unless you’re singing it to Johnny Carson.)

But the greatest celebration of mundanity in the entire catalogue, of course, is “Let it be.” Even before I knew any of the context—the band was falling apart, the vultures were descending to feast on the carrion, Paul was so upset and obsessed over the whole mess that, he found to his horror, he was neglecting the upkeep of his physical self and his personal life—I recognized that this was the plea of an extraordinary man to reclaim an ordinary life, just to be able, at long last, to let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be; whisper words of wisdom: Let It Be. (Yeah; Her Majesty is Linda. That’s all there is to it. Just forget I brought it up. She’s probably Mother Mary, too.)

I could go on forever. Or nearly. I’ve barely even scratched the surface. But that’s part of the magic of The Beatles: you can go on forever about them. My wife has said that the most fascinating thing about The Beatles is that they were the first—maybe the only—band to make the transition from bubblegum pop singers to serious rock & roll musicians. And this is true, don’t get me wrong. But more than that, much more, is that they could sing about anything, they made tunes out of paper clips and toothpicks. And sometimes that was the best thing for them; Lennon could get off on some weird tangents, and, sometimes, ended up writing some absolutely horrific things (Take, for example, “Run For Your Life,” the last song on Rubber Soul, which is about homicidal urges in the face of purely hypothetical infidelity).

So what have I proved here? Nothing, probably. But in my view, when you get an excuse to write about The Beatles—any excuse—you take it.

Author: James MacFarlane Williams is a writer, poet, amateur social philosopher, and not necessarily a Beatles fan. He is currently employed by Construction Market Data as an Architectural Reporter. He earned his B.A. degree in English at UNC-Charlotte, where he fell in love with Critical Theory, then moved on to graduate studies in English at a university we shall not name, where people were far more interested in justifying their own existences than pursuing theory. After the two year program had run its course, he quit in disgust. He currently lives in his hometown of Charlotte, NC.

Published inIssue 2.1Issues
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