Getting decent lyrics down is one of the hardest parts of songwriting. You could have the greatest melody in the world, but if the lyrics aren’t right the track just won’t work. I often wonder if it’s the fear of penning cringe-inducing lyrics that has led so many artists to search for a new approach.
Mumblecore rappers, shoegazers, and nu-folkies like Bon Iver are all united by their abandonment of traditional lyric writing. Instead of using vocal lines to express the song’s central message, more often than not, they use them as a textural tool – crafting intentionally nonsensical, phonetically-pleasing lyrics in an attempt to avoid revealing too much. The Beatles, on the other hand, refused to give in to self-doubt, even when their lyrics were clearly cringeworthy. Here, Paul McCartney recalls one particularly awful line that he was forced to cut.
‘I Saw Her Standing There’ is an archetypal 1960s pop hit. With its undulating guitar lines, bluesy vocals and skiffle beat, it contains everything that made The Beatles’ early records so infectious. Paul McCartney and John Lennon weren’t actually all that taken with the track when they first penned it. As Paul recalled in the 1997 book Many Years From Now, the biggest issue was the lyrics. “‘I Saw Her Standing There’ was my original,” he began. “I’d started it and I had the first verse, which therefore gave me the tune, the tempo, and the key. It gave you the subject matter, a lot of the information, and then you had to fill in.”
When John and Paul sat down to flesh out the track, they found themselves circling in on some dangerously obvious lyrics, suggesting that ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ was going to be harder to write than they had predicted. “I had, ‘She was just 17, she’d never been a beauty queen,’” Paul remembered. “So we went, ‘Ugh, this is one of these.’”
Undaunted, John and Paul set about improving the lyrics, writing and then scratching out fragments of verse in their lyric book. “And by then we’d written a couple in the little book and we’d started to realise that we had to stop at these bad lines or we were only going to write bad songs,” Paul continued.
“So we stopped there and both of us cringed at that and said, ‘No, no, no. ‘Beauty queen’ is out! There’s got to be another rhyme for 17,’ So we went through the alphabet: between, clean, lean, mean; ‘She wasn’t mean; you know what I mean; great! Put that in.’” Eventually, the duo settled on the line “She was just 17/If you know what I mean.”
Featured on Please Please Me, ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ would go on to peak at number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, staying in the charts for eleven straight weeks. In the UK, it was a little less popular, charting at number 90 and remaining there for just one week.